How the War Came Home

Some American Jews are calling this a time of reckoning. Others, less alarmist, say it’s just a crucial moment. People are even more obsessed than usual about what’s happening in Israel, in the Middle East.

They’re watching tanks, suicide bombs and their bloody aftermath, the paralysis of the spiritual capital: Jerusalem. Of course, every single tiny moment in Jewish history holds some fascination for one Jewish person or another. Every choice made by every Jewish leader, renowned or forgotten, seems decisive, and any moment is almost sure to be a moment of crisis for this people who seem to live from catastrophe to catastrophe; certainly that’s how we feel as history carries us onward; that’s what we’re taught from the earliest days. This is the catastrophe now, we say; here comes the Holocaust again, we say. We whisper: Do they hate us? “As I’ve said before, if a loudspeaker goes off and a voice says, ‘All Jews gather in Times Square,’ it could never surprise me,” says Nat Hentoff of The Village Voice.

What I’ve heard in the past month or so – at synagogues, at middle-of-the-road American Jewish organizations, and at Manhattan dinner tables – is that kind of fear, more than anger. Especially from people who were pretty devoted to peace; they are feeling betrayed by the Palestinians and terrified that Sharon’s response is wrong but the only possible response. Their feelings toward the Arabs are hardening, and when they look at Sharon, they catch themselves thinking that maybe he didn’t respond hard enough soon enough – a scary idea, when you look at what’s become of, say, the Jenin refugee camp. Also, everyone I’ve heard from and talked to, from the littlest lady in the back row to the most important liberal Jewish thinkers, they all seem to think the media is against them. When reporters cover Israel as its Army does something violent, the conclusion is quickly drawn that the coverage is biased against Israel. (“They didn’t mention the suicide bombers when they were showing what happened in Jenin” – I heard this over and over.) They particularly resent the photos the Times has dedicated to the flattened camp and to Palestinian victims pulled from the wreckage. It’s as if they want everyone’s eyes turned away, including their own.

Their faces are so earnest, so troubled – they remind me of the faces you saw just before the Twin Towers pancaked to the ground, those shocked office workers from downtown, shielding their eyes and watching something unimaginable about to happen. But these are just American Jews sitting in auditoriums or in synagogues or in each other’s dining rooms – sitting in comfortable places talking, as they do endlessly these days, about the Situation.

We were a peace-loving people once, or so some of us believed. I remember it; we all remember it because it wasn’t long ago. We were comfortable enough in America and felt secure enough in Israel (though never very secure), secure enough to want to make those conditions permanent. Through peace. It seemed the only way. We’d done war, after all. Terror continued, and the endless occupation went on being hated by the Palestinians, and the settlements kept on growing, but these seemed to many like facts of life, slowly being transformed by time and human effort into something different, something that might even end – on both sides of the Green Line one day. But this year, what Israelis call “the facts on the ground” changed in quality and in quantity – that’s putting it nicely, without mentioning the dead and their particulars – and American Jews, too, began to get tough. The previously almost benign temperament of the liberal community began to change. By now, it is very different from what it was a year ago.

“The Passover suicide bombing was the breaking point for the middle ground of American Jewry,” says Samuel G. Freedman, author of Jew vs. Jew. “Virtually every American Jew goes to a Seder dinner, so the attack felt very intimate for American Jews. The other thing that that bombing did was act like a trigger that then linked up a bunch of other events: the Durban conference, the attacks on synagogues in France, Nobel wanting to take away Peres’s prize but not Arafat’s, the Danny Pearl killing… . All those dots got connected… . You have to defend yourselves.”

No one has forgotten that Pearl’s captors made him confess repeatedly that he was a Jew before beheading him. People are feeling threatened to their very roots, not just in Israel, where the suicide bombs are, but in Europe, where there’s actual writing on the walls of a particularly virulent sort. And as usual, a sense of vulnerability does not bring out kindly or philosophical traits. American Jews are ready to go in with the tanks, and that’s one of the factors that has allowed the Israelis to go in with the tanks. There’s a callousness now, too, a kill-or-be-killed mentality, almost a desperation, that’s new, or at least that hasn’t been expressed since the Yom Kippur War.

I have a friend who is an American Israeli with a son in the Israeli Army right now. When I ask him how his son is, he says: “Armed, dangerous, and killing as many Palestinians as possible, I hope.” My friend, too, once thought Oslo might work. But he wasn’t big on it. He says to me: No one cares anymore about the death of a Palestinian baby, or the pain and distress of any Palestinian. “Those days are over, kid,” he says.

