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Jewish World Review Jan. 20, 2000 /13 Shevat, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Whose Jerusalem?

Supporters of Israel should prepare for a shock -- IT IS AXIOMATIC that ours is a community that has never had any trouble producing at least three opinions for every two Jews. That’s why the elusive search for an American Jewish consensus on issues relating to Israel has not always been easy.

Nevertheless, there has been a stable majority behind certain basic concepts. Namely, that Israel’s security should never be compromised; that its democratically-elected government should be supported; that it should not face economic or diplomatic pressure from the United States to make concessions it believes are not in its best interests; and that Israel’s sovereignty over its eternal capital — a united Jerusalem — must be defended at all costs.

The problem with maintaining these positions is that the people who run Israel’s government sometimes change their minds about issues they have represented to American Jewry as immutable.

A good example is the importance of the Golan Heights. For decades, Israelis of all political stripes have drilled into American heads the notion that its possession is essential for Israel’s security. The current government, however, has definitively tossed that certainty out the window as it attempts to trade the Golan for a peace treaty with Syria. American Jews who wish to support Prime Minister Ehud Barak have struggled to maintain their equilibrium as they loyally switched their Golan rhetoric to conform with his policies.

As difficult as that might have been, a possible switch on Jerusalem is another thing entirely.

Support for Jerusalem's political unity under Israeli rule and its status as the country’s capital has been unquestioned in organized American Jewish life. Efforts aimed at undermining that sovereignty have been understood as affronts to Jewish history, Jewish honor and the sensibilities of Jews everywhere.

Though the Arab minority living in some sections of the city that was illegally occupied by Jordan between 1949 and 1967 may wish to become part of the future state of Palestine, dividing the city will merely escalate the conflict. "Even-handed" coverage by the media which has portrayed Jews who live across the so-called "green line" inside the Jerusalem municipality are routinely termed as "settlers" living in "occupied territory." But despite the drumbeat of propaganda aimed at undermining the Jewish state's hold on all of its capital, Israel’s rights to all of its capital are based on historical, legal and spiritual rights that cannot be tossed aside.

That’s why the news recently reported in the mainstream Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that Israeli government negotiators are seriously discussing handing over parts of the city — and not just areas outside of the city limits — to the “civilian rule” of the Palestinian Authority is so shocking. Though advocates of this position say it reflects the reality of division already existing inside the city, this course of action, if pursued, represents a fundamental change in Israeli policy.

If Israel’s government is contemplating this as part of a putative final status agreement with the P.A. — as published reports suggest they are — then they have taken a notion that nearly all American Jews have always regarded as heretical, if not damnable — and legitimized it.

I seriously doubt that a majority of Israelis can currently be found to support such a concession. And given the rhetoric about holding onto a united Jerusalem still coming from Israel’s major parties, it appears Israel’s leaders know this, too. I am even more sure of the fact that an overwhelming majority of American Jews are not only opposed to the idea of chipping away at Israel’s control of Jerusalem, they are justifiably shocked by the very suggestion.

My point is not so much to criticize such a plan as to point out that the government of Israel has an obligation to speak honestly to American Jews on this issue. If the consensus about Jerusalem is to be discarded, then Jews everywhere have a right to be informed about the change in thinking and the reasons that lay behind this strategy. Moreover, if such an earthshaking step is in the works, then beginning the debate on this issue cannot be postponed any longer.

As the talks with Syria go on a hiatus (Syrian dictator Hafez Assad apparently requires more time to digest the notion of peace with Israel even on his own terms), the focus inevitably returns to final status talks with the Palestinians and the status of Jerusalem.

American Jews who are complacently observing the news thinking that Israel's position on Jerusalem is unchanged and that Arafat is unlikely to win any victories on the status of the city are in for a shock. Nor should we expect that the Clinton administration, which is hell-bent on producing any sort of agreement - whether with the Palestinian Arabs or Syria - to forebear from presssure on Jerusalem if it is the final sticking point in the peace talks.

Most Jews are unprepared for “sharing” Jerusalem under any circumstances. If they are to be asked to support this, then they have a right to know why. When it comes to the status of Jerusalem, it is time for the Israeli government to speak frankly about what the next round of talks will bring.

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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