The war in Lebanon has sharpened the debate over the relationship between American foreign policy interests and Israeli interests. One focus of this debate has been the attitude and role of Israel's American Jewish supporters. Here, in excerpts from a private correspondence they both agreed to let us publish, Morris B. Abram and George W. Ball argue the issue. Mr. Abram, a partner in the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, served as U.S. representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and as president of the American Jewish Committee. Mr. Ball, a senior partner of Lehman Brothers, the investment banking firm, was undersecretary of state in 1961-69.
June 15, 1982
I was astonished and dismayed as my wife and I listened to you on ABC's "Nightline." As I now read the transcript, I can't believe that these words were uttered by the gentleman who called me during the period between President Carter's election and his inauguration to ask if I would challenge what you described as canards then being spread against you which you felt were damaging your prospects for nomination to be secretary of state. You said that you were being falsely described as anti-Semitic and anti- Israel. I stated that I could not imagine your being either and told you that I would be happy to do what I could to rebut any such allegations.
Subsequently, you and I participated in the Public Broadcasting TV program "The Advocates," and, though we differed on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, you were then frank enough to admit that such a state, with any military capability, would be a threat to Israel. I put you down as a fair-minded, if mistaken, man. Then I saw you on "Nightline."
Host Ted Koppel apparently was somewhat taken aback by some of your responses and gave you a chance to clarify your position.
"Koppel: Mr. Ball, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but you're almost making it sound as though 3 million American Jews, who play certainly a large role politically in this country, are able to cause the United States to act in its own disinterest. Is that what you're saying?"
You replied, "I think that's putting it very bluntly, but I think it is not far from the truth."
After some pro-forma obeisances, you proceeded to invoke one of the most classical and stereotypical anti-Semitic charges in the catalogue of hate literature:
". . . I think that . . . they (the American Jewish community) have put the United States' interest rather secondary in many cases."
Moreover, this follows your assertion that a Jewish lobby, particularly in an election year, brings financial and other kinds of pressures which make it possible for "the Israelis . . . to use our weapons to behave in a manner that suits their policies, but in many cases . . . contrary to the best interests of the United States."
It frightens me, George, that one of your standing and reputation should invoke before an audience of millions the charge of undue influence and dual loyalty against millions of your fellow countrymen, including myself.
I do not deny for one moment your right to support the PLO or the Arabs, but I do not believe that as a moral man you have the right to impugn the loyalty of Jewish Americans.
If you held the sentiments that you expressed on "Nightline" last week when you called to ask my support of your candidacy as secretary of state, then I was misled. In any event, I now feel that you have forfeited the right to speak as an objective observer on Middle East affairs and henceforth it should be understood that you speak as one who is willing to accept and spread age-old calumnies about Jews.
Morris B. Abram
June 23, 1982
I long ago made it a practice not to answer any letter questioning my position on Middle East problems that contains the assertion or implication that I have said or written anything anti-Semitic. That accusation, in my view, is a denial--I might even say an evasion--of rational argument. I am making an exception in your case, however, since we have been friends for a long while, and I respect you as a man of honor and reason who has fought the good fight on many fronts-- particularly for racial equality.
I will not comment on the implication that I am anti-Semitic. My whole life and career negate that. If you mean by being anti-Semitic that I dislike Jews, that is an absurdity. The Jewish people, man for man and woman for woman, have contributed more to enrich American society than any other single ethnic group, and their contributions to the arts and to intellectual life are unparalleled. At the same time, they have shown great qualities of compassion and dedication to the commonweal. The very fact that the influence of the Jewish community so far outweighs its numbers reflects a quality I greatly admire: the Jewish people are engag,e, deeply concerned and involved in the political life of our country and they display that concern not merely by the generosity of their financial contributions but, even more important, as I know from experience, by providing far the greatest reservoir of dedicated workers in any political campaign for a liberal candidate.
Of course, you are right if you mean by being anti-Semitic that I dislike or disapprove of some Jews, just as I dislike or disapprove of some English, Germans, Irish, blacks and Puerto Ricans. I do not judge people on the basis of ethnicity but on the qualities they display in their day-to-day living.
What I miss in your letter is any suggestion of regret at the brutal carnage that resulted from the Israeli offensive against the Palestinian and Lebanese populations. Whether the figure of 40,000 people killed and wounded is too high I do not know, but the evidence seems clear that the civilian deaths undoubtedly ran into the thousands. The incident shocked and sickened me, and I felt ashamed that all this had been accomplished by the use of America's most technologically advanced weapons--given to Israel solely for its own self-defense.
I have often expressed my own conceptions of the aropriate relations between our country and Israel. Though the interests of the two nations should be to a large extent congruent, the Begin government's idea of Israel's own short-term national interest sharply diverges from the national interests of the United States. Thus when leading members of the American Jewish community give his government uncritical and unqualified approbation and encouragement for whatever it chooses to do, while striving so far as possible to overwhelm any criticism of its actions in Congress and in the public media, they are, in my view, doing neither themselves nor the United States a favor.
