A Tribe Divided

Posted: Mar 19, 2007 12:03 PM

Israeli leaders just appeared before the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, D.C., and took sides in U.S. politics. They also highlighted the split in the fabric of American Jewish unity.

"When America succeeds in Iraq, Israel is safer," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the conference via satellite. "The friends of Israel know it. The friends who care about Israel know it. They will keep the Americans strong, powerful and convincing."

Earlier that day, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni (widely deemed the top candidate to succeed Olmert) was even blunter: "In a region where impressions are important, countries must be careful not to demonstrate weakness and surrender to extremists," Livni told the AIPAC delegates. "If we appease the extremists — if they feel that we are backing down — they will sense victory and become more dangerous . . . This applies to the decisions made on Iran, it is true for Iraq and it is true across the Middle East."

The Bush White House was, of course, delighted by such endorsements of its line. And the AIPAC crowd — officially bipartisan but made up mostly of Democrats — left no doubt that it supported the Olmert-Livni position. When Vice President Dick Cheney appeared before the group, he won standing ovations for his defense of the U.S. policy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a lifelong friend of Israel (and, as she proudly recounts, the grandmother of little Jewish children) had a different message. "Any U.S. military engagement must be judged on three counts," she said: "whether it makes our country safer, our military stronger or the region more stable. The war in Iraq fails on all three scores." Some people in the crowd applauded politely, but others booed.

After the speech, Pelosi's aides told the San Francisco Chronicle that the speaker had expected the "mixed response" she got. In fact, she may have welcomed it. She knew that she wouldn't be alone.

The same day Olmert and Livni came out for Bush's goals, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), America's largest Jewish denomination, passed a sharply worded demand that the United States pull out of Iraq.

This, in itself, wasn't shocking. Reform Judaism is, in the memorable phrase of author Richard Brookhiser, "the Democratic Party with holidays."

Leaders of the denomination estimate that upwards of 85 percent of its grassroots members oppose the war in Iraq.

Still, the resolution's timing and language were stark reminders that Jewish unity on the subject of Israel's interests, if it ever existed, no longer does. The URJ not only demanded an immediate process of "phased withdrawal of our troops from Iraq," but also noted that, in its opinion, this would be good for Israel.

This put the largest U.S. Jewish denomination in direct conflict with Israel's leaders over what is best for the Jewish state. There have been disagreements before, but never in a time of war.

This split in the Jewish community opens the way for the growing connection between Lieberman Jews and Christian Zionists. Among the featured speakers at the AIPAC conference was Pastor John Hagee, a Pentecostal minister from San Antonio who has recently formed his own lobby group, Christians United for Israel.

Hagee, like Olmert, supports the Bush surge in Iraq and sees it as one battle in the wider war against Islamic radicalism — a war American Jewish liberals prefer to ignore.

"There will never be another Holocaust," Hagee thundered. "Not on our watch and never again!" The AIPAC crowd cheered.

There's nothing like fighting words from a new wartime ally. Especially when old ones are slipping away.