Jewish Leaders Open Campaign to Back Israel in Arab Unrest

Times Staff Writers

Jewish leaders and groups in Orange County have launched a campaign, beginning today with a conference for 120 leaders, to bolster support for Israel after weeks of violent confrontations between armed troops and rock-throwing Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories and within Israel itself.

The daylong conference at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Orange County, an umbrella organization for the county's estimated 100,000 Jews. Its purpose, organizer Chelley Friedman said, is to help leaders counteract negative reaction to Israel's handling of the disturbances.

"We want our people to answer any questions non-Jews might have about what's going on," Friedman said. "We want to provide them with the background so that they (Jewish leaders) can come to an understanding that will allow them to answer any questions. They obviously will have some questions because of the biased media reporting that's been going on."

Accident Sparked Violence

For weeks, the crowded refugee camps of the Gaza Strip and the narrow alleys of Arab towns on the West Bank have been the scene of confrontations between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops. Starting with the rumor that a traffic accident that killed four Arabs was deliberate, the angry demonstrations have evolved into a protest against two decades of Israeli occupation.

Jewish leaders in Orange County said Saturday that they are concerned that support for Israel might erode. Plans for other conferences like today's are being formulated, said Steven Edelman, director of the Orange County chapter of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

"Support among Jews for the ultimate survival of Israel remains absolute," Friedman said. "But I have to be honest and say that there is some difference of opinion (among Jews) about what should be done in Gaza and the West Bank."

The estimated 250,000 Arab-Americans in Southern California welcome these discussions being held by Jewish groups, said Cheryl Faris, a Los Angeles attorney who is a national board member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

But Faris, who has participated in such forums in Los Angeles, said she disagrees with Friedman about the accuracy of media coverage.

"For years the media portrayal has been pro-Israel," Faris said. "Now, we are seeing more even-handed reporting on the Middle East in U.S. papers."

At today's conference, Friedman said, members of the Orange County Jewish Federation's Young Leadership Group, composed of men and women under age 45 who are being groomed to play major roles in the community, will hear three panelists express various viewpoints on the causes of the disturbances, potential solutions and media coverage.

Friedman said much of the focus will be on news coverage of the disturbances, which she called biased.

"Maybe this is to be expected in a democratic country like Israel, where the press is allowed a free rein and it is held up to an extremely high standard," Friedman said. "Israel is held up in the light so that every pimple shows."

Fullerton Forum Planned

Other forums are being organized in the county, said Rabbi Haim Asa, including one at Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton on Feb. 12, with Palestinian-American Nadia Bettendorf the keynote speaker.

"I think that the Palestinians do have a valid and legitimate point of view that should be presented and discussed," Asa said Saturday.

"But most of the disturbances in the West Bank and Gaza have nothing to do with Palestine and Israel," he said. "The disturbances were caused because for the first time in 22 years the Palestinian issue was left off the agenda of the Arab summit that was held last November. . . . The despair of the Palestinians has been caused because the Arab world has abandoned them."

In Los Angeles County, Jewish leaders also are struggling to cope with doubts and questions raised by the violence.

Impact in Los Angeles

"There is no question in my mind that the Jewish community is terribly concerned with the impact that TV and newspaper headlines are having on the good name of Israel," said Stanley Hirsh, president of the Jewish Federation Council, an umbrella group of more than 150 organizations.

"And short of us living in Israel, the only thing we can try to do is try to understand the problems," Hirsh said. "We really have no way of solving them."

The emergency also has prompted a series of public and private meetings in Los Angeles County, to bring the confrontations into perspective for the Jewish community of more than half a million, the nation's second largest.

It also has dominated the front pages and letters columns of recent issues of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. A headline asked: "What Should We Do? The stories are troubling, the news coverage extreme and America's Jews are immobilized."

Jewish Journal Editor Gene Lichtenstein said, "I think the Jewish community's response is really intense. The people I've talked to are very upset at what's going on, but they're also upset at the (major media) coverage."

Israel's earlier crises were less controversial, at least for American Jews. They hailed the 1948 founding of Israel and the victories of 1956, the year Israel invaded the Sinai, and of 1967, the year of the Six-Day War. And they shared in Israel's despair over early setbacks in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as well as the joy that came with the Camp David accords with Egypt.

It was Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon that first saw a serious difference of opinion among American Jews about Israel's strategic aims.

Then, as now, differences in the U.S. community reflected arguments within Israel itself. Most American Jews agreed that it was up to the Israeli leadership to decide what to do. But like many Israelis, a significant number of American Jews raised questions about Israel's continued military presence in Lebanon, which was eventually reduced to a zone of influence along that country's southern border.

Media Criticized

Many Jewish leaders interviewed in recent days said they too share the alarm expressed in Israel about the long-term effects of control by the Jewish state over 2.2 million Arabs in the occupied Gaza Strip, on the West Bank of the Jordan River and within its original borders.

Predictably, hard-line groups such as Americans for a Safe Israel are focusing their efforts against what they see as distorted reports about Israel's use of force to put an end to more than six weeks of confrontations in which 36 Palestinians have been killed.

"The media don't clearly present the case in a fair light, namely that the Israelis are really trying their best to withhold any kind of lethal fire," said Julian White, a rabbi who is president of the group's local chapter.

Other groups such as American Friends of Peace Now say the violence in the occupied territories shows the need to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians.

"It's saddened me enormously, but it underscored the importance of assisting those groups in Israel that are working toward ending the occupation and ending the moral corrosion that it leads to," said Rabbi Sanford Ragins of the Leo Baeck Temple, a member of the Peace Now advisory board.

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