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Outgoing Leader Says One-Issue Perception Must Be Corrected : Broadening of Jewish Involvement Urged

May 17, 1986|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

Los Angeles attorney Howard I. Friedman, concluding three years as national president of the American Jewish Committee, said the most important lesson he learned was that U.S. Jewish interests "are best pursued not from an impulse of a perceived jeopardy, but from . . . welcomed participation in public affairs."

In the past, Jewish leaders may have needed to speak primarily to "the defense of Jewish rights and interests in the face of threats," Friedman said Thursday night in Washington at the annual American Jewish Committee meeting.

But in view of American Jewry's relative security today, he said, the effort should be to support American institutions that nourish that security.

'Panoply of National Concerns'

"No community in America is more deeply involved in the entire panoply of national concerns than is the American Jewish community," Friedman said.

He urged American Jewish Committee leaders to use that participation to correct perceptions that Jewish communities are concerned with only one issue--support for Israel--and that U.S. Jews speak with a standardized, liberal, Democratic voice.

There is no one "Jewish answer" to the great issues of peace, public welfare and politics, he said.

"The most careful reading of (biblical prophets) Amos and Isaiah will not disclose a Jewish position on a proposed nuclear freeze or spell out the details of a fair public welfare system," Friedman asserted.

Although he endorsed a prudent and statesman-like foreign policy, Friedman declared that U.S. will and military resolve were "near collapse" in the 1970s. In a reference to the American bombing raid of Libya on April 14, Friedman said: "I have never been prouder of my country than I was last month, when the United States demonstrated, clearly, emphatically and with courage, that it would not tolerate ongoing state-supported terrorism supinely."

Friedman's assessments came during a dinner at the American Jewish Committee's 80th anniversary meeting, which ends Sunday. The 50,000-member American Jewish Committee, which is based in New York and has 33 offices in the United States and three foreign countries, is active in social issues and--more than other national Jewish agencies--frequently seeks support and cooperation from Christian, ethnic and civic groups.

Partner in Law Firm

The 58-year-old partner in the downtown Los Angeles law firm of Loeb & Loeb said in an interview that committee duties consumed about one-third of his time, cutting into work as trial lawyer with a general business practice.

He said he made five or six trips to West Germany to help arrange exchange programs for young American Jewish and West German leaders and help set in motion revision of textbooks, in both countries, that rely on stereotypes of Jews and Germans.

His most difficult time as committee president, Friedman said, was prior to President Reagan's visit May 5, 1985, to the Bitburg cemetery where the World War II dead include 49 SS combat soldiers.

The cemetery visit was widely criticized, especially by Jewish groups, and eventually it was shortened from a scheduled 20 minutes to eight minutes. In addition, an earlier stop was added--to a cemetery where more than 50,000 victims of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were interred in mass burial sites.

Friedman said that, although the American Jewish Committee was not perceived as aggressively critical of Reagan's original plans, "we were as critical as anyone, but our role was to try to negotiate a change."

"We think we had a major role in persuading the Germans to downgrade the importance of the Bitburg cemetery visit and to add another cemetery visit."

In his speech Thursday, Friedman said Jewish organizations have tended to encourage the idea that the Jewish community speaks as one on public issues by creating organizations designed to present a united front.

'Single Voice' Opposed

"While our various umbrella organizations render many important services," he said, "the American Jewish Committee has always been uneasy about participation in such structures because we strongly believe that there is not, and should not be, a single voice for American Jewry. The need to avoid an artificial unanimity of Jewish opinion is most acute on issues of deep Jewish interest.

"Our efforts with regard to such issues are far more credible and effective when it is clear that we have come to our positions from a diversity of viewpoints and without any structural constraints or party lines."

Friedman also voiced that theme last Monday in a commencement address at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

Jewish influence in the public debate is based on the "potency of ideas," not electoral or financial clout, he said. "Jews are after all only 2 1/2% of the American population and represent perhaps 4% to 5% of the voting population," he said.

Whatever Jewish influence exists "is based on the potency of ideas generated by a community which is perceived as being an integral part of the total society," he said.

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