The agony of American Jews

As conflict in Israel escalates in the wake of Sept. 11, hawks and doves debate whether forcing Sharon to negotiate with Arafat amounts to appeasement.

Published October 18, 2001 11:57PM (EDT)

Ever since Sept. 11, American Jews concerned about Israel have been in a state of alert, watching for whether, when and how the issue of Middle East peace would be tied to the war against terrorism and Osama bin Laden.

Pro-Israel hawks feared the effort to build an Arab coalition behind America's "new war" could isolate Israel, and lead to pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government to make concessions to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians. Doves hoped the new attention to the region might force the hawkish Sharon to negotiate in good faith but they opposed any new pressure that could seem like appeasement, making it seem that the Sept. 11 acts actually worked to end the stalemate in the Middle East.

But the last 48 hours have been dizzying for both sides, as momentum in the public relations battle has swung wildly from the Palestinians to the Israelis. Just two weeks ago, President Bush's support for a Palestinian state, and Sharon's bitter reaction, comparing Arab leaders to Adolf Hitler, seemed like a huge victory for Arafat, and provoked a squabble among American Jews between those who supported Sharon, and those who supported Bush.

Arafat may have peaked Tuesday, when he emerged from a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair with a statement from Blair backing Bush's support for a Palestinian state. The same day, Sharon himself even signed off on some version of a Palestinian state -- as long as Arafat could guarantee security for Israel -- and announced that he would head a future negotiating team with the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, two right-wing members of Sharon's government announced their resignations, blasting the prime minister's alleged lack of commitment to building new settlements in the West Bank. The chances for peace suddenly looked a little brighter, and American Jewish doves were encouraged.

"The objective is a viable Palestinian state, as part of a negotiated and agreed settlement which guarantees peace and security for Israel," Blair said Tuesday, with Arafat at his side.

But just hours later, rightist tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi, who had just announced his resignation, was gunned down in a Jerusalem hotel. Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical Palestinian faction, said it carried out the assassination to avenge the killing of its leader, Mustafa Zibri, by Israel two months ago. But Sharon laid blame for the assassination "squarely on Arafat."

Suddenly, Sharon and the hawks had the upper hand, and American Jews were arguing again over how to respond.

"There's really a sense that you can always count on Arafat to screw it up anyway," says Samuel G. Freedman, author of "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry."

"At the moments when there's an international push for Palestinian statehood, his refusal to crack down on his own extremists leads to this assassination," Freedman says.

But Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and longtime peace advocate, says that by blaming Arafat for Zeevi's assassination, Sharon is simply laying the groundwork for a crackdown on Palestinians that will move both sides away from the peace process.

"The Israeli government has responded to specific acts of terror by oppressing an entire population, by blaming an entire Palestinian population for the acts of a few," Lerner says. "They blame this assassination on Arafat when it's the last thing Arafat wants right now."

Both Freedman and Lerner, it should be noted, sit at the liberal end of the spectrum of American Jewish opinion. The fact that they disagree so strongly points to the wide divergence of opinion among American Jews on what comes next in the Middle East. The post-Sept. 11 debate first flared up in full national view on the New York Times op-ed page, where hawkish columnist William Safire battled his colleague Thomas Friedman.

The columnists did battle over the leak of a Bush administration plan to recognize a Palestinian state, which was said to be in the works before Sept. 11. Predictably, Safire blasted it. "The troubling part of our strategy is its blinkered tidiness: we seem to be going after one terrorist group at a time," he wrote in an Oct. 8 column. "Thus, we leave Hamas and Hezbollah, with their Syrian and Iranian sponsorship, off the list of groups whose assets we freeze ... That isolates and undermines Israel. It was combined with the leak of a plan to reward the Arab violence by prematurely recognizing a Palestinian state -- thereby conferring the sovereignty that would allow the import of arms and attract fleeing fanatics."

A more moderate -- but no less passionate -- view from Times columnist Thomas Friedman ran the following day. Friedman lashed out explicitly at Sharon, but also indirectly at Safire, calling the prime minister's comparison of Arab states to Hitler "stupid and offensive."

"There's one more thing Mr. Sharon needs to understand," Friedman wrote. "Americans want to destroy this terrorist menace so that we and all other free nations, including Israel, can really enjoy our freedom. That's what it's all about. But we are not out to destroy this extremist menace so that Israel will be free to build more settlements or to eat up more Palestinian land. Today the Palestinians are literally at war with each other over whether to make peace with Israel. But if and when the Palestinians ever get their peace act together, Mr. Sharon needs to realize that we are out to make the world safe for Israel to be free, not safe for Israel to occupy the West Bank according to his biblical map -- and saying that is not appeasement, it's American."

The Bush administration's proposal, and Sharon's response, also touched off fierce debate in the American Jewish community beyond the pundit world. American Jewish groups scrambled to respond in the wake of Sharon's remarks, some desperately trying to pave over any apparent rift between the two countries, others vociferously choosing sides. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington, rebuked the president for his comments and backed Sharon.

"Arafat must make a decision," AIPAC president Tim Wuliger said, citing the president's own claim that countries must choose sides in this war against global terrorism. "And until he decides to stand against terrorism, it is unthinkable to grant him a meeting with the president or allow him to gain U.S. support for a Palestinian state."

But AIPAC's comments were quickly countered by a letter expressing support for the president's Mideast policy, drafted by the Israel Policy Forum.

"Under your courageous leadership, we can see the possibility of a new era in which nations that have been bitter adversaries will, at long last, be united by their shared interest in defeating the common enemy of global terrorism," the letter stated. "We also commend the skillful and determined efforts undertaken by you and your foreign policy team to end Israeli-Palestinian violence and to renew negotiations between the parties."

Others tried to finesse a response that called for calm between the two governments. Take this statement from the Anti-Defamation League: "The U.S. announced its intention to set forth a Middle East initiative while keeping the government of Israel at arm's length and there is a perception that in forming a broad coalition, the U.S. may seek to pressure Israel into concessions. Nevertheless, despite these very real and appropriate anxieties, it was regrettable for the Prime Minister to compare the policy of the U.S., which is preparing a strategy to counter the greatest threat to civilization, to that of the appeasement of the 1930's."

The American Jewish Congress struck a similar tone in its statement, but emphasized that terrorist groups active inside Israel -- most notably Hamas and Hezbollah -- should not slip from the president's radar screen. "Hard though it may be, it is imperative for all of us, including the people of Israel, to have the patience and steadiness of vision to realize the need of the United States in this crisis to consort with countries of this kind no matter how questionable their past conduct. But as Prime Minister Sharon said yesterday, 'There is no difference between good terror and bad terror.'"

Even some Jews who still consider themselves doves are conflicted. The very fact that the Palestinian question has become enmeshed in the debate over how to respond to Sept. 11 is depressing to many, even if it was inevitable. The last round of serious peace talks between the two sides took place in the shadow of Oslo, against a backdrop of hope. This is a backdrop of desperation. To move toward Palestinian statehood now, many say, would be an admission that terrorism works -- and that would be dangerous admission for the United States to make.

"The interesting thing is that you know that in the long view of history that there has to be a Palestinian state," says Marlene Marks, columnist for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles. "It feels right. But for Sept. 11 to be Palestinian independence day would be outrageous."

The appearance of bowing to terrorism is also driving the more strident pro-Israel support. "We as a nation have to get out the message that the idea of Israel making concessions or the United States changing our policy is an entirely inappropriate response to bin Laden," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif. "If we make any change in our foreign policy in response to terror, that's just going to be fatal."

Lerner disagrees, but remains pessimistic about any real prospects for peace. "If this becomes the catalyst for bringing peace, that will be the one decent outcome from an otherwise outrageous and terrible event. But I don't have any reason to believe that's what's going to happen. I don't think that there's going to be any substantive change. I think there's going to be cosmetic changes, but until there's a change of hearts about real reconciliation, it's just not going to happen."

Lerner says the obstacles to Mideast peace are turning an entire generation of young American Jews away from Israel, and away from their Jewish identity. "I'm seeing amongst younger Jews a greater and greater distance from Israel, and among some, a desire to distance themselves from their Jewishness," Lerner says. "It's so distasteful to them, they don't want to hear about it. Even those Jews who aren't distancing themselves from their Jewishness, you cannot get them to talk about Israel. They want to forget about it."

Marks says that for American Jews, whatever happens in the Mideast now will be an imperfect solution. "It's heartbreaking," she says. "It is just heartbreaking."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------