It has long been of concern that the vigorous public debate that rages in Israel is not replicated either among American Jewish organizations or policy makers in Washington. I've noted before how, in the early part of the 2000 Presidential election, then-Vice Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman observed that "it is easier to debate an issue like the status Jerusalem in the Israeli Knesset than it is in the U.S. Senate."
While the voices of the establishment American Jewish organizations have often dominated policy discussions on Middle East issues, below the surface, polls have shown that majorities of American Jews were decidedly pro-peace and uncomfortable with hard-line Israeli practices. But this tendency had no outlet, and so policy makers were left with the impression that to be pro-Israel meant to support the most hawkish Israeli position.
But no more.
In the past several years, the emergence of pro-peace American Jewish organizations has provided an alternative voice on critical Middle East issues. This has become quite clear when assessing how Jewish organizations, both old and new, are responding to the crisis that erupted in Gaza.
The older hard-line groups have adopted predictably hawkish positions. They, as always, have not only supported whatever Israel has done but, like a criminal defense attorney defending a guilty client, they defiantly denied the undeniable. In their view, Israel's response is a "fundamental right," morally and legally justified. Israel "takes great care" to avoid civilian casualties and is therefore, by necessity, not responsible for Palestinian civilian deaths. And since the only problem is the enemy Israel is seeking to destroy, the solution is that the enemy either be eliminated or transformed.
With this defiant "take no prisoners" approach, they have left Presidents and Members of Congress with little choice - either demonstrate like-minded uncritical support for Israel, despite what you are seeing on the ground, or face our wrath.
But now comes a new set of Jewish voices, arguing that, of course, Hamas is wrong, but that this show of overwhelming force by Israel will only escalate the cycle of violence. Expressing concern for Israel's security and remorse for Palestinian suffering, these groups all understand that the violence is unproductive and a result of the absence of real peace. They, therefore, all insist on a serious push toward a just peace as the way forward.
It is not a question of whose voice is the loudest, but that at last there is a debate reflecting the diversity of views within the American Jewish community. This, by itself, may help open up the policy debate.
To illustrate how stark the divide is, below are some excerpts from statements on the situation in Gaza, first from the "establishment" hard-line groups, then followed by the newer pro-peace organizations:
American Jewish Committee
"Hamas has only itself to blame for the current events. It's leaders, choosing to pursue terror against Israel rather than the welfare of the Palestinian people.... No nation...could withhold response indefinitely to an unrelenting siege of its civilian population. ...We can only hope that one day soon Gazans will wake up and realize that, as long as a terrorist group remains in power, they have chosen a dead-end strategy."
American Israel Public Affairs Committee
"AIPAC urges Congress and the Administration to stand firmly with Israel as it strives to defend itself against a renewed assault by Hamas terrorists."
Zionist Organization of America
"Palestinian civilian casualties are the clear result of Hamas' deliberate policy of placing its personnel...in civilian areas. ...We urge others who are concerned about civilian loss of life to condemn Hamas for this war crime as well, without which any expression of concern for civilians can have no meaning."
"Israel's attack on Hamas represents the most fundamental right and responsibility of any government to protect its people. ...No government could act differently in the face of such challenges. ...At the same time, despite the placement of Hamas of its terrorist infrastructure in the heart of its own civilian population, another violation of international law, Israel took great care to avoid civilian casualties."
"While this morning's air strikes by Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza can be understood and even justified in the wake of recent rocket attacks, we believe that real friends of Israel recognize that escalating the conflict will prove counterproductive, igniting further anger in the region and damaging long-term prospects for peace and stability. Respecting Israel's right to defend itself, we urge leaders there to recognize that there is no military solution to what is fundamentally a political conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Today's IDF strikes will deepen the cycle of violence in the region."
Americans for Peace Now
"APN mourns the loss of life and the suffering on both sides...[calls] on the government of Israel to ends its military operation in the Gaza Strip...strongly denounces the firing of rockets and mortar rounds from Gaza into Israel... [and] expresses deep concern over the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Gaza."
Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
"Though some Israeli action is an understandable response to continued rocket fire from Hamas, and the idea of contained surgical strikes may be compelling, these airstrikes represent a huge escalation of the conflict - a crisis that may end in a wider war in which many more Palestinians will and Israelis will die in the weeks to come. The now familiar sequence of escalating mutual hostility, invasion, and withdrawal without security arrangements has never worked.... Israel's only hope for survival as a secure and democratic Jewish homeland lies in a diplomatic - rather than military - solution, and in a negotiated peace with the Palestinians."
Israel Policy Forum
"The human cost of this escalation is intolerable and the missile attacks on Israel must end. ...IPF therefore calls on the United States to push for an international effort to bring about an immediate Hamas-Israel truce, negotiated by intermediaries."