David Saperstein : An American-Jewish Leader Sets Out on a New Road--With PLO

<i> Robert Scheer is a contributing editor to The Times</i>

Rabbi David Saperstein admits to being in something of a state of shock ever since he went to the White House as one of 3,000 guests invited to witness the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord on Monday. Dizzying times. Having spent much of his adult life fighting Israel’s battles in Washington, he finds the rules of engagement have changed. Whereas a week ago he couldn’t talk with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, they are now partners in a joint lobbying effort, already under way, to boost international aid to the occupied territories.

Saperstein jokes that he is the dean of the loose, but very potent, Jewish lobby in Washington made up of representatives of nine national Jewish organizations. He represents the largest of those organizations, the Reformed Jewish Movement, which has 1.5 million members in synagogues across the nation. He has been at it for 20 of his 45 years, ever since graduating from law school.

When he’s not supporting some pro-Israel legislation, Saperstein, as director of his organization’s Religious Action Center, is busy building civil-rights, peace and environmental coalitions. His office, a rambling house in Northwest Washington that is the scene of perpetual meetings, offers a happily chaotic contrast to the pristine embassies nearby.

Walk in at anytime and a heated debate about the philosophical underpinnings of some pressing issues will be under way. In the midst of the furor will be the boy rabbi dressed down in jeans and addressing the passions of those half--as well as twice--his age.


Given to bursts of energy and an effervescent optimism, Sapertstein has been at the center of many bruising battles--particularly in the effort to develop black-Jewish dialogue. He was co-chair of a recent civil-rights march on Washington and has long insisted that social action is a Jewish value. He is author and editor of six books on social-justice themes, and also finds time to teach law at Georgetown University.

The product of a long line of orthodox and reform rabbis, Saperstein seems determined to avoid the taint of chauvinism in domestic matters sometimes associated with men of his calling. The interview was conducted by phone while his wife, Ellen Weiss, was away at her job as executive producer of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” and it was a nice touch that the rabbi put down the phone repeatedly to attend to the demands of his two young sons.


Question: What words would you use to describe the reaction of the Jewish community to the Israeli-PLO accord?


Answer: Euphoria tempered by intense caution about the PLO.

Q: Did you and your colleagues in the American-Jewish leadership feel left out of the loop?

A: This was for the Israelis to do. I don’t know any American-Jewish leaders who felt at all left out. It’s Israeli lives that will be shaped by this agreement and it was theirs to do. I think that the fact that they were able to keep the negotiations a secret for such a long time--over 14 meetings--is one of the great diplomatic miracles of modern history. I suspect that had word leaked out, that the intense reaction against doing a deal with the PLO that would have emanated from certain Israeli and American-Jewish circles and the American Congress might well have scuttled the entire agreement.

Q: There are still divisions within the Jewish community.


A: . . . I think that every public opinion poll--including that in your own paper--has showed that a vast majority of American Jews--and the vast majority of an even larger percentage of American-Jewish leaders--have always been committed to exchanging much of the land conquered in 1967 for peace.

An even greater number of Americans and American Jews believe that this is the Israeli government’s call and that we have to do the best we can to support them and the risks that they are going to take. I think that, at this stage, the consensus is so broad that 85% of the rabbis who preached this last week from the pulpits of the synagogues of America strongly supported this agreement as a major breakthrough for peace.

Q: At the signing ceremony what was the reaction of Jewish leaders to Arafat?

A: A large group of Jewish leaders were at the signing. I saw none of them who, as a matter of principle, refused to applaud for Arafat. But I saw only a handful that did so with almost unbridled enthusiasm. There was a begrudging recognition that this achievement would not have been possible without Chairman Arafat--but also (there was) a hesitancy to fully trust him.


Q: It rearranges the political map .

A: What makes this moment unique is that this is the first time that the PLO and Israel had it in their interest to accomplish the same thing. Until this moment, their interests have always run counter to each other. From this moment on, their interests work together in making this agreement work. Both the PLO and (Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin lose and the Labor government loses deeply if this agreement falls through. And that changes the political configuration in Israel and, I think, American-Jewish leaders recognize that.

Q: An amazing turnabout?

