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Israeli’s resignation sparks debate


JERUSALEM, March 20 (JTA) — Yossi Alpher, who recently resigned as director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office, has unleashed a scathing criticism of organized American Jewry’s support for Israel on political affairs.

Like much of the behind-the-scenes work done by American Jewish officials, Alpher’s comments did not draw much public attention in Israel.

But activists on the Jewish organizational scene in Israel and the United States found it hard to ignore the assessments of a respected strategic analyst who headed the AJCommittee office in Israel for the past five years.

Nevertheless, several officials of Jewish organizations believe Alpher’s comments are off the mark. Some even said his comments may be more indicative of the difficulties Israelis have in understanding the way organized American Jewry and the U.S. political system operate.

The debate surrounding Alpher’s resignation highlights an issue that cuts to the core of Israeli-Diaspora relations: To what extent do American Jews and Israelis speak the same language when it comes to matters important to both communities?

In a letter circulated to American Jewish groups — dated Feb. 27 but first publicized last week — Alpher made clear that he resigned because of “differences of opinion” with the AJCommittee. But the letter went on to express a deep sense of frustration with the difficulties in bridging gaps between the two communities.

“I came to the job with a sense — mostly positive — that the bond between Israel and Diaspora Jewry is of a strategic nature and can be strengthened,” he wrote. “I leave with a tough feeling that the divide between the two communities is deepening and all of our efforts are no more than a losing battle.”

Alpher elaborated on this brief note in comments last week to Ha’aretz, a leading Israeli daily newspaper. Though he confirmed the comments were accurate — as they appeared in the newspaper’s Hebrew version, not in its English translation — he declined to go on record for JTA.

In Ha’aretz, Alpher said U.S. Jewry would be crucial in securing congressional support for future peace deals. However, he predicted that Prime Minister Ehud Barak will discover in U.S. Jewry a “natural conservativism, demonization of the Arabs and a reluctance for change” that could undermine lobbying efforts.

American Jews, he added, are unable to relate to a Jewish state seething with scandals and unwilling to recognize Reform and Conservative Judaism. New powers in Israel such as the fervently Orthodox Shas are further distancing Diaspora Jews, he said, who are mostly concerned about domestic community issues such as assimilation and Jewish continuity.

Alpher capped his comments by charging that many U.S. Jewish organizations are run “like a corner grocery store” by “people who know nothing about management.”

Although critics of Israel-Diaspora relations abound, Alpher’s remarks carried a big punch.

Alpher was a former senior official of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and also served as director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, a prestigious Tel Aviv University think tank. He has also played a key role in unofficial talks between Israeli and Palestinian experts and academics.

Many experts believe that the “Alpher map,” which envisions 11 percent of the West Bank remaining under Israeli control in a final-status agreement with the Palestinians, to be the most likely compromise solution between Israeli and the Palestinians.

Alpher’s impressive resume may be part of the reason he departed with such a bang.

“I think he is too good for them,” said David Clayman, executive director of the Israel office of the American Jewish Congress. “He is a well-known person of stature and a personality. But on the other hand his weakness is that he doesn’t know the American Jewish organized community.”

Still, Clayman agreed with some of Alpher’s diagnosis about the more hard-line nature of U.S. Jews.

“There is a problem in the basic relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community,” he said.

“For Israelis, Israel is the fulfillment of the Zionist dream to be a normal state. For American Jews, Israel is not supposed to be a normal state; it is supposed to be an ideal state. As such, Israel being a natural state lives with the realities. Realities means compromise. Ideals are never compromised.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, would not go into details about Alpher’s resignation, but did drop strong hints that there was more to the dispute than meets the eye.

“The issues involved here are not simply global philosophical and ideological questions, as Yossi has chosen to frame it,” he told JTA in a telephone interview. “It comes down to much more mundane administrative and managerial issues.”

Harris also differed sharply with what he called Alpher’s “very denigrating” assessments of American Jewish organizations.

“The relationship between American Jewry and Israel is so vitally important to both sides that we can ill afford to have people talk about walking away from it or abandoning it,” Harris said.

“It seems particularly poorly timed as well in light of the fact that should the peace process move forward, Prime Minister Barak has indicated the vitally important role he hopes American Jewry will play in trying to help advance and secure the peace process on the ground through an active American post- agreement role.”

Alpher was particularly critical of Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who is known for his right-of-center views.

“He has taken command, and nobody can restrain him,” Alpher said.

Hoenlein declined to comment on Alpher’s personal comments about him, but took issue with his assessment of American Jewry.

American Jewry “always supported the democratically elected government of Israel and continues to do so,” Hoenlein said, noting that recent lobbying efforts by U.S. Jewry helped win congressional support for a special aid package in the wake of the Wye agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

“His comments sound more like an emotional response growing out of a loss of a job rather than a thoughtful analysis or reflection of reality,” Hoenlein said of Alpher.

Others said Alpher’s frustration may have stemmed from the fact that many Israelis do not fully understand how the system works in the United States.

“Not all Israelis who claim to know America really well do,” one official from a major American Jewish organization said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

As an example, the official pointed to tensions between American Jewish lobbies and the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who often belittled the importance of American Jewish support and then returned to ask for help on a host of issues.

In addition, several organizations said the biggest proof that Alpher is wrong is that intense lobbying to muster support for future peace deals — with both the Palestinians and the Syrians — is already under way in Washington.

“The mainstream Jewish community in the U.S. has overwhelmingly supported the policies of the Barak government and it will continue to do so,” said Kenneth Bricker, director of public affairs for the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s minister of world Jewish communities, and Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Alpher’s remarks.

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