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Behind the Headlines: U.S. Jews Try to Get Accustomed to the Idea of a Divided Jerusalem

August 2, 2000
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Ever since the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israeli forces captured eastern Jerusalem, North American Jews have generally echoed the mantra of an “eternal and undivided” Jerusalem. But with compromises on the status of Jerusalem dangled at Camp David, all that may dramatically change.

Many segments of the community were and continue to be in “extreme shock and disappointment” — in the words of Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union — that Jerusalem is suddenly on the table.

But if Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak can convince most Israelis that such concessions will bring peace, some observers and polling data suggest that most Diaspora Jews can be assuaged as well.

After all, American Jewish leaders and the Jewish community at large have stated time and again that the terms of any peace deal are up to Israel, and Israelis alone, to decide.

“If Israelis indicate some sort of willingness to share Jerusalem, it’s hard to imagine that that wouldn’t also become the dominant attitude among American Jews,” said Jerome Segal, a research scholar at the University of Maryland’s Center of International and Security Studies.

According to reports that emerged after the failure of the Camp David summit, Barak displayed a willingness to accept an American proposal calling for Israel to transfer parts of Jerusalem — including some religious sites and predominantly Arab neighborhoods — to Palestinian sovereignty.

Regarding American Jewry’s attitude toward Jerusalem, Segal discounted as “irrelevant” polls such as those conducted over the past decade by the American Jewish Committee that showed a majority consistently opposed to any compromise on Jerusalem’s status.

“We’ve had a staggering change in the realities,” said Segal, who is currently in Israel lobbying for “divine sovereignty” over Jerusalem, where neither Israelis nor Palestinians claim ownership of the city, but share administrative duties.

“Nobody would have believed even a month ago that there would have been a proposal to divide the Old City.”

In the AJCommittee polls, those most strenuously opposed to compromise were more religious Jews, or those who feel most connected with Israel.

In the past two years, however, there have already been signs of a shift in American Jewish opinion.

While the AJCommittee polls throughout the 1990s indicated that just one-third of American Jews would accept a change in Jerusalem’s status, by May 1999 the figure had risen to 42 percent.

The rise may have been because as an earlier deadline for a peace deal approached in September 1999, and more Israeli media, think tanks and politicians openly discussed how to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, “it dawned on” more American Jews that loss of part of the holy city might be necessary, said Kenneth Bandler, spokesman for the AJCommittee.

And in January, Segal, who is also president of the Jewish Peace Lobby and author of the recently published “Negotiating Jerusalem,” published a statement signed by 314 American rabbis that called for Jerusalem to be shared.

The statement was met with an avalanche of criticism, especially from the leading U.S. Conservative and Orthodox rabbinical groups.

The AJCommittee has not yet conducted its poll this year, nor have there been surveys of Jewish reaction in light of the Camp David summit.

However, with Barak having broached the de facto division of Jerusalem — traditionally a taboo “third rail” of Israeli politics — and the entire Israeli media now weighing in on the issue, some observers believe the process of conditioning Jewish public opinion is under way.

Not so, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“I don’t think this sacred cow has been slaughtered,” Hoenlein said.

“The principle remains the same: No compromise on the sovereignty or unity of Jerusalem. The feeling and commitment to the unity of Jerusalem as capital of Israel remains undiminished. There may be some redefinition” in administrative issues, “but it has nothing to do with the sovereignty of Israel over Jerusalem, or its status as the capital of Israel.”

Clearly, no change to that would come about without at least symbolic resistance from many corners of American Jewry.

“For us, it’s not just rhetoric when we say that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel,” said the O.U.’s Ganchrow.

“Contrary to any other Israeli security policy, when it comes to Jerusalem, while we don’t have the ability to impose our will, every Jew in the world has a right to an opinion.”

“If I really believed that at the end of the day, a settlement that included concessions on Jerusalem would lead to a true peace, where Palestinians accept Jews like cousins and preach love for Jews in their schools and Arafat includes a Jewish Jerusalem on the map behind his desk, then I would accept it.”

“But I don’t believe Arafat is sincere, or that there will be a real peace.”


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