My first visit to Israel was in 1969, only two years after the Six Day War, and soon after my arrival I was walking through narrow Jerusalem streets on my way to the Western Wall.
This was without question an emotional and spiritual encounter with history. Before our trip back to Rishon LeZion, my host family took me to Abu Shukri’s restaurant, where I enjoyed what still may be the best hummus in Jerusalem. It was not hard to see, even as a 17-year-old, that there were more than just Jews inhabiting this holy city. Three more wars and two intifadas have not altered the fact that Jerusalem is the spiritual and political center for both Jews and Palestinians.
With renewed peace negotiations and a joint Israeli, Palestinian, and American commitment to address the "core issues" of the conflict, an alliance of mostly Orthodox Jewish groups and secular right-wing Zionists have staked out their position, stating they "oppose any negotiations which involve possible concessions of Jewish sovereignty or control over Jerusalem."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded by saying that "the Israeli government has the sovereign right to negotiate on behalf of Israel," rejecting a role for diaspora Jewry in the policymaking process.
With this very public conflict between an Israeli prime minister and selected American Jews taking place before actual final status negotiations regarding Jerusalem have even begun, what is really going on here?
In the interest of full disclosure, since Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir declared in the early 1970s that "there are no Palestinians," I have publicly voiced opinions on Israeli policies and believe it is healthy for diaspora Jews to debate such issues. Engaging other American Jews in this way creates a higher level of identification with Israel.
As American citizens we can influence our elected officials regarding support for Israel. Despite what others might conjecture, there is no monolithic "Israel lobby" and Jewish activists don’t always agree on the best way for the U.S. government to interact with Israel.
For example, in Annapolis, Md., on the day of the peace conference there were two rallies — one of an alliance of progressive Jews supporting the Bush-Rice initiative and a Jewish-Evangelical Christian gathering opposing any peace negotiations.
American Jews can show direct financial and moral support for those in Israel with whom we agree on coexistence, social justice, religious pluralism, and other issues. We also have every right to share ideas and analysis with Israeli leaders.
At the end of the day, however, American Jews must recognize that it is Israelis, not diaspora Jews, who bear the direct consequences of the actions that Israel takes, and that is why diaspora Jews should be circumspect about how they express their protests against the government in Jerusalem.
I find it illogical that this new "Jerusalem lobby" is singling out Jerusalem as the one issue on which they must be consulted. When we say in the daily service, "May Your Presence dwell there as You promised, praised are You, Lord who builds Jerusalem," is there any indication of divine demarcation of borders?
In fact, the Israeli government already has signaled by placing certain Arab neighborhoods on the Palestinian side of the security barrier that they will likely cede those areas to a future Palestinian state.
The less than one square kilometer (0.4 square mile) that comprises the Old City, including the major holy sites, ultimately will be governed under a formula that provides complete religious and security protection for all.
As Ephraim Sneh, a senior Labor Knesset member and a former deputy defense minister and head of the civil administration of the west bank, recently told a U.S. audience: "For negotiations to achieve their goal, each side has to give up one national dream — Israel has to give up the dream of a united Jerusalem, Palestinians have to give up their dream of the return of refugees to Israel proper. To achieve peace, Israel and Jews worldwide will have to accept sharing Jerusalem and Palestinians will have to accept that refugees will ‘return’ to a Palestinian state."
The anti-negotiation forces are conveniently using the emotional tie to Jerusalem in an attempt to scuttle the entire renewed peace process. At the end of the day, Jerusalem must be treated like the other core issues when it comes to negotiations. Diaspora Jews have no more say regarding the specifics of border modifications on the west bank than which Arab Jerusalem neighborhood becomes part of the capital of a Palestinian state.
The 137th Psalm instructs us "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose her cunning." Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, will need all of his cunning and American Jewish support to address these difficult challenges on the road to peace.
Kenneth Bob is the president of Ameinu, a leading progressive Zionist organization in the United States.