An extraordinary swell of open criticism from American Jewish leaders has irritated the Israeli government and left some officials worried about the health of Israel's vital relationship with U.S. Jewry.
The issue is both crucial and delicate here. Israelis of all political persuasions are convinced that, as those who live here and fight Israel's wars, they alone have the right to make its decisions.
But at the same time, they encourage concern for Israel among American Jews and rely on their influence in Washington for maintaining the United States' traditional military and diplomatic support against Arabs.
A recent series of public complaints from U.S. Jewish leaders against Prime Minister Menachem Begin's West Bank settlements policies thus has been taken seriously here -- angrily by some, with concern about its long-term dangers by others.
Although exchange of opinion has been a constant part of ties between Israel and American Jews, the new complaints are considered sharper than ever before and directed at policies that many Israeli officials regard as part of Israel's security precautions.
The U.S. criticism was voiced repeatedly this week -- and attacked by Israreli leaders as harmful -- at a U.S. Israeli colloquy sponsored by the American Jewish Congress whose debates centered on the right of U.S. Jews and Israel to interfere in each other's affairs.
"Our enemies will use this criticism to advance their cause and to attack ours," warned Begin's interior minister and chief autonomy negotiator, Yosef Burg."Our enemies are only too happy to exploit Jewish criticism publicly expressed."
Abba Eban, the former foreign minister well known in the United States as an eloquent spokesman for moderate Israeli views, said: "Greater self-restraint in publicly criticizing Israel is needed."
A contentious backdrop to the discussions was a statement signed early this month by more than 50 prominent American Jews Expressing dissatisfaction with Begin's policies and concern with "extremists in the public and the government."
This was interpreted as criticism of Jewis zealots who establish West Bank settlements on religious as well as security grounds with encouragement from Begin's government, particularly Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon.
Leonard Fein, a Brandeis Unversity professor active in U.S. Jewish circles announced the American Jews' adherence to the statement at a press conference here in which he also attacked Begin personally as a "disaster" for Israel.
Two prominent American Jews who had signed the statement -- Rabbi Alexander Schindler and Theodore Mann, both former chairmen of the conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations -- later disassociated themselves from Fein's personal attack on Begin, without repudiating their signatures on the statement.
This left a bitter taste in the mouths of some officials around Begin, also irritated by the wording of the statement that seemed to attack Begin without naming him. One tried to persuade another signer, Allen Pollack, to retract his adherance, so far without success.
The bitterness was in proportion to the prestige of the signers, who also included educator Seymour Martin Lipset; Arthur Hertzberg, the writer and professor; author Irving Howe and New Republic owner Martin Peretz.
Also especially irritating to the Begin government was the characterization of some its members as "extremists."
Burg, punning on Fein's Yiddish nickname of "Label," objected that "This Label is a libel." But beneath his humor, Israeli and American Jewish sources said, was anger that American Jews would voice the same complaints that he hears from President Anwar Sadat and the Egyptian autonomy negotiating team.
In addition, Mann repeated his criticism of the use of religion to justify additional West Bank settlements. This was considered particularly significant because Begin frequently sites biblical history as proof of Israelis' right to settle in the Palestinian-inhabited territory seized from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
"You will correct me, I am sure, if my perceptions are too fuzzy as I try to see Israel from Philadelphia," Mann said Tuesday night.
"But it seems to me that those who are certain that the Almighty wants the Jewish people to settle in Judea and Samaria and to keep it forever, and act on the belief, plus elements within the political establishment that encourage them in order to further nationalist aims, or in order to keep a frail coalition together, are unwittingly pushing this nation to despair, perhaps even to war."
His view was shared the next day by Morris Abram, honorary president of the American Jewish Committee, who said: "I heard Sen. Henry Jackson say that he has great difficulty explaining the settlement policy of the present Israeli government on nonsecurity grounds. The American Jewish community cannot justify to its fellow citizens a policy which Senator Jackson has difficulty in explaining."
Jackson, a Washington Democrat, is regarded in the United States and here as one of the most consistent and powerful supporters of Israel in the U.S. government.
Abram also noted that he was speaking out on only one issue from the entire range facing Israel. He, Mann, Fein and others also were at pains to underline their deep commitment to Israel in general and to its other policies.
A Begin aide said that in his assessment this current of support among U.S. Jewry remains as strong as ever and that It eclipses the settlement criticism, which he said reflects only the settlements of the leadership group that signed the statement.
"The Jewish leaders are not the Jewish people [in the United States]," he said. "The people don't worry whether the settlements are legal or illegal. They are with Israel down the line. They are sort of our boys."
In some respects, the U.S. criticism, voiced against the background music of Israeli politics, takes on partisan tones perhaps not intended by its authors. A major pitch of the opposition Labor Party revolves around criticism of Begin's lack of flexibility on the West Bank and his use of religion as well as security as justification for settlements there.
In addition, the statement signed by U.S. Jewish leaders was drafted by Israel's own Peace Now Movement, a pressure group that directs much of its energy against Begin in an effort to force a more flexible negotiating stand on the government.
Richard Cohen, spokesman for the American Jewish Congress, said this increasingly open criticism of Begin within Israel is one of the main reasons for the emergence of public criticism by U.S. Jews as well.
Whatever the reason, some Israelis are plainly worried about it. Their fears center less on possible opposition in the U.S. Jewish community. No one here expects that. Rather, they said, continued criticism by American Jewish leaders could sour the traiditionally sweet relations between them and Jerusalem and lead, ultimately, to diminished interest in Israeli's fate. a
"We are worried about the process," said Yehiel Leket, secretary general of the World Labor Zionist Movement, the Labor Party's channel to World Jewry.
"What we are afraid of is that many of our friends, the so-called progressive Jews, because of the government's policies, may be less interested in Israel. The ties could be weakened. This is a dangerous process," he said.
Galia Golan-Gild, a political science professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Peace Now activist, wrote recently that many American Jews resolved their troubles with Begin's policies by keeping silent rather than criticizing Israel.
"Worse, some actually gave up in despair," she added. "They lost interest and even began to question their own Zionism and the meaining of the Zionist dream -- at least as it is translated into reality by today's Israel."
In his remarks at te colloquy, Eban also emphasized the need for continued exchanges between Israelis and American Jews lest their interest flag.
"Israel's danger arises not from any excess of Jewish zeal or criticism, but on the contrary from Jewish apathy and detachment," he said.