In the eyes of City Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, his resolution calling for a halt to the killing of innocent Israelis and Palestinians and an even-handed policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was a no-brainer.
"I don’t see how people can be against an even-handed policy," he said.
But Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and other pro-Israel supporters said the resolution was flawed because it made no distinction between how the innocent victims were being killed. Palestinian terrorists specifically target innocent Israelis, he said, while the Palestinian victims were killed accidentally by Israeli troops.
"There is a moral difference," Rabbi Weiss insisted during a heated exchange with Barron during a hearing of the Councilís Committee on Cultural Affairs at City Hall.
The wrangling came during the committee’s consideration of five resolutions dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Four were clearly pro-Israel. Barron’s, however, sought to put the Council on record as having a more neutral stance, a clear shift from previous pro-Israeli Council positions.
Among the pro-Israel resolutions was one authored by Councilman G. Oliver Koppell calling for President George W. Bush to declare the Palestinian Authority and the PLO terrorist organizations and to close the Palestinian mission here to the United Nations.
Rabbi Weiss, who spoke in support of Koppell’s resolution, said Barron’s was comparable to saying there is no moral difference between the 2,800 Americans killed in the World Trade Center attack and the Afghan civilians accidentally killed in American bombing raids designed to destroy al-Qaeda forces.
"It’s not only disgraceful but un-American," the rabbi fumed, looking right at Barron.
Barron said he found it "absolutely amazing that an intelligent person such as yourself believes that all of the thousands of Palestinian men, women and children killed were killed by accident." He said he also could not believe that Israeli troops looking for terrorists would not know that "a missile destroying a whole building could kill" innocent civilians.
"All the acts were just an accident?" he asked incredulously. "The world does not believe you. … What Ariel Sharon did in Beirut [in 1981] was not an accident. For you to sit here and slough it off as an accident is immensely absurd."
Barron apparently was referring to the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps by Christian militia. Sharon, as defense minister at the time, was indirectly blamed for not having anticipated the slaughter.
Rabbi Weiss insisted that the "Israeli army is one of the most moral armies in terms of character."
"The Israeli army in self-defense has displayed an extraordinary moral responsibility," he said. "The U.S. Army is a moral army and it too has made tragic mistakes, like the 30 civilians killed [by an errant bomb in Afghanistan]… It’s the price of war, the horrors of war.
"If you say there is no difference between cold-blooded murder and self-defense, that there is no difference between American soldiers and Israeli soldiers trying to protect their countries, that is not only a disgrace against American troops but it is an un-American resolution and itís shameful."
"You should be ashamed of yourself," Barron shot back, "trying to manipulate the horrible tragedy in America."
But when pressed by Rabbi Weiss, Barron did not deny having said there is no difference between those killed at the World Trade Center and those killed by errant American bombs in Afghanistan.
"I said [the taking of] any innocent life is wrong," Barron said.
Rabbi Weiss was not alone in support of Koppell’s resolution and rejecting Barron’s, which the Rev. Herbert Daughtry observed that only black members of the City Council had co-sponsored.
Ron Soloway, managing director of government relations at UJA-Federation of New York, said there is a "fundamental distinction between the terrorism perpetrated against Israeli civilians and the measured, strategic self-defense in which Israel must engage. These are not two sides of the same coin."
And Stephen Flatow, whose daughter, Alisa, was killed in a Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995, pointed out that the Palestinian Authority "encourages, supports, sponsors and protects terrorist groups, and that its offices in the City of New York constitute a danger to those who live, work and travel here."
Rabbi Weiss stressed that the "City Council is the voice of the people, a voice of moral conscience, and it can use its moral persuasive power to ask the federal government to find a legal way" to expel from the country the Palestinian Mission to the United Nations.
Rev. Daughtry questioned how the World Trade Center attack had become part of the discussion.
"The USA must be more balanced" in its approach to the Middle East conflict, said the Brooklyn clergyman. "[Yasir] Arafat is the Palestinian leader, bring him and Sharon to the White House and sit them down so they can [work out an arrangement that would allow their people] to live in peace."
Rev. Daughtry made no mention of former President Bill Clintonís efforts to do just that at Camp David talks in July 2000.
Under questioning from Koppell, Rev. Daughtry said he condemned all terrorist attacks and supported the right of Israel to exist with secure borders. When Koppell said Rev. Daughtry therefore supported his resolution, Rev. Daughtry sheepishly admitted that he had not read it because he was there only to support Barron’s resolution.
The other three resolutions before the Council called for a condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombings; called upon the United Nations to condemn Palestinian suicide bombings; and recommended the Bush administration ìstrongly condemn and call for an immediate endî to anti-Semitic violence in Europe. A vote is expected in coming weeks.
Speaking in support of the resolution condemning anti-Semitic violence in Europe, Betty Ehrenberg, director of international and communal affairs for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, noted that European governments have been "strangely quiet" in the face of such attacks.
"The world is looking to see where New York City leadership stands at this time and we are being tested," she said. "We must stand up and speak for [Israelís] right as a sovereign nation to defend herself."