April 15, 2005

Influential Jews?

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

When Ariel Sharon strode into George W. Bush's Texas ranch this week, the world watched as yet another American president tried to give an Israeli prime minister his marching orders.

It's a time-honored tradition, and one in which Sharon dutifully played his part, first by showing deference to the American leader by seeming to indulge his requests, then by making it clear that Israel ultimately would do as it wishes to secure its own borders and people-Ma'ale Adumim notwithstanding.

Then Sharon went to Washington where he participated in yet another time-honored tradition: the Israeli prime minister went to hear what America's wealthy and powerful Jews had to say.

Doubtless, the Americans told Sharon what they believe he ought to do about Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. And no doubt, the American Jews did not bother to solicit the Israeli leader's advice on dealing with the most pressing problem faced by American Jewry today: assimilation.

In America, it's not only the wealthy and powerful Jews that seek to affect how Israel manages its likely withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, or the future borders of Israel.

From New York to Los Angeles, American Jews have begun to awaken from their intifada-induced slumber of unqualified support for the Jewish state to direct money, advocacy and support to Israeli causes that seek to pull Sharon's government one way or another. Some seek to pull it so hard that it falls.

Meanwhile, new polls out this week showed that most American Jews feel the same way about disengagement as most Israelis. They support the Gaza withdrawal plan, but they are ambivalent about whether or not it will result in greater security and peace for the Israeli people. The general American public, for its part, is more optimistic about chances for peace in the wake of an Israeli withdrawal, according to one poll.

But does it really matter what the Americans think?

American Jews surely hope so. The Anti-Defamation League took out a three-quarters-page ad in Tuesday's New York Times to let Sharon know how ADL national director Abraham Foxman feels about the withdrawal plan.

"Prime Minister Sharon, we support you and so do the American people," the ad said.

The idea, of course, was not merely to let Sharon know how Foxman feels, but to promote the idea to Washington and Jerusalem that the ADL is a player somehow in the diplomatic game.

"The president and the administration need to know the American people are with Sharon, and the Israelis need to know it, too," Foxman told the Jerusalem Post.

The ADL is hardly alone in trying to position itself as an influential player. The Times often has been a great beneficiary of the public battle by US Jewish organizations for influence in Jerusalem and Washington. And as the date for the Gaza withdrawal beckons ever closer, the Times surely will carry many more ads from the likes of the Zionist Organization of America to Michael Lerner's far-left Tikkun Community.

There is a method to this madness. New York may not be the counterpart to Jerusalem that American Jewry sometimes fancies, but there is enough Jewish money and concern in New York to force Jerusalem to hear the Americans out.

That doesn't mean Sharon will listen to the Jews he met this week in Washington, of course. It just means that he'll give the Americans the opportunity to have their say. In return, he may ask for their support-financial or political-when he needs it. It's part of the symbiotic relationship between American Jewry and Israel. As long as neither side asks for too much, it seems to work pretty well.

But with some American Jews already pouring money into Gaza's settlements and gearing up for trips to Gush Katif ahead of Israel's planned withdrawal-and with growing opposition to Israel's withdrawal among America's evangelical Christians-it's not clear the usual rules of engagement will hold this time around.

If Israel indeed is entering an atmosphere of civil war, as Sharon suggested this week, the prime minister would do well to keep that in mind.