The story ran on page 1 of The New York Times, and it was datelined Jerusalem: 56 prominent Jewish Americans had issued a statement condemning Israeli extremists and advocating territorial compromise. That statement, issued July 1, sent shock waves not only through Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s administration, but through the 5.7-million-member Jewish community in the U.S. American Jews had dared to question Israeli policy before, but rarely had the challenge been so public or impassioned. In synagogues across the U.S., Jewish leaders shook their heads in puzzlement. What was the meaning of this? And what were its consequences?
The jury on consequences may be out for some time, but the meaning of the declaration now seems clear. Increasing numbers of American Jews (and Israelis) are anxious for peace in the Middle East; to that end, they are prepared to see Israel make major territorial concessions. And they think it vital that the Begin government refrain from policies seemingly designed to thwart the peace process itself, particularly the formation of new Jewish settlements on the West Bank (otherwise known as Judea and Sumaria). The “statement of 56” reflects the views of a small but
growing number of American Jews who believe that such hard-line policies may alienate those few nations still willing to call themselves friends of the Jewish state, and allow its Arab enemies to claim that Israel is not serious about pursuing peace.
Yet in speaking out, these American critics sparked a fierce debate within their own communities. Jewish newspaper editors accused the group of naïveté—of failing to recognize that the media would misinterpret or misuse the
document. Established Jewish leaders queried the wisdom of criticizing Israel on any grounds, however valid the argument, contending that any perceived division of Jewish opinion serves only Arab interests. Others wondered whether attacks on specific Israeli policies might not cloak a more serious threat: abandonment of support for Israel itself. Still others, including the militant Jewish Defense League, regard these self-styled champions of peace as “frauds and misfits,” with no sizable constituency among American Jewry. And then there are those who believe the current controversy is simply part of an historical continuum—competing strains of Zionism vying for power in
Israel and influence in the diaspora.
“These divisions in the community have existed since the beginning of the Zionist enterprise,” says Rabbi Wolfe Kelman of New York’s respected Jewish Theological Seminary and one signatory to the statement of 56. “This is a healthy debate, which has always gone on.” Kelman also hastens to point out that the “so-called peace movement” does not represent a turning away from Israel. “Nobody’s in favor of dealing with the PLO. On fundamental questions
we are one.” In fact, 37 signers of the original declaration issued a second statement late last month declaring Jerusalem the eternal capital of the Jewish state and its status as a unified city a nonnegotiable item in any peace treaty. “The real tragedy,” Kelman says, “is that when we say, ‘Let’s not have more settlements on the West Bank,’ there’s no response from the other side. My friends say there are no moderate Arabs, and sometimes I think they’re not so wrong.”
Yet the conviction remains that Israel’s cold war with every Arab nation but Egypt is crippling the country, both economically and spiritually. To free itself from this corrosive cycle, Israel must seize every opportunity to promote peace. And the need, some Jewish leaders believe, is urgent. “The policies of the present government are dividing support for Israel at a time when Israel can’t afford it,” says Sam Norwich, a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress. “Will our criticisms be used against us? It’s guaranteed. But there’s more to be lost by silence.” Adds Leonard Fein, a spokesman for the peace movement: “Moderation breeds moderation. And extremism breeds extremism. I believe the expression of moderation by American Jews has been of some comfort to moderates in the Cairo hierarchy.” Fein, editor of the in-
dependent Jewish monthly, Moment, says his views are shared by ranking officers within Israel’s military establishment. “The argument of moderation is not just sweet dovishness. It’s a hardnosed security argument. You diminish a nation’s security to insist on ruling 1.4 million people who do not wish to be ruled.”
Most American Jews would disagree. Most American Jews believe implicitly in the righteousness of the Israeli cause. For them, the creation of the Jewish state was as much a providential as a political act, conceived in the ashes of
the holocaust. Among the mail Fein has received have been letters from concentration camp survivors and their families, bitterly denouncing his right to criticize Israel.
Fein is probably typical of the group he represents—liberal, well-educated professionals with few close ties to the American Jewish establishment. The latter may harbor residual doubts about Israeli policy on the West Bank, or the manner in which that policy is executed, but few are willing to go public. Their wariness is understandable. After the Israeli Supreme Court ruled
in April that a particular West Bank settlement be dismantled, the Washington Post wrote an analysis suggesting that the court’s decision came closest to the official U.S. government position. In fact, it was a regrettable misreading of the court’s intent; it had ruled on one settlement, not all. As a result, when officials of Jewish agencies do address the peace issue, it is always in cautious tones which suggest that Israel has enough enemies, thank you, from without.
“But I have a suspicion,” says James Diamond, a Hillel rabbi at Washington University in St. Louis, “that when Begin finally leaves office you will hear American Jewish leaders say, ‘Well, we were never terribly excited about him anyway.’ ” More than most, Diamond resents those who challenge his right to criticize the state of Israel. “It’s a moral issue: is the occupation of the territories morally reprehensible? Or is it the culmination of some particular Zionist vision? I say it corrupts the moral fibre of the Jewish people to remain an occupying power. . . . That’s not what we prayed for for 2,000 years.”
For many Jews in America, Menachem Begin represents an anachronistic form of Zionism, one inconsistent with the pressures of realpolitik. Says one observer: “It’s as though Fabien Roy somehow became prime minister of Canada. Few would share the Social Credit philosophy, yet there could be no escaping his hold on power.” That, in effect, is what happened in Israel with Begin’s ascendancy. His revisionist Zionism — and his personal style — are out of tune with vast sectors of the population.
And yet if Begin has alienated the Jewish left in America, he has also earned the enmity of the fanatic right, whose place on the spectrum is firmly occupied by the Jewish Defense League. In failing to annex all territory seized in the 1967 war, Begin—the JDL avers— has betrayed the principles of his mentor, Zev Jabotinsky. The JDL believes in unrestricted access for Jews to the West Bank and no Palestinian autonomy in the area. “Peace is a false hope,” says Brett Becker, the 22-yearold national director. “There can be no peace until the coming of the Messiah.”
Mainstream American Jews discount the JDL as a fringe element. They will view the peace offensive more seriously. This month, as Jews around the world celebrate the high holy days and contemplate their identities as Jews, the group that signed the July 1 statement is attempting to form a bona fide organization, soliciting aid from those who responded favorably to its publication. If that effort succeeds, then the rent now developing in the fabric of Jewish opinion may become a schism.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.