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American Jewish Groups Show Division Over Israel’s Role in Gaza

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January - February 2009

Israel’s role in Gaza was vigorously supported by many leaders of American Jewish Organizations. A delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited the southern Israeli city of Sderot, where missiles from Gaza had landed, to show solidarity. The visiting group included Harold Tanner, a past chair of the Presidents Conference as well as its current interim chair, Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chair, and Alan Solow, president of the Jewish Community Centers Association, who has been nominated to chair the Presidents Conference.  
According to Washington Jewish Week (Jan. 8, 2009), Tanner and Hoenlein declared: “We’re paying this visit to show our support and solidarity with the people and government of Israel as they confront Hamas terrorism and the continuous rain of rockets on civilian populations. We take seriously the threats issued by Hamas and their Iranian sponsor to destroy the Jewish state …”  
The Anti-Defamation League placed advertisements defending Israel’s actions in a number of newspapers. One, in The International Herald Tribune (Jan. 12, 2009) aimed at residents of London asked: “Imagine if Hamas terrorists were targeting you and your family. No country would allow such danger on its border, and neither will Israel. That’s why Israel is fighting back.”  
Other Jewish groups took a far more nuanced position. Editorially, The Forward (Jan. 9, 2009) noted that, “It would be wrong to catalogue the history of the latest crisis and ignore Israel’s share of the blame. Israel helped to undermine Egypt’s Palestinian unity efforts, meant to win tacit Hamas acceptance of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, by insisting it would not negotiate with a unified Palestinian team. It ignored opportunities to strengthen Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas — by giving him the concessions he needed — removing West Bank roadblocks, releasing prisoners, rerouting the security barrier — to show his public that negotiating can improve their lives. Most of all, Israel failed to honor its written agreements to halt settlement construction and dismantle unauthorized outposts. That has arguably done as much to undermine popular trust in the peace process among Palestinians as terrorism has done among Israelis.”  
A number of groups — Americans for Peace Now, J Street, Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom — voiced concerns over Israel’s decision to launch a wide-scale military operation. “This is the moment in which you need to stand up and say what you believe,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street. “We sat silent and quiet for too long in this country.” He pointed to the vibrant debate being waged in the Israeli press about the length and breadth of the military operation.  
A statement issued by the group said that the Israeli attacks “deepened the cycle of violence” and that “only diplomacy and negotiations can end the rockets and terror and bring Israel long-term security and peace.”  
The Israel Policy Forum (IPF) called on the Bush administration to act immediately to reach a cease-fire. “The cycle of violence,” said Nick Bunzl, IPF’s executive director, “runs counter to Israel’s long-term security.” Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a grass-roots pro-peace movement, issued a statement warning of the possible negative consequences of the military operation. “We can already anticipate that this incursion will be yet another failed attempt to resolve this fundamentally political conflict by military means.”  
The Forward (Jan. 9, 2009) reports that, “The dovish groups’ ability to be heard in the corridors of power received a boost recently when the groups were invited along with other, more established Jewish organizations to meet with the transition team of President-elect Barack Obama.”  
Those Jewish voices critical of the Gaza operation were subject to harsh attacks. Commentary’s Noah Pollak called the peace groups “contemptible,” “dishonest” and “anti-Israel.” James Kirchick of The New Republic called J Street an American Jewish “Surrender Lobby.” Michael Goldfarb of The Weekly Standard called J Street “obsequious” to terrorists and “hostile” to Israel.  
Writing in The Nation (Feb. 2, 2009) Eric Alterman argues that, “Whether or not one shares J Street’s views, that language is obvious evidence of panic among those whose positions as the self-appointed spokesmen for American Jews has grown increasingly tenuous, especially since their uncritical cheerleading for the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq and Israel’s failed incursion into Lebanon three years later. … Reading these missives, I was reminded of a conference I attended a year or so ago at the Center for Jewish History … On stage, Ruth Wisse — Harvard’s Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature — instructed the assembled aspiring journalists that they should think of themselves not as honest and independent-minded social critics (like say Nathan Glazer or Michael Walzer, who were on stage with her) but as ‘soldiers’ in Israel’s cause, armed with pens rather than Uzis. At the time, I thought it was just about the most un-Jewish attitude a person could hold. After all, the Talmudic tradition is devoted to endless ethical and intellectual disputation. It is no less so today …”

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