In response to:

The Tragedy and the Hope from the October 21, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

While the cogent analysis of Arthur Hertzberg on events in the Middle East [NYR, October 21] was a serious attempt to address subjects highlighted by the media in recent weeks, regrettably, some of his assumptions are faulty. This is especially true when Rabbi Hertzberg writes about “most American Jews, even in the established organizations, clearly preferred pursuing Reagan’s plan.” He compounds this error of fact when he states that Begin’s critics “include a probable majority of American Jews.”

It is true that The New York Times reported on its front page that “B’nai B’rith Praises President Reagan’s Plan,” but the headline was not consistent with the story, which indicated that this organization was only expressing a view that the proposal was “worthy” of being pursued. Another headline read, “Reagan’s Speech Has US Jews Reviewing Israeli Ties,” which conveyed the erroneous impression that the American Jewish community was about to turn its back on the Jewish state simply because Begin found Reagan’s proposals unacceptable.

The inaccuracy of Hertzberg’s conclusion is revealed by an exhaustive survey recently conducted by the Zionist Organization of America. Contrary to the impression that was created by the media, and probably enthusiastically encouraged by the Prime Minister’s political detractors in the United States, only one national Jewish organization even reacted to Begin’s “harsh” response to the Reagan plan. The overwhelming number of Jewish organizations that did respond, expressed appreciation to the President for his efforts while, at the same time, overwhelmingly rejected the proposal or indicated that they have serious reservations regarding most of it. How then did Hertzberg, the media, the Administration and others conclude that the Reagan plan had met with such wide approval in the Jewish community?

When I recently accompanied a small group of Jewish leaders who visited with Secretary of State Shultz, it was necessary to explain once again that the core problem of the Arab-Israeli dispute is the failure of the Arab nations to come to terms with the existence of the permanence of the Jewish State. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to address properly the issue of the Palestinian-Arab people.

Neither Israel nor its friends can ignore the fact that Arab nations have attempted, by war and terrorism, to eliminate the State of Israel; only the military strength of Israel, as well as the resolve of its people and leaders, supported by the friendship of the people of the United States, have tempered the Arab ambition for the demise of the State of Israel. A sober and realistic assessment can only conclude that if the Arab nations had their way—yes, even at this point in time—there would be no state of Israel today. This is a fact that many in the world seem to forget or to ignore.

In his televised address to the nation, President Reagan, upon announcing his Middle East proposals, said that as a result of Lebanon, this was a time to “seize the moment.” He quoted the words of the Scriptures, “The time had come to follow after the things which make for peace.” The President “seized the moment” by holding secret talks with “moderate Arab friends.” He found that they did not join him in “seizing the moment.” And after citing the peace in Lebanon and the Scriptures, the President’s Secretary of State sent a signal to the newly established government in Lebanon that they need not be in any hurry to make peace with Israel.

The Administration has attempted to “put on a good face” by assuring the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that these are only the “opening positions of the Arabs,” as though the Arab-Israel conflict only began when this Administration took office. It is disquieting that when Mr. Shultz speaks to the Senators of the lack of response from the Arabs, he urges patience: yet, when the Administration speaks to the Israelis, there appears to be considerable impatience.

The President called for a “fresh start.” He spoke of his proposals as the “dawning of new hope,” and his Administration’s spokesman stated—“We didn’t go into this blindly—we did have an amber light from the Arabs.”

What happened to the “fresh start”? What was the reaction to this “dawning of new hope”? What happened to the “amber light”? Mr. Shultz told the Senators, “We should not think that there is a magic wand…we have to be ready for a long haul.” Isn’t that what the Israelis have been telling the Administration right along?

What are the results of the President’s proposals at this time?

  1. America’s best friend in the Middle East, the State of Israel, feels compromised, because the Administration made proposals Israel believes are detrimental to its interests and they were made to the Arabs without Israel’s knowledge or consent.
  2. The President’s supporters in the United States are concerned about Administration tactics as well as its Middle East policy.
  3. The Jewish community is resentful of the extraordinary efforts made to divide it.
  4. The Arabs, who President Reagan considers to be moderate, have responded with platitudes, but no action. Some naïve Administration advocates of the proposal even strongly hinted that the PLO was ready to hand over to Jordan the leadership role in representing the Palestinian Arabs. Arafat wasted little time to diffuse this short-sighted notion.


