Lately, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann has been dreaming about Israel. This never happened before in her nine years leading Park Slope’s Kolot Chayeinu congregation, but now the situation in the Middle East haunts her thoughts, day and night. “I don’t entirely know what I wish the Israeli response to the suicide bombings would have been,” she says. “I certainly believe Israel has the right to defend itself, but I feel that the destruction of homes and leaving civilians without access to food or medicine and not allowing people to bury their dead … that is not okay. It often feels like this is a minority point of view – it’s certainly the minority expressed view.”
This sense of minority, of vulnerability, is perhaps the one thing shared by every party in the current crisis – American Jews included. At one end of the spectrum are Jews who feel the entire world is aligned against their homeland, and on the other are those who take issue with Sharon’s policies but feel that any criticism of Israel is heard as treason. “It has been difficult for Jews to say out loud, ‘I love Israel and I want to criticize some of what Israel does,’ ” says Lippmann. “But at the same time, I think it’s difficult for progressive Jews to say to the far left: ‘We are also outraged by the amount of killing done by Palestinians, and we wish that there were more Palestinians criticizing that.’ “
In this climate, even a seemingly objection-proof message like “stop the violence” can elicit ire. According to Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz of Women in Black, a group of women who hold weekly vigils at Union Square, their demonstrations are regularly heckled with two kinds of chants: “Arafat’s whores” and “Hitler should have finished you off.”
“The voices of support for the Sharon administration are so strong that any voice that is in any way discordant is seen as anti-Israeli,” says Norman Rosenberg, the New Israel Fund’s executive director. “For us, Israel’s survival is paramount, but what kind of Israel is crucial, too.”
Doubts about Israeli policies, though, tend to be met with one question: What about the suicide bombers? “The first thing you have to do is make clear that you are not an apologist for Arafat,” says Mark Rosenblum of Americans for Peace Now, “and tell Jews that you find Palestinian violence every bit as abhorrent as they do. You have to show your bona fides and say, ‘I have family in Israel, too.’ But there’s only one way for Israelis to get long-term relief: by retreating to a border that’s defensible.”
“What bothers me so much is a degree of McCarthyism among Jews,” says activist Minnie Berman. “You’re with us or against us, like Bush’s line. At the pro-Israel rally in D.C., people were spat on for carrying peace signs! The other extreme is people saying, ‘You want to show Palestinians that they have allies, Jews who care.’ I’m not here for that! There has to be a position in between. Too many Jews just wring their hands. But if you don’t do something, you’re a bystander, and I don’t think that’s a responsible position given our history of bystanders.”
April 6 was a cold day, but several thousand people showed up at Borough Hall for the “March for a Free Palestine,” across the Brooklyn Bridge. Among them were delegations from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Jews Against the Occupation. Posters ranged from the sedate – peace, stop the violence – to the inflammatory – sharon=hitler. An old Jewish lady smiled at a tiny Palestinian kid holding his father’s hand and shrieking, “End the ahcoopayzun now!” Her face fell when he switched to “Hey Sharon, what do you say? How many kids you kill today?” Lisa Kahane, a Jewish photographer from Manhattan, attended because, she says, “it’s like, hello, the Jews are the fascists this time.” Still, she wasn’t entirely comfortable. “When I heard the chant ‘Death to Israel!,’ that made me want to walk away,” she says.
Monica Tarazi of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, an organizer, has tried to moderate the rhetoric. “When we’ve said, ‘This chant or that sign alienates an otherwise sympathetic constituency,’ they say, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ But it’s a fine line between thinking strategically and engaging in censorship, which I have no right to do.”
Annemarie Jacir, a 28-year-old Palestinian Columbia grad student at the march, resents what she sees as the media’s fixation on Palestinian violence. “For so many people, suicide bombers have become the No. 1 issue – the only issue – as if there’s no context. Of course I condemn suicide bombers, but it’s difficult to live here as a Palestinian, because you look at papers and you are constantly being told your blood doesn’t matter.”
Last Tuesday night, Nadia Hijab, a chic, middle-aged Palestinian activist and consultant to the United Nations and World Bank, shared a stage at NYU with Jon Schienberg, the director of new media at the Israeli Consulate. “We need to spell peace with a J, for justice,” Hijab said, going on to speak about the difference between “absolute justice,” which would entail “turning the clock back to 1917” (which would “create grave new injustices for Jews”), and “achievable justice,” which would mean stopping the annual U.S. $4 billion in aid until Israel ends its occupation.
Then Schienberg spoke. He pointed out that Israel is the Jewish homeland, too. He said Israel has been dragged into a war it doesn’t want “because 28 Jews were killed on Passover,” and that there has not been “a single Israeli suicide bomber.”
A young man in a kipa turned to his neighbor and gave a little snort. “They’re talking about totally different things,” he said. “This isn’t even a conversation.”