JERUSALEM (Feb. 26)
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations represents the range of American Jewish opinion — but this year’s solidarity mission to Israel, which took place as the Palestinian intifada intensified, found the group unusually unified.
The five-day annual mission, which wrapped up on Sunday, examined U.S.-Israel relations, the war against terrorism and other pressing security concerns. More than 100 Jewish leaders from 51 organizations participated. The packed schedule included meetings with European counterparts in London beforehand.
Despite the ideological differences that have flared in the past within the Conference of Presidents, participants this year agreed wholeheartedly on one issue — their support for the state of Israel.
Global Jewish support for Israel is “the highest it’s been since the ’67 war,” said Mortimer Zuckerman, Conference president. “We recognize that we are not alone in the foxhole.”
Even representatives from Americans for Peace Now, which in the past has clashed with the more right-wing elements of the Conference, felt they were speaking the same language as the other participants, said Mark Rosenblum, APN’s founder and policy director.
Participants heard briefings from politicians, military officials and policy pundits, giving them a detailed picture of the past year in Israel.
“Our goal is to give the leaders information and insights to assess and address the issues confronting Israel in the year ahead,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the Conference of Presidents executive vice chairman. “They go home with all this information and then translate it into action.”
Within their first 24 hours in the country, Conference members heard from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Both in his speech to the Conference and in a nationally televised address the following day, Sharon spoke of the need to rally Israelis for a prolonged struggle with the Palestinians. In his address to the nation, he also called for buffer zones to defend Israelis from Palestinian terrorists.
Members of the Conference would not comment on the buffer zone suggestion, but did say they were disappointed with Sharon’s speech to them.
He “had nothing new to say,” one Conference member said. “If that makes me feel insecure, how does it feel for someone who lives here and has to deal with the security situation day in and day out?”
During their single day outside their Jerusalem hotel headquarters, Conference members watched a demonstration of a police anti-terrorism unit, heard from the naval officer who orchestrated the interception of the Karine A weapons boat and ate lunch with U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer.
The Tom Clancy-like operations of the undercover police unit and the Karine A operation renewed the members’ belief in the prowess of the Israel Defense Force. But discussions of Palestinian strategy and tactics made them wonder how Israel could sustain the daily barrage of terrorist acts and incidents.
“I’m surprisingly much more optimistic about the Israeli commitment to this state of affairs,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “The intifada was so new last year and people were depressed. But the Israeli will to withstand gives me a reason for optimism.”
After each session, the participants asked questions. They wanted to understand Israel’s portrayal in the foreign media. They asked about anti-Semitism in Egypt and the probability of the Temple Mount being opened again for Jewish visitors. They wondered about the chances of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s political survival.
“What is clear is that a year and a half ago there was a partner for peace,” said Philip Meltzer, president of Arza, the lay organization of the Reform movement in North America. “Now we find that the Palestinian Authority isn’t a patron of peace.”
Clinton’s speech showed that the “American government and public, from Republican to Democrat, from right to left, is much more supportive of Israel,” Meltzer added.
Peace Now’s Rosenblum called the new line of thinking the “gray zone,” an attitude of disgust with Arafat but a continued willingness to engage in dialogue with moderate Palestinians.
The gray zone also means support for a two-state solution, hopefully in the context of an eventual peace with the Palestinians.
This mission was the largest one the Conference has sent to Israel in recent years, Hoenlein said.
“Sept. 11 changed the framework,” he said. “Now the Americans are in the same position, and we are facing some of the same difficulties.”
The aftermath of Sept. 11 also helped uncover the intransigence of the Palestinians, commented Richard Stone, chairman of the Orthodox Union’s public policy committee and a Columbia University law professor. “It makes us go back to the States with greater resolve to make sure that we tell the Israel side of the story, which is the just side.”
In what turned out to be a particularly violent week in the 17-month-old intifada, the daily news headlines served as a backdrop to the mission.
Israeli-Palestinian violence surged late in the week, and news of the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, whose parents are Israeli, also hit the media.
In addition, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that Reform and Conservative converts must be designated as Jews on their Israeli identity cards.
But the issue of religious pluralism, which might have rent the Conference in years past, barely surfaced during this mission. “The differences are muted right now,” Stone said. “Times like these show that we’re all in the same boat.”