Attending the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute conference in Jerusalem several weeks ago, I was fascinated that one of the panels focused on a very old issue: the role of diaspora Jewry in the making of Israeli policies regarding peace and security.
I’ve been around long enough to have heard and participated in many such debates. I also can recall the days when a consensus of sorts existed in the American Jewish community on the subject.
For years, it was taken as a given by the majority of American Jewish organizations – those on the left and the right, as well as those in the center – that the community would support the decisions of the democratically elected government of Israel, no matter the government, on matters pertaining to peace and security. Or at the very least, if the community was not comfortable with outright support on every issue, it would not engage in public criticism of Israeli decision-making.
The fact that this issue has surfaced once again, in a forum that sees itself as the think tank concerning the future of the Jewish people, reflects a changing dynamic over the years which has had a significant impact on that earlier consensus.
Both the left and the right in the community participated in the unraveling of this consensus. The left, beginning in the late 1980s and taking a cue from some Israeli leaders on the left, began to suggest that American Jews had a responsibility to speak out, particularly against settlement policy. Reasons given for this shift included saving Israel from itself and the need to reinvigorate an increasingly apathetic American Jewish community alienated by Israeli policies.
Soon thereafter, following the Oslo process, more surprisingly, the Right joined the fray. I say more surprisingly, because the Right historically had been most forceful in emphasizing the need to support Israeli policies and was often most critical of those who strayed from this path.
But the Right now began to move, even going so far in some cases as to lobby members of Congress against the policies of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres seeking peace with the Palestinians. Its criticism focused on its claim that Israeli lives were being jeopardized by concessions to the Palestinians, whom it said remained terrorists, and therefore American Jews had a moral obligation to stand up for Israel.
When it was pointed out how short-sighted the Right was being because right-wingers would someday need the support of the rest of the community (even more than the left because U.S. criticism of Israel more often was directed at right-wing governments), when one of its own once again became prime minister, the right shrugged it off.
Of course, there remained the center organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, which stuck to their guns. We believed in the wisdom of the old consensus position that had served us and Israel so well for so many years.
In our view, the two main arguments for this position remain as potent as ever. First was respect for the people of Israel, who every day face life-and-death decisions because of the threats that are ever-present. I consider myself as staunch a Zionist as anyone, but I always understood the difference between my living comfortably in America and the Israeli people who were on the frontlines of the struggle. Respect for that reality and faith in the democratic process of Israel generated a profound sense of reserve about telling Israelis what they had to do.
Second was the impact on the American domestic scene. The ability of the community to have influence with Congress and the administration, not to mention the public at large, at any given time was deemed to be related to the perception of how strongly the community was supporting Israel. A divided community, one where there was a free-for-all with everyone telling Israel what to do and many criticizing its policies, was seen as weakening the community’s impact on American policymakers.
Politicians had less of a need to pay attention if they were hearing a cacophony of voices.
And now comes the issue of Jerusalem. We are hearing, even from some who have long argued that Israel has to decide for itself, that this issue is unique and requires diaspora involvement in Israeli decision-making.
There is no doubt that Jerusalem is the supreme issue of the Jewish people, its heart and soul.
However, I don’t believe the importance of the issue to all Jews justifies abandoning our longstanding position.
It still is Israelis above all who will have to live every day with the consequences of whatever approach they take. To rationalize diaspora involvement in Israeli decision-making on the subject of Jerusalem would inevitably lead to the further loosening of the old ideal of non-partisan support for Israel.
It is most unfortunate, in my view, that so many on the left and right feel free to go their own way regarding matters pertaining to Israeli peace and security positions. At the very least, we in the center who see ourselves as nonpartisan must be steadfast to avoid a free-for-all that in the end would hurt Israel and undermine the impact of American Jews or U.S. Middle East policy making.