JERUSALEM, Feb. 22 (JTA) ï¿½ Over the clatter of dishes and glasses at a lunch Sunday for Israelï¿½s minister of defense, James Tisch, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, says he leaned over to tell his guest that the conference backs Israelï¿½s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. ï¿½I just want you to know ï¿½ contrary to what youï¿½ve seen in the press, the conference does support the disengagement plan,ï¿½ Tisch said he told Shaul Mofaz.
Later that day, at a dinner for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the King David Hotel here, Tisch introduced the leader of Israel, saying, ï¿½The Conference of Presidents proudly supports and has supported your historic disengagement plan.
ï¿½Your role as a great and patriotic leader is noted.ï¿½
Tischï¿½s decisive words seemed aimed at quashing the perception that the leadership of American Jewry was not staunchly behind Sharonï¿½s plan. The prime minister soon will begin to remove Israeli forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank for the first time since Israel took control of those areas during the Six Day War in June 1967.
Sharon, who came to the dinner directly from a marathon Cabinet session where government ministers gave final approval for the disengagement plan, told the room, packed with more than 100 leaders of major American Jewish organizations, that their support is crucial.
The Cabinet decision paved the way for Sharon to sign the order that will lead in the next five months to the evacuation of approximately 8,500 Jews who live in 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank.
ï¿½In this sensitive and complicated period, there is great importance to the support and solidarity of the Jewish communities for the State of Israel. Your support of the State of Israel, your standing by our side, is important now, maybe more than ever,ï¿½ Sharon told the conference.
In September, when Sharonï¿½s plan began to seem as if it might win Cabinet backing, American Jewish groups had a hard time finding a consensus position. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, circulated a ï¿½statement of supportï¿½ for the plan because he felt the conference wasnï¿½t taking action.
At that time, the Conference of Presidents, to which the ADL belongs, said it was not yet ready to take a position that could accurately reflect the beliefs of all its constituent groups.
In October, the conference met with Daniel Ayalon, Israelï¿½s ambassador to the United States, to hear his impassioned plea for its support.
The group, noting the reservations of several Orthodox and hawkish groups in the conference, then issued a statement that fell short of across-the-board support for disengagement.
Soon after, however, when the Knesset passed legislation in favor of disengagement for the first time, a stronger statement was issued, saying there was consensus support for the plan. Even that statement, however, drew criticism from some Jewish leaders as being too tepid.
The controversy over how strongly the American Jewish leadership stood behind the matter heated up again when the conference arrived in Israel last week.
In an article in the daily Haï¿½aretz, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement in the United States, criticized the conference for being slow in supporting disengagement, calling its stance on the issue a ï¿½shameful disgrace.ï¿½ Striking back, Tisch said Yoffieï¿½s comments were ï¿½totally outrageousï¿½ and cited the second statement the conference issued, which noted consensus support for disengagement by the conference members.
But Yoffie was heartened by news of Tischï¿½s statements Sunday.
The Reform leader, kept away from the conferenceï¿½s meeting by obligations to his own movement, said, ï¿½If the conference is now expressing full support of the disengagement, Iï¿½m delighted in every way.
ï¿½My view, both in the past and now, is that itï¿½s the conferenceï¿½s job to be chief public advocate in the United States for the disengagement plan and for the positions of the prime minister. Weï¿½re facing a very difficult period in the three to five months ahead, so let the conference assume that role.
ï¿½If it can, it will certainly be a blessing for all concerned.ï¿½
Foxman, too, was pleased by what he heard. ï¿½Iï¿½m delighted that finally the Presidentsï¿½ Conference supports the Prime Ministerï¿½s disengagement plan,ï¿½ he said in a phone interview from New York.
ï¿½Better late than never.ï¿½
Most other members of the conference, an umbrella group representing 52 American Jewish organizations, said they personally supported disengagement even if their own organizations had not taken a formal stand on it.
Still, there was some talk that the conference leadership had not come out strongly enough before now.
ï¿½The leadership says it has been vocal but the perception is that they are not on the forefront of advocacy,ï¿½ said Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum.
ï¿½I think the American Jewish leadership has to catch up with the Bush administration and Sharon as they are taking the lead. We have to be there supporting them.ï¿½
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, said the organization would continue to play a supportive role in both Washington and Jerusalem as the Israeli government carries out the challenges posed by the withdrawal. He took issue with the Israeli media for what he said was a preference for reporting scandal instead of substance.
Hoenlein also spoke out against those voices in Israel advocating violent protest against the disengagement. Last week several Likud Cabinet ministers in favor of the disengagement revealed they had received death threats.
ï¿½Government officials and religious and communal leaders have a special responsibility to exercise care in the language they employ, as well as seeking to isolate those who engage in incitement to violence,ï¿½ Hoenlein added.
ï¿½We have all seen the bitter results when words can lead to violent acts. Any suggestion of violence as a means of opposition to the plan is to be completely condemned in the harshest possible terms.ï¿½
During the conference mission to Israel, which was preceded by visits to the Jewish communities and political leaders in Bulgaria and Romania, the members met with leading Israeli political and military officials.
They also traveled to an Israeli military overlook with a view of the Gaza Strip and met with the father of a teenage girl who was killed by a Kassam rocket fired on the southern Israeli town of Sderot from Gaza. They also met with Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip on either side of the withdrawal issue.
Efforts, including the possibility of traveling to the West Bank city of Ramllah, were made to arrange a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the conference. But logistics and timing made the meeting impossible to arrange, according to Mark Rosenblum, founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now, who had tried to make it work.
Americans for Peace Now has been among the most vocal supporters of disengagement.
ï¿½We see it as the first stepï¿½ towards negotiations and an eventual resolution of the conflict, Rosenblum said.
The conference did, however, meet with a panel of Palestinian academics, who discussed the challenges ahead of Abbas and the shifting mood on the Palestinian street. Surveys show an increase of those opposed to the use of violence as a political means among Palestinians, they said.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Orthodox Park East Synagogue in New York City, who heads the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith group, said his personal support for disengagement comes with a heavy heart.
ï¿½On the one hand, there is a great deal of sadness and compassion for those who will be uprooted as a result of the disengagement,ï¿½ he said. But citing the governmentï¿½s decision to go ahead with the plan, he added, ï¿½We can only hope and pray that as a result of this co-existence between Palestinian and Israelis will be on track.ï¿½
The Orthodox Union, meanwhile, has not taken a position on disengagement, with its leaders saying it is up the Israeli people to decide what is best for its own security.
O.U. President Stephen Savitsky said people must be educated to understand what disengagement will mean for Israelï¿½s future.
The most outspoken voice at the conference against disengagement was from the Zionist Organization of America.
ï¿½We thinkï¿½ the withdrawal is a ï¿½serious mistake which will increase, in all likelihood, terror becauseï¿½ terrorism ï¿½is being rewarded,ï¿½ said ZOA President Morton Klein. ï¿½Our role is to support what we think is good for Israel, not to support all Israeli governments.ï¿½
At a community center in Sderot, Rabbi Emmanuel Holzer, an Orthodox rabbi with the Rabbinical Council of America, approached Aharon Polat, who has lived in the Gaza settlement of Eli Sinai for eight years.
Polat, who is in favor of the disengagement despite the fact that he will have to leave his home, told the conference members that unity at this time is paramount.
Holzerï¿½s message to Polat was brief but direct: He said that there are many religious Jews in the United States who would support him during the painful process of leaving Gaza.
ï¿½The idea is to live and to win rather than to die and surrender,ï¿½ Holzer said.
(JTA staff writer Rachel Pomerance and copy editor Joanne Palmer in New York contributed to this report.)