Feeling out of Sync with Mainstream, Left-wing Jews Carve out Israel Niche

Bruce Robbins is not sure how he became a leader in a grass-roots movement of American Jews urging the United States to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

The Columbia University English professor was one of a handful of people who received an e-mail in the spring from a man he hardly knew, a physics professor at New York University with strong views on the Middle East.

Among Alan Sokal’s comments was a call for the U.S. government to make aid to Israel conditional on Israel’s acceptance of a two-state solution that includes a return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders and an evacuation of all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

One of the original 10 people to get that e-mail, Robbins signed on to the statement.

The next thing he knew, he was seeking additional supporters for an open letter from American Jews to the U.S. government, and working to place a half-page ad in The New York Times.

Now, Robbins is appearing on television, offering what he considers an “alternative” American Jewish view of Israel’s military operations against Palestinian terrorism.

Last week, a day after an Israeli airstrike killed Hamas’ military commander and at least 14 civilians in the Gaza Strip, Robbins appeared on MSNBC’s “Donahue” program.

He appeared together with a PLO legal adviser and Israel’s consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas, arguing that the attack was not in Israel’s interest.

“The Hamas is certainly going to retaliate after the attack,” Robbins said. “And the Israelis are going to retaliate. And the retaliation will go back and forth.”

Robbins’ group, made up mostly of academics, does not have a name or a budget, but it is getting attention.

Since a second, full-page ad ran in the Times in July, more than 1,700 people have signed Robbins’ letter, and he is looking for more venues for his views.

“The idea is to make it clear to people in the United States that Jewish people are not a monolithic” bloc that always supports the Israeli government, Robbins said.

“There are a lot of us out there who are constructively critical.”

A growing number of American Jews are seeking to voice opinions about the path to Middle East peace that are at odds with those of the Israeli government, the U.S. government and mainstream American Jewish groups.

With some Jews feeling left out and afraid to speak up, several grass-roots organizations are forming to articulate left-wing opinions and create an alternative to mainstream Jewish groups.

Since the Palestinian intifada against Israel began in September 2000, some Jewish groups that had pushed hard for the Oslo peace process found it increasingly difficult to speak up for peace with the Palestinians when suicide bombers and other terrorists were targeting Israelis.

For their part, leaders of mainstreams organizations, even on the left, say they are largely speaking with one voice these days because that view represents the vast majority of American Jews during the intifada.

“There has been substantial unity because there has been substantial unity,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which has not hesitated to criticize the Israeli government in the past when it felt its policies were wrong .

“Our community remains supportive of” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government, “although some may not be happy with that” he said of the Reform movement.

That has left many left-wing Jews feeling they have no one to represent their views to the White House or Congress.

Specifically, they want American Jews to criticize what they consider to be heavy-handed actions the Israeli government has taken, such as incursions into the West Bank, sieges of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters and the alleged expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“I don’t know when it happened, but I think the Sharon government crossed a line with people,” Robbins said. “A lot of people said, ‘Not in my name.’ “

In addition to ads, activists have taken to the streets, protesting outside Israeli consulates and holding vigils for Palestinian victims.

Last week’s Israeli airstrike in Gaza was a prime example of the type of move left-wingers want American Jewish groups to criticize.

“It’s part of the hypocrisy and double standards,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, who has started to meet with lawmakers.

“We yell and scream when our own people are being killed, but are deathly silent when civilians are targeted on the other side.”

Israeli officials have said they approved the attack based on intelligence information that no civilians were with the Hamas warlord, and that the massive bomb employed would cause little collateral damage.

Organizers say the grass-roots movements aim to give American Jews who are critical of Israeli actions and U.S. policy the feeling that they are not alone.

“We represent Jews who feel that it is not right for Israel to be occupying another people,” said Josh Ruebner, founder of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel.

“We represent Jews who feel Israel has a right to exist behind safe and secure, internationally recognized borders, but does not have the right to suppress its neighbors.”

Ruebner and others claim the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, and other Jewish groups try to keep alternative Jewish voices from being heard on Capitol Hill.

Even when more left-wing voices do get through, Ruebner contends, lawmakers hesitate to act because of AIPAC’s influence and fear that they will lose American Jewish political donations or be labeled anti-Semitic.

For its part, AIPAC says it, too, is a grass-roots organization and represents the views of most American Jews.

AIPAC officials say the organization’s policy derives from an executive committee made up of leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of 54 Jewish organizations from across the ideological spectrum.

“AIPAC has always had critics,” AIPAC spokeswoman Rebecca Needler said. “There are some that say AIPAC is too left and some that say it is too right.”

There are clear differences between the mainstream American Jewish groups and the grass-roots movements, which tend to be on the far left.

On its report card for lawmakers, for example, Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel gives a negative rating to any lawmaker that supported a congressional resolution — backed by most American Jewish groups — expressing solidarity with Israel. Jews for Peace claims the bill blamed ongoing violence entirely on the Palestinians.

The grass-roots leaders say their movements are being taken seriously by Congress.

“There’s a big re-evaluation going on in Congress right now,” Ruebner said. “They are saying we need a more balanced policy.”

More mainstream groups on the left, such as Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, say they already have been expressing similar sentiments on Capitol Hill, seeking an end to Israeli settlement construction and demanding that Israel release frozen tax revenues to the Palestinians.

They note that their vision for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is close to that of the grass-roots activists, including a two-state solution that would leave the Palestinians in control of virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Indeed, one congressional staffer suggested the newer grass-roots movements were wasting time and money by repeating the sentiments they already hear from groups such as Peace Now and Israel Policy Forum.

“If they were bringing anything new to the table, they’d have value,” the staffer said of the new movements.

“But they are spending a lot of money to say things we already know.”

In addition, he said, information is viewed a bit skeptically when it comes from unfamiliar groups.

A White House official, too, said a New York Times ad might catch his attention, but he is not sure whom the grass- roots movements are representing.

The grass-roots movements acknowledge that they have minimal influence now, but they hope their efforts may gain steam.

Indeed, Theodore Mann, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a founder of the Israel Policy Forum, says some grass-roots movements historically have had an impact.

Some of the new organizations may thrive on their own, he said, but it’s more likely that their existence could embolden people within the established Jewish organizations to speak out — assuming the grass-roots leaders really speak for large numbers.

For their part, the activists compare themselves to those who opened the fight for women’s rights or against the Vietnam War.

“Our side is not going to become the prominent side next year,” Lerner said. “There is no prospect of people coming to this in the short run.”

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