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Ever the Maverick, Reform’s Yoffie May Be Bellwether of Sharon Support

April 22, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

As goes Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, so go many American Jews.

At least that’s the consensus of many observers after a surprising commentary in which the president of the Union for Reform Judaism — an outspoken liberal — called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “my hero” for Sharon’s plan for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Yoffie, whose group includes more than 900 congregations believed to represent the majority of affiliated American Jews, wrote in the Forward last week that while he once labeled Sharon a “demagogue,” he now considers him a “master politician” singularly situated to end Israel’s occupation over the Palestinians and encourage peace.

“You have to give someone credit when they do something right, and the prime minister is doing something I consider to be very important,” Yoffie told JTA.

Appearing in the days after Sharon’s historic April 14 summit with President Bush, the front page Op-Ed not only struck a nerve, but also may signal that American Jews are shifting from their former support for the Oslo peace accords to new hope in Sharon, some say.

“It’s an important note of realism from the left, and I think it also reflects the rank and file of American Jewry,” said Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network, who is considered a moderate in the modern Orthodox world.

“It’s a real recognition across the conventional lines that Sharon from the right is bringing some hope for disengagement and peace that the left cannot deliver,” Greenberg said.

Not all liberal Jews would go as far as Yoffie in lauding Sharon, but they do praise the Israeli leader’s political acumen.

Writer and activist Leonard Fein said Sharon has “played this entire thing brilliantly. He put Bush over a barrel: With elections coming up Bush wants a Gaza withdrawal, and Sharon told him, ‘You’ve got to give me something.’ Now Sharon has told Israelis that if you vote against withdrawal, you’re voting against our alliance with the United States.”

But while many American Jewish groups officially have backed Sharon, many U.S. Jews remain skeptical about whether he really will withdraw from Gaza even if he wins support for the move, Fein said.

“I really don’t want to live a life in which I say or think, ‘I told you so’ ” about Sharon, he said. “I would much rather be pleasantly surprised. If there’s a pleasant surprise in the offing here, I may not be the first to drink champagne, but I’ll be lining up.”

More wary is Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a writer and former chairwoman of Americans for Peace Now. Though she too acknowledged Sharon’s political skills, she called Yoffie’s support “misplaced praise.”

Bush’s support for Sharon’s proposal was “chutzpahdik,” or nervy, she, said because it is the Palestinians, not the Americans, who must sign off on any peace plan.

Now, “what do the Palestinians bring back to their people to show, ‘Negotiations pay off, violence doesn’t?’ ” she asked.

Dr. Mendy Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America and a fierce Bush backer, said Yoffie’s stance could encourage some of the 80 percent of American Jews who traditionally vote Democratic to vote for Bush on Nov. 2 because of his strong support for Sharon and opposition to Palestinian terrorism.

“When liberals see something outstanding by a conservative, they have to stand up and say, ‘Amen,’ ” Ganchrow said. “What Yoffie is saying you’re finding across the board — except for the people who are prepared to fight to the last Jew” to retain all of the biblical Land of Israel.

Indeed, the Op-Ed by a self-described dove appeared just as some on the right — including the Zionist Organization of America and Americans for a Safe Israel — were accusing Sharon of abandoning Jewish settlements and appeasing terrorists while getting nothing in return.

“Eric Yoffie himself called Yasser Arafat and his regime neo-Nazis, so why is it positive to be giving land away to a neo-Nazi?” asked Morton Klein, the Zionist Organization of America’s president.

Yoffie cautioned that he wasn’t departing from the Reform movement’s longtime opposition to Israeli settlements and support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moreover, some say, it’s not that American Jews suddenly may follow Yoffie’s lead, but rather that Sharon is moving closer to what the majority of American and Israeli Jews want.

“There’s certainly an irony that now American Jews are supporting Sharon, but it’s reflective of the change in the Israeli government’s position,” said Jonathan Jacoby, director of the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum.

Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, said Sharon was growing more centrist.

“Sharon is just maturing in his role as leader of Israel today,” Rosen said. “He’s coming closer to what the majority of the American Jewish community and Israeli Jewish community believe.”

Klein sounded a more critical note, saying Sharon has abandoned his right-wing ideals for the left.

“Sharon’s policies are no longer Likud policies, they are Labor-Meretz policies,” he said, referring to the left- leaning Israeli political parties.

Some observers say Yoffie and many liberal American Jews are signaling their appreciation for Sharon’s political finesse.

“It’s unlikely the American Jewish community, which has traditionally had much stronger ties with Labor than Likud, would suddenly change its views, but as time has gone on people have been impressed that Arik Sharon is thinking several steps ahead of them, and he really does have a plan,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University.

Sarna does find some irony in the new political alignments. As Yoffie was lining up behind Sharon, the edgy Web site “Jewsweek,” which targets Jews in their 20s to 40s, railed against the Gaza pullout.

Once, young Jews would have been “reflexively liberal,” Sarna said.

“There are certain shifting currents in the community,” he said. “At a time when there doesn’t seem to be anything coming from the other side, other than ‘We want to destroy the Jewish people and we’re going to find new ways to blow them up in Israel and around the world,’ Sharon has kept his eyes on the prize.”

Some say history is being made.

Rosen of the AJCongress said Bush took a “historic step” last week by saying publicly that the presence of West Bank settlements means Israel will not have to return to the pre-1967 boundary lines, and that Palestinian refugees do not have a right to return to their former homes inside Israel.

“What the president has done is codify the two open issues in this process,” he said. “What’s more important for the future of Israel than these two issues?”

Ganchrow, meanwhile, echoed Yoffie in saying that Sharon is uniquely situated to make a bold move.

“It took Nixon to go to China; it took Begin” — Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin — “to go to Yamit,” a Jewish settlement in the Sinai Desert that Israel relinquished in its peace treaty with Egypt.

In the past, Yoffie has shown a similar willingness to change course, such as when he admitted that it had been a mistake to support Oslo and trust Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Maybe American Jews will now follow his lead in backing Sharon’s bold steps, Sarna said.

“I respect his ability to challenge his own assumptions and preconceptions, and in so doing, to encourage all Jews to do so,” Sarna said.

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