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How the War Came Home

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"The Palestinians and the intifada have forced Israel into a defensive position with no chance for a variety of opinion, because self-defense becomes the overriding concern," says Mark Weitzman, director of the Task Force Against Hate of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Chava Koster of the Village Temple also agrees that there is very little room for variety of thought or expression in the Jewish community today. "If you're dealing with people who blow themselves up as a policy, it's very difficult even for the most liberal-minded, pro-peace rabbi," she says. "Most of my congregation supports what Israel is doing right now, but they're not happy about it. You're very boxed in, and when attacked, you go on the defensive."

"Ain brera," Azenberg says in Hebrew: There is no choice. That's pretty much how liberal Jews -- and conservative Jews and right-wingers, too -- are analyzing the current state of affairs. In fact, no one I spoke to disagreed with the Israeli incursions; no one had much to say on behalf of the Palestinian civilians who died in the attack on Jenin.

"I don't think about this issue first as an issue of trying to help innocent Palestinians," Jacoby says. "I think of it as an issue of trying to save what is most precious in my life, the state of Israel. We are numbed to the pain of others because of the pain we are suffering."

Perhaps it is an extreme of this kind of thinking that led a large group of people gathered at the recent rally in Washington to boo Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz when he suggested that Palestinian lives also had been lost in the battle. (Jacoby and others are embarrassed that no one in the Jewish community has stepped forward to issue a public apology to Wolfowitz, who attended the demonstration as a representative of, um, a country that supports Israel in a big way.)

Among those I spoke to, Peter Joseph, a longtime contributor to peace-leaning Jewish organizations who happens to be married to a cousin of mine, came the closest to doing what we in the real world call feeling a little bad, feeling a little sorry. "You have to respond in some way to terrorists," he says, "but to totally bulldoze these towns and have the kind of damages and casualties that fuel hatred of Israelis and Jews, I don't know. You can't have tanks running through civilian areas and not have the attitude that this is the big boy hitting the little boy. It spurs hate. People are not going to come out in the wake of this and say, 'I want to make peace.' "

"But nothing else has worked," says Rabbi Peter Rubinstein of Central Synagogue. "We know what doesn't work: unilateral withdrawal, conversation, negotiation. When people are sick, cocktails of medicines will work a second time, but only after there has been surgery. With the Passover bombing, it was no longer about borders, no longer about Israel. It was about Jews. That was intolerable, and American Jews felt that."It doesn't make jews in america feel any better to hear the latest opinion polls. An ABC News poll at the beginning of April showed that support for Israel among Americans is down from 69 percent during the earlier intifada in 1989 to 41 percent today, and it doesn't really lift the spirits much to hear that only 9 percent sympathize with the Palestinian Authority, down from 14 percent in October. Even more unnerving for liberal Jews here has been the fact that sympathy for Israel is strongest among Republicans. At 64 percent, they are far beyond Democrats, only 38 percent of whom sympathize with the Israelis.

These are certainly not the people the Jews on the Upper West Side are used to hanging out with, much less seeing as brethren. But now they are one -- sort of. "Israel's base is now located in pro-American hawks or conservatives or Jews," says Chafets. "Some Jews don't feel comfortable with Jerry Falwell, but that's too bad."

Another overriding theme is how much the media hate the Jews. (After watching the U.S. media for years, I always thought they followed and still follow the Jews and Israelis and ignored or diminished the Arabs and the Palestinians, but maybe I'm wrong; somehow I cannot believe that the New York Times was always and still is anti-Israel.) The Times and CNN are always mentioned. "CNN International looks like Al Jazeera in English," Chafets says. "The New York Times has a Jewish problem."

"I listened to an NPR piece legitimately describing the devastation and horrors in Jenin," says Hentoff, "without their saying one word about Hamas and Islamic Jihad in there with booby traps and suicide belts and handbags filled with explosives, etcetera. My objection is that they're not putting things in context." And then there's the infamous Newsweek cover. Two teenage girls, seemingly cheek to cheek, look out at us with their long brown hair and their pretty, serious eyes. Inside is a well-reported story by Joshua Hammer about Ayat al-Akhras, who blew herself up in front of a Supersol supermarket in Jerusalem, and Rachel Levy, the girl she killed, along with a security guard. When I read it, I thought it was a remarkable piece of reporting, but apparently my antennae (a word frequently used by Jews when they talk about anti-Semitism and anti-Israel feeling) are not sensitive enough; many Jews I spoke to immediately thought they understood that this was a case of moral equivalence, providing excuses for the bomber. "It is a shame to do equivalency between a terrorist murderer and an innocent child," says the Wiesenthal Center's Mark Weitzman. "Al-Akhras may have been a tool, but she was not a mindless tool. Misguided, used, all of the above, but I don't consider her innocent."

