The spectacle of Israeli soldiers beating protesters in the occupied Gaza Strip has alarmed American Jewish community leaders, who are fearful that the attacks are undermining U.S. support for Israel.
"I think there has been a spontaneous expression of concern not only about the policies of the Israeli government, but about the the impact of the Israeli actions," said Hyman Bookbinder, a special representative of the 50,000-member American Jewish Committee in Washington.
Leaders of some major Jewish organizations were summoned yesterday morning to the New York law office of Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Leaders, to discuss the Israeli policy issue and Abram's recent action to voice to the Israeli government the concerns of Jewish leaders that support for Israel is being undermined by the Gaza Strip actions.
Abram declined through a spokesman to comment on the meeting, which lasted 2 1/2 hours, but two participants said there was little disagreement about Abram's actions, which Bookbinder described as "very, very important" because of his role as head of the major umbrella organization for the country's Jewish groups.
The conference took a similar action last year when it dispatched a delegation to Israel to express concern about the damage done to U.S.-Israeli relations by the case of Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American Jew convicted of spying for Israel, Bookbinder said.
Some participants in yesterday's meeting expressed concern over the wide coverage of the beatings on television and in newspapers and said Israel must do a better job of telling the world about the violence its soldiers face in the occupied areas.
"I think the consensus is that people are really getting carried away by the selective reporting that they see on the air," said Paul Flacks, executive vice president of the Zionist Organization of America. "The problem is that they only see 30 seconds on the air and that they don't see the 20 minutes that preceded it."
Abrams plans to outline the groups' concerns at a news conference in New York Wednesday, the same day a group of diverse religious leaders has called a news conference in Washington to outline similar views. Yesterday's New York meeting came a day after a statement by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, warning Israeli President Chaim Herzog that the beatings were "self-defeating" and "counterproductive."
Some Jewish leaders interviewed yesterday echoed these sentiments, but all stressed that their remarks should not be viewed as showing a lack of support for Israel. All agreed that Israel has a right to control the violence in the occupied area and that Arab countries must be blamed for the lack of progress toward lasting peace in the region, Bookbinder said.
Some leaders are concerned over other policies the Israeli government has carried out in the occupied areas, including sanctions, deportations and mass arrests, Bookbinder said.
Bookbinder said there has been no measurable impact of unease among U.S. Jews about Israeli policies, such as a decline in sales of Israeli bonds.
In addition to Abram, other Jewish leaders said that their groups also have voiced concerns about the Gaza Strip activities directly to the Israeli government. "We have had private communications," said Ted Ellenoff, president of the American Jewish Committee, noting that the Israeli government has seven consular offices in the United States that can receive American groups.
The beatings have troubled many Jewish leaders "because as Americans we have a very natural instinct when it comes to violence," said Flacks. "We don't like it . . . . The government of Israel is doing the very best they can under very trying circumstances."
Herbert Zweibon, chairman of Americans for a Safe Israel, did not attend the meeting, but he expressed concern over how Israeli soldiers should act to the dangers they face.
"I sometimes wonder how you stop the violence," he said. "Do they expect Jewish soldiers should throw bagels at the rioters?"