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Prominent American Jews criticize 'extremism' in Israel

Criticism of the Begin government by American Jews has spilled into the open here during this past week. This, in turn, has produced some sharp reactions from at least one member of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Cabinet.

The public dissension came during an intense dialogue here, sponsored by the American Jewish Congress, on how much American Jews and Israelis should participate in each other's political affairs.

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The choice of topic itself reflects the keen concern felt by both sides about the disaffection within the American Jewish community over some current Israeli policies. American Jewish ancieties focus especially on the Begin government's policy toward Jewish settlement in populated areas of the Israeli-occupied Arab West Bank.

One prominent American Jewish leader, Theodore Mann, insisted on American Jewry's right to criticize "rampant extremism in Gush Emunim (the right-wing Jewish settler movement) and in some parts of the Israel government." And he asserted this right despite claims by Israeli Interior Minister Yosef Burg that American Jewish criticism of Israel was exploited by Egypt in peace negotiations.

(Mr. Mann is the outgoing chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations whose 34 member organizations represent the majority of American Jewry.)

Interior Minister Burg was harshly critical of a recent statement drafted by Israel's dovish Peace Now movement and subsequently signed by 56 American Jewish leaders including Mr. Mann. The statement denounced" extremists in the public and within the government (of Israel)" who "distort Zionism" and "advance the vicious cycle of extremism and violence. . ."

In effect, the statement was an attack on right-wing circles in or close to the Begin government, notably Gush Emunim, who have pressed for Israeli retention of the West Bank and widespread Jewish settlement there.

Mr. Mann stressed that American Jewish leaders would refrain from trying to influence Israeli security decisons. But he said the issue was whether Israel remained in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) because "they have to" for security reasons -- a stand which American Jews could endorse -- or because "they want to" for religious reasons.

For American Jews, he said ". . . the dangers which inhere in religious certitude supported by government" are "an article of faith whose source is Jewish history." He argued that "in large part" the emergence of "the genie of extremism" in Israel may be responsible for dashing peace hopes.

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Dr. Burg retorted that "there are certain lines of argument which can't be used. I believe a government which brought peace after 29 years with awful sacrifice should not be libeled with an extremist label." He warned against doing "anything which undermines our position in the negotiations to come."

Mr. Mann denied he had labeled the government as a whole extremist. Instead, he insisted to the Monitor that the split within the Jewish community was "not a secret."

He said Prime Minister Begin had told him public criticism would aid Israel's enemies -- in the United States Congress for example. However, he declared, "congressmen know there is dissent within the Jewish community on settlements but not on support of Israel."

Mr. Mann suggested two concrete limits on Israeli participation in American Jewish affairs (and vice versa): restraint from endorsing candidates in American elections; and restraint by Israeli public officials from urging American Jews to petition their government for any purpose.

Would-be American Jewish critics are especially sensitive now to Western diplomatic charges that the stalemate in peace negotiations is primarily due to Israeli intransigence. This charge was refuted by every speaker at the dialogue here.

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