A: Yes. For 30 years, we’ve demonized the PLO. They are now Israel’s partner in making peace in the Middle East. How do you talk about the PLO? No one will white-wash many of the terrible things that have happened. On the other hand, you just can’t talk about them as terrorists anymore. You have to talk about them in a positive nature to make this agreement work. What kind of images do we convey to our children? How do you talk about them in a way that brings healing and builds trust and understanding?


It’s a new ball game. It is the same name--the PLO--the same characters are leading it, and we have to learn to think about them differently and talk about them differently if this is going to succeed. That is a very difficult challenge for American Jews. It’s a psychic barrier that has to be crossed here that will take some time to cross.

Q: Where does this leave the pro-Israel lobby?

A: Everyone recognizes this won’t succeed unless Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab countries get behind developing the economic infrastructure of the areas under Palestinian self rule.

That is also going to be a strange kind of thing. If we do not raise enough money from the other nations in the world, then we need more foreign aid from the United States to those areas.


The idea of the American-Jewish community gearing up to fight the fight for that aid is exactly what you are going to see. You’re going to find Arab and Jewish lobbyists working together on behalf of assistance. We are almost always on the opposite sides of questions about American policies in the Middle East--and now we’re going to be on the same side.

Q: What about the new challenges for Israel?

A: Many problems Israel faces are internal. Israel has major divisions in its society that are becoming more and more tense. Divisions between the orthodox Jewish community and the majority of Israelis, who are secular. Tensions between Arab-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis, tensions between the Israelis who have been there for a while and the miraculous flood of refugees who have been rescued from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. What has held Israel together in the face of so many of these tensions has been the external threat of the surrounding countries. If that threat dissipates, it is going to put enormous pressure internally on Israel to come to grips with problems which have not torn Israeli society apart only because of the external threat.

Q: What are the implications of the coming of peace to liberal politics in America--in which Jews have played a major role--and to black-Jewish relations, where attitudes toward Israel have been an irritant?


A: Each of the Jewish groups represented in Washington has their different styles of functioning and their different strengths. Ours, the Reformed Jewish Movement, has been our involvement in coalitional politics--the civil-rights coalitions; the inter-faith coalitions, and coalitions around the peace issue, and the environmental issue. And to a large extent, I’ve spent 20 years fighting a defensive battle against people who would manipulate those coalitions into what my community considered to be anti-Israel activity. That is now going to dissipate.

In dealing with the Christian community, that has been outspokenly critical of Israel, and dealing with segments of the black community, that has been outspokenly critical of Israel, the prospect that we are now going to be fighting together to make this agreement that will benefit Palestinians and Israelis work--it is a major source of relief and optimism to me.

Q: Will you work with Arab-Americans?

A: There are already projects underway of Arabs and Jewish-Americans and inter-religious groups to get significant private investment in the West Bank from our respective communities. That has already, within the last couple of days, begun to be put into place. The American Jewish Congress and the National Assn. of Arab Americans will be working together and the U.S. Inter-Religious Conference on Middle East Peace is going to be working on raising money for private investment there.


Q: There are shared points in the two people’s search for national identity.

A: There has never been as powerful a national dream of any people in all of history than the 2,000-year-old dream of the Jewish people that was only fulfilled in 1948. Today there is a Palestinian people who believe as deeply in their gut that they have a right to determine their destiny as we Jews believe we have a right to determine ours. The irony of it is there are parallels between it--particularly amongst the Palestinians who no longer live in Israel or the territories of Gaza, the ones who have been the marginal people in many Arab countries. Some have emigrated to Western countries, and fill many of the same niches in those countries that Jews filled in Western society of the professional classes, the well-educated classes, and the shop keepers.

Now that that obstacle has significantly been reduced, there are going to be conversations between Jews and Palestinians in America, and Jews and Palestinians from across the globe, as well as in Israel, that will lead us to see the commonalty of our situation and our interests in a way that would not have been possible before this agreement.*



It’s a new ball game. It is the same

name--the PLO--(but) we have to

learn to think about them differently if

this is going to succeed.



(Arab and Jewish lobbyists) are almost

always on opposite sides of questions

about U.S. policies in the Mideast. Now


we’re going to be on the same side.


Today there is a Palestinian people who

believe as deeply that they have a right


to determine their destiny as we Jews

believe we have to determine ours.