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Behind the Headlines: Reich, Lerner Debate over Who Speaks for U.S. Jews

December 22, 1989
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One of the most prominent figures in the American Jewish institutional world sat elbow-to-elbow with organized Jewry’s harshest critic recently for a panel discussion entitled, “Who Speaks For American Jews?”

It was the first time that Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, had shared a podium with Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, who has frequently condemned the structure and operation of the organized American Jewish community.

The visual contrast between the two could not have been more striking as the tall, impeccably groomed Reich rose to make his opening statement and Lerner, wearing his yarmulke and scruffy post-’60s beard, listened intently.

In his speech, Reich said that neither he nor the Conference of Presidents claims to speak for all American Jews.

“We are not a monolithic community,” Reich said, and the Conference of Presidents does not “seek to muzzle expressions of viewpoint different from ours.”

“But if we do not represent all American Jews, we do speak in the name of the broadest coalition of the world’s largest Jewish community,” he added.

He said that the large and diverse number of organizations under the conference’s umbrella is the reason “why the media are interested in what we have to say,” and “why the makers of public policy come to our platform.”


But Lerner charged in his presentation that the Conference of Presidents, like the present leadership of many Jewish organizations, does not use its prominent positions to accurately represent the full spectrum of views of American Jewry when it comes to Israeli policies.

“What is correctly reported as support of all of us for the State of Israel is incorrectly reported to be support for the policies of the contemporary government of the State of Israel,” Lerner said.

He cited a recent study by sociologist Steven Cohen, which showed that nearly half of American Jews are deeply troubled by Israeli policies.

Yet, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir returned last month from a visit to the United States, he stated publicly that American Jews fully support his actions, despite efforts by his Israeli opposition on the left to undermine that support.

Lerner said there are only two possible explanations for the misrepresentation of the views of American Jewry.

“One possibility to consider is that he is straightforwardly lying to the people of Israel,” Lerner said.

The alternative theory, he said, is that Shamir “has been lied to, or fudged to, that the facts have been misrepresented to him by those who speak, or claim to speak, for American Jewry.”

Overall, Lerner said, a climate exists in the organized Jewish world in which Jews do not feel they can tell Shamir in “loud and clear voices” that his policies are “destructive politically or morally abhorrent.”

The danger in these voices not being heard, he said, is that Israelis do not realize that their continued administration of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is costing Israel support among American Jews.

The cost in the United States, he said, is that many Jews have become disaffected with the organized American Jewish world because there is no forum for their views.

On that point, Reich said the Conference of Presidents “respect(s) the idea of pluralism.”

But he warned that since American Jewish support is vital to the continuation of the massive aid that Israel receives from Washington, “any perception of American Jewish disaffection with Israel would be extremely serious.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, co-director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, was another panelist at the event at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, and although he sits on Tikkun’s board and has taken many left-leaning positions, he took issue with some of Lerner’s points.

Saperstein said he “truly believes” that voices of dissent “have been heard in the mainstream Jewish community,” and that many of those who are openly critical of Israeli policies are also active in Jewish organizations.

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