Until recently, it was almost universally understood among Diaspora Jewish leaders that irrespective of their personal political views, public criticism of the democratically elected government of Israel was inappropriate on foreign and security issues.
At the time of the Oslo Accords, a number of right- wing MKs lobbied Congress against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, some even arguing that their actions could only strengthen prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s negotiating capacity. When in opposition, Yossi Beilin supported the right of Diaspora Jews to dissent. Yet during the Barak era, he bitterly condemned American Jews who criticized Arafat as a peace partner, claiming that only Israelis under fire could determine this.
So when Edgar Bronfman made his presidential speech to the World Jewish Congress Assembly in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, he astonished many here by the tone and content of his message. He told the gathering that it was time for Israel to “put the moral high ground back where it belongs,” that the Israeli presence in Gaza was a “mistake,” that settlements that could not be defended should be disbanded, and that Israelis should separate themselves from the Palestinians. Bronfman also proclaimed that decisions on such issues should be determined not by the Knesset, but by “plebiscite.”
True, Bronfman’s observations were neither new nor earth- shattering, although far more complex to implement than he implied. Indeed most Israelis would dearly like to separate from the Arabs; and if the polls are accurate, many would agree to the dismantling of isolated settlements (although not as a reward for Arafat’s terrorism).
By the same token, however, most Israelis do not take kindly to, indeed resent, being admonished by a Jew domiciled in New York, however prominent he is.
Bronfman is the first Jewish leader to use a highly publicized platform to openly criticize the Government of National Unity at a time when the Jewish state is under virtual siege, when its population is being terrorized, when most of the world is critical of Israel for the manner in which it defends itself, and when the overwhelming majority of Israelis support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s broad coalition.
It is tantamount to a prominent visitor to the United States paying homage to those who lost their lives on September 11, and then calling on President George W. Bush to change his “mistaken” campaign against terrorism and hold a plebiscite to determine future policies because his government was unreliable.
MOST WJC participants resented their president’s advice – especially the timing. One could hear it in the corridors.
If Diaspora Jewish leaders start emulating Bronfman, it will further undermine the already destabilized Jewish communities and more than that, encourage foreign governments to intensify their pressure on Israel.
This is particularly true of the United States as it stands – Israel’s only ally – where a divided administration has tended to zigzag between support for Israel and trying to persuade Islamic countries to join their coalition.
Bronfman’s remarks have already ignited what one newspaper described as “a divisive debate in the American Jewish community over Jerusalem’s handling of the intifada.” CLAL leader Rabbi Irwin Kahn observed: “It is important to widen the debatebecause it may well be that for the first time the strategic interests of America and Israel are not exactly the same.” Jerusalem Report columnist Anne Roiphe stated, “It may not be the best policy to lay low and pretend that Israel and Jewish concerns are not ultimately connected with the quarrel that Osama bin Laden has with America.”
Even more explicit was the editorial in Forward
“The argument advanced so passionately by some activists, that Israel is entitled to respond to terrorists just as forcefully as America does, simply isn’t catching fire on the Jewish street. This time around, American Jews see both sides of the debate.” And Leonard Fein, the liberal pundit, commented about Bronfman’s remarks, “Now is an opportunity for rebuttalby those of us who believe that Israel’s policies endanger Israel’s security.”
These are disconcerting remarks, reflecting fundamental rifts, which, if not stemmed, threaten to undermine the foundations of the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
But there is also an important moral dimension to all this. For a Jewish leader, in these trying times, to pay a brief “solidarity” visit to Israel, and use his organizational platform to make personal pronouncements on foreign and security issues, with life and death implications, is unacceptable and deeply regrettable.
Let it be stated loud and clear. On matters of foreign affairs and security, Israel and the Diaspora are not equal partners. It has been said before, but it bears repeating over and over again. The citizens of Israel – especially the youth – will be obliged to face the consequences of the decisions made by their elected government. In contrast, Diaspora Jews will make no sacrifice and take no risk on these issues. Simple morality presupposes humility and restraint.