RELIGION

American Jewish Groups Largely Quiet On Netanyahu's Controversial Campaign Statements

03/19/2015 02:24 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2015
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WASHINGTON -- Many influential American Jewish organizations have avoided condemning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent controversial comments about Arab Israelis and about the prospects for a Palestinian state, despite the damage those statements appeared to have caused to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Ahead of his party's victory in Israeli's elections on Tuesday, Netanyahu warned, "The right-wing government is in danger, Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polling stations,” to encourage supporters of his party, Likud, to turn out. (The coalition of Arab parties ended up taking 13 seats, making it the third-largest party in the new parliament.)

One day earlier, Netanyahu promised that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not happen if he were to lead the next government, echoing lesser-noticed comments he made last year.

President Barack Obama's administration didn't hesitate to characterize Netanyahu's comments as "divisive." But a number of leading American Jewish organizations have remained silent on the matter. Three of the biggest groups -- the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America -- did not comment publicly on Netanyahu's remarks. None of the three responded to The Huffington Post's request for comment.

The reception to the prime minister's comments reveals a key fault line, because the American Jewish community is sharply divided about whether being "pro-Israel" means unequivocally supporting the Israeli government. The controversy revives a debate that emerged in the lead-up to Netanyahu's March 3 speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not consult the White House before inviting Netanyahu to give the address, prompting some Democrats to skip the speech. Some American Jewish groups said the speech hurt the U.S.-Israel relationship, while others stayed silent or worked behind the scenes to ameliorate the tension.

The Anti-Defamation League, whose stated mission is to fight "all forms of bigotry" and "defend democratic ideals," was one of the groups that criticized Netanyahu for the address to Congress. ADL National Director Abe Foxman called for the prime minister to cancel the speech, saying it was unhelpful for U.S.-Israel ties.

But an ADL statement released after Tuesday's election only alluded indirectly to Netanyahu's controversial comments this week.

"Regretfully, this campaign was too often marked by extreme and divisive statements by candidates," said Foxman and ADL National Chair Barry Curtiss-Lusher in the statement. "We urge leaders of all parties to work to reach out to all segments of Israel’s society and heal these wounds."

A representative for B'nei Brith International, a Jewish human rights group, told HuffPost the group would not be commenting on Netanyahu's remarks. But the organization did release a public statement congratulating "the Israeli people on another successful election in which all citizens were able to exercise their inalienable right to choose their representatives in the government," and saying the relationship between the U.S. and Israel "has endured for many decades because of the fundamental democratic values the two countries share."

The Jewish Council on Public Affairs congratulated Netanyahu on his victory and said it "commends all of the parties for their commitment to a fair and free democratic process."

"We believe that progress can be made in creating two states for two peoples, and that the next government can make sure that all Israelis, Arab and Jew alike, feel a sense of security and belonging in the nation we care so deeply about," Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the JCPA, said in a public statement.

There were several notable exceptions, however. Religious leaders, for example, felt more comfortable criticizing Netanyahu's remarks.

"The final hours of the campaign -– including the prime minister's renunciation of his commitment to a two-state solution as well as his naked appeal to his hard-right bases' fears rather than their hopes – were disheartening," Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism said in a statement. "Israel deserves better, especially from a prime minister who holds himself out as the leader of the entire Jewish people."

"Because we proudly and unreservedly continue our unflagging support for the State of Israel, its citizens and its values, we must condemn the prime minister's statement, singling out Arab citizens for exercising their legitimate right to vote," said Rabbi William Gershon and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, referring to Netanyahu's comments about Arab voter turnout. Gershon and Schonfeld are, respectively, president and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

"It is incumbent upon Jews around the world to denounce the Prime Minister’s divisive and undemocratic statement and we do so here," they said.

Another vocal critique came from J Street, the liberal Jewish advocacy group that has never shied from criticizing Netanyahu's stances on settlement construction in the West Bank and negotiations with the Palestinians. The group released a statement that was much more strongly worded than those from other groups.

"The Prime Minister’s renunciation of the two-state solution and resort to a campaign grounded in fear and tinged with racism successfully moved 150,000 votes from other right-wing parties into the Likud column in the campaign’s final days," said J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami. "But we fear that the cost to Israel in the long run will be steep in terms of support here in the United States and internationally."

"Contrary to the prime minister's panicked attack on the participation of Arab citizens in the election," Ben-Ami added, "we view their increased participation in this year’s election as a positive sign about the strength of Israeli democracy."

In an interview with NBC News/MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” Thursday, Netanyahu attempted to walk back his remarks, saying that he wants "a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution." He denied that he was racist for his warning that Israeli Arab citizens voting posed a danger.

In 2014, Netanyahu said, "There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan," which amounted to a rejection of the terms that would be necessary for a Palestinian state.

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