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News Analysis: Shamir’s Appeal for Solidarity is Challenged by Jewish Leaders

November 22, 1989
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Putting out a call for Jewish unity, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told more than 150 Jewish organizational leaders Monday that it is “imperative” to the success of the peace process for Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora to stand together in solidarity.

But as he received questions and comments from members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it became apparent, as it had been during the course of Shamir’s visit to the United States, that unity and consensus among American Jewish leaders has become as elusive as among Israeli politicians.

Immediately after his speech, Shamir was told flatly by Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, that American Jewish organizations are as divided over the issue of “land for peace” as Israel, and that the unqualified support Shamir sought from American Jews “does not exist today.”

So, Siegman asked, “can you ask us to pretend that there is a total and complete unity?”

Siegman’s question reflected an atmosphere in the Jewish organizational world that may have made Shamir’s time with American Jews almost as uncomfortable as his meetings at the White House.

Throughout his week in the United States, parts of the American Jewish community made it clear, both publicly and privately, that they were unhappy with many of Shamir’s positions on the peace process.

At the same time, there are still many Jewish leaders who believe that American Jews should support the Israeli prime minister as much as possible, and should not dwell on their differences, particularly in public.


Even before Shamir’s arrival in Washington, the Conference of Presidents became tangled over an advertisement that was to appear in The Washington Post when he got there.

The original draft of the advertisement specifically expressed support for positions held by Shamir, such as his refusal to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization and his demand that negotiations with a Palestinian delegation must be limited to election procedures.

Several groups, including the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, asked for revisions in the ad.

Unable to change the language to all of their members’ satisfaction in time to meet newspaper deadlines, the umbrella organization was only able to publish a very general statement wishing Shamir luck in his talks with the Bush administration.

Having missed the Washington Post deadline completely, the ad ran in The New York Times.

But on the same day, an advertisement similar to the original statement appeared in the Times, under the auspices of B’nai B’rith International, whose president, Seymour Reich, also chairs the Conference of Presidents.

Another sign of dissent occurred at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in Cincinnati, where Shamir arrived to encounter a letter signed by 41 prominent Jews telling him not to “mistake courtesy for consensus, or applause for endorsement” of his policies.


Shamir chose to dismiss these rumblings in his comments here Monday morning to the Israeli press. He brushed aside the Cincinnati letter, telling Israeli reporters that “despite all of the unpleasant tones of the people who see only the bad, the support of the American Jewish community is massive, even more than in the past.”

He added, “If there are here and there some groups whose profession it is to criticize Israel’s government, their influence is less and less.”

“The American Jewish masses support the national unity government and, I might add, the position of the prime minister,” he said. “I have more and more proof of this every day.”

Shamir was more circumspect when addressing the issue at the Conference of Presidents, hinting that he would prefer receiving criticism from American Jewry in a less public fashion.

“We are open to the views and thoughts of our brethren,” he said, “preferably directly and not via the front pages of The New York Times.”

Both Reich and Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive director of the Conference of Presidents, deny that consensus among U.S. Jewish leaders is becoming more difficult to achieve.

“If we had more time,” Reich said, “we could have worked out language that was more acceptable” to members of the conference when putting together the newspaper advertisement.

But others said that there is a growing polarization among American Jewish leaders on the peace issue.


“The American Jewish community inevitably reflects what is happening in Israel itself,” said Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the UAHC. “The government there is divided on fundamental issues; you have that divergence here as well.”

Shamir’s perception that the bulk of American Jewry is behind him, however, must have been strongly reinforced by his reception at a community rally Monday evening in Brooklyn.

A cheering crowd of more than 1,000 greeted him with applause, cheers and cries of “Not one inch!” in support of Likud’s refusal to cede any part of the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

“There was not one voice of questioning, let alone dissent,” said Harriet Mandel, assistant director of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, which sponsored the rally.

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