An American's Move in Jerusalem Strains Relations Between Jews

Furor over decision to put settlers in Arab part of city shows gap between Israelis and the Diaspora.

When a group of ultranationalist Jews moved into an all-Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem last week, enraging Palestinians, Israelis were divided in typical dove-versus-hawk fashion over whether the settlers should be allowed to stay.

But what they weren't divided about was their aversion to the idea that a Jew who is not an Israeli citizen could wield such influence on their side of the equation in the Middle East peace process. Jewish-American millionaire Irving Moskowitz, a patron of Israeli far right-wing causes - such as buying up Arab properties in parts of Jerusalem that Palestinians see as their future capital - was responsible for bankrolling the move of settlers into East Jerusalem's Ras al-Amud.

At a time when it doesn't take much to rock the teetering peace process, many Israelis were furious that a Miami-based financier saw fit to interfere with Jerusalem's map for the future. Mr. Moskowitz helped finance the move of 11 Jewish settlers into an 11,000-member Arab district to prevent it from being turned over to Palestinian rule in a final peace settlement.

"It violates the most basic principles of the social contract," says Amotz Asa-El, a political commentator and columnist at the Jerusalem Post. "It goes far beyond whether we think the state of [Palestinian] territories should be this or that. It's inconceivable that someone who's not a citizen can dictate what will happen in terms of the larger scheme."

The controversy highlights the underlying tensions in the relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, especially - but not limited to - Americans. And, somewhat resonant of the recent focus on alleged foreign influence peddling at the White House, this melee could lead to stricter controls of donations from abroad.

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Resentment toward Moskowitz was palpable at the scene of the homes last week where Israeli protesters shouted "Moskowitz go home" and compared the Ateret Cohanim organization he funds to Hamas, the radical Palestinian group.

"He should go back to America - we don't want him to come here and dig our graves for us," says Yossi Gazit, an official in the left-wing Meretz party. "He would be much better if he would not disturb us, and leave it to we who live here and have to deal with this issue."

Mixed feelings about 'distant cousins'

At the roots of such sentiments are the strained relations between Israel and Jews who support the state from afar. Early Zionists once hoped that all Jews would come to live in Israel once the state was founded. That ideology has given way to the realization that most Jews living in the West do not want to immigrate to Israel. But some Israelis still have mixed feelings about their distant cousins who are only interested in visiting the Jewish state, if that.

Even the emphasis on giving political and financial support to Israel has waned. Expressing the Israeli view that Jews who do not take citizenship here should not meddle in political affairs of the Jewish state, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shocked the AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affair Committee, when he scolded it a few years ago for trying to conduct Israel's foreign policy on Capitol Hill. And perhaps sensing Israel's desire for independence from foreign support and increasingly stable economic situation, American Jews are now contributing more to domestic charities than to Israel, a new report by the American Jewish Committee shows.

Some American Jews who had come to the Ras al-Amud site last week to express solidarity with the Moskowitz-supported settlers said they didn't like the suggestion that they had no say in Israel's future.

"It's a lot of chutzpah [audacity] to tell people, 'You're not Israeli, you're not allowed.' The man is as entitled to his point of view as anyone else," says Toby Willig, of Forest Hills, N.Y. "Our religion ties us to Jerusalem in all our prayers. That doesn't mean everyone has to come live here."

Rabbi Yossi Baumel, the American-born head of Ateret Cohanim's religious seminary, says that the criticism is more directed against the settlers' politics than against American financing.

"Israelis are willing to take help from American Jews as long as they support Peace Now," says Baumel of his archrivals. "Jews around the world have always been partners of the state of Israel. Every single political party here has support from the US."

There may be repercussions from the storm raised last week by the latest project funded by Moskowitz, who has been making purchases of formerly Arab land for 20 years but usually has kept a lower profile. A member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, suggested he might introduce legislation to limit and regulate contributions and real-estate purchases by foreigners.

"The phenomenon of Moskowitz has been blown wide open and met with so much resentment," Mr. Asa-El says, "that a man like him will have a problem in the future, and politicians will think a lot more about the donors they take money from." Local newspapers reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received contributions from Moskowitz.

That may be why despite the calls from Palestinians and many Israelis to evict the settlers, Netanyahu came up with a "compromise" plan that would allow 10 religious students to stay in the homes instead of three families.

But that plan represents a compromise with no one but Netanyahu's extreme-right constituents and Moskowitz himself. As far as Palestinians are concerned, precisely who the settlers are is irrelevant: Their very presence represents another Jerusalem land grab that violates the principle of leaving the shape of the disputed city to final-status negotiations.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat this weekend called the compromise a "farce" and told the Arab League in Cairo - and the state of Israel - that that the Ras al-Amud crisis was far from over.

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