Diversity Strengthens Israel Advocacy

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October 24, 2003 By: Martin J. Raffel Martin J RaffelOne often hears the view expressed that Jewish political diversity and inclusiveness are incompatible with a coherent, effective Israel advocacy agenda. If only we could emulate the Palestinians, the argument goes – represent one perspective, present one message. No right wing, no left wing – they just make the case that it’s all Israel’s fault all the time. However, there is no need to be jealous; in reality Jewish diversity on Israel is our greatest source of strength. It is at times challenging to balance open debate about what is in Israel’s best interest with the need to articulate strong, unified messages. But the rewards are great. A consensus platform for Israel advocacy divorced from the robust discussion of issues taking place among Israelis and American Jews would be shallow and artificial. Only through the open, respectful and full airing of differing perspectives can we achieve real consensus. That means a readiness on all sides to compromise, to look for bridging formulations that can gain wider support. It also requires a willingness to acknowledge those issues on which consensus is not possible. Disagreement on some issues actually makes the areas of agreement that much more compelling. This principle was underscored most dramatically at a Jewish Council for Public Affairs annual conference in 1992 during the previous Bush administration. At that time, Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir of Israel had requested $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to support Israel’s efforts to absorb the waive of Jewish immigrants coming from the former Soviet Union. The president, angered with the accelerated growth of Israeli settlements under Shamir and then Minister for Housing and Construction Ariel Sharon, refused to grant the guarantees. There was a sharp difference of opinion with respect to settlements in the Jewish community, but members of the anti-settlement camp nevertheless did not want the loan guarantees utilized as leverage to force a change in Israeli policy. At the plenum, Michael Pelavin, former JCPA chair and prominent dove, confronted Richard Haass, then Middle East adviser to the president and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Pelavin, who has since passed away, asserted that as an opponent of Israeli settlements, he would continue to fight vigorously for a settlement freeze. But opposition to settlements, he stressed, should not be interpreted as opposition to loan guarantees. Israel needs them and deserves them, he continued, purely on humanitarian grounds. The crowd of more than 500 delegates, both supporters and critics of settlements, erupted in loud and sustained applause. Haass, quite impressed with the demonstration of wall-to-wall unanimity, responded by saying ani sho’meah, I hear you. In the end, it was recognizing the internal tension within the community on settlements that infused the message with such power. Sweeping policy differences under the rug will only weaken the impact of our consensus positions. In addition, by bringing different Jewish perspectives together under one roof, we plant the seeds for more effective advocacy with a range of non-Jewish influentials. Involving groups on the Jewish left, which are critical of the current Israeli government’s policies, is essential if we wish to build bridges to such left-of-center constituencies. Similarly, Jewish groups on the right will be helpful in addressing conservative audiences, both secular and religious. Despite persistent efforts by Israel’s detractors, American public support for Israel, compared to the Palestinians/Arabs, has remained firm over all these years, usually running at a rate of about four or five to one. The consistency of the anti-Israel message, therefore, has not succeeded in reversing public opinion. American support for Israel is rooted in a sense of shared democratic and moral values. “Israelis are more like us,” you will hear people say. Could it be that the cacophony of voices heard in Israel and American Jews on important policy questions serves to reinforce that perception? Our diversity is our strength, whether in the communities or on the campuses, as long as we don’t allow those issues that divide us to obscure the wide areas of consensus that bring us together. Martin J. Raffel is associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a national umbrella organization comprised of 13 national and 123 local member agencies. His article is reprinted here with permission. To visit the JCPA web site, Click Here.