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US Jews Divided Over Israeli Withdrawal Plan

Many Israelis support their government’s plan to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank because they expect that combined with the completion of the security wall, it will enhance Israel's security. Others are distressed at the prospect of forcibly removing Jews from the land where they had been living for many years and, until recently, with the blessing of the Israeli government.

American Jews are equally divided over the issue. Paul Scham of the Middle East Institute in Washington says the American-Jewish community traditionally supports the decisions of the Israeli government and society. But today many groups and individuals do not.

“I personally was one of the first back about 12 years ago, when I was lobbying Congress in connection with Peace Now, the Israeli peace group. But also, the groups to the right have done quite a bit as well when they disagreed with Oslo and the more dovish policies of the Israeli government,” says Mr. Scham.

American Jews who support Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan point out that he has spent his life fighting for Israel’s security. So if he wants to withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank, he should not have to answer to Jews who live in peace outside Israel. Paul Scham believes Israel’s withdrawal is an important advance.

“I start from the basic belief that there needs to be a Palestinian state next to a Jewish state in order to create peace. And I think that the disengagement plan is a major, though only first step in accomplishing that,” says Paul Scham.

But many American Jews disagree with Israel’s plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip and four settlements in Samaria on the “west bank” of the Jordan River, a withdrawal scheduled to start this summer. Morton Kline, president of the Zionist Organization of America, says his century-old organization has disagreed with the Israeli government before and is outraged at the latest plan. For example, his group opposed territorial concessions by Yitzak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 and was assassinated the following year.

“Eighty-five percent of Gaza was given away by Rabin in 1994. There’s 15 percent left under Israeli control. This is where 9000 Jews and 2000 Arabs live. And we believe that in the middle of the terror war, where the Palestinian authority continues to promote terror and hatred and murder, this is rewarding terrorism, sending a clear message to terrorists and killers that murdering innocent people pays and pays well,” says Mr. Kline.

Both sides have recently sent protest groups to Israel in support of their respective views. Even though they are American citizens, many Jews consider Israel a homeland, which, they believe, gives them the right to influence its politics.

Perhaps, but not by demonstrations in Israel, say others. The New York Post has criticized New York State assemblyman Dov Hikind for leading a group of 40 protesters to Israel in early March: “Hikind's opposition to the Gaza pullback would be perfectly reasonable were it expressed at home. But by appearing in person, as part of a delegation, he's trying to interfere in the affairs of an independent sovereign nation — not his own.”

Again, Jewish opinion is divided. Basil Herring, executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Council of America, says members of his group -- about one thousand orthodox rabbis –- generally believe the Israeli government should respect the wishes of its people.

“We are indeed very concerned about what is happening there and we are urging Prime Minister Sharon and his government to carry forth some kind of referendum that will clearly demarcate the voice of the majority. And so we are in communication with the Prime Minister and office to do that.”

Rabbi Herring says the Israeli government is primarily responsible to its own citizens, but the opinion of American Jews matters. “Oh, there is no doubt that American Jews do have influence," says Rabbi Herring. "I know that Prime Minister Sharon -- as well as his predecessors -- very much values the role of Jews all over the world and very much value the relationship that Jews have with the state of Israel in terms of Jews coming to live in Israel, Jews financially supporting the state of Israel, Jews speaking to their representatives in government in the US and elsewhere, conveying our sentiments regarding the situation in Israel.”

As Rabbi Herring says, American Jews believe that in true democratic fashion they can express their opinion on political developments anywhere in the world, especially in Israel. But he says ultimately it is up to the citizens of Israel to make the decisions about their future.