US Jews feel rising heat of Israel debate
Open criticism of Israel is strongly discouraged, but some say discussion is vital.
In the third year of the latest tragic phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American Jews are beginning to renew their long debate over whether open discussion of Israeli and US policies contributes to a stronger Israel or threatens its survival.Skip to next paragraph
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The community has always been uncomfortable with the public airing of critical views of any Israeli government, Jewish leaders say. At a time of terrorist bombings, many see it as anathema.
"It is detrimental when American Jewish groups pressure Israel for concessions that could endanger its safety," says Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
But others feel strongly that failing to speak out on what they view as a slippage in democratic values and a devaluing of negotiations is no longer acceptable.
"There are serious risks to Israel's democracy being openly discussed in Israel," says Jeremy Ben-Ami, of the New York-based New Israel Fund (NIF), "and there has been a resounding silence from the community in this country."
American Jews are diverse in their views, and some feel under intense pressures to be silent while they see a lively debate taking place in the Jewish state.
"There is undeniably at this moment a great deal of tension in the community," says Lawrence Lowenthal, Boston director of the American Jewish Committee.
"The perception of many Jews is that Israel is facing potentially a threat to its existence," he adds. "Because of this anxiety, certain people with views to the left of center feel a bit intimidated by the level of emotional intensity."
Some, however, are beginning to speak out and to organize:
• The NIF, which supports projects in Israel, began a Voice for Democracy campaign in December involving full-page ads and an open letter to Jewish leaders.
• A new organization - Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) formed last spring to encourage dialogue in Jewish organizations and build a grass-roots lobby to put a pronegotiation voice before the US Congress.
• Americans for Peace Now last week urged the Bush administration to place conditions on the $8 billion Israel has requested in loan guarantees to freeze settlements in the occupied territories.
Mr. Klein, who considers the territories "disputed, not occupied," calls their arguments "inaccurate and immoral."
These groups insist it is their strong love for Israel and its democratic vision that motivates them.
NIF's letter campaign calls on Israel to show moral strength in adhering to democratic norms under fire. That includes, they say, protecting the rights of innocent civilians even in war, and condemning calls to forcibly "transfer" Arabs - calls they say are reminiscent of the historical treatment of the Jewish people.
The letter has sparked debate among a number of congregations and organizations, Mr. Ben-Ami says, including intense discussions on listservs.
Brit Tzedek - which has grown to 5,000 members in nine months - is training leaders from 20 cities in dialogue. It is also seeking grass-roots support for a "Bring the Settlers Home" campaign, says Cherie Brown, vice president.