What has transpired is not good for America or the State of Israel. The Soviets are laughing, the Arabs are gloating, the PLO is celebrating, while the United States and Israel—two of the few remaining democracies left in the world—are engaged in bitter acrimony. It is clear that the road to peace is not the Fez Plan, as it was not the Fahd Plan, as it cannot be a United Nations plan, as it probably will not be the Reagan Plan. The road to peace can only be the road to Jerusalem.

President Reagan should be commended for his motivation and his genuine concern. But, in this instance, his good intentions are not matched by good decisions, and these decisions appear to be improperly influenced by those who have attempted, in previous years, to sway American support from Israel and towards the Arab States. To the credit of the President and his persuasive powers, he should feel comforted to know that his Republican Administration is supported on this vital foreign affairs issue by Zionists in the United States who are predominantly labor-oriented.

We cannot dismiss the reaction by certain other “friends of Israel” especially in the Jewish community, who are carried away by what appears to them as a reasonable proposal by the Reagan Administration, and an unreasonable reaction from the Prime Minister of the Jewish State.

Why were they so gullible, so anxious, so willing to believe the worst about Israel, without carefully considering that a proposal that has been presented to the Arabs in advance may not have been in Israel’s interests? And, if not in Israel’s interests, can we really accept the swiftly cultivated thesis that America’s position in the Middle East does not require support of its best ally and most dependable friend? Yet, we should expect better from those who have followed the history of American-Israel relations, and who are cognizant of long-standing State Department policy for the past thirty-four years, and before. They were well aware of the tactics used to undermine the Jewish community’s unified support for Israel through these years. I would have hoped that rational thinking would have prevailed, and that they would not have reacted so quickly and, perhaps, even irresponsibly.

Following the sad experience with the media during the Lebanese conflict, we would have hoped that all of us would have been wiser, and yet it appears that once again, many fell into the trap of believing media concoctions, rather than relying on our own good judgment. The need for responsible and astute leadership in Israel, as well as in the American Jewish community, is clearly underscored by a recent article in The Washington Post which was headlined—“The Next Step In Isolating The Begin Government—What America Can Do To Tighten The Screws.” Thus, the tragic events in Beirut, with all its sorry and deep feelings of anguish all of us experienced, appears to be manipulated into a state of almost hysterical emotionalism that may sweep all good judgment before it, and have its effect on judgments regarding American Middle East policy in general.

In the meanwhile, what happened to those who ordinarily point with pride to the American judicial system—where the accused is not judged guilty until the evidence is presented, and the proper authorities arrive at conclusions? Is it not ironical, that these same advocates of justice and democracy, seem to be all too willing to serve as accuser, prosecutor, and judge. Moreover, without conclusive evidence, they raise charges of morality against the leaders of Israel as though they have been appointed the guardians of all of our moral standards.

Some American Jews, like Professor Irving Howe, publicly cry out that they are no longer able to be silent, even though admitting that criticism of Israel and its leaders can be misused by enemies of Israel. He acknowledges that he probably will make mistakes, but evidently, he is willing to place Israel in jeopardy so that he can exercise the privilege of dissent in the safety of his intellectual retreat. Regrettably, Rabbi Hertzberg appears to be among these camp-followers.

I prefer the position taken by Norman Podhoretz, for I agree with him that criticism of Israel can be considered anti-Semitic, even when it is mouthed by Jews, or, for that matter, Israelis. Some might believe that being Jewish or possessing Israeli citizenship guarantees immunity from anti-Semitic ideas, but it is not borne out by experience. Like all other human beings, Jews are influenced by the propaganda directed at all people around them, and like all other minority groups, Jews come to see themselves through the eyes of an unsympathetic hostile majority. While Jews are a majority in Israel, the Jewish State itself is isolated among the nations, and subjected to a constant barrage of immoral abuse aimed at its delegitimization. It appears that finally, we now witness the psychological toll from this abuse within the Israeli public, where Jews now threaten each other and accuse each other and demean each other, while their enemies stand at the sidelines, gloating and murmuring words of satisfaction and contentment.


