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Resolution on Israeli Settlements Unlikely to Pass Jewish Policy Forum

February 19, 2003
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Numerous Jewish organizations are lining up to defeat a resolution to be debated next week at an American Jewish policy conference that calls on Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Reform movement has submitted a resolution on Israel for debate at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is slated to be held early next week in Baltimore.

The JCPA is the umbrella organization of 13 national Jewish organizations and 123 local Jewish community relations councils.

As such, it is considered an important forum to get national and local input — and consensus — on policy issues important to the organized Jewish community.

The resolution, which expresses solidarity with the State of Israel and the Israeli people, says Israel’s policy of settlement expansion “complicates” the chances for Middle East peace and calls for a freeze on all settlement growth in the West Bank and Gaza.

Reform leaders, who have criticized Israel’s settlement policy for 20 years, say it is time for the American Jewish community to debate the controversial expansion of Jewish settlements because the violence in the region is continuing unabated and they believe a revision of the settlement policy could open the door to reviving the moribund peace process.

“It’s natural to have this debate that affects Israel,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“Israel lives and dies by the decisions it makes, but these decisions can be informed by debate in the United States.”

While Reform leaders privately acknowledge that it is unlikely the resolution will pass as worded, the debate itself represents a departure from the position of the mainstream organized Jewish community, including the Reform movement, not to criticize Israeli government policies while it is facing Palestinian terrorism.

Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the JCPA, said he expected that the debate would focus both on Israel’s settlement policy itself and whether it is appropriate for the American Jewish community to debate it at this time.

The Conservative and Orthodox communities, as well as several communal organizations and local community relations boards, are mounting a campaign to get the section relating to settlement freezes deleted.

Opponents say that it is inappropriate for American Jews to make a judgment on Israeli policy during this time of intense conflict with the Palestinians.

“A lot of people think this is going too far into American Jews trying to dictate the policy of the Israeli government,” said one Jewish leader, who asked not to be named.

In addition to opposing the settlement language, the Orthodox Union is contesting two other sections of the resolution, which was introduced by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement’s congregational arm.

The O.U. opposes the statement supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a second that calls for efforts to relieve the humanitarian suffering of the Palestinian people.

“Our overall objective is that, given the critical challenges that Israel confronts with deadly terrorist attacks, it is not the time for the organized Jewish community to do anything but express its solidarity with Israel,” said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs.

The JCPA will debate several other controversial resolutions at their plenum, including:

A resolution calling for increased dialogue between the American Jewish community and evangelical Christians. The Jewish community has often officially shunned the religious right because of its differences on domestic issues such as school prayer. But the bonds have grown stronger in the past few years, given that community’s vocal support for Israel at a time of crisis.

A resolution that supports U.S. efforts to confront terrorism and anti-Semitism, but calls for the preservation of constitutional rights and due process. A stronger, alternative version, submitted by the Boston community, “deplores the compromise of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties being carried out in the name of the war on terrorism.”

A call for Jewish organizations to reconsider the use of boycotts as a political tool because it is deemed counter-productive and can be seen as hypocritical, given the fact that other groups boycott Israeli goods.

But the Israel resolution is likely to counter the most resistance.

Already, the American Jewish Committee and Hadassah have joined several local community relations councils in officially requesting that the paragraph about the settlements be cut.

“For JCPA to call for a settlement freeze would give comfort to terrorists who believe they can extract concessions from Israel by using violence,” said Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for the AJCommittee.

The Jewish community relations councils of Chicago and Philadelphia have suggested alternative language that is considered more subtle.

“While it is clear that Palestinian terrorism predated the construction of settlements and the Israeli government has never allowed settlements to stand in the way of entering into peace agreements, we believe Israel’s policies, including those affecting settlement construction in the territories, should reflect the long-term goal of achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” the proposed revision states.

But Reform leaders stand behind their wording, saying it is a tool to invoke debate within the American Jewish world.

The settlement policy, Saperstein said, is an important policy to discuss because the vast majority of American Jews do not support it.

“It’s a mistake to limit ourselves to the ‘least common denominator’ discussion,” said Mark Pelavin, the Religion Action Center’s associate director. “We need to be able to discuss more than standing in solidarity with Israel.”

In addition to the settlements issue, the Israel resolution expresses support for the Bush administration and for Congress’ pro-Israel stance.

It also supports President Bush’s June 24 speech, in which he called for new Palestinian leadership and a two-state solution if the Palestinians reform their government.

In addition to wanting to strike the references to a settlement freeze, the O.U. has introduced amendments to delete the reference to Palestinian suffering and wants just to restate the points in Bush’s speech, including his call for two states, rather than specifically endorsing it.

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