Last week, The New York Times featured an article on a recent American Jewish Committee publication entitled "Progressive" Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, authored by Professor Alvin Rosenfeld of Indiana University.
The article has generated a groundswell of queries and comments. Thousands of visitors to our Web site (www.ajc.org) have downloaded Rosenfeld's essay and it instantly ranked among the most frequently emailed pieces from the newspaper's site.
We are immensely pleased by the interest generated and hope it will spark serious discussion on the important issues raised by Professor Rosenfeld.
At the same time, inexplicably, the paper, in the article's opening sentence, described AJC as a "conservative advocacy group." This is preposterous. AJC is a strictly nonpartisan organization long viewed as centrist in its orientation. As our members know, we welcome a wide range of viewpoints in the AJC "tent" and pride ourselves on a deliberative style of discussion and debate on policy matters.
Not a week passes when we are not criticized by those on the "right" for some of our positions, whether support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or our emphasis on domestic social justice and social policy concerns. We hear from those on the "left", whether because of our commitment to Israel's right of self-defense or our unwillingness to contextualize or minimize the dangers posed by rising anti-Semitism.
It should be noted that the Times has cited AJC scores of times in articles over many years and, until this piece, never described us in partisan terms. Indeed, the Times has referred to AJC in the past as "the dean of American Jewish organizations."
THE ARTICLE asserted that with the publication of the Rosenfeld essay we had launched an assault on "liberal Jews." By the paper's misguided framing of the story in this binary manner, i.e., conservatives versus liberals, readers could be left with the dangerous impression that the debate over Israel's very right to exist was now defined along this political spectrum.
Suffice it to say that the individuals described by Professor Rosenfeld are not "liberals" in the classic sense who have this or that grievance about Israeli policy. Not only does AJC fully respect and defend the right of debate about Israeli policies, but we have been long-time participants in that debate.
Rather, the individuals Rosenfeld mentions are on the political fringes in asserting that Israel has no right to exist and should either be destroyed or morphed into a so-called binational state, which means the end of Israel as we know it. While some are more vitriolic than others in their writings, this is their common denominator (with the exception of columnist Richard Cohen, who was cited by Professor Rosenfeld for disturbing comments expressed this summer that do not reflect the totality of his occasional writings on the Middle East). Their language needs to be read to understand why Professor Rosenfeld felt compelled to write his essay - and why the American Jewish Committee chose to publish it.
For example, as a taste of what Rosenfeld discusses, there is Michael Neumann, a professor at a Canadian university, who is quoted by Rosenfeld as accusing Israel of "Zionist atrocities," a "race war against the Palestinians," and "the extinction of a people."
Rosenfeld has courageously taken on the threat that arises when a Jewish imprimatur is given to the campaign to challenge Israel's very legitimacy. He has the right to express his views no less than those whom he challenges. It is important to stress that he has not suggested that those about whom he writes are anti-Semitic, though that straw-man argument is being invoked by some as a diversionary tactic. As befits a highly regarded and prolific scholar, he has written a well-documented and thought-provoking essay that deserves to be considered on its merits.
No other nation faces the same daunting challenges to its very right to exist, 58 years after its establishment, than Israel. No other nation faces enemies, from Iran to Hamas and Hizbullah, who openly call for its annihilation and seek the military means to achieve that objective. And yet, even under these trying circumstances, Israel is home to a vibrant political debate about the best course of action to secure its future as a democratic and Jewish state living in peace with its neighbors.
The American Jewish Committee was described in The New York Times article as an "ardent defender of Israel." To that badge of honor, we proudly plead guilty.
The writer is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.