I am not suggesting, as you seem to imply, that even the most ardent Zionists consciously choose Israel over America; I suggest rather that the effect of their uncritical encouragement of Israel's most excessive actions is not wholly consistent with the United States' interest.
The United States and Israel can have a valid and enduring relationship only when there is an understanding based on mutual trust and no deception on either side. That mutual trust cannot exist so long as the Begin government continues to take America by surprise, launching adventures at moments chosen because our attention is focused on other matters, and using the weapons we have lavishly provided for purposes we would never have approved had we had advance notice. I do not think any nation can, with self-respect, continue to lay out $7 million a day of public money to help a nation that embarrasses it and compels it to defend actions to which it was not alerted but for which the world holds it responsible.
Let me clear up another point. I am in no way "supporting" the PLO or the Arabs, as you suggest. I know no members of the PLO nor have I ever condoned their outrages any more than I did those of the Irgun Leumi. Though I have many good friends in Israel, I have never known any Arabs more than casually; I have done no business for them.
I am influenced largely by considerations of justice and compassion, which is the major reason I have from the beginning supported a Jewish national home.
But I have no enthusiasm for an Israeli empire. I have talked with Menachem Begin and with Ariel Sharon, and neither seems to offer any tenable solution for the occupied territories. Begin dismisses any idea of sovereignty on the ground that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are already part of Israel and his proposals for autonomy, which originally held promise of a provisional step toward ultimate self-determination, seem now little more than an Israeli interpretation of apartheid. I am even more disturbed by the possibility that Sharon may succeed to power; in my conversations with him in Israel, Sharon gave me the distinct impression that his long-range strategy is to push the Palestinians out of the West Bank, keeping, as he told one of my friends, "only enough for labor."
And contrary to that great rationalizer, Henry Kissinger, I do not for a moment believe that the decimation of the PLO leadership will pave the way to peace.
I am apprehensive that historians may someday regard the advent of the Likud party to power as having had much the same consequence for Israel as did the 1948 elections for South Africa; then the Afrikaaners defeated the relatively humane British and they have kept the ascendancy ever since. Particularly with the entry of Oriental Jews (now a majority) into Israel's political life, I fear that we may never again see the control of Israeli politics returned to the more benign elements of the Ashkenazi who brought with them the humane traditions of the West. Just as the Afrikaaners rapidly outbred the British, so the Sephardim are outbreeding the Ashkenazi.
As a child brought up in a Protestant household, I was fascinated by the Book of Numbers and its account of how Yahweh made clear to the Israeli people that the Promised Land was not a free gift--repeating again and again that the children of Israel must kill every man, woman and child to acquire the property. I detect some of that spirit in the ranks of the Begin government today.
I recognize that every member of humankind is a creature of inherited as well as acquired views and traditional attitudes and that you carry the burden and glory of a long and anguished history that inevitably creates an emotional involvement denied to me. Thus we shall never fully agree on the evolving agony of the Middle East. But since I respect you as a distinguished fellow American and a thoughtful and rational man, I hope we can remain in communication.
George W. Ball
June 28, 1982
I am somewhat relieved by the tone of your letter of June 23. Yet it does not come to grips with the issue that I raised.
As you point out, you were brought up in a Protestant household and therefore may be understandably insensitive to what I feel and fear, having been brought up in a Jewish home. There are different resonances to words and ideas that arise from the perspective of experience. I am convinced that you have not understood my deep concerns--indeed, my alarm-- and not because of any ill will on your part.
Now let me pinpoint the problem, as I see it, with your response:
When you responded to Koppel on June 10, you substantially accepted his summation of your views that " . . . 3 million American Jews . . . are able to cause the United States to act in its own disinterest." Indeed, you put it very bluntly in your own words: " . . . I think that they (the American Jewish community) have put the United States' interest rather secondary in many cases."
I don't think I put the United States' interests, as I see them, secondary in any international engagements--nor do any American Jews whom I know--and I know many. My views on the Lebanon situation are approximately those of the editors of The Wall Street Journal as expressed in the issue of June 25. They surely would not be tarred by you on national television with having ". . . put the United States' interests rather secondary. . . ." Yet, The Journal says of efforts ". . . to force withdrawal soon from all of Lebanon or cut off our ally's aid and armaments," the following: ". . . it would leave the United States without a shred of credibility among either Israelis or Arabs" and ". . . a rollback of Israeli forces at this point would merely mean a round that eturn to the totally unacceptable status quo ante." Finally, says The Journal: ". . . a good thing about the current state of affairs in Lebanon is that the sword of PLO terror no longer hangs so heavily as it once did over our conduct of foreign policy. To lament this development instead of taking comfort from it makes no sense at all."
Perhaps The Journal is wrong and I and millions of other American Jews are as well, but my motives certainly have no tie to the story in the Book of Numbers which, I am sure, is no more factual than the equally comprehensive order to the Angel of Death to slay the first-born males of Egypt.
