For many years it was an accepted consensus among American Jews that our
responsibility as a community called on us to support the democratically elected
government of Israel, whatever party was in power, on critical matters. This
position was based on grounds of principle – that no matter how dear Israel
was to us, it was the people living there who had the sole right to make their
life-and-death decisions and we should respect that right. And it was based on
pragmatism – that only such an approach had a reasonable chance to keep
American Jews united and to maintain our ability to have significant political
impact on members of Congress and whatever administration held power.
This perspective clearly held sway well into the 1980s and served the
interests of Israel, America, and American Jews.
Late in the 1980s, at that time with a Likud government in power, and in the
early ‘90s with a Labor Party in power, significant parts of the community
began to drift away from this consensus approach. The consequences of this
going-one’s-own-way approach have been evident: more divisions, less ability
to speak with one voice and present a united community to influence those with
decision-making responsibility in the U.S.; and far more partisan
interpretations with Israeli political figures, with each Israeli party
appealing to its partisans in the U.S.
And yet, despite the erosion of the principle, it has not been abandoned and
in our view continues to be the only sensible way for American Jews, as a
community, to function. Indeed, for us at ADL, and I believe other centrist
American Jewish organizations, this continues to be our guiding principle.
It is this context that I would like to address the current situation where
Israel has resumed negotiations with the Palestinians.
There are those who adhere to the non-partisan approach who are now saying
that things are different in this instance because the Barak government is
negotiating the future of Jerusalem. It is said that Jerusalem is not an issue
solely for Israelis but of the Jewish people as a whole; therefore we must have
our say and, some argue, stand up against the giving away of parts of the city
and the Temple Mount.
These are serious points and not to be lightly dismissed. Jerusalem is
different. In the final analysis, however, all those who have argued for
criticizing different Israeli governments’ decisions have argued on the basis
of some strong emotional or moral necessity. The position of the left in urging
American Jews to speak out against Likud’s expansion of settlements and
opposition to concessions in the territories was that morality dictated that
Israel no longer control the lives of others and that it must give peace a
The simple fact remains that once we pick issues, even the most delicate,
such as Jerusalem, as a basis of intervention against Israel, there will be no
end to it. The result will be no community at all.
There is, however, a reason for even those who have been the strongest
advocates of the non-partisan approach to be concerned about what is taking
place right now. And that relates not to any particular substantive position but
rather to the very concept of leaving the decision to the democratically elected
government of Israel.
What we have today is a combination of two factors coming together, which
leave us extremely uncomfortable. The current administration of Ehud Barak is
probably the weakest and the most under challenge of any government of Israel;
not only does it have the support of maybe 30 members of the Knesset, but it
clearly would have fallen from office by a vote of the Knesset had not Barak
himself first called for new Knesset elections and then shifted to a snap
election for Prime Minister alone.
This reality of a government that has been rejected together with the fact
that it is engaging in the most sensitive and historic negotiations in the
history the State, raises serious questions about the legitimacy of making such
decisions in this interim period; legitimacy not in narrow legislative terms,
but in moral and historic terms.
It seems to us that if Mr. Barak would win the election on February 6 with
the public knowing where he stands, he then would have every right to have
American Jews stand with him on even the toughest decisions about Jerusalem,
refugees and territory.
At this time, where it is most uncertain where in fact the people of Israel
stand, we think the prudent and responsible decision by the prime minister would
be to step back, to continue to insist that the violence must stop, and to
appeal to the Israeli people to support him in his vision, as Ariel Sharon will
This is not an abandonment of our basic approach. It is rather an effort to
give it further credibility for the future.
Let the people of Israel speak and then let us march on together.
This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Jewish Week on
January 5, 2001.