As Jewish dissenters now proclaim with pride their independence from discipline, who now voice their sense of relief that they no longer need to contain their criticisms of the Jewish State, which, of course, they conceal by claiming it is only Israel’s leaders that concern them—nevertheless, it is the Jewish people that are maligned in the eyes of the non-Jewish world by the words and actions of those who now congratulate themselves because they have the so-called courage to speak out against Israel. Sadly, while professing courage, the fact is, that in today’s world, it takes more courage to defend Israel than to attack it.

Irving Howe and others who share his views should understand that most American Jews are not tormented by what evidently pains him. We will not succumb to the media pressures, whether they are orchestrated in Washington or designed by editorial boards, who either relish in exploiting the difficult days that Israel faces or hopes to contribute to the demoralization of the Jewish state, by undermining its supporters outside of Israel. Unlike Irving Howe, I find that Israel has enough enemies and, therefore, I cannot take his nonchalant view that his role of critic is insignificant. But we are reminded by Podhoretz that those American Jews who have been adding their own special note to the whining chorus of anti-Israel columnists and State Department Arabists, much less the PR representatives of Saudi Arabia and others, do not represent a serious split within the American Jewish community over Israel, as much as this is attempted to be dramatized.

Recent days have revealed a sense of genuine fear by the Jewish people everywhere. Many have assumed that in the year 1982, the embers of anti-Semitism were low and those who would fan hatred represent an infinitesimal number. Those who criticize Israel need not complain if we sense within this criticism, overtly or covertly, intentional or unintentional, political machinations or elements of anti-Semitism which have surfaced in an unexpected but nevertheless serious degree of exposure. But why does this surprise us? Do we forget that the very moment the United States voted that Zionism was racism, it became internationally accepted that the Jewish State was invalid, and that Jewish aspirations would be resisted by most in the world community? From that moment, there followed a torrential onslaught which Israel could not avoid, and it included and affected the Jews in the Diaspora. The Zionist/racist resolutions was anti-Semitism in its most glaring form, and from that moment, modern anti-Semitism broke through the barriers of the international community once again: anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Western values, it all became a fact of reality.

Why is it then, that those who should know better in the Jewish community, and its friends outside of it, who are uniquely informed because they are scholars, writers, intellects, and politicians, can suddenly lose all perspective and surrender to or join the hateful atmosphere surrounding Israel? Why is it when Israel stands at a moment of great need, when it cries out for the embrace of the Jewish people, and all its friends, to shield it from the lynch-mob of the international community, some select to beat their breasts in self-righteousness, as the self-appointed standard bearers of morality; why are they embarrassed by a Jewish State which refuses to be cowed into submission?

Instead of shame, I believe Jews and their friends should feel pride! They may be philosophers and teachers, rabbis and intellects, Jewish professionals or Jewish leaders, but the shame they feel is their own shame. And they will not be cleansed from their negative view by prostrating themselves before the non-Jewish world, asking for forgiveness because they have succumbed to the media and political onslaughts that Israel has lost its soul.

Who, then, speaks for American Jews? It is the organized American Jewish community, whose voice is the authentic expression of how American Jews really feel. It is more authentic than the few dissident and insecure voices that represent those unable to pass the test when Israel is subject to world pressures. There is no reason—no reason whatsoever—for Jews to sit “shive” for Israel’s soul. Neither the Jewish State nor the Jewish leaders have lost their souls. Rather, it is the soul of the world that is mutilated when it continues to encourage the PLO to believe it has a future…when the moral fabric of society is torn to shreds by the spiritual leader of millions who reaches out to embrace Arafat…when high-ranking Senators can laud international terrorist Arafat whose Covenant vows to destroy Israel, while they degrade the Jewish Prime Minister.

It is not Israel’s soul that is in question. Israel has not lost its soul. Some Jews, and their friends, have lost their nerve.

Ivan J. Novick

President, Zionist Organization of America

New York City

Arthur Hertzberg replies:

Ivan Novick asserts that the American Jewish response to the Reagan proposal was unfavorable and he thus charges that I have been in error when I said that the majority of American Jews, even those in the established organizations, would have preferred pursuing the Reagan plan to Begin’s outright rejection of it. The evidence contradicts him.

