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November 3, 2011 11:11 am

American Jewish Leaders at a Crossroads

avatar by Isi Leibler

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On the surface, it would seem that two of American Jewry’s most highly regarded Jewish leaders, both deeply committed and devoted to Israel, have lost – at least temporarily – their political bearings.

In a recent column titled “The silence of American Jewish leaders,” I drew attention to the fact that over the past year, despite a major Jewish grassroots backlash against President Obama’s Middle East policies, American Jewry’s principal leaders appeared to have adopted a policy of avoiding public criticism of the administration’s hostile policies toward Israel.

This is especially noteworthy in relation to ADL National Director Abe Foxman, who two years earlier broke with many of his colleagues by courageously and publicly condemning the administration’s bullying of Israel.

But now, together with American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris, Foxman has called for a new “National Pledge for Unity on Israel.” Many of the statement’s objectives would be endorsed by the vast majority of American Jews of all political persuasions. In addition to a call for unity, the statement calls on Jews to avoid actions that could threaten or undermine bipartisan support for Israel.

Traditional support by both major parties is the key to maintaining support for Israel in Congress and amongst the American people. It is also one of the principal reasons for the success of AIPAC and the esteem in which they are held by both Congressional parties.

Yet there are now worrying indicators of growing hostility towards Israel emanating from far-Left elements within the Democratic Party. Currently they are a minority, unable to detract from the overwhelming prevailing congressional Democratic support for Israel. But they carry immense influence inside the current White House administration. Should they garner greater support within the Democratic Party as a whole, the long term durability of the American-Israeli alliance would be in jeopardy.

For this reason, leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations must continue ensuring that they not be perceived as favoring one party against the other unless basic Jewish interests are involved. Jewish voters are perfectly capable of making their own judgments based on the facts.

In addition, praise should be extended towards positive initiatives such as Obama’s recent UN address, US opposition to Palestinian statehood at the UN, membership of UNESCO and of course crucial ongoing military support.

Why then, is there so much agitation over this ADL-AJC national unity pledge? Because this is a manifesto that goes to the other extreme and gives the impression of primarily seeking to silence critics of the Obama administration. It represents an attempt to muzzle public criticism of the president’s anti-Israel policies and silence those who Foxman claimed “challenged their opponent’s pro-Israel bona fides or questioned the current administration’s foreign policy approach vis-a-vis Israel.” It effectively amounts to a call for an embargo on any condemnation of policies espoused by political candidates in relation to Israel.

If such an approach were adopted, it would provide a green light for President Obama to revert to appeasing the Arabs by distancing the US from Israel without facing political repercussions. Of course, in future that could apply equally to a Republican administration which chose to abandon Israel.

That would certainly ensure “bipartisanship.”

But it would also amount to abandoning American Jewry’s public efforts on behalf of Israel, relying exclusively on Shtadlanut – silent diplomacy. Yet our recent history has repeatedly demonstrated that when applied in isolation, in the absence of a dual track policy involving public action, silent diplomacy invariably resulted in failure.

I recollect similar situations when I was a leader of the Australian Jewish community.

We learned that as long as in our capacity as Jewish leaders we avoided becoming embroiled in the broader political arena and restricted ourselves to commenting exclusively on Israel- or Jewish-related issues, the major political parties respected us for acting in a principled manner. In fact, it strengthened bipartisanship which to this day still prevails in Australia.

Surely, American Jewish leaders who have considerably more influence, should be expected to do no less. In response to a flow of criticism – largely limited to understandably angry rejections from conservative and Republican sources – Foxman has taken a step backwards, stating that the true intention of the pledge was “to post Israel ahead of politics” – a far cry from the language of the “national unity pledge.”

The litmus test will now be whether American Jewish leaders will break their self-imposed curtain of silence and display the courage to speak up and be critical of US policies related to Israel which they deem to be based on double standards or motivated by discredited appeasement policies.

For example, this week, immediately following the unprovoked missile attacks from Gaza – clear breaches of international law – the US State Department again reverted to pathetic moral equivalency “urging all parties to stop the violence and engage in negotiations.”

Is that an appropriate response by the US to an ally defending itself from missile launches against its civilians? Do we deserve to be treated on the same level as the Islamic Jihadist murderers? Yet the major Jewish organizations greeted this outrageous statement with deafening silence.

This will become especially relevant over the coming months when Israel will be subjected to highly sensitive diplomatic pressures which may have long-term repercussions.

There is no doubt that a positive US role will be crucial to inhibit the Quartet from making further unrealistic and dangerous demands of us. There are grounds for concern that notwithstanding his splendid UN General Assembly address, President Obama could once again revert to his former policies. To avoid further fallout from Jewish voters prior to the elections, President Obama may simply give the Quartet the green light to implement these policies while he stands on the sidelines.

Should that be the case, hopefully American Jewish leaders will not remain silent but will call on their president to intervene and prevent the Quartet from abandoning Israel. American Jewish leaders should revert to publicly and judiciously expressing praise or condemnation of administration initiatives taken in relation to Israel.

By so doing, far from undermining bipartisanship, they will be strengthening it and providing Israel with the moral support it is entitled to receive from the world’s premier democracy and its most important ally.

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post. The writer’s new website can be viewed at

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