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Behind the Headlines: Can a True Friend of Israel Also Be One of Its Critics?

March 29, 1988
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During his recent United States visit, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s message to American Jews was as emphatic as his rejection of the Reagan administration’s peace initiative: Until you shed your blood for us or move to Israel, keep your criticism of Israeli policy to yourselves.

For many leaders of Jewish organizations, weaned on 40 years of nearly unanimous American Jewish support of a besieged Israel, it was a welcome repudiation of Shamir’s critics. Like Shamir, they feel public criticism of Israel by American Jews is not only presumptuous, but serves to weaken Israel’s cause, especially in Washington.

Others disagree. With Israel’s own government and society deeply divided over the course of peace in the Middle East, a vocal minority of Jewish leaders is saying that they refuse to flinch from taking sides in a debate that affects Jews everywhere. Silence, they argue, is contrary to America’s and Israel’s democratic traditions.

As he did in a recent issue of Moment magazine, Burton Levinson, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, argued that criticism of Israel is “dangerous chutzpah.”

“People in Congress or people in the (Reagan) administration who read the public criticism may feel it is easier to cut back on foreign aid to Israel,” Levinson, a Los Angeles lawyer, said in one of a series of telephone interviews with Jewish leaders.

Legislative friends of Israel may not change their minds, said Levinson, “but the less outspoken may take a look and say, ‘The Jewish community is not fully supportive (of Israel). Maybe this is an indication that we can back off support.'”


As Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has argued, Israeli leaders are open to criticism conveyed in private meetings or correspondence. But by having their criticism printed in the newspapers, said Levinson, leaders are “playing with lighted matches.”

The opposite view is taken by Robert Lifton, who last week assumed the presidency of the American Jewish Congress, succeeding Theodore Mann. Along with a number of Reform organizations, including the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, AJCongress was among the earliest groups to issue statements critical of Israel’s handling of the unrest that began in December.

“Without question we should speak out,” said Lifton, an investor from New York. That right of Americans to criticize Israel comes by virtue of their having shared a history of Jewish, if not Israeli, suffering, he said. “Our parents paid the price of being Jews.”

Lifton does not think private criticism is the answer. “That’s not the point,” he said. “You don’t influence people by calling (those) whose minds are already made up.” If you speak openly and publicly, he said, “then people have to pay attention.”

Nor does he feel disunity among Jews leads to an erosion of support on Capitol Hill.

“Quite the contrary,” he said. By allowing criticism, “you gain credibility with the State Department and the Senate and the House, because people know that you’re open and honest.” That approach has allowed AJCongress inroads, not only with U.S. officials, said Lifton, but with Arab leaders as well.

At least one senator agreeing with Lifton is Rudy Boschwitz (D-Minn.), whose own criticism of Shamir took the form of a letter about the prime minister sent to Secretary of State George Shultz earlier this month. Eventually signed by 30 other senators, the letter urged Shamir to moderate his opposition to trading land for peace.


Boschwitz, who is Jewish, feels that the sign of a strong relationship is that “we don’t have to treat Israel with kid gloves,” according to the senator’s press secretary, Tim Droogsma.

Public criticism also serves another purpose, according to Theodore Ellenoff, president of the American Jewish Committee. “American Jewish institutions need to inform and educate their own membership,” he said. “That necessarily becomes a public matter.”

Ellenoff does not feel American Jewish leaders have an absolute mandate to speak out against Israel, and he agreed there are times when criticism of an Israeli leader is best conveyed in person. AJCommittee’s own suggestions to Shamir, also urging him to explore the peace conference option, were conveyed in that manner, Ellenoff said.

But the AJCommittee leader said he thinks Shamir “went beyond the bounds of discretion” in assailing his critics during his recent visit. “American Jews do need not look to the prime minister of Israel for authority to make comment on policies in Israel,” he said.

American Jews, he said, are “remarkably disciplined” and careful to weigh matters regarding Israel’s security. “I think it wholly appropriate for American Jews to comment using the same discretion they’ve used over the past 40 years.”

Other organizations, such as pro-Israel groups, are by their very names and agenda partisan in their approach to Israeli politics. One example is North American Friends of Peace Now, which supports the Israeli movement that has long called for territorial compromise. Its director, Mark Rosenblum, said he finds a contradiction in Shamir’s criticisms.

“When Shamir comes (to the United States) as prime minister, he’s meeting with private political parties, Herut-USA,” said Rosenblum.

“He’ll ask them as party supporters, of his party — not as the prime minister of the state, but as party head — to ‘give me money, give me support, take out ads in The New York Times.’

“And then they say when we do it, Friends of Peace Now, it’s interfering with the unity.” Rosenblum complained.

That argument leaves Mark Hasten, president of Herut-USA, unmoved. “It doesn’t make any difference,” said Hasten, a businessman from Indianapolis, who describes his organization as a completely independent American Zionist organization. The money it raises does not go to Shamir’s party, he said, but to support various educational programs in Israel.

No matter who is in power, said Hasten, “we have no right whatsoever to tell Israel how to run the show. We don’t give our blood or vote for the government. We’re not Israeli citizens.”

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