GA / Scholar Urges Criticism of Israel, but Delegates Balk

Diaspora Jews must not confuse support of Israel with support of all Israeli policies, political science Prof. Yaron Ezrahi told about 500 North Americans at a GA panel yesterday morning. But many in his audience voiced disagreement, arguing that Diaspora Jews have no place criticizing Israel publicly.

"I feel very strong emotional affinity to American Jewry and am deeply moved by your solidarity and your support," said Ezrahi, who lived in Massachusetts for several years while studying for his doctorate at Harvard University.

"However, solidarity with Israel is not always an uncritical solidarity with the Israeli government," he said. "We need to be courageous - not conformists, but courageous, independent and critical, and optimistic."

Ezrahi, who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, harshly criticized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his administration at a session on the Jewish democratic character of Israel. Ezrahi and his fellow panelists, Labor MK Matan Vilnai and former Clinton cabinet member Henry Cisneros, called for a two-state solution as the only way for Israel to remain a Jewish democratic state .

"The prime minister speaks out of both sides of his mouth," said Ezrahi, adding Sharon purports to advocate the U.S.-backed road map to peace, but "has not removed one illegal settlement."

Playing on the theme of this year's GA, "Shaping our common future," Ezrahi said: "To identify with this is not solidarity with Israel and it's not shaping our future."

Cisneros, who served as head of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, said Ezrahi's comments were a sign of the vitality of democracy in Israel. "You can't say those things of a sitting government except in a functioning democracy," Cisneros said.

Manfred Lindenbaum, who is from Ocean Country, New Jersey, was one of the few GA participants who agreed that American Jews who dispute Israeli policies have a "responsibility" to make their voices heard.

But Lindenbaum, wearing a sweat-shirt that said, "Seeds of Peace," did share with several other participants the notion that any dissent must be balanced by overall support for the country.

"My feeling is that it's important to disagree when you disagree, but you should only do that within the point of view of basic support for Israel," said Lindenbaum, who said he lobbied Congress about 10 years ago to delay providing Israel with loan guarantees until peace negotiations, particularly regarding settlement expansion, were resolved.

Jeff Levin, executive director of the Ann Arbor, Michigan Jewish federation, supported what he called responsible criticism.

"I think that if you want to criticize Israel from the United States, that you have to do so in a way that doesn't wind up inadvertently giving support to Israel's enemies," Levin said. "You can do it publicly, but I think you have to do it responsibly."

Others rejected advertising American Jewish criticism of Israeli policy in a forum that was neither Jewish nor Israeli.

Jules Gutin, director of the Conservative United Synagogue Youth and a Teaneck, New Jersey resident, encouraged people who disagree with Israeli policies to take their complaints to Israeli political representatives.

"It's important that if one disagrees, that the disagreements be within the mishpacha," he said, using the Hebrew word for family.

Ken Schneider, from the Rhode Island Jewish federation, said Jews who don't live in Israel have no right to express criticism, which "hurts the Israeli cause."

"Americans should agree, they shouldn't publicly come out against anything that Israel does," said Schneider, wearing a gold Star of David on a chain.

"We don't live here, and I think it's very hard to put yourself into someone else's position," he said. "If we want Israel to move forward, I think we have to stick together."

Gerald Cantor, former president of the Westfield, New Jersey Jewish federation, said there was already sufficient criticism of Israel coming from other quarters - including Muslim countries and France. He invoked the analogy of a "piling on" penalty in football to illustrate his point that American Jewish critiques have been rendered unnecessary.