American Jewry must take a stand on Mideast peace

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For Rosh Hashanah, American Jewry needs to make a hard hitting cheshbon hanefesh (soul reckoning) with itself over its behavior since the Israeli peace process has begun.

Maimonides says that the shofar carries a message: "Sleepers, wake up…You who are comatose, arouse yourselves from your deep sleep! Analyze your behaviors and turn to repentance…"

No one needs to hear this message more than the leadership of American Jewry, which is best described as sleep-walking through the peace process.

Ever since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the American Jewish effort for Israel has been limping. It was almost as if people were relieved of a burden — and were only too willing to step aside. Some of the blame must go to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who attacked the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as if it were interfering with Israel's sovereign government. Since then, a combination of internal turmoil, long pent-up rivalry and jealousy by other groups and a split between hawkish and dovish elements has weakened America's best foreign policy lobby.

The Labor government has taken a courageous, high-risk gamble for peace. However, the extent of the risk, the costs to Israel and the legitimate internal debate over the policy in Israel have not been made clear to the American public. This leaves Israel more vulnerable to a breakdown in the process.

Within a year's time the deeply divided Israeli public could install a Likud government that could withdraw from the present process — yet the American public is essentially unprepared for such a policy choice. To act as if Israel is out of the woods in terms of international support is a classic case of self-delusion and premature messianism.

The peace process is testimony to the achievement of Jewish power. The collapse of the Soviet Empire, the persistence of American support for Israel combined with the political-economic-military strength of Israel convinced enough Arab leaders to deal with the reality of a Jewish state. This is a stunning victory for the 50-year Jewish policy of rebuilding Jewish strength after the Holocaust.

The Israeli government's decision was also a triumph of the ethics of Jewish power — the Jewish commitment to exercise our strength morally in the real world. In an ideal world, the Jewish achievement would include the full restoration of biblical Israel, including such classic foci of the Jewish soul as Hebron (home of the Patriarchs), Shechem (ancient religious center) and Judea (the focus of biblical life).

But Arabs are heavily settled in these areas and seeking their own national dignity and independence. Rejecting brutal suppression or the incorporation of the Arabs in a way that could undermine Israel's Jewish character and its democracy, the government opted to strike a territorial compromise that is painful to national memory and risky in terms of security and vulnerability to terror.

To succeed, this courageous moral choice requires statesmanship, moral passion and the wisdom to achieve sufficient security and freedom from terrorism. In a real world, the government had to pursue this policy with a deeply disliked partner, Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Moreover, the partner was not unified in accepting Israel's right to exist and not fully committed to make the peace functional by facing down groups like the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas and curbing terror actions.

Inside Israel, a legitimate policy debate broke out. Was the PLO committed and dependable enough? Was the proposed peace worth the price in lost territory and historical memory, weakened national unity — not to mention economic costs of uprooting and/or defending the settlers?

Unfortunately, American Jewry took a holiday. The vacuum was soon filled by people who were totally opposed to any territorial concessions — an expression of their political naivete and/or ideological messianism. Spokesmen poured vituperation on the government and used terms like `traitor' and `criminal' about Rabin.

As it turned out, the religious and political right had better connections to the newly installed Republican majority, so their views received even more visibility.

During this moratorium of leadership, talk of significant diversions of American Jewish funding from Israel has grown apace, creating the impression of alienation from Israel. But the bulk of American Jewry does not want to distance from Zionism. Israel will be desperately needed as a resource for inspiring and educating American Jewish youth and future leaders; Israel remains the great model of Jewish life and vitality and the focus for Jewish loyalty and identity.

Three immediate steps can turn this situation around.

First, over the High Holy Days, all American rabbis should speak on the significance of Israeli policy — including the degree of risk and the legitimate policy disagreements on Israel. The sub-theme should be that if peace is achieved, it will pave the way for a new partnership to renew Jewish life worldwide in which Israel will be a major resource and partner.

Second, the organizational leadership of American Jewry, together with AIPAC, should launch a broad public information campaign to make clear both the extent of Israel's risk and the limited Arab response. At the least, this will reduce the risk that a shift in the Israeli elections will damage Israel's standing.

Third, in the past, when left-wing criticism of Israeli policy went too far and threatened to delegitimize Israel, American Jewish communal leadership came down hard on the critics. We now know that the best policy is not to deny the right to criticize, but rather "criticism, yes; delegitimation, no."

The right wing must do the same thing now to its own extremists. "Criticism, yes, but delegitimation — and foreclosing Israeli policy options — no."

A significant first step was taken in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations' resolution requiring civility in discourse on the issues. But a crackdown is now in order.

Winning the peace is subtler and more elusive than winning the war. Moral maturity and sobriety and a higher level of responsibility are needed to convert this opportunity — or the next one, if this fails — into a permanent settlement. Rosh Hashanah is the time for repentance and new policies. The writer is president of CLAL — the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.