Although Ariel Sharon will be remembered primarily for his achievements on the battlefield and his decisions as an Israeli political leader, an often overlooked aspect of his legacy was his impact on the American Jewish community.
In March 1980, Sharon arrived in the US in the midst of an uproar over the Carter administration’s support for a United Nations resolution branding Jerusalem “occupied Arab territory”.
Sharon, as a member of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s cabinet, was invited to address an urgent meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, in New York City.
In his remarks, Sharon criticised US Jewish leaders for not responding more vigorously to the Carter administration’s action. He recalled the hesitant response of some Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, and added: “Jewish silence will bring disaster upon the Jewish people and upon Israel.”
Sharon said he was “shocked” that 100,000 Jews did not march to the White House to protest against the US vote on the UN resolution.
No transcript of the meeting was released, but one report at the time claimed that some of the Jewish leaders in the room “took umbrage at the interference of the Israeli in such strident tones in American Jewish affairs.” An editorial in the New York Jewish Week said Sharon’s advice was “counter-productive” because it might give the American public the impression “that all of America’s foreign policy and domestic problems are based on Israel”.
As it turned out, Sharon was ahead of the curve: American Jewry did follow his advice—22 years later.
In the spring of 2002, Israel was rocked by the Second Intifada. Sharon, who by then was prime minister, ordered Operation Defensive Shield, a major counter-terror offensive throughout the West Bank territories.
Within days, the George W Bush administration was pressing Sharon to halt the operation. US Jews responded precisely as Sharon had been hoping back in 1980: on April 15, 2002, more than 100,000 protesters gathered near the White House to support Israel’s actions. Many evangelical Christians also joined the rally.
The New York Times reported that the rally illustrated the strong support for Israel, and uneasiness over Mr Bush’s position among an emerging coalition of Jews and conservative Christians.
In 2002, unlike in 1980, there were no Jewish leaders “taking umbrage” at the idea of such a rally, and no expressions of fear that supporting Israel would cause a backlash among the American public. Sharon had been vindicated, and a new standard for pro-Israel activism in the United States was beginning to take shape.