In Jewish political life, there are little Jews and big Jews. Little Jews might be college presidents or retired accountants, but they vote (for Democrats mainly), write letters and give money. Big Jews head Jewish organizations. They are the leaders and fund-raisers of the Israel lobby, which lately would appear to be a monolith supporting the Sharon government.
This is a story about a big shift among the big Jews.
Last month, the Bush administration readied itself to release the “road map” leading to a Palestinian state and a secure Israel by 2005. Drafted by a foursome that includes the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, it calls for steps from both sides toward peace, beginning with political reforms, an end to violence by the Palestinians and a freeze on settlements in the occupied territories by the Israelis.
After drafts of the timetable got around, the Israeli government raised objections, and a drumbeat of opposition began among Jewish organizations. The plans were attacked by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, Mortimer Zuckerman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, James Tisch of the United Jewish Community, and by the Washington Institute, which has connections to the leading pro-Israel organization, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC circulated a letter in Congress aimed at countering the road map by saying that the Palestinians bore the burden of achieving peace.
There were rumors that big Jews had resolved to roll up the road map. Because Secretary of State Colin Powell had lost on Iraq, he was weak and dismissible. The Israel lobby could work with hawks in the Defense Department to bring the Bush administration around-and, oh yes, remind politicians about next year’s elections.
Then the monolith cracked.
At the end of April, 16 big Jews-most of them leaders of the federation system that coordinates Jewish giving around the country-held up their hands to say: Enough. Led by Edgar Bronfman of the World Jewish Congress and Larry Zicklin of the New York Federation, they sent a letter to Congressional leaders saying they enthusiastically supported the road map and were alarmed at the opposition.
“We are writing to express our concern over recent efforts to sidetrack implementation of the ‘Road Map,’” they wrote.
“This is the upper echelons of the organized Jewish community,” marveled Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now. “These are machers ,” said a Washington insider, using the Yiddish word for a big Jew. “They’re mostly Democrats, and what they’re saying is: ‘We support Bush’s efforts.’ And to Ariel Sharon, they’re saying: ‘Pull yourself together, buddy-this is the President of the United States. Don’t alienate him.’”
Jonathan Jacoby, the founding director of the centrist Israel Policy Forum, which helped pull the letter together, said: “This letter is significant because it shattered the perception that the active American Jewish community is against the road map. No one can question the bona fides of the people who signed this letter. They are leaders of the center of the community.”
It has been a rule of the Israel lobby that it must speak with unanimity. After all, it is a special interest, a concerned and knowledgeable fraction of the polity trying to leverage an indifferent majority. Its power lies in mobilizing money and votes to influence the outcome of elections. If that small group begins to speak in different voices, its power is dissipated.
The 16 signers are specifically dissipating that power on this issue. They feel that a major opportunity has arisen, and that the Israeli lobby could blow it. They are signaling to Congress and also to George Bush: If you support the road map, you won’t be scalped in the 2004 election cycle.
“For a long time, the American Jewish community was asked to love Israel unconditionally without saying: ‘We agree with this; we don’t agree with that,’” said Judith Stern Peck, a New York Federation board member and former chairwoman who signed the letter. “Whatever it was, we were supposed to stand behind it. I’m passionate about Israel. Very passionate. What I’ve learned to do is love Israel with all its contradictions. And what we’re saying is that it’s O.K. to talk about those contradictions.”
Another of the 16, Marvin Lender, says the group represents American Jewish opinion. “We could have gotten 200,000 signatures, but we didn’t.”
Why did this happen? What are the possible consequences?
Following the collapse of the Camp David initiative and the onset of the suicide bombings in 2000, the American Jewish community became conservative, giving wide support to harsh measures against the Palestinians.
Nearly three years later, the intifada has had grim consequences for Israel. The economy is in shambles, there are few American kids on the street, and there is the endless international questioning of Israeli actions. The letter’s signers are pragmatic people-some with stakes in Israel-but they are also passionate about the place, and they seem to worry that amid these brutalizing realities, the idealistic dream of Israel as a joyful, sunny place is dying.
