Natasha Mozgovaya
July 24, 2009 - 12:00am

The vast majority of American Jews back a settlement freeze, according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism. "American Jews don't like when their government is at odds with the government of Israel," said Yoffie, whose organization's 1.5 million members make it the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S.

But beyond that, he stressed in a telephone interview with Haaretz from his New York office on Monday, "there are very important strategic issues at stake here. Iran is a real threat, and we all, including the liberal camp, take it very seriously. In order to deal with this threat, you need the support and friendship of the government of the United States. And you need the support and friendship of the people of the United States."

That is why the current dispute between Israel and the U.S. over construction in the settlements and East Jerusalem is so disturbing, he said. "This is a time that requires smooth and strong relations with [the U.S.] government. It's a time for differences to be worked through. It's a time for compromise and moderation. It's not a time to be involved in a dramatic public dispute."

"Settlement activity at the West Bank is not popular here," he continued. "It never has been. It's absolutely the last thing in the world you want to be involved in a public dispute over. Because not only you won't have the support of this government - you won't have the support of the American people either. Do you think nevertheless it was the right thing to accentuate solely this issue? Some claim this allowed the Palestinians and the Arab governments to sit and wait until the settlement freeze.

"Settlement freeze at the West Bank is something that we've supported," he replied, dodging the question. "I believe that it's possible to reach some kind of understanding on it - so whatever compromise or understanding is involved there, they need to do that."

At last week's White House meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and 16 Jewish leaders, Yoffie continued, "there wasn't a single person around that table - not one - who on substance supported settlement activity."

Some of the groups weren't invited.

"Every single mainstream grass-roots group with a significant constituency was invited. They broadly represent American Jewry. They raised issues having to deal with an impression of imbalance - these are legitimate concerns and I identify with some of those as well. But when it came to substance, not a single one told the president: 'You're wrong.' And that's because they know that's unpopular here. It's unpopular with government officials, it's unpopular with all Americans, and it's unpopular with American Jews. I understand and appreciate Israeli political realities, but American support is absolutely vital to assure Israel's strategic interests. And some accommodations have to be found."

Asked about reports of a growing distance between Obama and the Jewish community, Yoffie replied, "Absolutely not. If you look at the people surrounding the president and advising him - obviously Rahm Emanuel, obviously David Axelrod, Dennis Ross who just moved to the National Security Council, Dan Shapiro who works there, Hillary Clinton has a long record of strong commitment to Israel. To look at this team and to imply that they are going to abandon Israel - it's just absurd."

You were one of the pioneers of Jewish outreach to the American Muslim community. How optimistic you are about the president's effort, that some call naive?

Yoffie replied that outreach to American Muslims, whose leadership is "middle-class and professional," made obvious sense. "In terms of the Muslim world altogether - I share that skepticism. I don't want to bring this liberal naive 'let's all get along' approach to this, not at all. The Muslim world is huge and diverse. Of course, we should see if there are pockets of moderation, and [if] Sunni fear of Shi'a, and particularly Iran, might create an opportunity for an anti-Iranian coalition. And it could be eventually good for the prospects of the Arab-Israeli peace."

Outreach to Iran didn't seem too successful so far.

"I am really not an optimist in the short term," he agreed, though stressing that the Iranian situation is very fluid right now. "And if we look at what's happening on the Palestinian side and in the Arab world, [it] is not a reason for optimism about a secure peace in the near future. We want the president who wants to exploit the opportunities that may exist because of the Iranian situation, because of the Sunni fears. The Palestinian reality is not particularly encouraging either, but [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas is basically a moderate force and I think Americans are right to try and strengthen him. To just give up doesn't make sense, and it isn't in America's interest any more than it's in Israel's interest."

Do you believe Obama's plan will work?

"I think the status quo is deeply and profoundly problematic. I think there is some possibility he can make progress and move us forward - I'm not sure. I think he is wise and right to do so, and the alternative is doing nothing while additional settlements are built and the possibility of the two-state solution becomes impossible."

Asked about the American Jewish community, Yoffie said he did not think Obama's election produced "a major shift of opinion within the Jewish community. [The] American Jewish community is moderate and centrist; it always has been. They supported [the] two-state solution, on the other hand they are very and appropriately skeptical about the Arab and Palestinian intentions, they want to see facts on the ground. They want to see America active, but they don't want America to impose a settlement."

However, he continued, "I'm very very worried about the students. On campuses, you have outspoken leftist groups that tend to have there more influence than elsewhere because of the dynamics of how students operate, and these groups tend to be very anti-Israel."

"I don't think Jewish students are abandoning Israel," he continued, "but the groups on the left are coming forward and saying 'look, you have all this settlement activity. You have all these facts on the ground. There is no way to have a two-state solution, you have to have a one-state solution. One person one vote, one state, one people.' What's happening at the campuses can become a harbinger of what's happening at the general political culture. It's very important for us to counter that."

Yoffie also expressed concern about the recent ultra-Orthodox riots in Jerusalem: "It's distressing and it's worrisome and in some measure it's incomprehensible to American Jews. These stories don't do us any good in the broader community. Recent polls of how Americans look upon Israel are quite distressing."

The absence of full recognition for the Reform movement in Israel is "terribly frustrating" as well, he said, and most American Jews are concerned by "the absence of religious pluralism."

Nevertheless, "we don't want these matters to determine how American Jews look at Israel. We want to strengthen the ties of the American Jews to Israel and acknowledge that Israel is not a perfect place."


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