Fresh Rift Emerges Over War Response


Beneath the surge of Jewish unity, as a broad spectrum of pro-Israel groups back Israel’s Gaza military surge, are differences over tactics, growing uncertainty over exactly how to express support for the embattled Jewish state and some of the sharpest skirmishes yet between “mainstream” Jewish organizations and the peace camp.

Those clashes have included an organized campaign against J Street, the new pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, which is being criticized sharply for statements that even some fellow peaceniks say put the onus for the renewed violence on Israel. “What J Street is saying is, stop the fighting now and we’ll worry about the rockets later,” said Seymour Reich, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents and former leader of the dovish Policy Forum.

Union of Reform Judaism President Eric Yoffie, writing in The Forward, said J Street statements “could find no moral difference between the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian militants, who have launched more than 5,000 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli civilians in the past three years, and the long-delayed response of Israel.”

But others say J Street, which has organized an online petition calling for “immediate and strong U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to urgently reinstate a meaningful cease-fire that ends all military operations, stops the rockets aimed at Israel and lifts the blockade of Gaza,” has prompted such a strong response because the group is seen as having at least the potential of reaching a significant number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill — and the incoming Barack Obama administration — with a message that differs from that of the pro-Israel establishment.

“Other peace groups issued statements, but they’re not seen as serious people,” said the leader of a major pro-Israel group this week. “But J Street includes serious people with serious connections with the new administration, and people are very worried. They don’t have much power now, but there’s a feeling that they could gain a lot of influence in the new Congress and with the new administration.”

J Street’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, was unapologetic, saying his group’s stance on an immediate cease-fire “has a really massive base of support in the Jewish community. The fallacy here is the argument that a military victory against an insurgent group actually is achievable. … Even if Israel wipes out every single missile launcher and takes every Hamas activist into captivity, what then? There are whole new generations behind them.”

Ben-Ami said mainstream Jewish groups were angered by J Street’s positions precisely because they understand that the new group is more representative of the views of the Jewish majority.

Obama himself weighed in on Gaza on Tuesday after ten days of silence, albeit with a cautious, broad-brush statement that hinted of changes in policy but offered no details.

“The loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern to me,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “After January 20th I’m going to have plenty to say about the issue, and I am not backing away at all from what I said during the campaign, that starting at the beginning of our administration, we are going to be engaged effectively and consistently in trying to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.”

As the latest Gaza fighting moved into its second week and Israeli ground troops thrust deep inside Gaza, reports surfaced of internal dissent among the top Israeli leaders and there were mounting efforts to arrange a cease fire. Under strong international pressure, the Bush administration on Tuesday seemed to shift slightly toward favoring an immediate cease-fire that is “durable, sustainable and not time-limited,” according to a State Department spokesman.

The fast-shifting landscape and mixed signals from Jerusalem about Israel’s goals provided treacherous footing for the Jewish groups that have united across political and ideological lines to support Israel.

“I don’t know if there are divisions, but there is a lot of uncertainty,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). “Activists around the country are super-involved. They’re very worked up. But this is one of those situations where it’s not always easy to know what to do.”

Susskind said a primary goal of groups such as JCPA is to “create avenues of action for people.”

Another leading Jewish activist said that a surge of pro-Israel activism that includes solidarity rallies in cities across the country, intensive work with the media and congressional lobbying is mingling with feelings of uncertainty that were uncommon in previous crises.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the conference calls about rallies, advertisements, letters to newspapers and the like,” this activist said. “But does anybody in Israel really care if we have a rally at city hall? The Bush administration has been supportive, and so has most of Congress, so does anybody really care about petition drives? ”

Even on the core message of the major pro-Israel lobby groups — that Israel must be given enough time to seriously undermine Hamas before any cease fire is imposed — there is uncertainty, this activist said, in large part because early in the week there were indications Israeli leaders were not in agreement about the purpose and scope of the operation and requirements for a cease fire.

Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna said memories of the botched 2006 Lebanon war and the lessons of Iraq are ricocheting through the Jewish activist community even as it comes together to support Israel.

“In a sense, we are looking at the current situation through the eyes of those experiences,” he said. “On one hand, we hope that maybe Israel can accomplish what America wasn’t able to accomplish in Iraq. Maybe Israel will be able to show the world how to deal with terrorist organizations. On the other hand, there’s this nagging fear that maybe this will turn out to be Afghanistan or Iraq or Lebanon all over again, another example of the difficulties of a democratic regime committed to Western standards of warfare trying to fight a terrorist organization.”

Still, a broad spectrum of groups ranging from center-right to center-left have been pounding away at the same point — that Washington must prevent imposition of a “premature” cease-fire that would force Israel to abandon its military effort without credible guarantees the Hamas rocket barrages will not resume.

“This time Israel can’t accept a solution where Hamas can declare victory,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in a Monday conference call with activists around the country. “Israel needs time — to end it prematurely will only mean the cycle of violence on part of Hamas will continue.”

An unspoken but palpable sub-theme among major Jewish leaders was concern that while the Bush administration reacted by endorsing the Israeli military action and putting the onus for the violence on Hamas, the incoming Obama administration, more focused on multilateral diplomacy, might be more sympathetic to calls for an immediate cease fire.

As a result, ensuring that Israel faced the fewest possible restraints until Jan. 21 was part of the Jewish communal response to Gaza.

That consensus position may also have been a factor in the strong response to J Street statements, which rejected it.

The new organization’s stance was not significantly different from statements by Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum. But several major Jewish leaders were so angered by the J Street statement that they made unsolicited calls to reporters to blast the group. When asked whether the calls were orchestrated, several sources said they believed the campaign was being mounted by major pro-Israel groups and by the Israeli Embassy in Washington.