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Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 1999 /24 Tishrei, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

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All's Fair in Love, War and Jewish Politics

Hypocrisy runs amuck as new charges by the left belie its criticism of the right's tactics -- IS IT EVER OKAY to besmirch the reputation of a fellow Jew? Or any person? Your answer is probably "never." Of course, at the same time, you would probably agree that those who have public responsibilities have to be held publicly accountable.

Sometimes, that means saying things publicly that are hurtful or embarrassing to individuals or groups.

Working out a reasonable balance between carrying out this responsibility while also refraining from gratuitous remarks that serve only to damage the object of scrutiny is the key. Journalists and individuals or groups who speak out on the issues of the day must attempt to make this distinction. Unfortunately, many of us -- journalists included -- have not been doing a good job of that lately.

But, after reading some recent press releases from one Jewish organization blasting other Jewish groups, I realized the issue cannot pass without comment. As debased as the level of political discourse has become in this country, the question of where to set the limits on debate needs to be addressed.

The issue in question is a series of releases that Americans for Peace Now issued this month, in which this group does its best to discredit its ideological opponents that belong to a coalition of groups called the National Unity Coalition for Israel.

For those who need a Jewish politics refresher course, Americans for Peace Now is the American support group for the Israeli group of the same name. Founded originally in opposition to Israel's war in Lebanon, it has lobbied and organized support on behalf of the peace process. The group favors the "land-for-peace" formula and bitterly opposes the existence of Jewish settlements in the territories.

The National Unity Coalition is a loose grouping of pro-Israel groups, some of which are Jewish/Zionists while others are Christian supporters of Israel. Among them are well-known groups like the Zionist Organization of America, as well as a host of little-known organizations. While some, like ZOA, have large memberships and think of themselves as mainstream and centrist, there is no doubt that most of those in the coalition are as right of center (in terms of Israeli politics), as Peace Now is left of center.

Though once ostracized itself as outside of the American Jewish mainstream on Israel, Americans for Peace Now is lately the toast of the Jewish political world. Its supporters - such as President Clinton's National Security Advisor Sandy Berger - have enormous influence on American foreign policy. And its friends in Israel - in Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Labor Party, as well as its left-wing Meretz allies - won the May 1999 elections.

But such success has not deterred Americans for Peace Now from indulging in what the world of politics calls "opposition research." In fact, it has

been emboldened by Barak's elections to embark on a campaign whose purpose seems to be to marginalize and destroy American Jews who disagree with their position. The fruit of the group's research was press releases seeking to paint the National Unity Coalition as extremists who were inciting violence.

What is the proof of this charge? The coalition's Web site posted one article by a far-right-wing Israeli, who wrote that Israel should "ruthlessly destroy" Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his followers.

The article was certainly intemperate and misguided. Publishing the piece was a mistake. But does that mean that all members of the coalition - most of whom have nothing to do with the operation of the Web site - are inciting violence? I don't think so.

In another recent release, Peace Now charged that some of the Christian supporters of Israel in the National Unity Coalition were guilty of "deceptive proselytizing." The point of this was to allege that Jews who were part of the coalition were facilitating the Christian missionizing of Jews.

"As the new Israeli government embarks on an ambitious pursuit of peace, it's time to expose the hidden agenda of some of the opponents of the peace process," said Debra DeLee, President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now.

"Even though part of the coalition's mission is supposedly to build support for the Jewish people, it's effectively providing a front for groups that are secretly trying to destroy Judaism."

The fact that the terms of participation in the coalition specifically prohibited such activity did not deter Peace Now from recklessly seeking to paint all Jews who were skeptical of Oslo as somehow being part of a Christian plot to convert Jews.

A reading of the material supposedly supporting these charges revealed the fact that the Evangelical Christians who ardently support the existence and the security of the State of Israel would like Jews to convert. That's not exactly a surprise, since it is part of their religion. But it supplied little, if any, real proof that the activities of these groups were working to "destroy Judaism" or that any religious activities they undertook had anything to do with their pro-Israel activism.

But that wasn't the point, was it?

The purpose of the release was to smear Peace Now's ideological opponents, and if they had to resort to the old standby of guilt by association to do it, then so be it.

Peace Now deserves a gold medal for hypocrisy. How many times have Jewish groups sought common ground on domestic issues with left-wing Christian groups who are bitter foes of Israel, such as the National Council of Churches?

If it is okay for liberal Jews to ally themselves with the NCC on gun control, abortion or a host of other issues, why is an alliance with right-wing Christian groups who support Israel a crime?

What I find particularly interesting is the fact that Peace Now is using some of the very same tactics the group and its allies decried as "McCarthyism" when employed by its opponents.

For years, the Jewish left has been screaming bloody murder anytime ZOA releases any of its research.

Whether it was Holocaust-museum appointee John Roth or State Department honcho Strobe Talbott, or anyone else who found himself in the cross hairs of ZOA president Mort Klein's rhetorical sights, the standard reaction from the Peace Now crowd is that it is unfair, even "un-American," to use a person's record against them. Especially, that is, if they were left-wingers under attack from the right.

I have no problem with individuals being forced to stand by their own record. If you say or write something, then I believe it is perfectly fair to hold you accountable for it.

There is nothing wrong with, for example, hanging anti-Israel statements around Talbott's neck or forcing Roth to own up to his comparisons of Ronald Reagan to Hitler, as Klein did. Nor would I have any problem with Peace Now taking issue with anything Klein said or wrote.

But what I can't abide is this guilt-by-association routine. To ask us to believe that ZOA or any of the Jewish groups are soft on people who want to destroy Judaism isn't merely bad taste, it is McCarthyism in its purest form. And I can think of no better adjective than that to describe DeLee's diatribe.

Of course, Peace Now isn't the first to use this strategy.

Some on the right have been guilty, too. They, too, have used the tactic of finding an offensive article on a Web site or in a magazine and then tarring everyone who was ever associated with the forum or on a group related to its governing board, with the brush of anti-Israel extremism. And just because they have sometimes done so in a cause I myself might support doesn't make it any better.

But maybe what is need is for both sides of the Jewish argument to take part in their own peace conference, unrelated to the Middle East negotiations. Perhaps a study session on the works of the Chofetz Chaim - Rabbi Israel Meir haKohen (1838-1933) - the leading authority on the Jewish religious laws prohibiting lashon hara -- evil speech -- ought to be on the agenda of such a conference.

One would hope that such a lesson would go a long way toward ending incidents such as these. Given the price the community pays for such assaults on our sensibilities, it would seem to be a reasonable request of those who would claim to be our leaders.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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