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I. Articles

Silence is Alienation

By David Saperstein and Mark Pelavin
The Jerusalem Post
February 25, 2003

This week, representatives of the major national Jewish American organizations and 123 local Jewish Community Relations Councils will gather in Baltimore for the annual Plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).

At the plenum each year, Jewish leaders consider resolutions on a wide range of issues of concern to the American Jewish community. This year, a great deal of attention is focused on an important resolution submitted by the Reform Movement, the largest religious stream in American Jewish life, and the Jewish Labor Committee, that voices our support for the State of Israel and calls for an end to Palestinian terror and the emergence of a moderate Palestinian leadership that accepts the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.

More controversially, the resolution supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and argues in favor of a settlement freeze in the territories.

The Reform Movement submitted this resolution, and is looking forward to the discussion in Baltimore, because we believe that Israel's settlement policies must reflect the long-term goal of achieving peace with her neighbors, and we believe, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, that any viable resolution will require a Palestinian state.

Further settlement construction, whether on isolated hilltops or among Palestinian population centers, will make it much harder to achieve a lasting resolution to the conflict.

Some in Israel, including the editors of The Jerusalem Post, have criticized us for raising these issues now, at a time when Israel is under vicious attack from the Palestinians. They argue that they want to hear the voice of Diaspora Jewry, but only when we agree with their views.

This type of thinking is outdated. If we want to sustain a healthy relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, it must be one based on respect and an open dialogue in which diverse views are welcomed.

Other opponents to this resolution argue that these viewpoints are out of touch with the majority of Israeli and American Jews. In reality, a majority of both publics support the establishment of a Palestinian state and a moratorium on settlement construction. Perhaps it is the American Jewish leadership that is out of touch. Poll after poll has shown that the majority of Israeli Jews supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. They recognize that in order to protect Israel's security interests and ensure her survival as a Jewish and democratic state, the Palestinians must have their own sovereign land.

Supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state has become so mainstream that Sharon has endorsed this idea, stating in early 2001 that "we will reach a solution in which there will be a Palestinian state."

A MAJORITY of Israelis also support a freeze on settlement building and construction. In a striking poll published in Ma'ariv on February 14, 2003, 69 percent of Israelis believe that Israel should freeze settlement building in return for economic aid from the US. (The Reform Movement does not support such linkage, nor does it advocate for such a policy in the JCPA resolution).

In fact, polls indicate that the American Jewish community would have the backing of a great number of Israeli Jews if we were to endorse a settlement freeze in the West Bank and Gaza Strip regardless of American aid.

Like Israelis, the majority of the American Jewish community supports the establishment of a Palestinian state. In an October 2002 poll, conducted by Zogby International, 86.9 percent of American Jews agreed that Israelis and Palestinians each have the right to live in secure and independent states of their own. These figures are consistent with other surveys conducted over the past few years.

In the same Zogby survey, 53 percent of American Jews believe that some settlements would have to be evacuated to improve Israeli security, even without a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Given these figures, it is reasonable to assume that a plurality of American Jews would support, at the very least, a moratorium on settlement building.

U.S. policy has been exceedingly supportive of Israel since the establishment of the state in 1948. At the same time, successive American governments have opposed settlement growth in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most recently, in his landmark speech of June 24, 2002, President George W. Bush stated, "Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop."

Whatever one thinks of settlements, it is clear that sustaining a policy of continued settlement growth will do damage to the Israel-US relationship. Just as American Jews have a duty to help secure the support of the US government for the State of Israel, so too we should encourage the Israeli government to pursue policies that will not harm this special bond.

For over two years, the conversation in American Jewish circles surrounding Israel has been stifled. If the polls are right, there are millions of American Jews, including many members of our synagogues and organizations, who love Israel but question specific Israeli government policies. They cannot be made to feel as though they have no place in American Jewish life to debate these issues or express their deepest concerns.

To insist that they be silent is to alienate large numbers of American Jews from both Israel and from the American Jewish community. Neither Israel nor American Jewry will benefit from this situation.

Even those American Jews who criticize the viewpoints expressed in this resolution recognize that we have an obligation to openly debate and discuss these issues and share our thoughts with Israel, even if they are critical.

The JCPA Plenum is where we as a community raise our voice. The resolution we have presented is aimed at encouraging this vital discussion. Yet we do so with humility and respect for Israel's leaders and her people.

The ultimate decisions about Israeli security will always lie, of course, with Israel's public and her leaders. But out of our love for Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael, we have the responsibility to offer our best perspective and advice for their consideration and can only enrich the vital debate in which Israel is engaged at this time.

Rabbi David Saperstein, who is being awarded the JCPA's annual Albert D. Chernin Award and Mark J. Pelavin, who serves as the Vice-Chair of JCPA, are writing in their capacity as Director and Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.