What organizers claim is an unprecedented coalition of Jewish and Evangelical Christian groups is taking shape to fight any Israeli compromises on the status of Jerusalem at next month’s Annapolis peace summit.
And while no major non-Orthodox group has endorsed the effort, several top Jewish leaders said the anti-compromise push could get real traction from a community with strong religious and emotional connections to the city.
“Since Jerusalem belongs to all the Jewish people, decisions about its future are not just an Israeli decision,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Foxman said it is “appropriate” for Jewish groups to organize to make their feelings known about the future of the city, even if that means fighting the policies of the democratically elected government in
Among those calling for a coalition on Jerusalem: Rabbi Pesach Lerner, director of the National Council of Young Israel, and Jeffrey Ballabon, a prominent Jewish Republican activist. Orthodox Union officials are also playing a major role in the effort.
“The unifying ideological issue here is a commitment to preserving a united, undivided Jerusalem that absolutely includes the Temple Mount,” said Ballabon, who stressed that the exact parameters of the new umbrella organization have yet to be determined.
“But it is meant to counter policies of the Israeli government; we are joining together to say that we view Jerusalem as a Jewish issue, not an Israeli one.”
But other top Jewish leaders reject that argument, arguing that the status of Jerusalem is an issue that must be decided by Israelis themselves — and charging that backers of the effort are using the emotionally charged issue as a wedge to create political barriers to any new land for peace agreements.
“Forces on the right don’t want territorial compromise that involves the withdrawal of any settlements,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who said he is personally conflicted about possible changes in the status of Jerusalem.
“In this case, the Jerusalem issue is simply one more way to block a peace agreement without having to specifically articulate that view – which is not acceptable to the broader Jewish community,” Rabbi Yoffie said.
But leaders of several pro-peace process groups say they have not organized any comparable joint efforts.
“We’re all doing things individually,” said an official with one group, “but to be honest, we haven’t gotten together to start planning ways to support forward momentum in the peace process — if that is what actually happens in Annapolis.”
The issue has taken on an added charge in recent weeks because of comments by Palestinian Authority officials suggesting they want to reassert control over the Temple Mount and even the Western Wall, and conflicting statements from the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about its intentions.
That concern led the OU — which last year reversed a longstanding policy barring criticism of Israeli government policy — to write to Olmert insisting that his government not cede portions of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority.
On Tuesday Olmert responded, saying that “the issue of Jerusalem currently is not under negotiations with the Palestinians” and that “in any future settlement, the Prime Minister will strengthen the Jewish character of Jerusalem, enhance its Jewish majority and keep Jerusalem as the eternal, united and internationally recognized capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
But OU president Stephen Savitsky, while thanking Olmert for his response, said the prime minister — who a day earlier talked about possible negotiations involving neighborhoods annexed to Jerusalem after the Six-Day War —needs to be more “explicit about his intentions.”
Roots In The Gaza Withdrawal
The coalition effort had its roots in unhappiness in Orthodox circles about the Jewish community’s relative silence during the 2005 Gaza withdrawal; it gained new impetus with the announcement of next month’s Israeli-Palestinian summit, and the growing sense that Olmert is ready to push quickly for an agreement with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Ballabon, the Republican Jewish activist, said the nascent group represents a turning point in Israel-diaspora relations.
“There was a sense among sectarian organizations in the past that it was necessary to defer to the Israeli government on matters of policy,” he said, referring primarily to the Orthodox Union.
But in the wake of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and the Hamas takeover earlier this year, “people have re-evaluated; they don’t want to see a repeat of Gaza,” he said. “We were asked to forebear for the sake of what was sold to us as peace, but all we’ve seen is more war and destruction. For many Jews in America, that was almost beyond bearing. And we’re no longer willing to countenance it.”
He said he expects the new umbrella group to reach out across denominational and political lines “because Jerusalem is an issue for all of the Jewish people.”