Jack Spitzer, speaking on behalf of B’nai B’rith, did not merely say that the Reagan proposal was “worthy” of being pursued, as Ivan Novick would have it. The head of the largest single Jewish membership organization, with 500,000 members, asserted that B’nai B’rith had some specific criticisms to offer but he “commended” President Reagan for putting forth a Middle East plan “which combines the United States commitment to secure and defensible borders for Israel with a formula designed to draw in new Arab negotiating partners.” This is very far from support of Begin’s position.

Nathan Perlmutter, the executive vice-president of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, the largest of the Jewish civic defense agencies, was even more pointed. He said: “The fact that Prime Minister Begin rejected it out of hand is something I take into consideration, but I believe the process of talk is much to be desired and then you have to hurry up and say the ball’s in the Arabs’ court. I don’t feel any constraint about criticizing the head of a foreign state.” The most respected figure among the Washington representatives of major Jewish organizations, Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee, was equally firm: “This is a historic development. I believe Israel’s reaction was too quick and too harsh.”

To be sure, Howard Squadron, the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and the incumbent chairman Julius Berman were Begin loyalists. Squadron called the Reagan proposal “unconstructive,” and Berman objected to America’s choice of the Jordanian option without leaving everything open for some future negotiations between Israel and the Arabs. On the other hand, Rabbi David Saperstein, the Washington representative of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) insisted, “This is a momentous time because of the possibilities of moving towards peace. The majority of the American Jewish leadership and American Jewry have grave reservations towards the harshness of the Israeli government repsonse to the Reagan proposal, and I think that many Jewish leaders and many Jews in America have serious reservations about the Begin policies of annexation of occupied territories and of settlements, and the lack of flexibility on the Palestinian question.”

For purposes of political action, the American Jewish establishment is represented in Washington by the American-Israel Political Action Committee. The executive director of this body, Thomas Dine, quoted on the front page of The New York Times on Tuesday, September 7, said that he did not mind differing from Begin’s views on the Reagan plan. “We are an American organization, concerned with American foreign policy. I see my job in strengthening American-Israel relations. Begins sees his in strengthening Israeli security, and Reagan in strengthening American security.”

The passages quoted above come from the very sources on which Mr. Novick bases his argument, and one must therefore conclude that he is willfully misreading the evidence. This is all the more striking because even Norman Podhoretz, the one figure whom Mr. Novick quotes with approval as the model of the proper response to current Israeli difficulties, was quoted in mid-September in Time magazine as saying, “The Reagan plan is on the whole a good one. I regret that Begin rejected it out of hand.”

Even more striking than Mr. Novick’s incapacity to read documents is the fact that he never once mentions the West Bank, not even by calling it, as the Likud and its sympathizers prefer, Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza District. The West Bank is the main issue between Menachem Begin and his critics. His critics have not simply just now stepped out of dark corners, as Novick is trying to imply, because they have been waiting to attack Israel. The Reagan proposal comes very close to the views of Jewish moderates, headed by the Labor Party, all of whom favor various forms of returning territory in exchange for peace. The proposal has been rejected out of hand by the Likud, which demands the annexation of the West Bank, because, to quote Menachem Begin, it is “the cradle of our civilization.” The opposition to Begin organized an unprecedented demonstration of hundreds of thousands in the main square of Tel Aviv on the night before the Day of Atonement, under the collective banner, “Begin and Sharon, Go Home.”

This opposition includes, now, such figures as the Hassidic Rebbe of Belz and Rabbi Eliezer Schach, who are of the leadership of the Council of Sages, the religious authority that guides the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel Party. On October 20, the Rebbe of Belz told his followers that the participation of this party in Begin’s coalition “should not be seen as an endorsement of Begin’s policies of war and provocation.”

Israeli opinion on the Reagan proposal was tested in the Knesset on Tuesday, October 19, in a no-confidence motion. The government survived by 56 to 50. In Ma’ariv a few days earlier (October 15) Abba Eban wrote of Begin’s hard-line reaction to the Reagan proposal: “The friends of Israel in the United States, the majority of the Jewish leadership, just about half of the members of the Knesset and half of public opinion in Israel (according to the polls) disapproved of the inflexible response of the Israeli government to the proposal of President Reagan.” The government, he wrote, is systematically misstating the meaning of the Camp David agreement and “increasing the unnecessary tension between Washington and Jerusalem” through its “passion for the annexation of Judea, Samaria and Gaza District.” Then, in the Knesset debate, Begin’s predecessor as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, castigated Begin for wanting to annex the West Bank, which would “alter the character of the Jewish state.”

