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Jewish World Review July 17, 2001 / 26 Tamuz, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Who Will Speak for the Jews?

Anti-Israel misinformation makes it imperative for Jewish leaders to speak up -- IF you look in the reference section of the annual American Jewish Yearbook published by the American Jewish Committee, you will find that the listings for “National Jewish Organizations” fill up more than 60 double-columned pages in small print. It is a vast array of names and acronyms that insiders routinely refer to as “Jewish alphabet soup.”

The proliferation of Jewish groups is, in part, an indication of the influence, wealth and varied interests of American Jews. It also a measure of the incoherence and anarchy that reigns in the organized Jewish world.

The Forward newspaper shook up some in the world of Jewish alphabet soup recently by reporting on a purported plan to reduce the number of Jewish groups that belong to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. According to the piece, the current number of some 50 “major” groups would be pared down by forcing some small political and Zionist groups to walk the plank.

The Conference was the group cooked up in the 1950s at the suggestion of then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who was aggravated at the number of Jewish groups that were pestering him. What this foe of Israel wanted was just one group that would, in theory, speak for all the Jews.

Even in its heyday, the idea that such a group could speak with one voice, even on Israel, was a myth. And even if you set aside the rather impressive egos involved in the leadership of all the so-called “majors,” questions of ideology have divided many Jews on Israel issues.

That said, the current situation in the Middle East has placed a daunting task before these Jewish leaders.

The decision of Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat to opt for war and violence instead of peace last year has produced a 10-month-old conflict that has no end in sight. His object is to wear Israel down both morally and physically. Though he has no hope of military victory, the combined effects of international propaganda and the toll of terror may yet yield more Israeli concessions that will, in turn, only lead to the next set of Arab demands.

From right to left, the overwhelming majority of Israelis now realize that Arafat is uninterested in real peace. Both those who were skeptical about the Oslo peace process and many of those who were true believers now understand that it is finished and fatally flawed. The old left-right intra-Jewish debates on Israel are now irrelevant.

But even as that consensus emerges, a counter-attack from Arafat’s American allies is beginning to take shape. The outlines of that riposte became clear this week with the publication of a remarkable document on the July 8 op-ed page of The New York Times.

Dominating that most influential of American opinion pages on that day was a piece by Robert Mallory, who served as special assistant to former president Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001.

In the article, Mallory sought to disabuse Times readers from the idea that the failure of the Camp David Summit last year was Arafat’s fault. He was also at pains to correct the assumption, publicly put forward by Clinton, that the fantastic concessions offered by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were a real offer of peace.

As far as Mallory was concerned, the Israeli offer of nearly all of the territories and half of Jerusalem was just a step toward a “fair solution” and not nearly enough. He also termed Arafat’s war nothing more than the predictable result of the failure to push Israel into even greater concessions.

This significant article debunks the myth that the Clinton White House was the most pro-Israel in history. It should also alert American supporters of Israel to the daunting task they face in the months ahead. Israel is now in a crisis situation with no peace option in sight, and with the prospect of an ongoing campaign by its foes to delegitimize its positions and its ability to defend itself. This is a not a matter of supporting Labor or Likud governments, but one of defending the Jewish state’s right to a secure existence on any terms.

And that’s where the organized American Jewish community comes in.

It will not be enough for the “leaders” of American Jewry to plan a few poorly attended solidarity rallies, sign a few pro-Israel newspaper ads, and then sit back and watch as Israel takes a licking in the media.

What is needed is a clear counteroffensive to explain the justice and the necessity of Israel’s stands on the conflict. This is also a task that will require media-savvy creativity that will put forward more than history lectures (as much as such information is needed). It will require Jewish leaders to reignite the connection that ordinary Jews feel with Israel, and it must disabuse them of the notion that Israel needs no help from the Diaspora.

That is a tall order. Given the inability of the Conference — or anybody else — to frame a coherent message about Israel to the public, it may strain credulity to imagine that it is possible.

Pro-Israel information projects were proposed continuously for the past 20 years, only to be torpedoed by the arrogance of Israel’s foreign-policy establishment and the complacency of American Jews.

Nevertheless, it’s not too late to start repairing the damage. Plans are afoot for just such a national campaign to be launched this fall by the United Jewish Communities. Proposed projects, such as involving American Jews in paying for the bullet-proofing of Israeli school buses and spearheading a dramatic information campaign, hold promise.

But it remains to be seen whether American Jewish leaders have the guts or the vision to really unite behind Israel. It is also uncertain that they can do so without watering down the message to please an unrepentant Jewish left, something that would render the project largely useless.

But true leadership will require those who pretend to the title to speak up boldly and without fear in order to defend Israel in the current crisis. The v erdict of Jewish history toward those who fail this test will not be kind.

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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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin