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Jewish World Review July 23, 1999 /10 Av, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Barak and American Jews: Laying down the ground rules for dissent in the era of Ehud --
NEW ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER Ehud Barak may not be as fluent in speaking American English as his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. But he didn't need any assistance in making one thing clear to American Jews on his first visit to the United States following his election: He is not interested in interference on Capitol Hill from American Jews who are not supportive of his peace policies.

Barak's attitude toward American Jews is vastly different from those of two of his recent predecessors: his mentor, the late Yitzhak Rabin, and his defeated rival, Netanyahu.

Though Rabin was popular among American Jews, the fact that he regarded us as a nuisance was not exactly a closely guarded state secret in Jerusalem. In his own way, Netanyahu was just as hostile. He deeply resented American Jewish support for his Labor opponents and viewed the press as an enemy. Even at the beginning of his term, when his future seemed bright, the chip on his shoulder seemed to weigh a ton.

Barak is definitely different. He acts like a man who believes there is no task he cannot accomplish and no one he cannot win over.

He strides into rooms with the sort of self-confident air that breeds respect and affection rather than resentment. Perhaps it is his unimpressive appearance, but where in other men this kind of self-assurance would be viewed as hubris, on him it looks good.

Except for self-consciousness about his English, this is one former general who acts as if he can square the circle of Israeli politics. He believes he can have close relations with the Clinton administration, make peace with all of Israel's Arab neighbors, ensure Israel's security, and avoid blowups within Israel on religious-secular issues and with the Diaspora over the lack of religious pluralism in Israel.

That's a tall order, but to a man who isn't shy about letting you know he was directly elected by a landslide, they are just objectives to be encountered and overcome.


Can Barak count on American Jewish support as he begins his attempt to bring the Oslo peace process to a conclusion? The answer is undoubtedly in the affirmative. Most American Jews, no matter what their opinions about Israeli issues, are always prepared to defer to the government of the day. That is only appropriate. After all, it is the Israelis and not American Jews who will bear the burden of security decisions.

But what about American Jews who are not prepared to pick up their pom-poms and join the Barak cheerleading squad?

The days when all American Jews simply rolled over on command for an Israeli prime minister are over. Left-wing critics of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir were the first to stray off the reservation. Right-wing opponents of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres picked up where they left off. And nobody, including Likud sympathizers, seemed to like Bibi much during his time in office.

By contrast, Barak has it much easier. Netanyahu's embrace of the same "land-for-peace" strategies that he had opposed while in opposition damaged both the Israeli right as well as its American Jewish allies. If Bibi was prepared to give away all of the Golan Heights to Syria (as it was reliably reported by Prof. Daniel Pipes in a recent issue of The New Republic), that makes it even more difficult for American Jews to oppose Barak's plans to make such a deal than it was under Rabin.

Barak - like Rabin before him - is especially unhappy about efforts by groups like the Zionist Organization of America that impede his agenda. For example, the ZOA has been pushing hard - and successfully - for congressional legislation that would act to force the United States to make serious efforts to extradite Palestinian terrorists who killed Americans from the Palestinian Authority.

I think enacting this legislation is the right thing to do from the point of view of both American justice and peace. But the State Department and the Barak government oppose this measure.

Barak thinks of efforts to expose Palestinian violations of the peace accords as irrelevant, at best, and dangerous, at worst, to his goals. Though an ardent patriot and Zionist (he still talks about aliyah for American Jews!), Barak has come to view Arab claims as having a share of moral as well as practical justification. He believes a successful peace process is the best way to advance Israel's security. And if that means giving Arafat a pass on Oslo violations, letting terrorist murderers of Americans off the hook or giving up the strategic Golan, my guess is that he is prepared to do it. He thinks it is his call and not ours. No matter how strongly you may disagree with him, you have to admit he has a point there.

But before we start acting as if anyone who dissents from Barak should be shunned in decent company, let's remember that plenty of Israelis still disagree with him (as half of Israel did with Rabin and Netanyahu during their times in power) and their voices - and those of their American friends - should not be silenced.

Which leads me to propose a simple ground rule for debate on the peace process for American Jews. Let there be an end to the delegitimization of opponents. Both sides have a right to be heard and to be treated with respect. Sinat hinam - groundless hatred - has led to many ancient, as well as recent, Jewish tragedies. Let us learn that lesson.

Barak himself understands that American Jews, like Israelis, are a diverse lot. If, like Israel, the American Jewish community is to be a democracy, then it must be prepared to tolerate dissent - whether from the left or the right -and grant it a fair hearing.

Remember, the tables have turned more than once in recent Israeli politics; the person you seek to read out of the community today may be able to do the same to you tomorrow, if we allow it.

Tolerance for diverse points of view creates a messy situation that may make it harder for Israeli governments, and even American groups, to push their agendas. But the alternative is far worse.

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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©1999, Jonathan Tobin