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.

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.

In a recent poll, 80 percent of Jewish settlers said they moved to the West Bank and Gaza for economic not ideological or religious reasons; 70 percent said they would be willing to relocate to Israel with adequate compensation or housing. Brit Tzedek will call on the US government to press Israel to end financial incentives to settlers and support relocation.

They are encouraged by polls showing that a majority of Israelis and American Jews favor a two-state solution and an end to occupation that includes evacuation of most settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet such views weren't reflected in Ariel Sharon's election victory.

"The two dominating emotions right now are hope and fear - fear is driving the vote, and hope is driving the polls," says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership. "The body politic would like left-wing policies implemented by right-wing people."

As trust has disintegrated between Israel and the Palestinians, the US role is seen as crucial. Brit Tzedek's ambition is to develop an alternative voice to the powerhouse Jewish lobby, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

"Jews are being spoken for, not represented," says Michael Furstenburg, a psychologist in Cambridge, Mass., who just joined Brit Tzedek. "The mainstream that purports to speak for the Jewish community really represents the most conservative."

Brit Tzedek knows it has an uphill climb. "While polls show a majority support our principles, there is enormous fear and discouragement, and we are up against a key community issue - whether to have an open, welcoming place for dissenting views," says Ms. Brown, head of the National Coalition-Building Institute.

For many, the main concern is anti-Semitism, especially as it has surged in some countries. "We are a tiny minority in the US, and there is a lot of apprehension that an airing of issues will feed anti-Semitism," Mr. Lowenthal explains.

Ms. Brown and others believe it could do the opposite. Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, says some with anti-Semitic views have latched onto criticism of Israeli policy and used it for their purposes; but the charge of anti-Semitism has also been misused in applying it to people who simply criticize Israeli policy.

"We have to recognize we are in a period in which Israeli policy generates a great deal of anger among morally sensitive human beings," he says. "If you call their criticism anti-Semitism ... the consequence is to impose a new form of Jewish political correctness, which, like other PC, will explode in our faces."

Mr. Lerner, a critic of current policy who has received threats and been called a "self-hating Jew," says it's much harder to dissent today than in the past. He has formed the Tikkun Community - of Jews and others - to press for a "middle path that is both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian." They are planning a "Teach-In to Congress" this June.

Jewish-American attitudes on the Mideast peace process

86% of American Jews say Israelis and Palestinians have the right to secure and independent states of their own.

52% support a peace agreement that includes the evacuation of most Jewish settlements from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Source: Survey by Zogby International, Nov. 2002, for Americans for Peace Now/Arab American Institute

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