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Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2001 / 24 Teves, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Who Showed Leadership on Jerusalem?

Clinton Was Wrong and Lauder Was Right -- MANY AMERICAN JEWS are lamenting the end of the presidency of a man whom they have perceived to be the friendliest to Jewish interests in American history.

The truth or falsehood of that assertion will be judged by historians, but there is no denying that the affection felt by many American Jews for President Clinton is genuine. The record number of Jewish Cabinet members in the Clinton administration and his charismatic advocacy of issues like abortion rights was duly noted and supported by Jews. And the attention he devoted to Israel and his grief after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 convinced most American Jews and Israelis that Bill Clinton was indeed their chaver.

This has lead some wits to claim that were he eligible, he might defeat both Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Likud leader Ariel Sharon in next monthís Israeli election for prime minister.

Nevertheless, just as his administration ended, the pro-Israel community absorbed one of the most stunning blows it has ever received. That blow was delivered by Clinton himself when he asserted last week in a speech to the Israel Policy Forum, a left-wing American Jewish group, that Jerusalem must be divided as part of a Middle East peace plan. Clinton also called for Israel to accept Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount ó the most sacred site in Judaism. Though not binding on his successor, Clintonís declaration makes the partition of Jerusalem a new touchstone of American policy.

In one sense, there was little surprising or new in the statement. The United States has never formally recognized Israeli sovereignty over the united city of Jerusalem, nor has it ever accepted even the western part of the city as Israelís capital. Though Clinton, like many before him, at one time pledged to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, that is a promise he has come no closer to fulfilling than all of the presidents who came before him.

Yet Clintonís repudiation of the principle of Jerusalemís unity will make it far harder for any future Israeli government to defend the city from partition. Nor is it likely that there will be any public backing away from Clintonís speech on the part of the new administration of President-elect George W. Bush.

That is a disappointing finish to a presidency that was lavished with so much Jewish support.

But at the same time that so many Jews were boo-hooing over Clintonís departure and ignoring his parting shot at Jewish rights to Jerusalem, another related controversy was taking place within the organized Jewish world.

Just as interesting as Clintonís speech is the failure of the American Jewish community to react with the outrage that would have once been a given when even mentioning talk of dividing Jerusalem. The reason for this is the fact that the lame-duck Israeli government of Ehud Barak has signaled that it is ready to accept such a division as part of a putative peace deal with the Palestinians.

Indeed, Barakís acceptance of Clintonís proposed concessions may have transformed Jerusalem from a consensus Jewish issue to one that engenders bitter debate. Thatís why philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder, who currently serves as head of the Jewish National Fund as well as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is currently in trouble.

Acting as an individual ó and not as head of the JNF or the Conference of Presidents ó Lauder appeared at the massive rally in defense of Jerusalemís unity that took place a week ago Monday in front of the walls of the Old City. Along with the 300,000 or so Israelis who attended the rally organized by Natan Sharansky, Lauder spoke up against partitioning the city.

Some members of the Conference of Presidents, principally the Reform movementís Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Americans for Peace Now group, have denounced Lauderís speech as a violation of his obligation to remain neutral on divisive issues.

Of course, in the past the head of that group and many other mainstream Jewish organizations havenít worried about taking stands that supported the policies of past Israeli governments which were bitterly debated both in Israel and abroad.

Ironically, the institutional bias of major American Jewish groups in favor of the Oslo peace process and the Israeli politicians who supported it is rarely contested. But when that bias is placed against the general Jewish dismay at the idea of dividing Jerusalem, few American Jewish leaders have been willing to step forward.

Unfortunately, the cult of consensus that generally governs the Conference of Presidents generally discourages real leadership. Despite his record of generosity to Jewish causes, particularly the revival of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, the fabulously wealthy Lauder is not the sort of person most American Jews can relate to. And his record of involvement in politics and diplomacy hardly inspires confidence.

Yet by advocating Jerusalemís unity, Lauder was articulating what is still a belief shared by the majority of Jews in Israel and the United States.

Though supporters of Israelís left-wing parties may see it differently, Lauderís speech was a rare instance of an American Jewish leader actually showing some backbone. I applaud him for his guts, and expect that most American Jews agree with him rather than with his critics. His example may help encourage other American Jews -- and Israelis -- to step forward and do the right thing on Jerusalem.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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