I do not wish to debate theology or the Bible; I do not wish to defend everything Menachem Begin does (I have had my disagreements with him since I first met him in the '60s when I was president of the American Jewish Committee). What I have tried to do, so far without success, is to have you see the danger to civic harmony and to the Jewish community of the charge from one so eminent as you, impugning the public motives of myself and my fellow American Jews. I have no doubt that you admire many Jews; but in your "Nightline" appearance--I must return to it, for it is the reason for my concern--you painted with a very broad brush and in a manner that experienced psychologists tell us is provocative of recurrent and persistent anti-Semitism, the effects of which I am sure you deplore.
I am not disputing that many Jews have a particular perspective on public issues. So do Americans of English, Irish, Greek and other origins, and no doubt you, as undersecretary of state of this diverse country, were well aware of the views of ethnic groups on particular issues (take Cyprus, for one example). Still, the country has been held together in war and peace by a centripetal force of respect, gratitude and honor for this land whose interests, in the final analysis, take precedence over all else.
I have invested you with a special responsibility. Therefore, I was concerned with your reference to the Israeli Sephardim, which you also call "Oriental Jews (now a majority)." I, of course, know that there are poorly educated Sephardim who, since 1948, were forced to flee Arab lands and settle in Israel, but when I think of Sephardim, I also think of Maimonides, Spinoza, Ricardo and Benjamin N. Cardozo, and it has never occurred to me that the Israeli Sephardim should be associated with the political motives of the apartheid-espousing Afrikaaners.
I beg of you, George, to address the implications of dual loyalty in your "Nightline" appearance, not Menachem Begin's policies, not the innumerable, unprovable and improbable stories of the Bible; and when one chooses to refer to the religious tradition of my people, let one cast them in the context which I, and I am sure your Jewish friends, would like to see fulfilled: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
Morris B. Abram
July 6, 1982
I do not believe that the members of the American Jewish community divide sheets of paper into two columns, one listing the interests of Israel and the other those of the United States, and that when those interests conflict they opt for the side of Israel. If that is how you interpreted the few words I uttered on "Nightline," it was because my exposition was necessarily compressed.
The real issue, as I see it, is not that of divided loyalties but the tendency of some members of the Jewish community to ignore the reality that actions they assume to be in the best interests of Israel may not be--and indeed sometimes are not--good for the United States --or, in other words, that Israel's interests, as defined by Israeli governments, are not necessarily congruent with United States' interests. The key words here, of course, are "as defined by Israeli governments." Were we to proceed from similar premises, the int erests of the two nations should, in my view, be very largely congruent, but I would define Israel's interests in quite different terms from the way any Israeli government--and particularly the Begin government--has defined them.
If the American Jewish community does not always do justice to itself it is because its deep commitment to the concept Israel embodies tends to induce a suspension--or perhaps even a disregard--of the traditional Jewish genius for objective analysis. Even when individuals privately apply that analysis they are constrained by the feeling that their friends living in Israel are on the firing line and that the least they can give them is firm, unquestioning help; thus their conclusion that Israel's actions and policies, right or wrong, deserve their unqualified support.
As a result, most members of the community, speaking individually and institutionally, appear automatically to approve all of the actions of the Begin government and, through their effective political instruments for collective action, defend those actions against criticism or American counter-action. I was, for example, astonished that the unparalleled sum of $35 million was raised at a New York luncheon where Begin appeared during the bloody devastation of a large part of Lebanon. How could anyone interpret that extraordinary outburst of generosity other than as an enthusiastic expression of approval?
The burden of these comments is that if some members of the American Jewish community appear to support Israeli government actions contrary to America's larger interests it is not from intent but from a conditioned reflex that defies critical scrutiny. Given the effectiveness of the community's instruments for collective political persuasion, the effect is to circumscribe the freedom of action of our government in the shaping of a Middle East policy designed for the advancement of specifically American interests.
Fortunately, I now see some intimations of a more discriminating attitude developing among able and sensitive Jewish friends, and I hope it continues. Of the more than 30 letters (including yours) that I received with regard to my "Nightline" broadcast, my mail has run 4 to 1 in commendation. Not only have the commendatory letters seemed free of any trace of anti- Semitism; five have been signed by Americans who identify themselves as Jews and long-time supporters of Israel. They express deep worry, as I do, that the brutal invasion of Lebanon and its apparent support from American Jewish leaders might induce the anti-Semitic serpent to crawl out from under the rocks.
If the present situation continues as it is now going, I can see only a deterioration of American- Israeli relations--a matter that should deeply concern all Israelis and Americans. Such a deterioration is implicit in a relationship that, I have long felt, could not be sustained over an extended period because it lacks basic mutual trust. A succession of Israeli governments has taken America by surprise. That practice began when Israel connived with France and Britain to attack Egypt during the Suez Crisis in 1956, was repeated in 1967, was once again repeated when Israel attacked the Iraqi reactor in June last year and one month later bombed Beirut (with an estimated 300 casualties), and has reached a climactic point with the invasion of Lebanon.
If we are to continue our present massive subsidy to Israel, we much develop some adequate guidelines that, at the minimum, should require, first, that there by full consultation before Israel mounts further military operations with our weapons and, second, that Israel terminate the settlements policy that is not only illegal but amounts to a de facto repudiation of Resolution 242 and impedes--if it does not preclude--a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian problem.
George W. Ball