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Jewish World Review /Jan. 27, 1999 / 10 Shevat, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin

Israel and Us:
Putting Up or Shutting Up

LAST WEEK, PHILADELPHIA JEWS spoke out on the plight of Ethiopians who claim Jewish identity and have not yet been brought to Israel. But while this development wasn't considered news outside of the inner circles of the Jewish community, most people -- in Israel and in the United States -- were lapping up the latest news about another story that concerned Israel-Diaspora relations. The break-ins at the Washington offices of the Israel Labor Party's American pollster got a lot of people thinking about the heavy involvement of American advisors and political contributors in the upcoming Israeli elections.

Both stories illustrate the fact that the always-shaky boundary between areas that are the responsibility of American Jews and those that are strictly Israel's business seem to have become more blurred than ever.

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Ironic, isn't it? Just when the conventional wisdom of the day has it that American Jews are less interested in Israel, we seem to be sticking our noses into more places that many Israelis wish we would stay out of. While American Jews are talking about concentrating on their own needs -- like education and finding ways to express Jewish identity not based solely on memories of the Holocaust or solidarity with Israel -- we just can't seem to help involving ourselves more intimately in Israeli affairs.

The problem is, Israelis don't know how to keep us at a distance on the issues where they wish we would shut up, while still keeping us engaged on those where they still want our help.

What's going on here? And, even more important, what should the rule of thumb be for American Jews who speak out about Israeli affairs?

The dispute about whether Ethiopians who claim to be Jewish should be aided is far from unprecedented. This is not the first time American Jews have gotten out in front of Israel on an issue. The recent resolution passed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia calling on Israel to act on the status of the Kwara Jews and Falash Mora was very much in the tradition of the Soviet Jewry movement of the '70s.

Though it is not often remembered, initially, the State of Israel was not in the forefront of agitation on behalf of Soviet Jews. That was left to American Jewish troublemakers who set the pace with noisy demonstrations. Understandably preoccupied with wars and survival, Israel didn't take the lead until long after obstreperous Americans (motivated in no small part by the memory of American Jewish silence during the Holocaust) had won battles, such as the enactment of American trade sanctions against the Soviet Union.

The Ethiopian issue was also largely championed by a small group of American Jewish agitators while Israel debated whether the Ethiopians were actually Jewish. Eventually, Prime Minister Menachem Begin expressed an interest in the issue, and a rabbinic ruling affirming the Ethiopians' Jewishness set the stage for the heroic Israeli airlifts of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

The conclusion to draw from this is that when it come to the plight of any group of Jews around the world, there should be no timidity about American Jews speaking up. It is ultimately Israel's responsibility to defend and take in Jews, no matter what their color or origin. And if it takes a nudge from Americans to help them see their duty, then I say nudge away.

But the most interesting variation on the Israeli-Diaspora minuet involves American Jewish involvement in Israel's elections. The stories about Watergate-style burglaries at the offices of Stanley Greenberg have drawn greater attention to the fact that Israel's political parties have been acting as if they were farm teams for American campaign gurus. In recent years, Republican experts have helped the Likud while Democrats have been aiding Labor.

This goes beyond the Clinton administration's preference for Labor. The open secret of Israeli politics is that the "expert" advice that Labor candidate Ehud Barak gets from Greenberg and Bill Clinton pal James Carville has been paid for by American Jewish donations. The services rendered by GOP hired-gun Arthur Finkelstein for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are likewise believed to have been paid for by a prominent American Jewish billionaire and others who support the prime minister. Since 1994, direct foreign donations to candidates for prime minister have been illegal, but since then -- as well as before -- a lot of the money funneled from American Jews to Israeli candidates went via nonprofit "educational" funds. Charitable causes aren't the only ones to have "American friends."

Is there something wrong with this? Americans have taken great umbrage at the idea of foreign contributors (Bill Clinton's Chinese friends come to mind) playing a part in our electoral process. But Israelis are used to the flow of money from abroad for a host of reasons, and that may explain why they aren't quite so touchy about it.

As for the propriety of American Jewish investment in Israeli elections, I'm not outraged either. Despite the sanctimonious drivel about political contributions that is standard fare these days, I'm one of those who believe that such contributions are the purest form of political speech. Sure, when it comes to war and peace, American Jews aren't putting their lives on the line as Israelis do, but that's an argument that cuts both ways, whether you are sympathetic to the left or the right. If Americans want to help Israeli candidates, what's the great moral difference between political contributions and individual support of a host of causes, many of which have political aspects?

Besides, the inside story on the high-priced American political consultants working in Israel is that their Israeli clients don't always heed their advice. Even the dreaded Finkelstein, (a.k.a. "The Prince of Darkness") who helped elect many conservatives to the U.S. Senate (although lately he is on a losing streak having gone down with the count with the lamented fervently pro-Israel Sen. Al D'Amato) before taking part in the Likud's victorious 1996 campaign, has, according to my sources, complained that Bibi doesn't listen to him! Characteristic Israeli arrogance will trump Diaspora opportunism every time.

It is also hard to imagine the phlegmatic and intellectual Ehud Barak profiting much from James Carville's cajun style of political calumny.

And in a country where television ads are free, how much success can American money buy? We should remember Shimon Peres' famous 1988 expedition to America to collect millions from Charles Bronfman and friends. That only bought him the fourth of his five election defeats.

In the end, the Israelis will sort out their own candidates and make their own decisions. We American Jews have the right -- even the obligation -- to let the Israelis know what we think about their issues and their politics. For example, Israelis should know how we feel about the lack of religious pluralism, because it is only when Israelis (and not American Jews) change their minds about this issue that pluralism will have a chance.

But the bottom line is that no matter what we say, Israelis are still going to do what they think is best. The real question isn't whether we believe they are right or wrong on any given issue. It is whether we will back them even if many of us disagree with their conclusions.

Heaven help us - and them - if we fail in that obligation.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin