Idealizing Israel


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.

“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.

That’s a strategy which can only backfire, say critics within Jewish leadership who support developing young people’s attachment to Israel, but insist that it must be realistic and that the community must also emphasize other building blocks of the next generation’s Jewish identity. Some, who wouldn’t speak for attribution, acknowledge that crisis in Israel may at least temporarily bring committed American Zionists running to Israel’s defense. But, they add, carnage and aggression don’t make for good advertising for the youngsters whose hearts they wish to capture.

And, obviously, violence makes life untenable for the Israelis and the Palestinians who are caught up in the brutalities. That simple fact will eventually get the parties back to negotiations, some community leaders say. “The current situation is not just a speed bump, it’s a disaster of significant proportions,” says Rosenblum. “But Israel cannot have security with long-term occupation. At the end of the day, there will be a Palestinian state with economic viability and contiguous territory, so settlements will be removed and there will be an agreement on Jerusalem. But no one can negotiate in a situation of wholesale collapse, so what’s needed now is a set of confidence-building measures on both sides.” And, one might add, confidence-building measures for American Jews.

Most Popular