When the small Jewish Peace Lobby released a petition signed by 300 liberal rabbis calling for Israel to share Jerusalem in a peace settlement, the response could have been: So what?
What’s news about a group of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis advocating a view many experts privately say is inevitable? Not to mention that 800 other non-Orthodox rabbis refused to sign the document.
But instead the statement has sent the major pro-peace groups running for cover and prompted a highly unusual joint rebuttal by the leading Orthodox and Conservative rabbinical associations in America.
“[We] view with great dismay the statement released by the 300 unnamed rabbis, which wishes to promote a ‘shared Jerusalem,’ ” according to a joint statement issued Tuesday by the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America and the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly.
“The State of Israel has committed itself to face-to-face negotiations with the Palestinians, and only Israel and her neighbors should determine conditions for peace.”
The joint memo reiterates both groups’ position that “Jerusalem is the united and indivisible capital solely of the State of Israel.”
According to Jewish Peace Lobby president Jerome Segal, any notion of Israel sharing its “eternal indivisible capital” is still so emotionally explosive that many American Jews don’t want to talk about it publicly — even as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators struggle to meet a February deadline on a framework for peace.
This “wall of silence” is exactly the problem he is trying to address. He contends a public push on Jerusalem is necessary because Israeli leaders aren’t dealing straight with their people on the issue.
“We’re dealing with an emperor’s clothes situation,” Segal told The Jewish Week. “There’s no way to end this conflict without seriously compromising on Jerusalem. If the Israeli leaders don’t know it, they’re deceiving themselves; if they do, they’re deceiving the Israeli public.”
In the two-page statement issued last week, the rabbis say the question is “whether Jerusalem should be under exclusive sovereignty of one nation.
“The question is whether the pursuit of both justice and lasting peace requires that, in some form, Jerusalem be shared with the Palestinian people,” they said. “We believe it does. We call for a shared Jerusalem.”
But the rabbis’ statement, the result of a yearlong project, has sent even pro-peace process groups ducking for cover.
“I think I’m going to decline this,” said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, when asked to comment.
A spokesman for Americans for Peace Now said the group “supports a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. At the same time, we believe there has to be accommodation for the different ethnic and religious needs of all the residents. The two sides should seek creative solutions but they need to do it on their own.”
Wayne Owens, head of the Center for Middle East Peace, said “We don’t take positions” on negotiating points.
Segal said their reactions are predictable, and that it reflects the unusual role he has carved out for his group.
“Our function all along has been to push the edge,” he said. “It’s to bring up the ideas that aren’t being debated because they’re too controversial.”
But critics say such declarations from American Jews threaten Israel’s negotiating position.
“The Israeli government needs to have all the resources it needs to negotiate the best settlements it can, and by American Jews stating specific positions they think Israel should take in the end may undermine Israel’s positions,” noted Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE).
Controversy is not new to Segal, who is also director of the Jerusalem Project of the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies. The scholar was the first to propose a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1989, he released his first letter from rabbis, with 150 calling on Israeli leaders to accept the principle of “land for peace.”
His outside-the-box proposals have moved into the mainstream, although his group has been almost invisible in the last few years.
The new statement is meant to address Segal’s contention that “within Israel and the U.S. there is widespread ignorance about East Jerusalem.” He argues that it will be hard for politicians to sell an inevitable compromise if it is never even broached publicly.
That’s not to say that experts privately agree what will generally happen with Jerusalem.
“The final settlement with the Palestinians will be essentially the Beilin-Mazen plan,” said one Middle East expert referring to a proposal from Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Palestinian official Abu Mazen.
“The Palestinians get a state with the [Arab] Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis as their capital. This compromise lets the Palestinians say their capital is in Jerusalem and lets Israel keep all the parts of Jerusalem that matters.”
But the new statement seems to go further, calling for a sharing of the Old City itself — a proposal most mainstream Jewish groups would oppose. “The potential exists for two distinct municipal areas, Al-Quds and Yerushalayim, that would overlap the Old City,” it states.
But the rabbis’ statement carefully avoids advocating a specific proposal for sharing Jerusalem and the Old City.
Segal said the new statement is based on poll results he found “where it emerges that for both Israelis and Palestinians, the boundaries of Yerushalayim and Al-Quds are flexible lines.”
His polling suggests one Jewish city — “Yerushalayim” — consisting of West Jerusalem, Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, plus the Old City and the Mount of Olives.
An Arab city of Al-Quds would consist of Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem plus the Old City and the Mount of Olives.
“Thus the Old City, the historic locus of Al-Quds and Yerushalayim, would remain in both, but 98-99 percent of present day Jerusalem would be under either one or the other sovereignty,” the statement says.
The Old City itself — particularly the Temple Mount sacred to Jews and Muslims — “may lend itself to innovative arrangements and formulations which would not be suitable elsewhere,” the statement suggests.
But Bard, author of the new “Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Middle East Conflict,” said such a view is unacceptable to most Jews.
“Any suggestion that Israel should give up any sovereignty over the Old City is not likely to be supported by any large segment of Israel or American Jewish opinion.”
Rabbi Samuel Barth, dean of the Academy of Jewish Religion, said he signed the statement because it urges political recognition.
“The statement says there is a lot to be done with namings and administrative levels, and to recognize the true multifaceted nature of the history and habitation of Jerusalem.”
Other signers include several leading Reconstructionist rabbis, Arthur Green, Michael Cohen, and Mordechai Liebling; two former heads of the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm, Rabbis Jerome Malino and Hermann Schaalman; and Conservative Rabbis Amy Eilberg, Mark Loeb and Rolando Matalon of Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun.
No Orthodox rabbis were asked to sign the statement because Segal concluded they wouldn’t.
Among the 800 refusing to sign were Conservative Rabbis Jerome Epstein and Gordon Tucker.
“This letter is making an advance judgment that compromise is going to be necessary; I have no reason to be certain of that,” Rabbi Tucker explained. “Even if I were, I wouldn’t be so thrilled about a group of Jewish leadership televising that to the whole world including Palestinians, and thereby undercutting Israel’s own negotiators.” Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.