The President of the United States was being attacked for withholding aid to Israel in an effort to pressure it to stop housing construction in communities established on land Israel won during the Six Day War in 1967.
Jews openly criticized the president's effort to tie aid to Israel to a freeze on settlements. Anti-Defamation League (ADL) leader Abraham Foxman called the linkage "an untenable position" and declared "the question of Israeli settlement activity is an issue to be resolved at the Arab-Israeli negotiating table." Indeed, these groups were equally angered and confused by the president's proposal to use the 1967 "borders" as a starting point for negotiations with the Palestinians.
In an unprecedented move, Israel's prime minister publicly criticized the president for this policy, claiming Israel would be returned to the "borders of Auschwitz" if it went back to its pre-1967 frontiers. "The United States really wants to return us to the 1967 borders with minor border adjustments," he told the newspaper Haaretz.
The American Jewish Congress declared that "this is a regrettable and unwarranted conditioning of humanitarian aid on compliance with an extraneous political goal.… This policy of the United States now compels Israel to choose between aid which everyone believes essential to its absorption needs and a settlement policy which some, at least, believe is essential to its security needs."
The political fallout of major Jewish organizations criticizing the president and his policies was evident. "There is a great deal of anger among Jews in America about how the Administration is handling things," said Carol Nelkin, a Houston lawyer active in local Jewish causes. "It seems to me that whether or not you are in favor of settlements or stopping them," she said, "the tone of the Administration is one that seems hostile to Israel, beyond what is necessary, and that is something I take personally."
To be sure, the president sought to win back support in the Jewish community. But "there is anger and dismay in Jewish communities over Administration policy that is increasingly perceived as one-sided and unfair against Israel," said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League. "I imagine it will be translated into an unwillingness to vote for this Administration or contribute funds."
Candidates opposing his re-election claimed before a major Jewish organization that the president has "all but destroyed the historic relation between America and Israel." Their campaigns had the air of a pro-Israel crusade, with community activists determined to unseat the president at all costs in retribution for his perceived hostility toward Israel. They openly encouraged the crusade atmosphere, regularly attacking the president’s Middle East record and promising a new era in U.S.-Israel ties.
What I've described is how American Jews and Jewish organizations responded to President George H.W. Bush's policies and treatment of Israel. As part of this reaction, Jewish groups and individual voters shifted their support to Bill Clinton. They did so publicly and with a pronounced sense of anger.
So when President Obama pursues policies similar to Bush and evokes the same disappointment from Jewish voters, why are "leading" Jewish organizations rushing to get other Jewish groups to sign a "unity" pledge not to raise the same objections in the same way they were raised in 1992?
ADL and other groups attacked Bush nearly 20 years ago. But such criticism has been tossed down the memory hole by the ADL and its pledge co-sponsor, the American Jewish Committee. Their pledge reads in part: "The Jewish community has had a strong interest in ensuring that American support for Israel is one of the critical strategic issues that unites rather than divides parties and officials. U.S.-Israel friendship should never be used as a political wedge issue."
Who really has a strong interest in stifling debate? Abe Foxman clears things up: "We want the discourse on U.S. support for Israel to avoid the sometimes polarizing debates and political attacks that have emerged in recent weeks, as candidates have challenged their opponents' pro-Israel bone fides or questioned the current administration’s foreign policy approach vis-à-vis Israel."
Are we to believe that criticism of President Bush and support of Bill Clinton -- including that of Foxman -- undermined American and Israel interests and that shutting up about Obama's policies advances them? It is more likely that Jewish groups behind the unity pledge have convinced themselves that being hypocritical cogs in the Obama election machine will strengthen support for Israel. Rabbi Hillel the Elder told his students and fellow sages: "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man." Would that the ADL and other groups took their inspiration from him. Instead they were seduced into a pact to silence Jews from speaking out. A shanda fur die Yiddin.