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NEW YORK - Disagreement over whether or not to sign a statement of support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan has caused an deep rift in the world of organized American Jewry.

The bitter controversy reached a head during a special emergency session convened last week in New York by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. One of the hundred or so participants in the meeting told Haaretz that the discussion, which was held behind closed doors, deteriorated to a "critical point, threatening the unity of the veteran organization."

In a move perceived as an effort to prevent a rift, Chair of the Conference James Tisch adjourned the session without reaching a decision. Tisch announced that in the next few days he would circulate a statement concerning the disengagement plan, which he describes as reflecting the majority opinion within the organization. One senior official estimated support for the statement at 60 percent, while another maintained that support was as high as 75 percent.

Among the backers of Sharon's policy were the large organizations including, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Reform Movement, Hadassah, the American Jewish Committee, the Women's League for Conservative Judaism, the American Jewish Congress, and others.

Opposition was led chiefly by Orthodox organizations, including the Mizrachi, and Emunah, the National Religious Women's Organization. Also opposed were the American Zionist Organization, and American Friends of the Likud.

Supporters said that the Conference of Presidents was founded with the express mission of supporting the State of Israel, and therefore an immediate publication of a statement of support was imperative. They also stressed that lack of Jewish support for Sharon at this hour would be perceived as a slap in the face for the White House and the Bush administration, who were partners to Sharon's policy.

Opponents said that disengagement was a controversial issue in Israel, and therefore the umbrella organization should refrain from taking sides in the Israeli public debate.

Seymour Reich, a former chair of the conference of presidents, who participated in the consultations told Haaretz that there was a clear majority in favor of a statement. But Rabbi Marla Friedman, who represented the Reform Movement, said that although she respected the conference's tradition whereby all decisions are achieved by consensus, she was disappointed that a final vote was not taken.

Several months ago, the ADL, American Jewry's largest organization proposed to the Conference the publication of a joint statement of support for Sharon. Ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon appeared at the special session to convince members of the importance of the statement.

The ADL plans to publish an independent statement of support, in the event that the conference fails to reach a decision. Senior officials at the conference expressed their disapproval of an appeal by MK Shaul Yahalom (National Religious Party) in a letter sent to the Conference of Presidents, to postpone the decision until after the vote in the Knesset. d