World Jewry is not an amen chorus
The American Jewish community is torn right now between its love of Israel and its distaste for Israel's policies. We who love Israel have an obligation to say what we believe.
In the middle of the First World War, the then prime minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, expressed his growing exasperation with the poor results on the front against the Germans by declaring that "war is too serious a matter to leave to the generals." Nearly forty years after the great victory in the Six Day War of 1967, the world Jewish community is finally on the verge of saying out loud: Israel is too serious a matter to leave its future in the hands of the factional politicians who make up its governments.
In fundamental fact, Jewish interests in the Holy Land were never deeded by the international community exclusively to those who lived there. The root of the Jewish claim under international law to the right to establish a national presence in the land of their ancestors lies in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. The British government addressed this document to a leading figure in the Diaspora, Lord Rothschild of England, rather than to the chief Jewish negotiator and then de facto leader in Britain of the World Zionist Organization, Dr. Chaim Weizmann.
At the moment when this declaration was made, there were 50,000 Jews in Palestine and over a half a million Arabs. Nonetheless, the British government declared that the need of the Jews for a home of their own, and the longstanding connection of this worldwide people with the Holy Land, entitled them to superior consideration. The Balfour Declaration expected that an international "Jewish agency" would be constructed to foster the growth of the Jewish connection with the land. To this day, even after its creation as a sovereign state in 1948, Israel has presumed, without question, that the Jews of the world are obligated by special concern to help the upbuilding of the new entity. The basic institutions of the Diaspora are expected to carry a special burden, both economic and political, in the defense of Israel.
The trouble with this construct is that there is no mechanism whatsoever through which concerned Jews of the Diaspora can give effective voice to opinions that the incumbent government of Israel does not want to hear. Israeli politicians have said aloud for decades that they make it their goal to dominate every body in which they supposedly consult Jewish opinion that might be critical. From right to left, each prime minister has expected the "leaders of the Diaspora" to obey their political line and never to dissent.
It is an open secret that someone from the Israeli government will veto you for election to a leading role anywhere in the Jewish establishment if you are known to hold independent views. One of my own proudest moments was the day some thirty years ago when Abba Eban and I, who were both suspected, correctly, of being "doves," were described in an article by one of the neoconservatives as "functional anti-Semites." To disagree with the then dominant line of Menachem Begin's government, that it was Israel's destiny to hold on to the West Bank, was not to be discussed as an argument about policy; such views were to be defamed as "Jewish anti-Semitism."
This kind of nonsense is ending in these very days. The great divide has come now because it is clear that the present government of Israel simply does not tell the truth. The government's own statistics tell us that, in the last decade, since the supposed agreement in Oslo to end settlements in order to move toward making peace, the Jewish population in the West Bank and Gaza has doubled! By no stretch of imagination can this be ascribed to natural increase; the Israeli birthrate of less than three per family would simply not produce such an increase within ten years.
Natan Sharansky, the minister of Diaspora affairs, has recently been in and out of the United State making speeches attacking Jewish students on campus and Jewish professors for not standing up for Israel. Sharansky attributed this failure to a lack of information on their part and he proposes that this be corrected through better Zionist education. But in what Zionism does he intend to educate these students and faculty members? Does he propose to teach them his own Zionism, in which he went home after a recent tour of some American universities to announce that, contrary to a promise that Israel had made to the American government, he was going to finance the construction of 650 new apartments on the West Bank in order to "thicken" the Jewish presence in some of the settlements?
I have no doubt that Natan Sharansky knows that there are apartments going begging right now in some of those places. The building of new ones is a barefaced challenge to the Palestinians. They see it as proof of the Israelis' intention of reducing the Palestinian hold on land that they regard as their own. Such policies are, to put it bluntly, an invitation to further conflict.
Are those who love Israel prepared to defend the continuing, galloping annexation of the West Bank, which seems to have one clear, overriding purpose: to reduce the amount of land on which the Palestinians might live to half or less of all the land of the West Bank? Is this the Zionism that the present Israeli government thinks can be defended to sophisticated people on American campuses? What is wrong is not the lack of passion for the defense of Israel: It is morally and politically impossible to defend continuing, relentless pressure to make life more and more miserable for the Palestinians in their homes.
The American Jewish community is torn right now between its love of Israel and its distaste for Israel's policies. We who love Israel have an obligation to say what we believe. We have for a century or more helped and supported the Zionist endeavor in the state of Israel. We have long lived with the notion that Israeli governments, from right to left, have tried to inculcate in us - that they determine policy, and we are privileged to say amen on cue. This nonsense is now bankrupt.
More than two centuries ago, the American colonists revolted against the English government under the slogan "no taxation without representation." A Jewish revolt is now brewing. Its slogan should be: We cannot allow Israel's policies to be made by politicians from small factions who are protecting their particular, partisan turf. We need statesmanship to think of Israel's lasting interests, of its place in the world and of its deepest moral traditions.
The writer is a prominent American Jewish leader and author of the recently published book "The Fate of Zionism: A Secular Future for Israel and Palestine."