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Jewish Umbrella Groups Defeats Resolution on Jewish Settlements

February 26, 2003
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An effort to put the organized Jewish community on record about Israel’s settlement policy and support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict failed this week in favor of a general statement of support for the Jewish state.

Despite attempts to develop compromise language on the two controversial issues, delegates to the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs passed a resolution that expressed solidarity with Israel, appreciation for Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security and called for new Palestinian leadership that “accepts the legitimacy of Israel as the Jewish state.”

The resolution was adopted here late Monday night after hours of debate that focused little on the merits of Israel’s settlement policy and future Israeli-Palestinian political concessions.

Instead, the plenum debate, which stretched over four hours and brought together 350 delegates from Jewish Community Relations Councils around the country and national Jewish organizations, centered on whether it is right for the American Jewish community to weigh in on Israeli policy at a time when Israel is engaged in a war against Palestinian terrorism.

The answer appeared to be a resounding no.

“I would take out any statement that is critical of the democratically elected government of Israel,” Leonard Cole of Bergen County, N.J., a former JCPA chair, said during the debate, reflecting the predominant view expressed at the plenum.

The delegates to the JCPA, which is considered the organized community’s main policy organization, battled over several other topics as well, ultimately adopting resolutions that:

call for continued dialogue with evangelical Christians;

express support for Holocaust restitution funds to be used solely for the benefit of survivors; and

praise the Bush administration for its war on terrorism.

But the Israel resolution clearly dominated the debate.

Up for discussion when the debate began was compromise language to sections of the Israel resolution that focused on settlements and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational arm of the Reform movement, submitted a resolution weeks ago that said Israel’s policy of settlement expansion “complicates” the chances for Middle East peace and called for a freeze on all settlement growth in the West Bank and Gaza.

Facing strong opposition from most of the organized Jewish community, Reform leaders agreed to compromise language before the debate began that said settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza “should reflect the long-term goal of achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Moshe Fox, director of public affairs for the Embassy of Israel in Washington, began the session with a fiery call to members to consider whether a resolution critical of Israel’s policies was the best message the American Jewish community could send to the families of Israelis killed from Palestinian violence.

But after the debate, members, in a vote of 361-287, also rejected the compromise language.

“This is very toned down, but it is still the case that this paragraph implies something very harmful,” said Richard Stone, senior vice president of the Orthodox Union.

He was joined in opposition by Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee, who said it would be inappropriate to chastise Israeli policy at a time of terrorism.

But Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, disagreed.

“It is our role to raise our voices and say what we think,” said Pelavin, who represented the Reform movement at the debate. “We’re not reporters, we’re activists, and that’s what we came here to do.”

JCPA members also shot down language, in a vote of 340-308, that would have embraced President Bush’s call last June for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, the language adopted only mentions the speech as statement of fact.

In the end, Reform leaders tried to table the remaining Israel resolution, saying that it did not say anything new.

But members overwhelmingly supported the remaining text, stressing the importance of showing solidarity with the Jewish state in the midst of the intifada.

Reform leaders said they never expected the settlement language to pass, and were heartened by the debate that their resolution had fostered.

Pelavin said many people he spoke with over the week said they agreed personally with the call for a re-evaluation of the settlement policy, but did not think it appropriate to vote for the resolution’s language.

He expressed hope that the debate opened the door for future conversations.

Hannah Rosenthal, JCPA’s executive director, indicated she thought it would.

Praising the debate as engaging and civilized, she said, “I think it will continue to be a subject that people look forward to come to the plenum to debate.”

Meanwhile, in another passionate exchange, delegates debated the proper use of unclaimed Holocaust restitution funds.

The majority of those speaking out expressed their belief that all Holocaust restitution funds should go to the health and welfare of survivors.

“Justice for those who suffered earlier in their life, that’s what it’s all about,” said Joe Sachs, a delegate from Miami’s Jewish community and the executive director of Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA. “We are not asking for charity.”

The resolution affirms that a growing number of Holocaust survivors are lacking food and medical care, and that all restitution funds are needed to combat this problem.

The resolution, which was overwhelmingly passed, in essence goes against the position of the Claims Conference, which currently disburses unclaimed restitution funds with a 80-20 formula, with 80 percent going to survivors and 20 percent to Holocaust education and other projects.

Supporting that position, David Mallach, assistant executive vice president of the United Jewish Federation of MetroWest, N.J., said: “The role of these funds in giving a name, Yad Vashem, to memories who could be lost is vitally important and shouldn’t be compared and contrasted to the needs of survivors.”

On the resolution supporting Bush’s war on terrorism, delegates defeated proposed language that would have said the Jewish community “deplores the compromise of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties being carried out in the name of the war on terrorism.”

“It would be a mistake if any major message that this organization sends out is to condemn our government,” said Lee Adlerstein, also of MetroWest. “The government needs encouragement and control under the Constitution of the United States.”

In a compromise, the affirmed resolution supports those actions against terrorism taken by the Bush administration’s that “do not endanger Constitutional rights” and expresses the belief that principles of fairness and due process are important safeguards to the battle.

On another front, delegates voted to support increasing dialogue with the evangelical Christian community. Evangelicals have shown increasing interest in working with Jewish leaders on their shared support for Israel, although Jews have been reluctant because of divergent domestic policy views and concerns about proselytization.

“It’s important because of their numbers, their influence politically and if we don’t get to know who they are in the community, it will be hard to dialogue,” said Michelle Kohn, a leader of the Palm Beach County, Fla., delegation, which introduced the bill.

“They’re not monolithic and if we’re not dialoguing with them, how do we know where they stand.”

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