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American Jewish Groups Bring Mostly Unified Message to Israel

February 20, 2002
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American Jewish organizational leaders headed for Israel this week with an unusually unified message.

Ideological divisions still exist among American Jews, who like Israelis, have divided views about the best way to end the violence.

But given the daily fire between Israel and the Palestinians, the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations — the coordinating body of 52 national American Jewish organizations — is rallying to Israel’s defense.

American Jews no longer have the luxury to debate nuanced solutions, many of the delegates say. In fact, some say, they no longer know what the solution is.

“I remember a time when American Jewish organizations thought they had the answers in their own hip pocket,” said Phil Baum, senior adviser on world affairs for the American Jewish Congress.

“The Israelis were simply incompetent, and we knew better. We had answers they couldn’t perceive up close.”

But that philosophy has fallen on its face.

Humbled by the second Palestinian intifada, which has been raging for 17 months, American Jewry can no longer “come forward with magic formulas to find peace for Israel” that Israel can’t find for itself, said Baum, the former executive director of the AJCongress.

Instead, the message of the solidarity mission is to “help Israel in a moment of great travail,” Baum said.

The group’s five-day mission, which was beginning Wednesday, was slated to include sessions on a wide variety of topics, including the regional threats of Iran and Iraq, Ethiopian Jewry and the economic, political and security fallout of Sept. 11.

They were scheduled to be briefed by top officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.

The mission kicked off in London where members joined leaders of Jewish communities from 23 European countries to address the growing threat of anti-Semitism there and the policies of the European Union vis-a-vis Israel.

In transit from London to Jerusalem on Tuesday, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, told JTA they “heard strong statements of support for Israel” from Britain’s opposition leader and foreign secretary.

Jack Straw also told the group he would look into the issue of E.U. money supporting Palestinian textbooks that are hostile to Israel.

Also, the Conference is establishing a network to better communicate with Europe’s Jewish leaders who feel isolated amid rising anti-Semitism in their countries, which have also seen an increase in Muslim populations, he said.

The Conference of Presidents mission included a broad spectrum of political and religious organizations.

Many Jewish leaders say they view this week’s mission as a listening tour, not a soapbox.

Baum seemed to speak for many members when he said, “We’re not sure what Israel’s positions ought to be; it’s up to them primarily to define them.”

But when asked about the prospect of renewed negotiations with the Palestinians, many– particularly those to the right or left of the ideological center — are quick to propose their disparate ideas.

For example, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, spurned Peres’ peace plan, which calls for a cease-fire, an immediate recognition of an initial Palestinian state and a yearlong negotiation over its form.

“A man who’s been completely wrong in his understanding about Arafat and his regime for the last eight years,” said Klein, ” is not a man anyone should take seriously today.”

Peres’ proposal “to essentially create a new Arab terrorist state under Arafat is the height of folly,” Klein said

On the other end of the political spectrum, Mark Rosenblum, founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now, said Peres’ plan is “an interesting way of breaking the deadlock.”

Although Rosenblum said he adhered to the mission’s message of solidarity, he also was going to offer his group’s line: “It’s not working, stupid,” he said, referring to Sharon’s military reprisals.

The onus is on Arafat to crack down on terrorism first, Rosenblum said, but Sharon has provided a “disincentive” by conditioning negotiations on seven days of absolute non-violence.

That demand is something no leader could guarantee, he said, and is tantamount to preventing an ultimate cease- fire.

Instead, Rosenblum thinks that Sharon should implement the American proposals initiated by CIA Director George Tenet, George Mitchell and special envoy Anthony Zinni.

Zinni recently tried to resurrect the cease-fire proposed last year by Tenet as a step toward implementing the recommendations of the Mitchell Commission, a U.S.-led international panel that set out a series of confidence-building measures to help end the Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Rosenblum also said that Arafat’s announcement to halt terror in mid-December was followed by relative calm, but Israel did not end its closures on Palestinian areas.

Dovish or hawkish, both approaches — the Oslo peace process, on the one hand, and Israeli administration of the territories, on the other — “have been shown to be erroneous” in ending the conflict, according to Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union, the Reform movement’s Zionist organization.

“This is the source of much of the frustration in the Jewish world because there is no apparent solution that either wing can put its trust in.

“And if there are no wings, then the process can not fly,” said Hirsch.

Klein believes the current intifada has united among U.S. Jewish leaders around what is considered a more hawkish approach, but others think the current violence is only exacerbating pre-existing differences.

That is, skeptics will cite the intifada as reason to continue a hard-line approach, while progressives will point to the futility of military response in ending the conflict.

“The umbrella’s firmly up with everyone standing under it when it comes to broadscale criticism of Arafat and the P.A.,” Rosenblum said.

But just as in the Israeli unity government, there are “significant, unresolved differences” among American Jews. “Differences still exist even in this late date of 17 months into murder and mayhem of the intifada.”

For the moment, at least, “many of the differences today are subdued, because Israel is under assault,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“If God willing, we’ll move into the era of peace and tranquility, those differences will surface again,” he said.

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