In September the American Jewish Congress released what to most Americans must have seemed an unremarkable document. It endorsed the call for an international Middle East peace conference -- an idea whose time has still not come and whose success is far from guaranteed. Nevertheless, all hell broke loose. The remarkable had happened: a mainstream American Jewish organization had opposed Israeli policy.
In both Israel and the United States, the reaction to the AJC proposal was immediate. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir rejected it. In a letter to yet another Jewish organization, he called the AJC statement a ''regrettable'' attempt to circumvent Israel's democratic process ''by appealing to friends abroad who do not vote in Israel.'' And Morris Abram, the chairman of an umbrella group comprising 45 major Jewish organizations, assured Shamir the AJC initiative would not be duplicated: ''Such restraint in giving public advice to Israel on matters of security has been the tradition.''
But this is a ''tradition'' that ought to be junked. First, neutrality is in itself a policy -- and one that is not neutral. By shutting up, by only writing checks, American Jews come down on the side of the status quo -- on the side of the recalcitrant Shamir. He is unwilling to trade an inch of the occupied territories (especially the West Bank) for concessions from the Arab states and the Palestinians.
As a result, American Jews practice a kind of valueless philanthropy. They write checks for Israel, but hesitate at enclosing a note. In the Middle East as in other places, silence can be construed as consent.
Second, what Abrams labels ''matters of security'' -- an intimidating phrase -- are really nothing of the sort. An international peace conference has the vigorous backing of Israel's former prime minister -- and current foreign minister -- Shimon Peres. Neither he nor the other Israelis who support him are eager to endanger the security of their country. In fact, their intentions are just the opposite. Only by making peace with the Arabs can Israel in the long run have any security at all.
Third, Jews, above all, know the sound of silence for what it is: indifference. But how can Jews, of all people, be indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians; the incessant cycle of riots and repression on the West Bank; the violence of Arab against Jew, Jew against Arab and Arab against Arab? Who can be indifferent to an Israel where a minority of Jews rules a majority of West Bank Palestinians, where the specter of a South Africa-like repression looms? Is this the dream of Zionism? Is this justice?
The reality is that American Jews have limited influence over Israeli politics. And the further reality is that they would do well to be sparing with their advice. American Jews are not Israelis and do not have to live with the potentially bloody consequences of a policy they might help set. After all, debates about the future of the West Bank have an immediacy in Jerusalem that they do not have in Chicago.
But on questions concerning both justice and the role the United States might play in pressuring Israel, there is no reason that the voice of American Jews should not be heard. Whether it likes it or not, the American Jewish community is a player in the Middle East. It is incredibly influential in shaping American policy, and it has been incredibly generous toward Israel.
Israeli politicians, for one, know clout when they see it. They are forever entreating American Jews to endorse this or that policy. And it was Peres, the frustrated peacemaker, who called on American Jews to back him against Shamir.
An international peace conference for the Middle East may well turn out to be yet another worthless meeting. The Palestine Liberation Organization may remain intransigent and the Soviets, in the end, may not play a constructive role. But the issue is not a particular meeting in a particular place, but whether or not Israel will strive for peace. On that issue, the silence of the American Jewish community is not the continuation of a worthy tradition, but a rebuff to a Jewish one.
Peace in the Middle East affects us all. Whether citizens of Israel or not, we all have a stake in an area that has several times had strong men in Washington weak with anxiety. Any Arab-Israeli war could eventually involve the superpowers. You don't have to be Jewish to speak up on the Middle East, but if you are, you don't have to keep silent, either.