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Bronfman Letter on Fence Revives Debate on Jewish Criticism of Israel

August 13, 2003
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An uproar over Israel’s security fence is provoking an unusual public scuffle in a major Jewish organization and reviving the longtime Diaspora debate on the propriety of publicly challenging Israeli policy.

The spat between the World Jewish Congress’ president, Edgar Bronfman, and the group’s senior vice president, Isi Leibler, erupted last week when Leibler wrote a newspaper column demanding that Bronfman apologize or resign for urging President Bush to pressure Israel and the Palestinians to follow the “road map” peace plan.

Bronfman also called the security fence Israel is building to keep out terrorists — which Palestinians describe as a land grab — “potentially problematic.”

After a flurry of letters and news articles, Bronfman told JTA that he will ask the WJC leadership to oust Leibler, setting up a battle of wills between two of world Jewry’s wealthiest public figures.

While many Jewish leaders say most American Jews care little about the WJC dispute and largely support Israel’s anti-terror moves, the conflict has revived a larger debate about whether Diaspora Jews should come out publicly against Israeli policy, especially on security issues.

“This kind of McCarthyism in Jewish life is not something I will stand for,” said the WJC’s chairman, Rabbi Israel Singer, who backed Bronfman. “Freedom of speech and freedom of expression in the Jewish community has been the issue.”

Controversies about the right of Diaspora Jews to openly criticize or question Israeli policy have raged since the 1967 Six-Day War, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform synagogue group.

While almost all believe in open debate, most Jewish organizations and American Jews support Israeli government decisions when it comes to the country’s security, according to Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national umbrella for Jewish community relations councils.

“I think that applies to the fence” as well, Raffel said.

In Yoffie’s view, many Jews do not have a detailed understanding of the fence’s political and literal twists and turns, so they are not paying close attention to the issue.

In addition, the way the fence plan has evolved, from its genesis on the Israeli left to its slightly different implementation by the Israeli right, has both broadened its appeal and obscured some of the issue’s nuances.

“It doesn’t lend itself to sound bites,” Yoffie said.

The real issue, Raffel added, “is the location of the fence, not the existence of the fence.”

At the center of the fence dispute is the question of whether it should hew to the “Green Line” that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War — an armistice line between Israel and Jordan that was never accepted as an international border – – or whether it should cut slightly into the West Bank to protect major Jewish settlements close to the Green Line.

The fight broke out when Leibler wrote an “open letter” to the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 6 urging Bronfman to apologize or resign for the letter he sent Bush on the eve of a White House summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Leibler said Bronfman — who has a history of taking maverick stands — did not reflect the opinion of most WJC members on the issue and should have presented his opinions to Sharon, not Bush.

In the wake of Leibler’s article, Singer said more than 150 WJC members had backed Bronfman’s letter, which he co-wrote with Lawrence Eagleburger, who was secretary of state in the administration of George H.W. Bush and today is chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims.

Among Bronfman’s supporters is former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

“Clearly, issues that are open for debate in Israel, are also open for discussion in the Jewish world,” Peres wrote to Bronfman and Eagleburger. “The Jewish people should never be taken for a rubber stamp. Such a role would enfeeble the Jewish people and undermine the people of Israel.”

Eagleburger, a longtime friend and neighbor of Bronfman’s, did not return calls seeking comment. Bronfman continued to defend his letter, saying he did not write on WJC stationery or use his WJC title.

“I retain my right to speak as a human being,” Bronfman said. “I do intend to support my president as much as I can in his efforts to keep the road map going.”

Leibler, however, said that “it is out of place for someone living in New York or anywhere in the Diaspora to interfere in such matters, particularly on the eve of the visit” by Sharon.

“In this case, it was not just a letter, but it was canvassing the president of the United States to take up a position contrary to that of the government of Israel on a security-related issue that could affect the lives and deaths” of Israelis.

Bronfman said he would ask the WJC executive committee to strip Leibler of his title at the group’s next meeting. The leadership meets twice yearly, but the next meeting has not been set.

“His title is honorary. It’s a title we’ve given to a lot of people who are old and have done a good job,” Bronfman said. But now Leibler “is abusing it.”

Leibler, who founded a chain of Australian travel agencies before moving to Israel, vowed to continue challenging Bronfman, the former owner of Seagrams.

The struggle is largely to establish clear rules in the WJC, Leibler said.

“Nobody wants to take on Edgar Bronfman; he’s an extremely powerful personality,” Leibler said. “But I will take on this battle if it means we have a man who has the title of World Jewish Congress president and who lobbies against the security interests of Israel.”

The dispute threatened to get messier when Bronfman began discussing Palestinian political aims and his longtime opposition to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While “murder is murder and mayhem is mayhem, no matter where,” Bronfman said, he felt a “more effective” Palestinian tactic would have been to launch attacks only against settlements, which do not enjoy international support, rather than inside pre-1967 Israel.

“If the Palestinian suicide bombers only went to the settlements and told the whole world they were wrong, then the whole world would have had a case against Israel and there would be a two-state solution by now,” he said. “Instead, they sent them into Israel proper, which is ghastly.”

Leibler called the statement “outrageous” and “obscene.”

“There seems to me an implicit suggestion that there is a difference between Jews over the Green Line and behind the Green Line,” he said.

“Are you telling me that the president of the World Jewish Congress said to you that had the Palestinians concentrated on Jews over the Green Line, that would have been more acceptable?”

Bronfman said his point was different.

“It would not have been more acceptable,” he said, “it would have been smarter on their part.”

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