Mr. Novick’s own Zionist Organization of America owes its title to its earliest history, when it was the main men’s Zionist group in the United States. In recent years it has been the American wing of the Liberal Party in Israel which, together with Begin’s Revisionists, make up the Likud. Surely Mr. Novick knows that parts of the Liberal Party, his own colleagues in Israel, have been unhappy with Begin’s rigid policies, and that splits are taking place within the party. Does Mr. Novick believe that Yitzhak Berman—the Liberal minister who left Begin’s cabinet after the Beirut massacre—Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Abba Eban, and the rest of Labor’s entire leadership, and most of the Israeli press, which deplored Begin’s outright rejection of Reagan’s proposal, are all “anti-Semites,” or at best, warped people? That is what he asserts when he says that criticism of Israel is illegitimate, even when it is voiced by Jews, or, for that matter, even by Israelis, and that it reflects a “psychological toll” that has been levied on the Jewish people. Such accusations of “anti-Semitism” against both Israelis and longstanding supporters of Israel are not only absurd but shameful as well.

Ivan Novick did not invent this rhetoric. Menachem Begin’s first response to the outrage of the Beirut massacre was not to ask for an immediate investigation, which would have saved both him and Israel much grief. Instead he labeled those who raised the questions as purveyors of “blood libel accusations,” i.e., to be saying something equivalent in its dastardliness to reviving the medieval canard that Jews used the blood of Christians to bake their matzoth at Passover. It took a week of outrage by those Israelis whom Mr. Novick, following Norman Podhoretz, calls “anti-Semites” to force a judicial inquiry into the Beirut massacre on the unwilling prime minister. Who was, then, really defending the honor of the Jewish people, and who was defaming it and robbing it of its dignity?

Last March I began a half year of study in Israel, and I found that the rhetoric of political discussion had already been contaminated. The word “traitor” had become an all-too-usual epithet in the mouths of Likud spokesmen to be hurled at those who disagreed with their policies. In the late spring, an ultranationalist professor of physics at Hebrew University, Zeev Lew, published a letter in Ha’aretz in which he claimed that those who were opposed to annexing the West Bank might indeed be tax-paying Israelis, and might even be born of Jewish parentage, but the very fact of holding such opinions proved that they “did not belong to the historic Jewish people.” Novick is thus an apt pupil of his Israeli teachers. Fortunately in Israel such rhetoric has been greeted with the contempt that it deserves. I am saddened to find it repeated in New York.

Novick maintains that those of us who speak for moderation, for the exchange of territory for peace, are only a tiny, unrepresentative minority of the American Jewish community, a fringe element, as against the Jewish organizations which, as he has falsely asserted, have backed Begin’s views and the Jewish community as a whole. The truth is, as Irving Howe has suggested in the Op-Ed piece in The New York Times which Novick attacks, that virtually all American Jews support Israel, but that the majority of Americans do not support Begin’s policy on the West Bank. (I have asked Mr. Howe to comment on Mr. Novick’s attack and his reply appears below.) Through the years the polls have shown that 60 percent or more of American Jews support moderation and are against annexationism.

The most recent polls were taken in late September, after Begin’s rejection of the Reagan plan and after the Beirut massacre, by the American Jewish Committee and by Newsweek magazine. In the American Jewish Committee poll, the main question was: “If Israel could be assured of peace and secure borders, should she be willing to return lands to Arab control?” Forty-one percent agreed; 41 percent disagreed, and 18 percent were not sure. The Newsweek poll found only 19 percent of American Jews (down from 29 percent in September 1981) in agreement with Begin’s view that the West Bank should remain in Israel’s control (Newsweek, October 4, p. 23). The rest split among those who favored civil control by the Arabs (39 percent), total return to Jordan with demilitarization (16 percent), an independent Palestinian state (7 percent), and no opinion (16 percent). These polls were taken at a moment when Begin’s defenders in the US were insisting that in order to be loyal to Israel, Jews must support Begin unquestioningly, at the risk of being denounced if they did not. Nonetheless, on the evidence of these two polls, at least half or more of the American Jewish community still refused to accept Begin’s line.

