Idealizing Israel

American Jews Rally Behind Sharon—For Now

"There was a lot of backtracking to the us-versus-them pre-intifada days of the 1980s, to the attitude that Arabs are always wrong and Israel is always right."

Meanwhile, right-wing extremists like Mort Klein and his Zionist Organization of America exult with a told-you-so glee over the five-month intifada and have redoubled their anti-peace process rhetoric. And meanwhile, pockets of lefty activists picket here and there, raise money for medical services for Palestinians in the choked-off territories, drum up support for Jewish-Arab cooperation projects, and currently are planning a national summit of progressive Jews in Chicago in April, hosted by that city's Not in My Name coalition.

As for the liberal/centrist mainstream—some 75 percent of which has long supported a land-for-peace compromise, and much of which is represented by JCPA—they cheered when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands at the White House in 1993, but paid little attention to the details of the next seven years of the negotiations or to the facts of life in the territories. When violence erupted in the fall, the knee-jerk, unquestioningly pro-Israel reaction was predictable enough. After all, from the point of view of someone vaguely aware and greatly interested, it did look like Israel had made the most far-reaching offer ever and that the Palestinians had walked away from the table and, unaccountably, answered with violence.

But five months later, with information to the contrary widely available, why does the mainstream community cling to this black-and-white narrative? Both in Israel and elsewhere, the press has amply documented that the effects of occupation have not substantially improved since the Oslo accords. Over the last seven years, Palestinians have remained impoverished (the deprivations of occupation exacerbated by the corruption of the Palestinian Authority) and have been continually harassed at abundant, abiding Israeli military checkpoints; the pace of settlement building actually accelerated under the Barak government. (The greatest increase since 1992 took place in the last year, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz). Why, then, do so many insist that Palestinians take up stones—and increasingly, firearms—out of preternatural Jew-hatred when material grievances are plain to see? At the JCPA plenum, notes Lederman, "There was a lot of backtracking to the us-versus-them pre-intifada days of the 1980s, to the attitude that Arabs are always wrong and Israel is always right."

So much for two decades of open debate and dissent. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement UAHC, asserts, "We're not going back. Forces on the right in the U.S. have been aggressive in their criticism of Labor governments, so they're hardly in a position to be lecturing us about the need to stand behind government policy no matter what."

Nonetheless, in interviews, a dozen community leaders all offered the same outline of events in Israel and the occupied territories of the last five months: They started it, Arafat controls it, the violence proves they don't want peace and always hated us, there's no negotiating partner any more, and anyway, what are we supposed to do when they send their children out to be killed as a deliberate PR strategy? That's an account that leads easily to justifying the most aggressive military response Sharon could dream of, not to mention and the obstinacy he's likely to display should the parties return to the negotiating table. American Jews can argue all day long about the final status of Jerusalem; as long as they remain convinced that Israel is essentially blameless and always morally superior, such differences have little impact.

Mainstream attitudes toward Israel may say more about American Jewry's own identity issues than about Israeli policy.

The right, at least, understands that framing the narrative is more than half the battle in shaping public opinion among Jews and beyond. At the JCPA town hall meeting, panelists from the conservative leadership of the Conference of Presidents and other organizations emphasized the need to counter media reports that promote public sympathy for Palestinians—as if such sympathy were unwarranted and by definition inconsistent with sympathy for Israeli victims of violence. Meanwhile, several Jewish philanthropists have announced that they are creating a privately funded organization aimed at enhancing Israel's image.

The dovish center is susceptible to the it's-all-their-fault message, explains Mark Rosenblum, policy director of Americans for Peace Now, because the situation is complex enough to lend credence to some elements of the line of reasoning: Arafat's behavior has hardly been exemplary and no one wants to appear to be apologizing for Palestinian hostility. He adds, "At a time of violence and confusion, there's often a retreat into tribal blaming and certainly a reluctance among those who aren't conversant with all the complicated realities to say things that run against the grain."

But more than that, the universal use of "we" in those summaries of the current intifada is telling: American Jewish leadership maintains not only a strong connection to Israel, but a personal identification. What's more, such identification is still deemed essential to a Jewish sense of self; mainstream attitudes toward Israel may say more about American Jewry's own identity issues than about Israeli policy.

Preoccupied with Jewish continuity, community organizations spend much time and vast resources trying to develop young people's love for Israel. The Birthright Israel project—which is bankrolled by some dozen major donors, among them Marc Rich, and which sends thousands of college kids on free trips to Israel every year as a way of forging their Jewishness—is regarded as the best answer going to the crisis of a Jewish future. If Jewishness is to be exalted through Israel, then, supporters seem to think, Israel must be portrayed in an unquestioningly positive light.

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