When Jews are frightened, the specter of the Holocaust is always in the background. No one wants to believe what I heard recently: that on occasion, Jews trying to hail cabs in New York in recent weeks have been passed by if they are identifiably Jewish -- for example, wearing a kipa.

Ron Rosenbaum captured the insecurity and deep fear running through the community today in his April 15 piece on "The Second Holocaust" in the New York Observer. "One can imagine," Rosenbaum writes, "several ways it will happen. . . . What is harder to imagine are ways in which it won't happen. A peace process? Goodwill among men? An end to suicidal fanaticism? In your dreams." It's a creepy piece, very angry, very frightened, yet quite clear-headed for something so angry and frightened.

"I spent a dozen years researching a Hitler book," Rosenbaum says. "And what struck me were the number of times Hitler made clear his exterminationist designs and how often they were dismissed as rhetoric. The Israelis are facing a people who regularly use extermination rhetoric, and it is not alarmist and it is entirely understandable to respond to that kind of rhetoric." But Chava Koster, a granddaughter of Dutch Holocaust survivors, cautions: "The lesson of the Holocaust is not to fall into the trap of hatred."

Dennis Prager, the conservative Jewish columnist and talk-show host, got in his own peculiar Holocaust scenario in his piece titled "Is It 1938 Again for the Jews?" In it, he writes: "Just one generation after nearly every Jew in Europe was murdered . . . the remnant that remains in the New Jersey-size Jewish state is threatened with extinction." (Tell that to the residents of Jenin. . . . Sometimes you have to remind people that more than three times as many Palestinians as Israelis have died in the recent conflict.) And yet Prager has seized on something. Somehow, and it seems to be primarily the result of the cruelty and hideousness of the "technique" of suicide bombing, this last conflict has become -- at least in people's minds -- a battle in some sense for Israel's existence.

In at least the early stages of Oslo, there was a sort of wide-eyed optimism among American Jews, and a sense that maybe the responsibility toward Israel did not have to be a heavy, painful, life-risking burden, but rather could be something pleasant, and fun, and safe. Now, with Israel -- or at least Jerusalem -- under a kind of siege even as its lieutenants stand on mounds of West Bank rubble of their own creation, Jews here are, as the saying goes, freaked, but ready to assume a kind of responsibility for the state, one that entails solidarity and more or less unquestioning support. It's risky for them to be in that position, of course, because it gives the Israelis, with Sharon at the helm, a free-ish hand.

"Those who see it as an existential issue will pull out all the stops to prevent Israel from being destroyed," Jacoby warns. "By pulling out all the stops, it could accelerate the situation so that it spirals into an even worse condition, to the point where the country's survival really could be threatened." Still, as Jacoby points out, things are very different now for the Jews from the way they were back in 1938, no matter what Prager may say. "We have a Jewish state," Jacoby notes. "We have American Jews."

"The big change in Jewish history is that the killing of Jews does not happen without response," says Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic. Again, Chafets must have the last word. The main lesson we learned from the Holocaust is not, as Chava Koster of the Village Temple would have it, that Jews should "turn away from hate" but that Jews should buy weapons. "Now we got da bomb," Chafets says, "and we got da country."

What is peace? This is what it boils down to in the end. So many now are saying that this -- what we have now: tanks, rubble, blood -- is the only way to make peace with the Palestinians. "When the Palestinians have been shown that they can't behave this way anymore," says Chafets, "then it will be possible to make an arrangement with them." Peace is now "an arrangement," and an ominous one at that. "The process," "an arrangement." Peace, Amos Oz used to say back when he was more comfortable with the idea, is not a touchy-feely condition of love and delight. It's more like a bad marriage, arranged from the beginning and enduring through mechanisms of legal bonds and mutual distancing. "There is no deal while Israeli children are being blown up every day," Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, says. "But people who say there will never be compromise, never be a Palestinian state, never be peace! That's not our view."


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