Nov. 26, 2004
7 Days: Invasive treatment

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

When the main political umbrella group of U.S. Jewry decided last week to draft a statement of support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, some officials in Jerusalem raised concerns about the propriety of what they saw as American intervention in Israeli politics.

"It is highly inappropriate for foreign Jewish organizations to consider taking sides on a matter that has yet to be approved by the Knesset," wrote National Religious Party MK Shaul Yahalom in a letter to the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein. "The Knesset, which acts as the representative body of the people of Israel, has yet to debate and approve the political plan."

Ultimately, the conference rejected Yahalom's argument, saying that it merely sought to express support for a policy that already had been decided upon by Israel's government-in the person of the prime minister and his Cabinet-and agreed to by the American president.

"Historically, the organized Jewish community has always supported something the president and the prime minister agree on," said Kenneth Jacobson, associate national director of the anti-Defamation League, which is one of the conference's 52 members. "That's part of our mission. That's what the Presidents' Conference exists for."

Yahalom's objections notwithstanding, the notion that American Jews and Israelis don't intervene in each other's politics is a fiction.

By its very nature, the U.S.-Israel relationship is shaped by intervention, often by America at the request of Israel. In many cases, that intervention is due to American Jewish pressure. When Chaim Weizmann sought recognition from the United States of the soon-to-be Jewish state on the eve of Israel's founding, he was able to meet and make his case to the American president, Harry Truman, only thanks to the intervention of an American Jew-Eddie Jacobson, a friend of Truman's.

More recently, America has been asked by Israelis to broker peace agreements, deploy troops to the Middle East to serve as buffers between Arabs and Jews, and push for Palestinian reform. American Jews have played key roles in all these efforts.

Israeli politicians and groups today regularly cross the ocean between the City of the Gold and the "Goldene Medinah"-as Jewish immigrants once called America-to enlist the help of American Jewish groups in getting the U.S. government to heed their call. Leftists work their contacts at groups like Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, and rightists go to groups like the Zionist Organization of America.

The reality is that Israelis welcome American Jewish intervention when it suits their needs and cry foul when it does not.

Rare indeed is the case of Likud MK Michael Eitan, chairman of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, who came to the United States last month seeking American Jewish input on an internal Israeli matter: the drafting of Israel's constitution. Given that Israel was created to be the homeland for Jews, he said, Israel could not deny the rights of diaspora Jews. "Any Jew has potential rights in the State of Israel," Eitan said.

Occasionally, it goes the other way too, with Israelis getting involved in internal American Jewish affairs-and, like the Israelis, many American Jews bristle at this notion. When the American Jewish Congress announced in August that Israel's outgoing consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas, would take over as the group's new CEO, some American Jewish organizational officials were scandalized.

Appointing an Israeli to the post will "fudge the image" of the American Jewish Congress, possibly compromising the congress' credibility when lobbying governments, argued Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Most American Jewish officials, however, took it in stride. And, like this week's development at the Conference of Presidents, most American Jews and ordinary Israelis didn't even notice-a sign, if nothing else, of how much importance the silent majority of Jews in America and Israel assign to these organizations.