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Time for the pro-Israel community to unite

Do the B'nai Jeshurun rabbis intend to pray at the Kotel next time they visit Israel?

Israel today is facing greater military threats than at any time since 1948. On its northern borders, Syria may be readying its chemical weapons and Hezbollah is awaiting instructions from Iran regarding its thousands of missiles aimed at Israeli population centers. To the southwest, Egypt is in turmoil and its Muslim Brotherhood partner Hamas is repeating its religiously based promise to destroy Israel and claim all of the land from the river to the sea. To the south, Sudan is serving as a conduit for rockets being shipped to Gaza. To the east, Jordan, where instability is growing, is celebrating the Palestinian Authority’s victory at the General Assembly. Finally, and most important, Iran is continuing in its quest to develop nuclear weapons capable of striking Israeli cities.

At the same time, support for Israel in Europe and among academics throughout the world is weakening, and calls for boycott strengthening.

One would think that this was a time for Jewish supporters of Israel to put aside their differences and unite in defense of the Jewish state. But American Jews are more divided than ever before.

Consider for example the actions taken by the leaders of an influential New York synagogue immediately after the General Assembly voted to accord the Palestinian Authority observer status as a state within the 1967 borders. The rabbis and lay-leadership of congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a popular synagogue in Manhattan, praised the U.N. and described its vote as “a great moment for us as citizens of the world.”

When they made this statement, did the rabbis realize that, according to the vote, the Western Wall (the holiest site in Judaism) is being illegally occupied by the Israeli government? Did they realize that the decision of the government to set aside the area for Jewish prayer could now be deemed a war crime punishable by the International Criminal Court? Do the rabbis intend to pray at the Kotel next time they visit Israel? Or are they prepared to advise their congregants not to set foot on this Palestinian land now illegally occupied by Israel?

Do the rabbis realize that under the General Assembly vote the access route to Hebrew University on Mount Scopus is now on illegally occupied Palestinian land and that the Israeli government’s decision to reopen the Mount Scopus campus following the 1967 War may now also be considered a war crime? Do the rabbis intend to advise their congregants not to attend Hebrew University or to boycott the scholars who now illegally traverse Palestinian land to get to their offices and research facilities?

Do the rabbis understand that according to the General Assembly vote, the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, where Jews lived for more than 2,000 years until they were ousted by Jordan in 1948, is illegally occupied Palestinian territory, and that Israel’s decision to rebuild the synagogues destroyed by the Jordanians can now be deemed a war crime? Do these rabbis intend to stay away from the Jewish Quarter when they next visit Israel and advise their congregants to do the same?

I doubt very much whether these well-intentioned but extraordinarily naïve rabbis and lay-leaders understand the implications of the vote they so heartily approve. For them the vote was a symbolic gesture in favor of the two-state solution.

But do they know that a large percentage of the governments voting for Palestinian statehood do not recognize Israel’s right to exist and would clearly vote against Israeli statehood if given the opportunity? Indeed, a majority of those countries voted in 1975 to declare Zionism a form of racism. Even though the General Assembly was eventually pressured into rescinding that vote, its spirit hovered over the General Assembly as it does over many of the constituent organizations within the United Nations.

Naïveté and ignorance are not an excuse for supporting immoral actions, especially when this support comes from rabbis and congregational leaders who ought to do their homework before lending their good names to resolutions whose implications they do not understand.

Already the Palestinian Authority has threatened to use this resolution to bring charges against Israel for war crimes. Do the rabbis support the bringing of such charges? If they are brought, will the rabbis send out an email declaring the bringing of charges to be “a great moment?”

I too support the two-state solution, but I support it based on a negotiated resolution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli government’s official position is to welcome negotiations with no preconditions. The Palestinian Authority insists on preconditions, including a prior total settlement freeze.

When Israel imposed a freeze, the Palestinian Authority refused to come to the bargaining table until just before the freeze expired, and then demanded an extension of the freeze. I have proposed that the Palestinian Authority agree to enter into negotiations first, and that the Israeli government then agree to a freeze.

I have been joined in that proposal by Peter Beinart and others who favor a negotiated two-state solution. The unilateral demand for statehood, approved by the General Assembly, makes it less likely that the Palestinian Authority will agree to begin negotiations, since they now believe they can get what they want without having to give up anything at the bargaining table.

I am sure that those of us who occasionally attend services at B’nai Jeshurun, as I do, and those who are members and frequent attendees, are deeply divided about these issues. It required incredible chutzpah and insensitivity to the intelligence of congregants for the rabbis and lay-leaders to issue their announcement without first allowing both sides of this issue to be heard and debated.

I hereby challenge the rabbis to debate this issue in front of their entire congregation. I am confident that if the congregation hears both sides of this issue they will have grave doubts about whether the unilateral General Assembly action represents “a great moment,” rather than a step backward in the quest for peace. I am also confident that after hearing both sides of the controversy, many congregants will be appalled at the decision of their rabbis to speak in their names without giving them an opportunity to be heard. Even congregations require a modicum of due process and freedom of dissent, both of which were denied the congregants of B’nai Jeshurun.

Following my challenge, the rabbis backed down a bit and sent a conciliatory email to their congregants. But this email did not in any way back away from the substance of the original email.

At the same time J Street is devoting most of its energy to persuading members of Congress and the Obama administration to help the Palestinian Authority and to favor a containment policy toward Iran’s nuclear program by taking the military option off the table. The rest of their energy seems to be devoted to attacking the policies of the current Israeli government. Almost none of its resources are devoted to defending Israel’s actions in the court of public opinion.

This is a time for supporters of Israel to focus on what I call “the eighty percent case” – those areas in which there is widespread agreement among pro-Israel supporters with regard to the external dangers currently faced by Israel. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there is a time for divisive debate and a time for unity. This is the time to put our legitimate difference on hold and to unite in support of Israel as it confronts considerable external danger.

Parts of this article appeared earlier in The Forward.

About the Author
Alan M. Dershowitz is professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and author of “The Case Against the Iran Deal: How Can We Now Stop Iran from Getting Nukes?"