“We’re witnessing Israel at a critical time, when it’s been pushed right out to the edge by this intifada ,” said Marvin Lender. “The society is being threatened on every level.”
The last couple of months seem to offer a way out. With Saddam gone, the “eastern threat” that many in Israel feared is diminished. The election by the Palestinians of Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister is a positive sign, as is the appointment of a finance minister to take on corruption in the Palestinian Authority.
“After a long period of darkness and despair, when everyone including the peace movement in Israel was feeling a sense of hopelessness, there seems to be, under this Republican administration, hope,” said Dan Fleshler, a public-affairs and media consultant in Jewish advocacy causes.
The letter contains two heresies.
First is its statement that the road map offers the possibility of “escape [from] the bloody status quo,” thereby endorsing the view that Israelis and Palestinians are involved in a cycle of violence.
Belief in a “cycle of violence” has long been unacceptable in the mainstream Jewish community, which has accepted the Sharon government’s militaristic response to bombings. “Not all ‘violence’ is alike, and not all ‘violence’ is illegal or even worthy of condemnation,” wrote Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute. He and other critics of the road map say that its evenhandedness is offensive, that its neutral language lends moral equivalency to Israeli violence and Palestinian violence-for instance, calling for an “immediate end to violence against Palestinians everywhere.”
There is a “sham, even indecent, parallelism between Palestinian and Israeli behavior,” Mr. Satloff wrote.
Many of the 16 signers would agree with the analysis but are simply weary of the argument. “The extremists have been driving this process for two and a half years,” said Alan Solomont, head of the Boston Federation and a signer. “I accept the fact that the Israeli policies have probably reduced the level of successful terrorist actions. But there’s no future in that. We cannot sustain that; it’s not a solution.”
The second heresy in the letter is its view that, post-Saddam, the United States needs to regain its credibility and “improve its relations with key allies around the world, particularly in the Middle East,” and that this will serve Israel. The signers are worldly Americans who believe that our government must demonstrate its independence from Israel so as to be a credible broker with moderate Arab governments.
The letter signals the emergence of a liberal-centrist bloc in American Jewish opinion. It is almost radical in its effort to convince Congress that evenhandedness is not a third rail, that it could even be a political winner.
Amazingly, the letter also holds out the possibility to George Bush that if he stands firm against the hawks, he could actually pick up Jewish votes. “We’re saying we’ll work on Florida for you on this issue,” said one person close to the letter. “We will help you in the Jewish community.”
“I met with George Bush his first week in the White House,” said Joel Tauber, a Michigan manufacturer and signer. “Since then, this President has demonstrated real support for the Israeli position-not in words, but in action-in a host of ways. He won’t do any harm to Israel, and he may do some real good.”
“I don’t think any of these people thought that George Bush was going to extend himself on this issue,” said M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum. “But George Bush can do things that Bill Clinton couldn’t. It’s almost a Nixon-goes-to-China thing: If this conservative Republican is going to support the peace process, then it’s viable.”
The letter has already had distinct effects. Right after it came out, AIPAC published an official statement that, while lukewarm, was more welcoming to the road map than previous signals had suggested.
Now Democratic Congresswoman Lois Capps, of Santa Barbara, Calif., is circulating a pro-road-map letter on Capitol Hill and citing the support from the big Jews. Her letter has bipartisan support, including Republican Darrell Issa, an Arab-American from California, as well as Barney Frank, the senior Jewish Congressman who represents the affluent Boston suburbs, and John Lewis, the civil-rights figure from Georgia. “There isn’t as dominant a view that Congress should never stick its neck out on behalf of pushing both the Palestinians and Israelis to compromise as you might think,” said Jeremy Rabinovitz, Ms. Capps’ chief of staff.
How many will sign on? And what political cover will they give President Bush? To be continued.
For now, a struggle has commenced over the American role in the peace process-and there are, at last, big Jews on both sides.