Rallies revive debate about U.S. Jewish role

NEW YORK, Jan. 9 (JTA) – As tens of thousands rallied in Israel this week to denounce proposals to relinquish parts of Jerusalem, leading U.S. Orthodox groups held a rousing rally of solidarity in a Manhattan synagogue.

The simultaneous events come amid renewed debate of whether some American Jewish leaders are breaching long-held principles of not opposing the democratically elected government of Israel or interfering in Israeli elections.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is engaged in an intense re-election campaign against Likud leader Ariel Sharon. Many viewed Monday’s rally in Jerusalem as an effort to bolster the Sharon campaign.

With elections set for Feb. 6, Barak is still trying to hammer out an 11th-hour peace deal that may jettison certain Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and sovereignty of the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.

Most controversially, Ronald Lauder – viewed by many as the de facto leader of American Jewry in his role as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations – spoke briefly at the rally Monday in Jerusalem’s Old City.

At a rally widely perceived as anti-Barak, Lauder said he was speaking as an individual, not as the Conference of Presidents chairman.

According to reports, Lauder opened his brief remarks by stating, “I stand here tonight not on behalf of any Jewish organization, but as an individual Jew representing millions of Jews around the world from Manhattan to Moscow, from London to Budapest. All the world should know that you are not alone.”

Yet some believe Lauder would not have been invited to address the crowd if he were simply a cosmetics magnate who happens to be a Jew.

The most outspoken of Lauder’s U.S. critics, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA World Union, went on an Israel radio program Tuesday morning to “apologize” to the Israeli public if Lauder “gave the impression that he was representing American Jews.”

Hirsch, whose group is a Conference of Presidents member, told JTA that “the chairman of the Conference of Presidents represents 54 major organizations, not himself.

“The conference itself did not give its authorization for Mr. Lauder to participate in the rally, let alone to speak. In fact, it specifically feared that his speaking would be perceived as interfering directly in Israeli politics, which all agreed the conference has never done before.”

In response, Lauder’s spokeswoman, Jeanine Kemm, told JTA, “I have no control over how other people perceive things.”

“Mr. Lauder was there as a concerned Jew, as an individual, and with no other hats. He is truly concerned about the peace and security of Israel. Surely no one would seriously suggest he would be muzzled on a vital issue he has cared about his entire life. In fact, remaining silent would be a greater cause for criticism.”

Those American Jews now on the offensive say that declaring Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem – in particular the Temple Mount, which is also Islam’s third holiest site – is an issue that “transcends politics.”

They say that Jerusalem is the ultimate “red line,” the “eternal and undivided capital” of Israel and the spiritual and religious core of the Jewish people.

That means it supercedes another hallowed “red line,” which posits it is for the government of Israel to ultimately decide what’s best for Israelis.

Besides, says at least one American Jewish activist, all bets are off concerning the latter red line, given the current political situation in Israel.

“The government right now is something that’s in flux,” said Betty Ehrenberg, the lead organizer of the New York rally and the director of international affairs of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

“Now you have a government that has basically resigned and an election campaign going on. So it’s unfair to world Jewry to continue to negotiate the most sensitive issues at this point in time.”

The accusation that the rallies are politically motivated is “a false perception,” Ehrenberg said. With Jerusalem on the negotiating table, “American Jews can support the Israeli government but not support this policy.”

At the New York rally, held at the marble-and-stained glass Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, speakers uttered no harsh words about the Israeli government or even about Barak personally – unlike the Israeli right, whose most common characterization of him today seems to be “traitor.”

Nevertheless, the criticism was implicit.

“This rally is no more political than a rally of solidarity with the State of Israel would be political,” said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, spiritual leader of Kehilath Jeshurun.

But Lookstein went on to denounce the failure of Israeli security forces to halt Palestinian attacks on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, instead opting to install bullet-proof windows in private homes.

“One Gilo is enough!” Lookstein boomed.

“Jerusalem and the Har Habayit” – Hebrew for the Temple Mount – “are not negotiable any more than Tel Aviv is negotiable.”

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), told the audience, “I come here not as a politician, because this isn’t about politics. I come here as a Jew, a Jew who is troubled, concerned, pained and angry.”

“We fully understand that in forging a peace,” Ackerman said, “peace means compromise. But compromise does not mean surrender.”

“Give it away. Chop it up. Parcel it out. Never!”

And as the crowd’s cheers grew louder, Ackerman’s words were barely audible: “It’s time to let the world know that Jerusalem will never, ever again be divided!”

Soon after, the mood was somewhat punctured by word that a small group of Jewish counterdemonstrators – from the anti-Zionist religious group known as Neturei Karta – had gathered outside the synagogue.

About 20 protesters stood a hundred feet away, behind royal blue police barricades, holding aloft Palestinian flags and placards with expressions such as “Jews rejoice, Zionism is dead!”

Back inside the shul, congregant Ira Nadler said he had attended the rally because “I wanted to be counted. To stay home and have my opinions isn’t very effective.”

“Jerusalem is on the table, of course,” said Nadler, 73. “But just because it is doesn’t mean it has to be given away, does it? That’s the problem. Everything that goes on the table, Jews lose.”

Nadler said that whereas in 1998 he backed Barak, he now supports Sharon.

But that doesn’t mean he’s “anti-government,” Nadler said.

“I’m not going against them. I don’t have a right to do that, just because I’m a Jew. Whatever they finally decide, they know better. And we will support whatever they feel they need to do.”

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