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Jewish Groups Face A Storm Of Controversy As Their Top Spokesman Joins Jerusalem Protest

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January-February 2001

A furor has erupted in the umbrella organization which presents itself as the voice of American Jews following a decision by its chairman, Ronald Lauder, to speak at a rally in Israel opposing all compromise on the question of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.  

The Forward (Jan. 12, 2001) reports that, "Mr. Lauder's appearance at the January 8 rally, where he was a featured speaker, followed a meeting in New York in which he tried—and failed—to win an endorsement of the rally from the organization that he leads, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Mr. Lauder took care at the rally to state that he was speaking only as an individual. Yet he went on to say that he `was representing millions of Jews throughout the world' who oppose Israeli compromise over the holy city. Nearly all Israeli press coverage of the massive rally identified him as chairman of the Conference of Presidents...without indicating that he did not represent the conference."  

Mr. Lauder's decision to speak after failing to win the conferences approval left many of the body's 55 members "disturbed and angered by what many are calling a slap in the face of the current Israeli government. Some said they especially were distressed by efforts of conference members to use the organization ...as a vehicle for attacking Israeli policy."  

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, declared: "I`m very troubled by this. If the Conference comes to be seen in partisan terms, it's not going to be able to sustain itself."  

Hours before the Jerusalem rally, Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio: "A vote was taken in the Conference of Presidents, and it was decided by majority vote not only to send Mr. Lauder here, but to authorize him to speak in the name of the Jewish organizations." In the Israeli press, major newspapers identified Lauder as chairman of the Conference of Presidents.  

Mayor Olmert, angered by Rabbi Yoffie"s criticism, told an Israeli radio interviewer that the Reform movement represented an "insignificant minority that is meaningless when it comes to Jerusalem" and said that "there are much more important movements among American Jewry."  

Rabbi Yoffie responded: "I am astonished that a politician of Mr. Olmert's stature doesn't know the basic facts about North American Jewish life. For the record: the Reform movement represents some 1.5 million Jews in North America, by far the largest group of any organized body of Jews on this continent."  

A Jewish Telegraphic Agency report (Washington Jewish Week, Jan. 18, 2001) notes that, "Some conference members worry that Lauder's participation may damage the organization's efforts to portray itself as nonpartisan, and set a dangerous precedent of interference in Israel's internal affairs...Before Lauder began as conference chair in June 1999, concerns were raised about his longtime support for the Likud Party and his close relationship with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu."  

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said the crisis stemmed from a "strengthening trend" toward ignoring rules when one faction in the Conference of Presidents—usually the right, he implied—felt the issues were more important than democracy. "I think you have an element in the conference that has begun to argue what we have heard for many years in Israel, that there are certain issues that go beyond the rules of the game in terms of democracy. Taking it to its logical conclusion, that will spell the end of the Conference of Presidents."  

In a special issue devoted to the Middle East peace process Sh'ma (Dec. 2000), Prof. Zachary Lockman, who teaches modern Middle Eastern history at New York University, laments that, "Only a minority of Israeli Jews have so far come to understand that there can be no authentic and durable peace that does not bring a fair measure of justice to the Palestinians, as human beings and as a people. In return for conceding to Israel three-quarters of what was once Palestine, the Palestinians understandably insist on obtaining a viable state of their own in the remaining one quarter, i.e. the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. A lasting peace will require Israeli withdrawal from essentially all of those territories..."  

Also in Sh'ma, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf writes: "...We mustn't hold illusions about the sin of occupying someone else's land, even if we have rights to it as well as they do...Peace requires justice. If Amnesty International and the U.N. think Israel is repressive, they are not wholly wrong...Past mistakes have been documented not only by the...New Historians, but also by mainstream schools in Israel. These mistakes have delayed true peace for decades, and must not be compounded now...Judaism must be a party of peace. Unless, God forbid, it is indeed too late."

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