Tainting the environment in which all this is happening are the creeping inroads anti-Semitism has made in Europe. Or you may prefer the formulation of Zev Chafets – former director of the government press office for Menachem Begin who quit over the Sabra and Shatila massacres and who is a current Daily News columnist – who quaintly calls it “the spasm of anti-Semitism that is engulfing Europe.” There’s no question that the Arab press’s treatment of September 11 (no Jews in the Twin Towers!), plus recent incidents in France, Amsterdam, and Italy, and the April synagogue truck bombing in Tunisia (not to mention the grand electoral success of the great hater Jean-Marie Le Pen in France last week) have made people nervous that the wave of events in the Middle East is rekindling some unstoppable worldwide surge.

Faced with these facts, there’s been an unmistakable drawing together. There was the April 15 rally in Washington. And last week, rabbis from West Side synagogues of all denominations and members of their congregations met under the auspices of the Jewish Community Center in New York, to hold an hour of poetry, psalms, and readings at the Jewish Center, an Orthodox shul, as a demonstration of united commitment to peace in Israel and to the survival of the nation.

“That’s never happened before in the history of the community,” Debby Hirshman, the JCC’s executive director, says. “The challenge for us as American Jews is to keep finding the ways to bridge communities” – by this she does not mean a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians but between various kinds of American Jews. It’s a funny way of thinking about the “challenge” right now, but meaningful, because that, in part, is really what’s happening. American Jews are coming together because they are worried about what might happen if they don’t.

“I’m worried about whether Jews are as confident of Israel’s survival as the Arabs are,” says Jonathan Jacoby, a consultant and a founding director of the Israel Policy Forum and the New Israel Fund. “Has this horrible situation sent a lot of us back into a feeling of perpetual victimization? I have that inclination also. A part of every Jew wonders whether we can ever trust any situation. A part of the American Jewish experience is one of post-survival, in which we’re not trying to survive but instead we’re existing and thriving. I feel as if some people are losing that sense.”

A truism that is true is that jews only agree with each other, only “come together,” under duress. Now they are under duress. And this is what the conversation most often sounds like now:

Arafat walked out of Camp David. He turned down Israel’s best, most generous offer, virtually everything he’d ever asked for; then he started the suicide bombings; in their hearts, all the Palestinians want to drive the Israelis into the sea; the Europeans are anti-Semites; the Arabs are anti-Semites; the media is biased against the Jews; peace is over; war is ugly; this war is necessary.

No longer a topic admissible for debate: Sharon’s descent on the Temple Mount. Still up for grabs: the occupation, the settlements. “Well, what are we supposed to do?” might be the question that best characterizes liberal Jewish reaction to Sharon’s West Bank push. “What exactly do you do when 23 of those suicide bombers came out of Jenin?” asks Emanuel Azenberg, a Broadway producer.

“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.”

I lived in Jerusalem for almost four years. I thought it was a dangerous place then. We had an assassination (Yitzhak Rabin, you remember him), at least two bus bombings on Jaffa Street, and at least two suicide bombings, one in the market and one on Ben Yehuda. My baby was born in Jerusalem three weeks before Rabin was killed. My children went to school much too close to those bus-suicide bombings. And yet those days seem peaceful and old-fashioned when I consider them through the new lens of this crisis. I felt the Israelis’ pain then, but nowhere near as strongly as I feel it as I wait in line at Starbucks on Upper Broadway, when I think of my cafés in Jerusalem and how I would never go meet friends there now, and of how one of my old haunts, Moment Café on Azza Street, was obliterated in a moment. I’m sad and hurt to see my city shut down, and Ramallah, too, another place I used to visit, and Bethlehem, and Beit Jala, and almost every place I once cared about or enjoyed – everything’s shut or bombed out, or bulldozed, or closed, or off-limits or inaccessible, or gutted, or mired in crossfire or defaced with bullet holes.

And yet, like a little fool, I still hope for peace. Because I was lucky; as a journalist who could move from one side to the other, I happen to know that both sides are human. (Oops, isn’t that “moral equivalence”? Verboten. Well: Sorry. Too bad.) I know that both are capable of thought, and capable of compromise. In quiet moments, I nurture crazy ideas: that somehow both sides will pull out of this nightmare mess and a real state for the Palestinians will be established and terror will end.

In reality I know: We are so far from peace right now. And yet, what is the alternative? To picture a world without peace is too gruesome, and may mean, in the end, after the next war, a world without Israel. Peace: Ain brera.

How the War Came Home