WASHINGTON (Jul. 29)
Last week’s developments in the Middle East evinced an unusual reaction from the American Jewish community — silence.
Israel faced international and U.S. criticism for an airstrike on a Gaza apartment building that killed the military leader of Hamas and at least 14 civilians.
That left many American Jewish organizations torn about how to express sympathy for the loss of innocent life, while respecting Israel’s right to take military action against terrorists.
A majority of groups chose to say nothing, a couple issued statements condemning the Gaza raid, and at least one expressed support for the Israeli action.
The struggle inside American Jewish organizations over how to respond — or not respond — provides a glimpse into the dilemmas Jewish groups face when developments in the Middle East are not black and white.
Most leaders said they didn’t issue news releases but, when questioned by reporters or their members, expressed sympathy for the Palestinian victims.
Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, consulted with colleagues before issuing talking points for local Jewish community relations councils. At the top of the list was the need to express regret over the civilian casualties.
“There was concern that Israel would be unjustly accused of killing non-combatants or not taking the civilians into account,” Raffel said.
The talking points also advised members to explain why the Hamas leader, Salah Shehada, was assassinated, and “remind people of the distinction between acts intended to kill civilians and Israel’s response, which are intended to prevent attacks,” Raffel said.
At the beginning of the day on July 15, the issues were less complex, since the extent of the civilian death toll was unclear, Raffel said. However, as the number rose and Israeli officials began to backtrack from their congratulatory statements, the mood changed.
“For us to sit here and try to second-guess is a very difficult thing,” Raffel said. “It’s not important what we say, but that the Israeli army feels it warranted an evaluation.”
The Anti-Defamation League did not debate issuing a statement, determining it was not the group’s right to criticize Israel’s military actions.
“We do not challenge or question the sovereign, democratically elected government of Israel on how they decide what to do to defend their citizens,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director. “It is not the purview of the American Jewish community.”
Other groups, such as Americans for Peace Now, said their decision to keep quiet also was in keeping with pre-determined policy.
Lewis Roth, the group’s assistant executive director, noted that his group does not issue a news release each time a suicide bomber strikes.
“It doesn’t mean we are any less against terrorist attacks because we didn’t issue a statement,” he said.
Some American Jewish grass-roots activists, who have complained about Jewish leaders’ hesitancy to criticize Israel, say the July 23 attack was a prime example of Israel’s excessive use of military force. They questioned why Jewish groups weren’t speaking out.
“It’s part of the hypocrisy and double standards,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, who has started a new grass-roots movement called the Tikkun Community. “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 say they approved the attack only after intelligence information indicated that civilians would not be hurt.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the critics have a point.
“People who are going to say there should have been a voice that was publicly critical will have a measure of justification on their side,” Yoffie said.
But, he added, he has been hesitant to criticize Israel since last spring. In April, when the media reported accusations that Israel had carried out a “massacre” of Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp, Yoffie said he was overwhelmed by requests from his congregations to denounce Israel’s actions.
He refused and says he now feels justified, since the massacre allegations proved false.
Yoffie also said he was concerned that any condemnation from American Jewish groups about particular incidents could be misused by some media outlets that are perceived to have an anti-Israel bias.
“You have to think about how you say things,” agreed Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“You don’t just jump on the bandwagon, but that doesn’t negate the need to regret civilian death.”
American Jewish groups have on occasion spoken out against Israeli actions.
Raffel points to the first intifada in 1987, when Jewish groups condemned a reported call by then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin to “break the bones” of Palestinian prisoners.
But, leaders say, such criticism has been rare.
Two left-wing political groups, Meretz USA and the Labor Zionist Alliance, criticized last week’s attacks.
Ari Chester, the Labor Zionist’s executive director, said his group decided to issue a release because the July 15 incident “crossed a line.”
“It’s reasonable to say that attacking a target in a civilian area with an F-16 and a one-ton bomb could be seen as excessive,” Chester said. LZA’s officers debated a sentence that would have said the actions “violate Israel’s rules of engagement,” but dropped it because it was unclear whether the civilian casualties were anticipated, he said.
One group, the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, sent out a news release specifically expressing Israel’s right to take military action, even if it meant civilian casualties.
“The Palestinian Authority bears full moral and legal responsibility for any harm to Arab civilians that occurs during Israeli anti-terrorism actions,” ZOA President Morton Klein said in a statement.
“It is the P.A. which permits Hamas terrorists to operate in civilian areas and to use civilians and their homes as human shields.”