The Silence of the Left

Why Liberal Jews Have Lost Their Courage on Israel

At the midtown rally in support of Israel last Thursday, an Orthodox woman confronted a small group of counterdemonstrators penned into a corner across the street from the main event. "Who are you for?" the woman demanded to know. "Jews or Arabs? Who are you for?"

"Peace!" answered Alan Levine, an attorney, who spent a couple of hours holding a sign calling for an end to Israel's excessive show of force.

"You're the ones Hitler should have gotten," snarled a bearded Jewish man at the group with Levine, a hastily assembled ad hoc formation calling itself Jews for Peace Through Justice.

During the intifada of the late 1980s, many groups like this one emerged, breaking the long-held taboo among American Jews against criticizing Israel publicly. Their early calls for negotiations with the PLO and for the establishment of a Palestinian state gradually became mainstream positions in Israel and the U.S., and are currently supported by some 70 percent of American Jews. But since the eruption of violence over the last two weeks, the liberal American Jewish community seems to have retreated, retrenching to pre-Oslo claims of exclusive Jewish victimhood at the hands of irrational Arabs, and to a knee-jerk justification of the Israeli army's use of live ammunition, tanks, helicopter guns, and other artillery in the name of "security."

Rejecting this polarizing position, and trying to assert the simple point that condemning Israeli violence does not mean condoning Palestinian violence, Levine and the couple dozen Jews with him, likened the hostility with which they were greeted to the intra-Jewish clashes of a decade and a half ago. But this time the ranks on his side looked much thinner, and their viewpoints got little airing. Likewise, the demonstrations by the Israeli left don't get picked up by the violence-hungry media.

Meanwhile, the American Jewish establishment proclaimed in a full-page ad in Sunday's New York Times that the Jewish community is "speaking out in one voice," as it asserted moral superiority. "For once again we strive for peace and are answered with violence," declared the ad, sponsored by the UJA-Federation of New York and United Jewish Communities, umbrella organizations representing hundreds of local groups. "We strive for righteousness and are answered with injustice."

Predictably enough, Thursday's pro-Israel rally was dominated by New York's small but vocal and well-organized Jewish right wing—yeshiva students chanting, "Death to the Arabs!" And in the name of "Jewish unity," no one denounced such rhetoric from the stage. Have the liberals ceded the platform during a time of crisis? Are the advances of the last dozen years reversed in a week?

"I don't see it as a retreat," suggests writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founder of Americans for Peace Now, which supports the Israeli peace movement. "It's more like a reaction formation. People need to express their frustration and despair, and they think the best way to do that is to ask, 'Why are the Palestinians doing this to us when Barak gave so much away? Why after all these years do they hate us so much?' "

Such questions come up easily, explains Jerome Segal, president of the Jewish Peace Lobby, because of a "certain naïveté about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in particular by people who were swept along by the apparent successes—handshakes on the White House lawn and so on—but who never really acknowledged the Palestinian understanding of the conflict. For them, it is a tragedy in which they are the victims of an enormous injustice, have been made to pay for Christian anti-Semitism toward European Jews, and have had their land taken from them by force."

The issue, then, is hardly one of some preternatural anti-Jewish hatred—or of some ancient ethnic enmity, to which The New York Times frequently reduces it—but of material conflict. It's a point synagogues and other Jewish institutions addressed in the countless teach-ins and special courses they sponsored during the late 1980s, when images of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms of Palestinian children blazed into our living rooms in news reports of the intifada, shattering long-held ideals and breaking the unconditional Jewish support of Israel. But with the signing of the Oslo accord in 1993, and more recently concessions offered by Prime Minister Ehud Barak that have gone far beyond anything any Israeli leader has even contemplated publicly, American Jews heaved a sigh of relief and cheered on the peace process from afar, content that dovish sentiments had prevailed in Israel and certain that peace was at hand.

What they have missed, explains Donna Nevel, who organized the Road to Peace conference in New York in 1989, where Israeli Knesset members and PLO representatives met publicly for the first time in the U.S., is that, while negotiations have continued, so has the occupation. True, Israeli troops have been redeployed from most of the West Bank, but Palestinians traveling from one town to another still have to stop at Israeli roadblocks, where they are subject to harassment and humiliation; Israel continues to demolish Palestinian homes in acts of collective punishment; land confiscation continues; Jewish settlements keep expanding.

"On the ground, not much has improved for Palestinians," Nevel says, "and anyone who was surprised by the expressions of rage by Palestinian citizens of Israel just hasn't been paying attention to their treatment as fourth-class citizens."

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