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Behind the Headlines U.S. Jewish Leaders Are Redefining the Diaspora-israeli Relationship

April 29, 1987
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The vastly different political and social environments in which Israelis and American Jews form their world outlooks and the disparate roles the Israeli government and American Jewish organizations sometimes play in global politics shape the American diaspora-Israeli relationship.

Over the decades since the establishment of the State of Israel, numerous tensions between the two communities have arisen over various issues. But the tensions have usually been resolved in dialogue, for the most part, behind the scenes, in order to present a united front between two partners. In the past few years, however, differences have gone beyond tension into confrontations both in private and in public.

A basic ingredient in the changing relationship is the increased role the American Jewish community is playing in the nation’s political, social and economic life, in influencing programs and issues that transcend what have been considered traditional Jewish concerns or ‘Jewish issues’ over the decades. American Jewish organizations are becoming increasingly involved in multi-issue activities, thus giving them greater clout and input in humanitarian causes, political campaigns, the fight against racism, nuclear build-up, apartheid and school prayer.

This changing role on the part of American Jewish organizations and consequently their attitude toward Israeli policies was discussed and evaluated by American Jewish and Israeli leaders during the recent mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to Israel.


Many of the Americans pointed out that they and their constituencies found it difficult to support Israeli attitudes and stands on a number of issues. For example, Israelis were told that American Jews cannot condone Israel’s military trade with South Africa when they are themselves demonstrating against the apartheid regime in Pretoria.

Nor can those who fight for democracy in Central America tolerate Israel supplying arms to oppressive regimes in that region, And those who support the American judicial system cannot justify the actions of Jonathan Pollard or accept Israeli involvement in the Irangate scandal.

At the same time, Israelis told the American Jewish leaders that the advice they offer on many issues cannot always be translated into policy. They noted that a government cannot act in the same manner as organizations in domestic and international politics.

Simcha Dinitz, a former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, told the Presidents Conference, “We cannot afford the luxury that our friends sometimes have in judging (policy) purely in idealistic terms. But we also have a square inch to defend. Sometimes you have to superimpose what you want to do over what you have to do.”

Minister-Without-Portfolio Moshe Arens, also a former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., focused on Israel’s trade with regimes that are viewed as oppressive by many. He noted that the problem was basically economics. Israel needs a defense industry to survive, he said. But a defense industry needs an international market as well as an internal market.

For Israel, this is complicated by prohibitions on competing with American military industries in world markets, Arens said. Thus Israel is left with trading partners which other countries find politically inappropriate or not profitable to trade with, he said. Israel often trades with what some term “unsavory partners” when other Western countries cannot, for some reason, conduct trade themselves. This, he noted, is a form of quid pro quo, such as in the case of Israeli arms sales to Iran.

A dichotomy between Israeli and American Jewish leaders also developed over Premier Yitzhak Shamir’s recent initiative to ask the U.S. government to deny refugee status for Soviet Jews who immigrate to America.

While members of the Israeli government defended Shamir’s position in meeting with the Presidents Conference, the American delegates were equally unified in their opposition to it. Here, again, the different political and social environments, values and orientations between the Israelis and Americans came to the fore.

The Americans defended individual freedom of choice, the value so endemic to the American way of life. The Israelis presented Zionist arguments that Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union are not refugees because they have a homeland in Israel, that the struggle by Jews to leave countries of oppression is not merely an emigration movement, but a struggle for national liberation. They stressed that the Soviet Jews are desperately needed for the prosperity of Israel.

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres claimed that mass immigration of Soviet Jews to the U.S. jeopardizes freedom for those remaining in the Soviet Union and undermines the argument that Soviet Jews are seeking to return to their homeland when they are in fact exchanging one diaspora for another.

Peres also said that the Soviets do not want to feel that they are being deceived by Jews who are asking for visas to be repatriated to their national homeland but then go to America.


Henry Siegman, American Jewish Congress executive director, sought to pinpoint the root cause for the growing divergence between Israelis and American Jews on issues of vital concern to both. The painful reality for both communities is that Israelis are held morally accountable for their policies while American Jews are free to judge it from afar.

This problem was exacerbated by the recent article of political theorist Shlomo Avineri who accused American Jews of suffering from a “galut mentality” in their reactions to the Pollard case.

Siegman said he believes this view, although exaggerated in Avineri’s article, is widely held in Israel. “This view holds that Jewish life outside Israel is lacking in integrity, viability and credibility,” Siegman said. “It is perceived as transient, ephemeral.”

At the grass roots level, American Jews are more uncritically supportive of Israel than their leadership, Siegman said. But the cumulative effect of the Pollard, Iran and Contra scandals has led to disaffection for Israel in the American Jewish community. “The most critical question affecting our ‘partnership’ is the kind of society being shaped here in Israel…I suggest to you that Israel is in danger of being transformed into a society that will be seen as alien by American Jews and the rest of the democratic world, ” Siegman told the Israelis in one Presidents Conference session.

But Shamir pointed out, “We have our special problems and our special considerations. Israel cannot always support what the U.S. can.”


Arens told the Presidents Conference that it was up to American Jews to secure support for Israel in the U.S. “A mortal danger to Israel is a mortal danger to all Jews,” he said. “The margin for error is very small. Now maybe it is too much to expect that all the people in the United States…will understand that. But you know it, you understand it, and it is part of your task to have America understand it.”

The American Jewish point of view, in defining the affinities and differences between itself and Israel, was expressed by Albert Chernin, executive director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

“What we have are a group of leaders representing a group of voluntary organizations addressing leaders of a government who were elected…and who are responsible for decisions that have profound consequences. Organizations have the luxury, we can act on the basis of ideals. Government has to act on policies and live with the consequences of those policies.”

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