(photo credit: Courtesy)
The status of Jerusalem is a Jewish issue, not an Israeli one, says a group of largely right-wing Orthodox American organizations that have organized in the last few weeks to lobby around the unification of the city.
In response to murmurs circulating both in Israel and the US that Jerusalem may be negotiable at the upcoming Annapolis summit, a Coordinating Council on Jerusalem has coalesced with the purpose of opposing Israeli negotiations which would include any discussion of ceding sovereignty over part or all of Jerusalem.
Among the member organizations are the Orthodox Union, the Zionist Organization of America, the National Council of Young Israel, the Rabbinical Council of America, Emunah Women of America, AFSI, Hineni, AJOP (Outreach), NCSY, and Poalei Agudath Israel of America.
This marks the first time since the establishment of Israel that a group of US Jewish organizations is pursuing a policy directly involving Israel where a principle - keeping Jerusalem united and Jewish - supersedes deference to the state, the group claims.
"Preserving an undivided Jerusalem is a paramount issue not only for Israelis, but for the worldwide Jewish community," said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the founder of the group and the Executive Vice President of the National Council of Young Israel. "This is not a decision any Israeli government can make unilaterally. Jerusalem belongs to all Jews, even those not living in Israel, and their opinion matters.
"This is who and what we are. You don't give away your heart and soul."
Lerner recruited Jeffrey Ballabon, a strategist with expertise in issue campaigns, to recommend and execute an international strategy to ensure continued Jewish sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. As a first step, the two called for the creation of a body to coordinate and leverage efforts in Israel and the Diaspora to secure Jewish interests in Jerusalem's future. Further efforts will include lobbying, grassroots organizing and education. "The argument that diaspora Jews should not get involved on decisions made by the Israeli government is disingenuous when they are influenced so heavily by the US," said Ballabon.
The OU has written to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisting that Jerusalem should not be up for negotiations. Olmert responded with a letter that said "The issue of Jerusalem currently is not under negotiations with the Palestinians.
"In any future settlement, the Prime Minister will strengthen the Jewish character of Jerusalem, enhance its Jewish majority and keep Jerusalem as the eternal, united and internationally recognized capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel."
The roots of the coalition can be found in the reaction to the Gaza disengagement, when the leadership of these same groups remained largely silent despite the opposition by the vast majority of their base. At that time, there was tremendous internal debate among many of the organizations about whether to openly oppose or remain neutral to the government's decision.
"For certain organizations, some of whom have substantial membership in Israel, there was a sense at the grassroots level that the organizational leadership doesn't represent the base's point of view," said an OU Board member.
"When people ask, 'What is the difference between now and then?' one reason is precisely because, to many, the Gaza disengagement and its aftermath are evidence of a complete and total disaster."
While Orthodox American organizations are ready to take on the Israeli government, other American Jewish leaders say that the future of Jerusalem should be left up to Israel alone.
"It's my view that if the people of Israel and their elected representatives determine that in order to have peace a compromise on Jerusalem is necessary, they are entitled to make that judgment," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
"Such a compromise would be made with a heavy heart and great reluctance, but if they choose to, they have every right to expect our support.
Leaders of pro-peace process groups say they have not organized any comparable efforts, in part because Jerusalem is not yet being negotiated.
"Americans for Peace Now have not begun advocating on this issue, because currently Jerusalem is not on the table," said Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. Ideas that have been floated around make clear that in a final settlement Israel would maintain control over the Western Wall and enjoy free access to places that are holy to them, as they do now, he said.
"As someone who spent most of his life in Jerusalem, I find it hard to understand why Israelis - let alone American Jews - would be so attached to Arab communities such as Kufr 'Akeb, Sawahra, Umm Touba or Sur Baher - places they never visit and probably couldn't even pronounce," said Nir.
"Most Israelis have already made the distinction between the mundane Jerusalem and the metaphysical "Jerusalem." It's time for American Jews to do that to, otherwise, they would be condemning Israelis to an endless state of war."