Idealizing Israel

American Jews Rally Behind Sharon—For Now

As Ariel Sharon prepares to present his national unity government to the Israeli public, the fractious American Jewish community appears to be presenting its own rare show of unity. From resolutions congratulating the notorious warrior on his election to cranked-up recitations of the mantra that Jerusalem is the "eternal undivided capital" of Israel, mainstream Jewish organizations are rallying behind Israel in a lockstep that hasn't been seen in 20 years. Will Sharon, of all people, be the figure who reweaves the disparate strands of American Jewry into a united front?

"By standards now being applied in Kosovo and Serbia," Rabbi Michael Lerner asserted in a recent Tikkun editorial, "Sharon should have been brought to trial for war crimes. Instead he has now been elected prime minister."

Despite the decisive drubbing of Ehud Barak, the election of Sharon was far from the landslide the media have called it: Sharon won votes from some 35 percent of the Israeli electorate, much of which uncharacteristically stayed away from the polls or turned in blank ballots. Still, many American Jews greeted the choice with horror and confusion, and with worries that Sharon's likely incendiary response to the Palestinian uprising would further splinter American support for Israel at a time of escalating violence.

A national unity government relieves mainstream American Jews because it doesn't twist their kishkes so strenuously as Ariel Sharon alone would.

Those fears were mitigated by the Labor Party's decision last week to join with Sharon in a national unity government (even though the substance of what they are uniting over remains unknown). Indeed, news of Labor's decision came just as some 1000 Jewish community leaders were in Washington, attending a town hall meeting on Israel as part of the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), an umbrella for 13 national and 123 community groups from around the country. The announcement brought a burst of applause, recalls JCPA executive director Hannah Rosenthal. Attendees were relieved both that Sharon might now form a government without allying himself with far-right parties and that Labor might restrain Sharon's warmongering and help get the peace process back on track. "We're holding onto the possibility that Sharon will be like Nixon when he went to China," Rosenthal says. "We have to hope that."

Typically at the JCPA plenum, Jewish communal leadership hammers out resolutions on U.S.-focused issues—in this case, a moratorium on the death penalty (in favor), child labor and sweatshops (against), and President Bush's faith-based social service initiative (adamantly opposed). And while JCPA often passes resolutions supporting efforts for peace, democracy, and Jewish-Arab cooperation in Israel, Rosenthal says, this year the bloodshed in the Middle East pushed the Jewish state to the center of discussions. For some in attendance, though, there was a disturbing disconnect between the conference's U.S. politics and its Israel politics.

"On every other issue, our community expresses commitment to the prophetic tradition and the imperative of tikkun olam [healing the world]," says Esther Lederman, project director of the Seeking Peace, Pursuing Justice program of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the synagogue arm of Reform Judaism. "But Israel is a kishke issue for many people."

A national unity government, then, also relieves mainstream American Jews because it doesn't twist their kishkes so strenuously as Sharon alone would. The impulse to leap to Israel's defense whenever there's violence is harder to justify when it smacks into the man who, by many accounts, incited—or at least egged on—the Al Aqsa Intifada with his triumphalist visit to the Temple Mount in September.

It was Ariel Sharon who first provoked American Jews to break ranks with the post-1967 Israel-can-do-no-wrong stance when he led the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and then stood by as hundreds of civilians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps were massacred. The intifada that erupted five years later widened the rifts among American Jews, as factions staked out conflicting positions on recognition of the PLO, a two-state solution, and how to respond to Israeli human rights abuses. Even as Israel's own government answered the first two of those questions through peace negotiations, the specific terms of the final agreement became as contentious here as in Israel: Would Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza be dismantled? How would Palestine acquire contiguous territory? Could Jerusalem be shared? And what about Palestinian access to water? (Except on the far left of the Jewish community, merely mentioning the question of Palestinian refugees remained entirely taboo.)

Momentary unity notwithstanding, these issues have not gone away, and tensions continue to divide the activists, lobbyists, and community professionals who follow Israeli politics most closely. Indeed, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—the supposed one-stop-shopping source of American Jewish opinion—is split by wide and acrimonious rifts. The organization recently chastised its chairman, Ronald Lauder, for addressing a right-wing rally in Jerusalem on the eve of Israeli elections: It voted to formalize a longstanding principle that prohibits the group's chairpersons from expressing their personal views of Israeli policy, especially when they conflict with group consensus—as they almost always will, given that the conference comprises 54 groups, ranging from the hawkish hard right to the dovish, liberal-Zionist center.

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