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January 19, 2009

US Jewish Peace Lobby Isolated on Gaza


by Daniel Luban

The three-week-old war in Gaza – halted Saturday by an Israeli cease-fire – has had a polarizing effect on the U.S. Jewish community, resulting in a deeper and at times acrimonious split between dovish groups that are skeptical of the Israeli military campaign and centrist and hawkish groups that have been broadly supportive of it.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this split, however, has been the reaction of organizations commonly viewed as representative of "moderate" and "liberal" Jewish public opinion. These groups have overwhelmingly lined up in support of Israeli military action.

In the process, participants and observers say, they may have driven a firmer wedge between the so-called "peace lobby" and the remainder of the constellation of Jewish groups.

As the Israeli offensive got underway on Dec. 27, a great deal of the reaction in the U.S. Jewish community broke down along predictable lines.

Powerful and traditionally conservative organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations expressed unqualified support for the offensive, stressing that it was a justifiable and necessary act of self-defense and dismissing concerns about disproportionate use of force or potential long-term political effects.

Dovish groups such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, and Israel Policy Forum also condemned Hamas rocket attacks and stressed Israel's right to self-defense But they warned of the malign political effects of military escalation, and most called for an immediate cease-fire.

But it was the reaction of those organizations occupying the political middle ground between these two camps that was most noteworthy, and perhaps most decisive in framing the political debate over the war within the U.S. Almost universally, groups with a general reputation for liberal politics and moderate dovishness sided with the hawks, giving the military campaign their unqualified support and calling for a "sustainable" or "effective" – as opposed to "immediate" – cease-fire.

Arguably the most important of these groups is the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and its associated Religious Action Center, considered the leading liberal Jewish lobbying group on Capitol Hill. The URJ's initial statement, issued on Dec. 28 by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the organization's president, called the Israeli attack "tragic" but "necessary" and "not[ed], with sadness, the predictable chorus of those in the international community calling for Israeli 'restraint.'"

The organization's Web site recommended statements by the Israeli government as objective background reading on the crisis, and included content such as lesson plans for helping to teach children about the necessity and justice of the war.

On Dec. 31, Yoffie made a more notable intervention in the debate with an op-ed in the Jewish Daily Forward that attacked the newly-formed "pro-peace" lobbying group J Street.

Reacting to a J Street statement claiming that "[n]either Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong," Yoffie called the group's position "morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment, and also appallingly naïve" and accused it of demonstrating "an utter lack of empathy for Israel's predicament."

While J Street was quick to respond with a defense and clarification of its position, observers on both sides of the debate agreed that Yoffie's attack was effective in setting the terms of debate and putting dovish groups on the defensive.

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the URJ's Religious Action Center, resisted any suggestion that the group's position on the Gaza war had been inconsistent with its overall liberal reputation. He pointed out that Yoffie's op-ed attacked not just J Street but also hawkish New Republic editor Martin Peretz for taking "obscene, cowboy-like delight" in the Israeli offensive.

"As always, we've had complaints from the Left and from the Right," Pelavin told IPS. "But there's a fair amount of consensus on the main points."

Nevertheless, if the tone of the URJ's reactions has been more somber than those of groups like AIPAC, the actual political content of their recommendations has been largely the same. On the cease-fire issue, which became the most important dividing line between hawks and doves on Capitol Hill, the URJ stood with more right-leaning groups in opposing calls for an immediate cease-fire.

The same has held true for other prominent moderate Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), United Jewish Communities (UJC), and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ). All have offered strong support for the offensive, opposed an immediate cease-fire, and resisted any temptation to question the campaign's strategic wisdom.

"There was no question about whether we were lining up with J Street," said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the JCPA. "It is our clear belief that as unfortunate as the current situation is, Israel has a right and responsibility to defend itself, and they need to exercise that right."

Representatives of these organizations told IPS that their support for the war was in line with the views of their constituents and member organizations However, there is very little polling data about the reaction of U.S. Jews to the Gaza war, and all sides have claimed support within the Jewish community for their positions.

A Rasmussen poll published shortly after the beginning of the conflict found that the U.S. population at large supported Israel's attack by a narrow margin of 44 to 41 percent, although support was much lower among registered Democrats.

But some suggested that the moderate groups' backing of the war had less to do with U.S. public opinion and more to do with the still-overwhelming support for the war among Israelis.

"When Israeli society is so united behind the war, it takes a great deal of determination and conviction not to follow along," a staffer for one dovish group told IPS.

Given the outgoing George W. Bush administration's strong support for Israeli policies, it is unclear how much impact the debate within the U.S. Jewish community could have had on actual policy.

Still, the moderate groups' support has undoubtedly altered the political landscape for the time being, helping to present a united front of support for Israel and marginalize criticism of the offensive in Washington.

How long the present political alignment will last is another question. It will likely depend upon whether the Gaza war ultimately comes to be viewed as a success for Israel, as well as what course of action President-elect Barack Obama chooses to take in the region. For the moment, participants on both sides of the war debate remained hopeful that the left and center of the Jewish community could patch up their differences to work productively on a solution to the crisis.

(Inter Press Service)

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Daniel Luban writes for Inter Press Service.

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