What Is U.S. Jewish Role in Gaza?


A desk cluttered with papers — things to do, meetings to arrange. A demanding computer monitor — so many e-mails relentlessly calling for response. Yet my sense that we are approaching a watershed moment in Jewish history makes me want to push everything else aside.

I ask myself what we might do in the organized American Jewish community, the largest and most influential Diaspora community, to help prevent a looming confrontation — possibly heaven forbid violent in nature — between opposing forces in Israel.

This July, Israel will implement the government’s plan to evacuate Jews living in the Gaza Strip and areas of the West Bank. Opponents of this policy, as we have been hearing and reading, are preparing a series of measures, including massive civil disobedience intended to prevent this from taking place. Other, more radical opponents, we have been informed, may be planning even more extreme actions.

There is the appearance here of two speeding trains on a collision course. Not just any trains, but ones carrying our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel.

I firmly believe that there is a Jewish community consensus position on this issue. While there are thoughtful people on both sides of the disengagement policy, the organized Jewish community overwhelmingly supports it. And it is not simply because it is a policy of the democratically elected Israeli government in Jerusalem.

I believe the support is fundamentally rooted in the merits of the initiative, which was intended not as a reward to the Palestinians, but as a necessary step to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. The fact that it will now be coordinated with a new Palestinian leader, who appears to be serious about a peaceful resolution of the conflict, is a bonus.

I believe our Jewish community has great empathy for Jewish residents in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, who must make painful personal sacrifices by leaving their homes of many years. In addition, there is recognition of the national sacrifice associated with departing parts of our beloved Land of Israel.

We also respect the right of those who disagree with the government’s policies to engage in legal protest. But we reject and denounce any call for violence or efforts to delegitimize the country’s democratic processes. With deep emotions rising on both sides, it is incumbent upon all responsible leaders, whatever their position may be on disengagement, to express their views with civility.

It has been a basic principle in our community that as American Jews — who live here and not there, whose children are not asked to serve in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] — we should avoid becoming enmeshed in Israel’s internal political discussions. Over time, that principle has served us well and has reinforced an understanding of our primary role, which is to advocate for a strong

U.S.-Israel relationship and to help Israel meet the social and economic challenges it faces.

But there are rare times when it is much more than a simple political debate, when what is happening goes to the core of Israel’s identity as the state of the Jewish people, when the very future of the Zionist enterprise is on the line. I believe we are at such a juncture in Jewish history.

Even though 10 years have passed, I remember the moment as though it was yesterday, when my wife came to me with the shocking news that Prime Minister Rabin had been assassinated by a Jewish extremist. Her words went through me like a knife, and I cried off and on all day — my grief accentuated by the fact that we at the JCPA [Jewish Council for Public Affairs] had just met with him in Tel Aviv the week before.

Did we recognize sufficiently the poisonous climate that led up to this tragedy? Could we have taken some action to calm the situation? I continue to ask myself those questions.

Our choice is clear. Either we can be observers of this unfolding drama from the sidelines and pray for the best. Or, in the remaining months before July, we can come together as a community, representing the full spectrum of religious and political perspectives, to consider how to communicate our convictions and feelings to the Israeli people directly, in the hope that we will help shape — and not merely be witnesses to Jewish history.

Martin J. Raffel is acting executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.