As the bloodshed continues unabated in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, one voice has been eerily absent from American public discourse on the violence. Strangely, the leadership of America's major Jewish organizations--which has long dominated the debate about U.S. policy vis--vis Israel and the Palestinians, has responded with a deafening silence.
Silence when Israeli hard-liner Ariel Sharon and 1,000 soldiers paid a provocative "visit" to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, lighting the fuse of the current explosion of violence. Silence when Israeli soldiers shot and killed Palestinian demonstrators at those same holy sites the following day after the Muslim Friday congregational prayers. Silence when a horrified world saw video footage of 12-year-old Muhammad Durra of Gaza cut down by four Israeli bullets as he clung to his father desperately for protection. And silence when Israel began using helicopter gun ships and rockets against Palestinian demonstrators, over 130 of whom have been killed and 4,000 injured.
Numerous Israeli commentators have condemned Sharon's visit to the Muslim holy sites, and even some Israelis expressed outrage at the images of Muhammad Durra's death. Why, then, are most American Jewish leaders so silent? It seems that many of these leaders have adopted a reflexive, knee-jerk posture that espouses the mantra, "Israel, right or wrong". Alternatively, some have adopted the even more extreme belief that "Israel can do no wrong". In a few instances, the silence has been punctuated by comments of support for Israel's heavy-handed tactics by pro-Israel apologists. For instance, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, met with Ariel Sharon shortly before the latter's "visit" to the Muslim holy sites and gave a speech in which he urged
American Jews to oppose any solution that would transfer sovereignty of the holy sites away from Israel. The group has gone so far as to place a full-page ad in the New York Times (October 8) urging American Jews to stand by Israel. In doing so, he effectively aligned his umbrella organization with the hard-line extreme of Israeli politics--and undermined prevailing U.S. policy--at a critical juncture in peace negotiations.
One courageous exception has been San Francisco Rabbi and editor of Tikkun Magazine, Michael Lerner, who issued a statement calling on synagogues to include a prayer of atonement in their Yom Kippur services to "acknowledge the brutality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza".
Lerner also noted that Israel "should atone for their constant use of disproportionate force to repress an essentially unarmed population", and for "the deep racism in their society". He was immediately chastised by his colleagues for daring to breach the "code of silence". The refusal or unwillingness of most American Jewish leaders to speak out at this time is disheartening. It also represents a double standard. These same organizations have been quick to point a finger at American Muslim leaders in the past, accusing them of not explicitly condemning terrorist attacks and even accusing them in several instances of condoning violence. While this litmus test has been applied to American Muslim leaders, mainstream American Jewish organizations apparently do not believe it applies to them. This double standard only serves to damage already fragile attempts at improving interfaith relations between America's Muslims and Jews. Moreover, the shameful silence in the face of rising Palestinian casualties conveys the distinct impression that the only lives worth protecting are Jewish lives.
There is a growing international consensus that Israel has acted with excessive force in response to Palestinian demonstrators. Large-scale popular demonstrations are taking place not only throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds, but in major American and European cities as well. The United Nations Security Council voted 14-0 (with only the U.S. abstaining) to condemn the "excessive use of force against Palestinians". Amnesty International has condemned the "excessive use of force" by Israel and called for a U.N. investigation. Some American Christian leaders, such as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank Griswold, have called upon Israel to refrain from the use of a "disproportional military response". It is time for America's Jewish leaders to adopt a courageous stance and join the interfaith community in condemning the brutal force being inflicted against the Palestinian people in the name of the Jewish state. Otherwise, their silence can only be interpreted as complicity.
(Riad Abdelkarim is a physician in Anaheim, CA, and Communications Director for the California Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).)