American Jews turn against Obama as Israel rift deepens

By Nathan Guttman, March 18, 2010
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As the row over new building plans in east Jerusalem evolved from a diplomatic embarrassment to a major crisis between Jerusalem and Washington, the American Jewish approach to the conflict shifted as well.

Initially, Jewish groups chose to sit out the dispute, knowing no good could come of taking either side in the debate. Support for Israeli settlement activity was never part of the mainstream Jewish community thinking in the US. Backing Israel on this issue would be even more difficult than in previous cases, since Mr Netanyahu had already acknowledged that the announcement of a new building project in Ramat Shlomo was a mistake.

But as the dispute deepened and after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed Mr Netanyahu in person and in public, Jewish groups decided it was time to jump in.

Leading the way with his characteristic fiery rhetoric was the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman, who issued a statement saying he was "shocked and stunned at the administration's tone and public dressing down of Israel".

Aipac's stance surprised many in Washington

Hawkish groups such as the Zionist Organisation of America and the Orthodox Union followed suit, but it was only when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) weighed in on Sunday that the shift in mainstream Jewish opinion was complete.

In its statement, Aipac called the administration's handling of the dispute "a matter of serious concern" and urged Mr Obama's White House to stop making demands of Israel. It was followed by a letter to the group's 100,000 members in which they were asked to call their representatives in Congress and urge them to contact Secretary of State Clinton in order to "immediately defuse the current tension with Israel".

Aipac's stance surprised many in Washington. The group rarely gets into a public dispute with the administration and praises itself on having the best of ties with any president sitting in the Oval Office. The move was also unusual in its timing. Aipac will be holding its annual policy conference next week and an open conflict with the administration would not reflect well on the lobby's bipartisan image.

But Aipac's action and the statements by other Jewish groups did seem to have an impact. Within days members of Congress began expressing their support for Israel and issued calls to put an end to this conflict. For Republicans it was an easy target and a good opportunity to attack the Obama administration, but Democrats also made their voices heard, stressing not their criticism of the administration but their wish to return relations to normal.

But within the Jewish communal world, some felt Aipac had crossed the line in favouring Israel's view over that of their own government. The two doveish Jewish groups, J-Street and Americans for Peace Now (APN), came out in full support of Mr Obama. APN even launched a campaign calling on supporters to state that Aipac did not represent them.

But a statement issued on Tuesday by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations made clear that most of the Jewish organisational world does see Aipac's view as a true representation of their own. The statement praised Israel's handling of the crisis, came out against the administration's continued criticism and argued for Israel's right to build in east
Jerusalem.

This statement, which concluded a week of Jewish rallying for Israel's cause, put the American Jewish community squarely in Israel's corner, even if that meant turning against an administration widely supported by the community.

Last updated: 5:05pm, March 18 2010