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Jewish Leaders Debate the Costs of Disunity on Israeli Policies

May 10, 1988
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A leader of Reform Judaism, whose reflections on the unrest in the administered territories were published in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, came under fire at the opening session of a national conference on Jewish unity.

The article by Albert Vorspan, senior vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was described as an example of “too much public posturing and too little private discourse” by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Hoenlein’s remarks on “The Costs of Disunity” and a stern warning on speaking out delivered by Thomas Dine, executive director of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, underlined the challenges facing delegates to the three-day Critical Issues Conference II of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, which ends Tuesday.

The 400 religious and educational leaders meeting here are expected to discuss ways of bridging divisions among religious denominations, among political camps, and between Israelis and diaspora Jews.

But discussion of American Jewish reaction to Israel’s handling of what Palestinians are calling the “uprising” is expected to dominate a number of workshops.

Vorspan’s article, published in the form of a diary, recounts his growing dissatisfaction with both current Israeli policy and the response of American Jewish umbrella groups, such as the Conference of Presidents. The UAHC, representing 850 Reform synagogues, was one of only a few major groups to criticize various Israeli policies publicly since unrest began in December.


In an entry dated Jan. 14, Vorspan writes, “Some of us are upset about the position” of the Conference of Presidents. Its chairman, Morris Abram, “seems to be putting a kosher stamp on everything — shootings, deportations, excessive force.”

Declining to refer to Vorspan by name but nonetheless describing him as someone “I personally admire and respect greatly,” Hoenlein asked CLAL delegates to consider the impact of Vorspan’s claims.

“What purpose does the piece serve?” demanded Hoenlein. “Or is it a matter of ego satisfaction? What questions are dealt with — in addition to raising ethical questions of reporting on sessions that were closed, quoting people who gave no permission to be quoted?”

“And what is the impact,” he continued, “on those not knowledgeable who read it? And what if a non-Jew had put into writing in The New York Times a reference to ‘putting a kosher stamp on beatings and expulsions?'”

In a telephone interview Monday, Vorspan said any meeting described in the article “was ancient history,” and that few were closed to the press. He pointed out that in most cases he only quoted himself.

Vorspan said he felt compelled to contribute the article because of “a failure on the part of some of our umbrella organizations to protect the integrity of their constituent agencies.”

“It is some kind of delusion to pretend that the American people don’t know what’s going on,” within Israel or among American Jewish leaders, said Vorspan. “I think the costs of pretending are greater than the costs of telling the truth.”

For Hoenlein, the “costs of disunity” are an erosion of how legislators and the American public see the power of American Jews: “as an outgrowth of our unity, bringing together what they believe to be our vast resources — intellectual, political and financial — into a dynamic force of advocacy.”


Dine echoed and expanded Hoenlein’s theme in his subsequent address. “The implication of disunity hurts the American Jewish community’s political agenda,” he said bluntly.

“Deliberation is healthy,” said Dine, “but one of these days without Jewish unity a marginal number of Jewish legislators will not vote ‘yea’ on a foreign aid measure that is unpopular to begin with and only passes by a few votes.”

Such an erosion has not happened yet, he said, but the presidential campaign is the first since 1948 in which none of the candidates is seen as “one of us on Israel.”

Said Dine, “We’re on a frozen lake here. The problem is, we’re getting warmer. And one of these days (we’re) going to fall through a hole.”

Still, at a conference that celebrates cohesion not all were in agreement. At a Monday morning session, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset said, “You cannot produce unity when there is disunity. You can’t tell people who feel passionately about what they think is right for Israel that they can’t feel that way.”

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