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Leaders Ponder U.S. Jewish Unity when Israel Itsele is Divided

March 2, 1988
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U.S. Jewish leaders, who renewed the discussion in recent weeks of whether public criticism of Israeli leaders and policies erodes U.S. legislative and popular support, are debating a related issue here.

Following their first-hand exposure to Israeli politics, some have been heard asking if American Jews can speak in one voice about Israel when Israel itself is divided over the political future of the administered territories.

The question was brought to the forefront during the second day of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ mission to Israel. The conference seeks to coordinate the activities of 42 national Jewish organizations on issues of Israel and diaspora Jewry.

In a panel discussion on U.S.-Israeli relations, Yossi Ben-Aharon, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Nimrod Novick, policy adviser to the minister of foreign affairs, noted just how far apart Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres are on the terms of the current U.S. peace initiative.

Shamir rejects and Peres supports the concepts of an international “opening” leading to Israeli-Arab negotiations and of trading territory for promises of peace.

Their disagreement prompted Albert Vorspan, vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, to ask, “If there is a schizophrenia on the highest level in Israel, what expectations can we have from the Presidents Conference?”

“It is a terrible belief that we can impose conformity through a Presidents Conference or through any other vehicle,” added Vorspan, whose organization was one of three Reform groups to take public stands critical of Israel’s “iron fist” beatings policy in the territories.

Vorspan disputed the contention that “disagreement is a form of disloyalty in Jewish life and that we can paper over (with) unity where no unity exists.”

The opposite view was taken by Rabbi Ephraim Sturm, executive director of the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox organization.

“We should be more circumspect in our public utterances. Press releases commending Israel for any positive things are usually relegated to the ‘circular file’ while anything that casts some minute criticism of Israel will be exploited,” he said.

The rabbi said non-citizens of Israel “have no right to back” the ideologies of its political parties.


“I don’t mean to stifle opinion. By all means, if you have new ideas and new approaches, let Israel benefit,” he said, recommending “going privately to Peres and not the press, to Shamir and not TV stations.”

Israeli political consultant Avi Rafieh agreed with Vorspan in urging American Jewish leaders to speak out.

“As partners, you should express your views, your concerns and do it when it is necessary When we are in a crisis, do it forcefully. Our partnership is a two-way street,” the Young Israel leader said.

He insisted during the discussion that the Palestinian problem is a “time bomb” that Israel “should defuse” while the Reagan administration is serving.

He told the organization leaders that “Israel has reached an unprecedented low point in its standing in the U.S. Congress.”

“Our best friends are alarmed and worried,” said Rafieh, referring to members of Congress he met during a visit to Washington last week. “Some of them are for the first time disillusioned with Israel. We are. . . fast losing our moral ground.”

If Israel is seen as obstructing the peace process due to political gridlock, Rafieh continued, then U.S. lawmakers may begin to see the country as “incapable, even incompetent, in resolving one of its most fundamental problems.”

Conference Chairman Morris Abram ended what he called “possibly the central session” of the mission by reading from a statement “of unity and identification” released Feb. 4 by 51 U.S. Jewish organizations under the conference umbrella.

“We believe we speak for the overwhelming majority of Jews across the country and around the world in this expression of unity and identification with the embattled nation of Israel,” read Abram.

Delegates were scheduled to meet with Israeli President Chaim Herzog Tuesday night, before a reception hosted by Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Executive.

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