The role of American Jews and their leaders

The role of American Jews and their leaders

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

When it comes to the issue of how to respond when Israeli policies conflict with American policies, American Jews have always faced a dilemma. Today, however, the issue receiving heightened attention is not only what to do when American Jews disagree with Israeli government policy; that difference until recently had been resolved by the majority of American Jews — albeit by somewhat fewer than previously — acknowledging that Israeli governments must decide policy for Israel, and American Jews ought not to criticize such positions in public.

This issue, in fact — concerning the character, venue, and airing of divergent opinions within the Jewish community concerning policies of the Israeli governments — received a renewed discussion this week. In presenting its annual report to the Israeli government, the Jewish People Policy Institute, which includes lawyer and former U.S. Amb. Stuart Eizenstat and former U.S. Amb. Dennis Ross, addressed in detail the dilemma regularly raised concerning this conflict. In this, their ninth annual report, the institute advised the Israeli government to consider — among other things — shifting to a position that it is indeed appropriate that the views of Diaspora Jewry be considered as an integral voice in major decisions that affect Jewish people throughout the world. (There will be the unending debate of course as to whom should that voice be and whether it will be more broad and inclusive than merely the leadership of the Presidents’ Conference or AIPAC.)

As reported in Ha’aretz, the institute urged, in part, that Jews throughout the world “feel that their voice is heard and at the very least is taken under consideration…” by Israeli decision makers.

In his recent book The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart argues, as have others, that the future of the State of Israel depends on a mutually supportive relationship between Jews in Israel and those in the Diaspora. He suggested — perhaps in a somewhat extreme position — that if Israeli governments fail to consider the consequences of their policies to American Jews, they will ultimately lose the capacity to make any form of the Zionist dream a reality — in the West for sure.

At the same time, this week a new and critical dimension was publicly added to the discourse that could have a lasting effect not only on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, but on the relationship of American Jews to both Israel and to the American government. This difference emerged in response to a series of policy positions emerging from Israeli Cabinet members concerning a future two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to articulate a position on the two-state solution that is close to the approach being fostered and encouraged by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama administration, two outspoken Cabinet members — Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, who is member of Netanyahu’s own Likud faction — took strong positions in opposition.

While internal conflicts are classic within Israeli coalition politics — with government ministers within their own party even disagreeing in public with the prime minister — a number of key American-Jewish leaders saw these pronouncements as somewhat unnerving. American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris, Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Richard Jacobs, and Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman all denounced the lack of discipline exerted by Netanyahu over his government and the prime minister’s insufficient backing of the U.S.-supported two-state solution.

These leaders were disturbed by the fact that while Netanyahu seemed to be generally supportive of U.S. policy — at least in public — he was not able or willing to discipline his own ministers who were confronting the policies of their own government as well as those of the United States vis-a-vis the conflict. Since there are some American Jews who agree with Danon and Bennett, the question of the day is: where should the allegiance of American Jews lie?

Once again as a sovereign democratic state, the Israeli people function within whatever political process they accept, but Jews in the Diaspora face the challenge of how to respond and ally themselves. It sets up a potentially serious conflict for the future concerning how American Jews react to a conflict between Israeli policy and enunciated U.S. government policy concerning the peace process.

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