Thousands of delegates representing Reform Judaism in North America begin meetings today in Baltimore excited by the Middle East peace conference but also skittish about how American Jews should respond to the talks in Madrid, Spain.
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), which expects nearly 4,000 delegates to attend its biennial convention, has long expressed disagreement with Israel's Likud government over such matters as Palestinian rights and settlements in occupied territories. Yet many in the UAHC are reluctant to pressure Israeli leaders at a potential watershed moment in negotiations.
"There is a certain amount of discomfort in taking a stand now that would put unilateral pressure on Israel," said Albert Vorspan, senior vice president of the UAHC. "It's tricky now, because even those opposed to settlements don't want to put unilateral pressure on Israel during these negotiations."
The peace conference exposes a long-standing ambivalence in the American Jewish community: how to prod changes in Israel's hard-line policies without giving comfort to the country's enemies.
The fact that American Jews feel conflict at all is testament to the subtle changes that have occurred in their relationship with Israel during the last decade. For many years, American Jewish leaders fell in lock-step with whatever Israeli policy was. The widespread feeling among American Jews was that Israel had enough adversaries in the world without also receiving criticism from its friends.
"Up until recently, the prime minister of Israel would come here and get warm adulation from American Jews," said Robert Freedman, professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University. "Then he could go back to Israel and say, 'See, American Jewry is with me on settlements.' More recently, he's been challenged when he comes here."
In particular, Reform Jews, who make up as much as 40 percent of the American Jewish population, have become increasingly critical of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. Mr. Vorspan, for example, wrote a New York Times Magazine article in 1988 lamenting the brutal repression of Palestinians during the intifada, the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories. Other American Jews have called upon Israel to grant the Palestinians such basic human rights as freedom of speech and assembly.
In past conventions, the UAHC itself has passed resolutions urging Israel to trade occupied territories for peace treaties with its Arab nations. It has also called for the suspension of new Jewish settlements in those territories, a position long ignored by the Likud government.
The UAHC's positions carry little weight in Israel where Reform Judaism barely has a toehold. But the strength of Reform Judaism in this country and its political influence in Washington compels Israeli officials to pay attention to the UAHC's actions.
UAHC officials say that this week's convention is likely to reiterate past positions regarding Israel. However, because of the peace conference, there is also likely to be an effort to link Israeli concessions with displays of "good faith" on the part of the Arabs.
"I could see a resolution coming up that urges Israel to suspend new settlements if at the same time the Arabs end their boycott and the intifada," Mr. Vorspan said. While the peace talks will likely dominate the five-day conference at the Baltimore Convention Center, the UAHC this year is exploring a full platter of disparate issues. Among the topics to be aired are acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews into congregations, the role of non-Jewish spouses in congregations, black-Jewish relations and pay equity for women rabbis.
The UAHC represents 856 synagogues in the United States and Canada with a membership of about 1.3 million. It is the central organizational body of Reform Judaism in North America.