Sitting on the Sidelines

As Israel stands ready to evacuate all its settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank; as the Palestinian population of the territories is poised to elect democratically a successor to Yasser Arafat, the organized American Jewish community is strangely silent.

Much has been written over the last four years on the profound support that American Jews give Israel and the centrality of Israel in Jewish communal life. So great was this fidelity that American Jewish concerns were publicly framed around one single issue.

And yet, as Israel stands ready to evacuate all its settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank; as the Palestinian population of the territories is poised to elect democratically a successor to Yasser Arafat; as the U.S. and its European allies prepare to resume their role as peacemakers; as Egypt makes conciliatory statements and takes actions to bridge the gap between itself and Israel, the organized American Jewish community is strangely silent.

After the cabinet endorsed the Gaza withdrawal, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, American Jewry's central political body in its relationship to Israel, declined to take a position in support of the effort. Even after the Knesset ratified the plan, there are virtually no American Jewish voices enthusiastically supporting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's vision. At the same time, American Jewish organizations are ready to condemn any attack against Israeli military or civilian positions in Gaza.

How are we to make sense of this? Are Jewish organizations incapable of supporting efforts at reconciliation, compromise and coexistence? Is organized American Jewry capable only of public acts of condemnation? Are we committed only to a vision of Israel as helpless, vulnerable and in desperate need of our protection?

Some will say that the events of the last four years have fundamentally altered American Jewish institutional life. They will argue that the period of prolonged violence against Israel and its citizens has profoundly changed American Jews, their political and advocacy organizations and their institutional priorities. They will point out that the intifada and Israel's response to it created a new international climate in which the Jewish state's very right to exist is regularly challenged. They will explain that it is their duty to defend and protect Israel.

But is this really a new phenomenon? In the 1990s, organized Jewry was not enthusiastic about embracing the Oslo peace process. AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and the Presidents Conference were initially ambivalent at best and ultimately remained profoundly conflicted over Oslo and in their relations with three Labor prime ministers. Support for the peace process remained an open question, and AIPAC joined the Presidents' Conference in quickly abandoning Oslo and jumping on the Sharon bandwagon when the Likud returned to power in early 2001.

Why is a community that supported John Kerry for President by a ratio of 3-1, so unenthusiastic in response to peace initiatives and so impassioned in its support of military response? One reason is that it is much easier to achieve consensus over condemnation of an act or program, than it is to forge agreement over a particular plan. As the intifada raged and the events of 9/11 unfolded, most American Jewish organizations hardened their positions on Israel and the Middle East. Current organizational leadership was elected or empowered during this period and is predisposed to lack enthusiasm for evacuating Gaza settlements.

Another reason is that American Jewish organizational leadership is relatively homogenous in experience and worldview. Support for Israel, combating anti-Semitism and fighting for Jewish rights are the consensus priorities for advocacy and activism. The events of the last four years have set this agenda in stone. Now, it is proving difficult to change direction.

It is impossible to imagine a scenario that could comfort hardliners more than a Bush presidency and a Sharon-led government. But an enthusiastic embrace of Gaza withdrawal and resumed negotiations with the PA may ultimately prove to be an impossible position for the larger consensus-driven organizations to adopt.

The communal organizations that can learn to successfully navigate the policy waters between a Bush presidency and a Sharon-led coalition and embrace Gaza withdrawal will play a critically important role over the next few years. Wouldn't it be tragic if the opportunity presented by this rare alignment of American, Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and other regional interests was squandered because American Jewry sat on its hands and remained on the sidelines?

Mark Seal has worked in leadership positions in a number of Jewish communal organizations for more than 20 years.