Organized American Jewry Shifting in Wake of Rabin Victory in Israel
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Organized American Jewry Shifting in Wake of Rabin Victory in Israel

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The landscape of the organized American Jewish community may be shifting in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin’s overwhelming victory in Israel. But it is too soon to tell exactly how all the players and organizations will shake out.

Americans for Peace Now, once considered marginal for its outspoken dovish views, has applied for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the mainstream umbrella group that confers automatic legitimacy in the organized Jewish world.

At the same time, charges have surfaced in the Israeli press that Tom Dine, executive director of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents, were being targeted by the new Rabin government because of their over-zealous identification with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Still, most leaders of Jewish groups see the ground shifting only slightly. No one is predicting seismic shakeups.

These leaders say it is a misunderstanding and a demeaning of organized American Jewry to assume there will be a wholesale change in leadership and operation because of a change in Israeli government and policies.

But they do acknowledge that people and groups with longstanding personal and political ties to the Labor party will have increased access to and influence at the centers of Israeli power. And those who were part of the Shamir government’s inner circle may find themselves closer to the fringe.

They also predict Rabin’s relationship to the United States, light-years closer and more comfortable than that of his predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, augurs a far less prominent role for the groups as a U.S.-Israel mediator.

“The Rabin election validates our position and views,” said Peter Edelman, president of Americans for Peace Now, explaining his group’s application to the Conference of Presidents. “We feel we could be comfortable in any mainstream organization because our views are mainstream.

“People who have been associated with Labor more directly, and have pushed the peace process, have been (legitimized) and will be somewhat more at the center of things,” he added.

Meanwhile, AIPAC and the Conference, both of which maintained extremely close ties to the Shamir government, are expected to adjust their rhetoric to reflect the new Israeli government and its policies, and to continue doing business more or less as usual.

Most Jewish leaders have rallied to the defense of the directors of those organizations. They say the rumors about the precariousness of their positions are just that.


Yossi Beilin, new deputy foreign minister, was moved by the imbroglio to write a letter to Hoenlein last week, denying he had a “negative attitude” toward him and Dine.

“There is absolutely no basis in reality whatsoever for claims that (such) changes will take place,” said Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress. “It’s a mistake to believe the organized community is on a leash and that change there will result in a change here.”

Lifton noted that AJCongress had been out of favor with the Shamir government for its propeace positions, but said it is unclear what the changes mean for the organization’s fortunes. “The (new) Israeli government won’t bestow a wreath on us. But there is no question they’ll feel friendly or more warmly disposed to those with the same position.”

“People have overblown who was and who wasn’t an apologist for the Shamir government,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, co-director of the liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“There was some excess from time to time, but in general people had a job to do and they would have done it no matter who was in office. AIPAC has to sell an aid package to Congress,” said Saperstein. “But I never saw Tom Dine out there defending Gush Emunim. He may have explained some of their policies but he didn’t endorse them.

“If Labor wants to play politics, that’s a different story,” he said. “But fighting for foreign aid remains a major undertaking and AIPAC remains as important as ever.”

The talk about changes at the top of AIPAC and the Conference is “nonsense,” said Tom Smerling, director of the moderate left-wing Project Nishma. “Israelis don’t understand these aren’t political patronage jobs.”

Smerling acknowledged, however, that the Israeli government has a natural ability to “with-hold access and confer legitimacy.” Nishma, which has close associations with politicians who are part of the new government, may benefit.

The change in government “gave people license to say what they haven’t been able to say before (but the talk) is idle Beltway Jewish gossip and it doesn’t serve the community,” said Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League.


“Sure there are differences,” he added. But they have “been blown totally out of proportion. There will be no bloodletting or coup d’etat.

“The American Jewish community’s support for Israel is a continuum,” he said, “whether it is the Zionist socialism of Ben Gurion, or the Zionist revisionism of Begin or the Zionist pragmatism of Rabin.”

For Henry Siegman, executive director of the AJCongress, the impact of the election goes beyond the fortunes of the individual organizations to affect their collective role.

The new prime minister feels he understands American culture, knows how the U.S. political system works and knows the players, said Siegman, which means all the groups that have helped mediate in the past will be become more marginalized.

Rabin, said Siegman, not only “tends not to place too much importance on the political role” of organized Jewry, but “he doesn’t feel he needs the Conference and AIPAC to achieve his goals. On the contrary, he sees them to a degree as an impediment.”

Unlike Shamir, added Siegman, Rabin has excellent relations with the administration and does not need the kind of “intercession” provided by the Jewish leadership establishment.

And that, says Siegman, is a healthy development. “The need for the Israeli government to rely on the intercession of the Jewish community is a sad admission of failure” of the “special relationship” Israel is said to maintain with the United States.

But the Conference’s Hoenlein vehemently disputed the notion that the groups’ profile and importance would decline and insisted that Rabin appreciated their significance. To buttress his point, he cited a two-hour conference call from Foreign Minister Shimon Peres last week to apprise the Conference of developments during Rabin’s trip to Egypt.


“The American Jewish community doesn’t play an intermediary role,” he said. “It represents an American Jewish constituency and advocates on behalf of Israel.

“It is not an appendage to the Israeli government,” he continued. “When the Israeli government changes it doesn’t change (our) function any more than when the U.S. administration changes.”

Hoenlein also repudiated charges of being too close to Shamir’s inner circle and its policies. “We don’t make policies, we reflect them. Our position was never to advocate. It’s to reflect all views and the umbrella groups will continue to function and to represent a consensus,” he said.

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