Why do people like Mr. Novick willfully distort the truth? They regard it as their task to enforce what they call “discipline,” which means to bully into silence most of those who are involved in American Jewish organizations and to defame those who speak out. One function of this “discipline” is to suggest that the Israeli opposition has no constituency throughout the Jewish world. It thus becomes easier to suggest in the US that this opposition is somehow treasonable.

Here, too, Novick and his mentor, Menachem Begin, do not remember their own history. For a number of years, beginning in the mid-1940s, I was a national officer of the very Zionist Organization of America of which Mr. Novick is now president. It was then a moderate body but it kept moving to the right. I left it in the 1960s when it was busy voicing public opposition to Israel’s then Labor government. I did so not because I denied the organization’s right to dissent, but because I did not share its views.

During the 1970s, while Menachem Begin was still the leader of the opposition, he kept proposing that Jews throughout the world should be much more closely involved in expressing critical views on all of the major issues before Israel. Begin even suggested at one point the creation of a “Jewish House of Lords,” as a kind of international senate to advise the Israeli government. He dropped the proposal as soon as he took office.

Will such people as Mr. Novick become silent should Begin leave and a moderate government negotiate for territorial compromise on the West Bank? On their past record, I think not. Why do they demand silence now of those who agree with Israel’s current political opposition? Stripped of its untruths and invectives, Novick’s letter would ask us to believe that most Jews throughout the world support Begin, and that the views that Irving Howe and I and many others have published are not only marginal but subversive. The evidence suggests that our criticisms of Begin’s policies toward the West Bank—the central issue—are shared by at least half or more of world Jewish opinion; untruths and invective cannot change the facts. Begin’s policies have divided the world Jewish community as never before. Calling his opponents names, either in Jerusalem or in New York, can only cause damage to Israel and weaken its cause.

Irving Howe replies:

Rabbi Hertzberg’s comments provide the main points of reply, and I have only a few words to add:

1) I wish Mr. Novick had been more specific about that “discipline” from which some of us are supposedly proclaiming our “independence.” I was never aware I was supposed to be subject to “discipline.” By whom? Through which democratic (or undemocratic) agency? What rights, if any, of speech are available to me when this “discipline” is enforced by Mr. Novick’s political superiors? What rights are available to those American Jews who choose not to adhere to “the organized American Jewish community”?

There is a solid and durable tradition among American Jews of accepting a plurality of opinions and voices, despite occasional failed efforts to set up a unified structure. Restraints and constraints have been felt by many, including myself, with regard to Israel; but “discipline” summons remembrances of things we might have supposed to be happily past.

2) Mr. Novick borrows from Norman Podhoretz the delicate insight that Jewish critics of Begin-Sharon on the Lebanon war are, or may be, guilty of anti-Semitism—“overtly or covertly, intentional or unintentional,” adds Mr. Novick. When he is less busy enforcing “discipline,” Mr. Novick may provide us with a description of an “unintentional anti-Semite” (perhaps a clone of an “objective counterrevolutionary”?).

Mr. Novick follows Mr. Podhoretz here in an odious and dangerous escalation of rhetoric—but then Mr. Podhoretz seems to want an escalation of almost everything. I would point out to Mr. Novick and his friends that one day there may be another kind of government in Israel, a government prepared to end the disastrous West Bank occupation provided guarantees are put into effect for secure Israeli borders. Mr. Novick—as perhaps a duke in a “Jewish House of Lords”—might want to speak out against such a government’s policies. He would have every right to. By his own reasoning, however, might he not then also be open to charges of what he calls “an element of anti-Semitism”? Mr. Novick ought to think about this; he ought to consider that apparatchiks who play with fire may burn down their own chairs.

3) I agree with Mr. Novick that Israel has not sold its soul. In Tel Aviv recently 400,000 people demonstrated against the Israeli authorities, especially Sharon, responsible for allowing Phalangist gunmen to enter the Palestinian camps and massacre helpless people. There, among those who want peace, not annexation, is the soul of Israel.

This Issue

November 18, 1982