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Dialogue Participants Debate Issue of Whether Criticism of Israeli Policies Should Be Aired Publicly

July 22, 1980
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The 16th annual American-Israel Dialogue ended here last Friday with general agreement that American Jews and Israelis had not only the right but the responsibility to participate in each other’s affairs as “partners in the Jewish enterprise.”

But the 40 Israeli and American Jewish scholars and community activists gathered by the American Jewish Congress for four days of discussions and debate differed sharply on whether criticism and counsel should be aired in public particularly when it came to domestic politics and military security.

Howard Squadron, president of the American Jewish Congress and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that public attacks by American Jews against Israel’s West Bank policies, for example, were “unhelpful” because “they divert attention from the genuine consensus that exists within American Jewry on the essential issues.” He said these were “Israel’s right to recognition by its Arab neighbors, Israel’s right to secure and recognized boundaries and Israel’s right to Jerusalem as an undivided city and its capital.”

Zalman Abramov, a Tel Aviv lawyer, thought Americans should be “prudent” in their public criticism of Israel but added that, in turn, “Israelis have a duty to be mindful of the opinions of Diaspora Jewry for our own self-interest. Israel should avoid wherever possible adopting policies that American Jews cannot support,” Abramov said, adding: “Obviously, we cannot subordinate our own judgments to the desires of American Jews, but we should be mindful of their views in formulating our policies.”

Edward Sanders of Los Angeles, a former senior advisor on Jewish affairs to President Carter, agreed that U.S. Jews should proffer their advice cautiously “because we don’t live here and because we don’t know enough about Israel’s problems.”


The dialogue devoted considerable discussion to the importance of American aliya. Former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who told the opening session that “if our partnership is to have vitality it must accept the premises of mutual criticism,” gave voice to such criticism when he asserted that “the failure of American Jews to immigrate to Israel in significant numbers is the great tragedy of past-war Jewry.”

Other Israeli panelists suggested that this, failure had diminished the moral right of American Jews to participate actively in Israeli affairs. But Henry Siegmen of New York, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, rejected “the suggestion that if you don’t live in Israel you’re not a full partner in the Jewish enterprise.”

Aliya, he said, “must remain an the Jewish agenda, whatever the practical result, because it is an essential aspect of Jewish authenticity — but it is not the only one.”

The AJCongress leader agreed with a statement by Dr. Eliezer Jaffe of the Hebrew University School of Social Work that “we Israelis have the right to influence you and your children to understand that Israel is not only a haven for refugees but a Jewish homeland — and that aliya is a major individual and communal goal, worthy of community support.”


A number of panelists among the Israelis urged U.S. Jews to get more deeply involved in helping the Jewish State solve its problems in the area of social welfare. Eliezer Rafaeli, director general of the Jewish Agency’s Project Renewal, called for “unlimited participation” by American Jews in helping Israel confront “the social and cultural conflicts in our midst” — a position also supported by Danny Rosolio, a Labor member of Israel’s Knesset.

Jaffe put it more strongly: “It is immoral and sloppy philanthropy,” he said, “for American Jews not to attempt to influence the way we in Israel spend the money they raise.” This involvement is necessary, he explained, “not simply because the problems Israel faces are too great to be handled by us alone but because Jewish peoplehood means that Israel is the collective responsibility of the Jewish people.”


Mervin Verbit, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, summed up the views of many dialogue participants when he declared: “All parts of Jewry are responsible for the proper functioning of all the Jewish people. Thus, living outside of Israel does not release American Jews from the obligation to demonstrate the primacy of Jewish identity and to build a Jewish community that strives to embody the highest of Jewish aspirations.

“The scandal of Jewish education in the United States is Israel’s concern, as the threat of serious crime in Israel is American Jewry’s.” He added. “Our right to involve ourselves in each other’s social issues is total.”

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