And not just Jews. Christian Zionist leaders who have played an increasingly visible role in pro-Israel efforts — and in supporting West Bank settlers and opposing new land-for-peace deals — will be a significant part of the new effort.
Dr. James M. Hutchens, president of The Jerusalem Connection International and a regional director of Christians United for Israel said “the Jerusalem issue will galvanize our movement. There is a lot of Christian DNA in East Jerusalem. Jesus ascended from there, he’s coming back there, and there are Christian sites there. We have had a preview of what Palestinian control of Christian sites would look like; look at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which they totally trashed.”
He called discussion of possible compromises a “betrayal” and said groups like his will work with Jewish groups “here and in Israel” to fight any changes in Jerusalem’s status.
Pastor John Hagee, the CUFI founder, said this week that turning over holy sites to the Palestinians “would be the death of Christian tourism to Israel,” according to a report in the San Antonio Express-News. “They’re not going to a holy site controlled by Palestinians who have machine guns on their shoulders of whom Christians by and large are terrified.”
Evangelical visitors are critical to the Israeli tourist industry, given groups like Rev. Hagee’s are a big political lever in the battle over Jerusalem.
Non-Orthodox and politically centrist Jewish groups may be a harder sell, despite widespread attachment to the idea of an undivided Jerusalem.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice-president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said his group is unlikely to join the anti-compromise effort.
“The United Synagogue has traditionally backed the Israeli government, even at times when we haven’t been entirely enthusiastic about their positions,” he said. “I know a number of people will be lobbying before the Israeli government takes a position on dividing Jerusalem, but I do not believe that under current circumstances we would take a position in opposition to the Israeli government.”
But Rabbi Epstein also admitted that because of the emotional power of the city in Jewish life, that could change.
“Personally, I would have concerns about a possible division of significant dimensions,” he said. “I don’t know what would actually happen if Olmert were successful in convincing the Israeli government to take such a position.”
American Jews, he said, “have a say [on Jerusalem], but I don’t think we have a vote.”
Cover For West Bank Withdrawal?
Some Jewish leaders say that talk about a big push against concessions on Jerusalem is just a cover for broader opposition to any movement toward Palestinian statehood and a large-scale withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the West Bank.
“Jerusalem is an emotional issue, and it’s being used as a rallying cry to oppose the whole concept of the November conference in Annapolis,” said Seymour Reich, president of the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum.
He said anti-compromise forces are exaggerating the threat to Jewish Jerusalem.
“Nobody is talking about dividing the city, but only sharing portions of it,” he said. “And they’re talking about sharing portions that were incorporated into the city after the Six-Day War that have no relation to the heart of the city.”
Reich predicted that a strong majority of American Jews would support limited concessions on Jerusalem “if they are part of a full package that produces peace for Israel. It’s an emotional issue, but you have to treat it as part of the package.”
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., and founder of an Orthodox group that supports active peace negotiations with the Palestinians, said he worries about the shift toward more active interference in critical Israeli decisions.
“I share with all Jews a deep attachment to Jerusalem and its holy places,” he said in an e-mail. “I find it exceedingly difficult to conceive that we would be willing to give up our vision of a united Jerusalem under Israeli rule. At the same time, I am also concerned about the implications of public lobbying by diaspora Jewry against the decisions of any Israeli government.”
But Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Orthodox Union, said the Gaza disaster has fundamentally altered the debate in the Jewish community.
The new coalition’s efforts will be “more coordinated and more comprehensive than anything we’ve done before because people have learned the lessons of the Gaza withdrawal,” he said. Many in the Orthodox community are “regretting that they fell short on the issue.”
He dismissed critics who say the Israelis are likely to negotiate only over outlying Jerusalem neighborhoods.
“Once you’re negotiating over neighborhoods, you’re negotiating over everything,” he said. “When you hear Palestinian officials saying they want not just the Temple Mount but the Western Wall, as well, that ought to wake people up.”