News Analysis: Right-wing revolution realigning U.S. Jewry

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NEW YORK — The victory of Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu promises to shake the American Jewish establishment upside down.

Centrist organizations already are shifting their rhetoric to reflect a changing consensus on the peace process. Meanwhile, right-wingers marginalized the past four years for their opposition to the peace process are trading places with the left-wing "peace camp" groups.

Yet some right-wing activists are toning down their enthusiasm for the sake of unity around Netanyahu. Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, shuns what he terms "triumphalism" despite his "joy that Bibi won."

"As concerned as I've been that this peace lacked security, the greater challenge facing Am Yisrael [the Jewish people] is we're really polarized and that's what really threatens" us, Weiss said.

Still, Netanyahu's election, and the victory of Israel's political and religious right, is already creating reverberations in the American Jewish community.

Some wonder if Israel's turn to the right could alienate diaspora Jewry's grass roots, which is largely non-Orthodox and more liberal.

The rise of the religious right is "an enormous blow to the possibility of partnership" between Israel and the diaspora in enhancing Jewish religious life and civilization," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

"Israel will be seen and present itself as [an] advocate for a medieval religious point of view, a point of view which is openly and explicitly hostile to our religious concerns."

Such alienation among U.S. Jews could mean Israel may play a less central role in non-Orthodox spiritual life and in mainstream Jewish fund-raising, which has historically been linked to aiding Israel.

Israel's Orthodox parties have pledged to roll back reforms granting some legal legitimacy to the non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

Of immediate concern is a pledge by these Orthodox parties to nullify a recent Supreme Court ruling opening the way to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel.

Also worrisome for the non-Orthodox is talk of a "basic law," which would assign virtually quasi-constitutional status to the Orthodox monopoly on religious life, usually termed the "status quo."

For his part, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of the ultra-religious Agudath Israel of America, welcomed the changes.

"In essence it means the constant erosion of the religious status quo will now grind to a halt," he said.

Diaspora Jews "should be delighted that in Israel there are enough Jews who want to maintain Jewish tradition and put an end to the waves of assimilation and intermarriage," he said.

Still, Sherer said he is saddened by the fact that this development might hasten the division between Israel and non-Orthodox diaspora Jews, but he also sees it as "inevitable," given the "path of Reform further and further away from religion."

And blaming the Orthodox for disunity is like "blaming a faithful spouse for the breakup of a marriage," he said. "The fault lies with those who stray."

But Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political science professor, said a coalition of nationalist and religious parties that tries to stop "Israel's move toward an open society" would "create the largest Jewish ghetto in history."

"This kind of Israel will not be attractive to the Jewish world."

Another Hebrew University professor, Steven Cohen, an expert on Israel-diaspora relations, said non-Orthodox diaspora Jews would "either walk away in alienation and disgust or stay to fight to retake Israel for themselves and for people like them."

In fact, the conflict could prove healthy for the Israel-diaspora relationship, Cohen said.

"I'd be worried if American Jews didn't protest the changes," he said. "It would mean they didn't care."

On the political front, surveys before the election showing that the majority of American Jews supported the Labor government's handling of the peace process suggest that the shift to a Likud policy may spark organizational tensions.

In the days after the election, groups such as Americans for Peace Now and the Zionist Organization of American sent faxes to Jewish media taking opposing views.

But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, discounted any emergence of broad divisions.

"I believe the American Jewish majority doesn't identify with Labor or Likud but with the state of Israel," he said.

Furthermore, Hoenlein added, "Bibi is someone who appreciates Israel's relationship with the United States and with the diaspora and won't want to alienate" either one in politics or in religion.

Hoenlein's conference as well as other centrist and umbrella Jewish organizations are expected to adjust gracefully to the political change, despite the fact that they have touted, with varying degrees of energy, the line of the Labor government on the Arab-Israeli peace process.

After all, they made the reverse swing only four years ago, after 15 years of a Likud-led government.

After last week's vote, the leaders of these organizations were warning against an overreaction.

It was the late Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin who, despite hawkish politics, orchestrated the Camp David Accords with Egypt, they cautioned.

And though they expect Netanyahu to soften, they said it is too soon to declare peace dead.

"I don't seen this as cataclysmic, I don't see this as revolutionary," Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said of Netanyahu's victory.

Peres followed "the express lane to pursue the peace process," he said, while Netanyahu's takes "the local lane."

But the rancor that plagued the debate over the peace process before and after November's assassination of Yitzhak Rabin may explode again over big issues such as settlement expansion, U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian statehood.

Left-wing organizations such as Americans for Peace Now have vowed to resume their role in the opposition and fight any policy it sees as blocking peace.

"We intend to organize to a maximum of our ability to prevent a rollback" in the process should Netanyahu deliver on his campaign pledges, said Gary Rubin, APN's executive director.

Thomas Smerling, head of Project Nishma, a pro-peace process group, said larger Jewish organizations "will fall into line very quickly" with Netanyahu.

Indeed, as soon as any of his policies "elicit world criticism, most will run even faster to circle their wagons because that is the role they're accustomed to."

But he said peace process supporters would be unable to "rationalize the indefensible."

"If it's a replay of [ex-Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir, where Bibi invites the Arabs to the table while building settlements madly, there will be exponentially greater dissent than there was five years ago, because so many people have seen what's possible."

Some insiders fear that the free-for-all that began on Capitol Hill in recent years may only intensify and further undermine the political clout of the pro-Israel lobby, whose hallmark has been a unified front.

But Morton Klein, the ZOA president who was criticized for his high-profile lobbying against the peace process, was sanguine.

Saying he has been vindicated as "mainstream" by the elections, Klein added he foresees a "period of healing" among most mainstream Jewish groups.

Yet, Klein added, leftists will "be complaining vociferously about pressure that will be placed on Yasser Arafat to honor his commitments to the Oslo Accords or about Jews moving to Judea and Samaria."