For American Jews, the Middle East War Comes Home

On Sunday Evening, September 9, a week before the high holidays, there was a joyous event in New York’s Jewish community: Manhattan’s central synagogue reopened its doors for the first time after being ravaged by fire three years ago. Barely 36 hours later, of course, a fire of more biblical proportions changed everything for all New Yorkers, not least of all the city’s Jews.

In a single morning, Central’s Rabbi, Peter Rubinstein, had gone from one emotional extreme to the other, and found himself anguishing, like clergy everywhere, to find ways to deal with the tragedy. He decided to change the entire format of his Rosh Hashanah services. “We have to acknowledge and affirm what people are feeling,” he says, “and try to translate it into a vision of hope and renewal, which has been the story of our people.”

There is a principal in Jewish law that you never ask a mourner, “How are you?” And that concept never seemed to make more sense than it did last week. As everyone struggled to comprehend what had happened on the most basic human level, it seemed the world had been turned upside down. “I’ve had many phone calls from friends and relatives in Israel to check on everyone here,” says Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. “The irony is it’s usually the other way around. We’re on the phone trying to get through to them. It’s a very strange feeling.”

These kinds of connections were inescapable throughout New York’s Jewish community. People grasping to describe what they were feeling often reached for analogies from their experiences in Israel or with Israeli friends and relatives. And as the week wore on, there was the haunting realization that, as is so often the case for Israelis when there’s a terrorist incident in their country, everyone in New York would know someone affected by the attack.

“On the one hand, we react like all Americans,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform organization that represents nearly 1.5 million American Jews. “Our immediate response is the common response. But Jews bring to this a particular mind-set. We have a special sensitivity to terror given our history with it.”

This sensitivity is even evident in the differences between how Jewish and Christian leaders view these events. There were efforts under way last week to get a group of national religious leaders to join together in an interfaith statement. “So far, I haven’t seen one I’d be comfortable signing,” says Yoffie. “The intentional and indiscriminate killing of human beings is the ultimate act of evil. It is a profound offense against God and humanity. I’m not for revenge, but I am for justice, and I won’t sign any statement that discourages or downplays punishing those responsible. Some Catholic and Protestant leaders approach this differently. They’re more reluctant about the need for a strong military response.”

There was also an acute recognition among Jews that as a community they had a unique position in the mix of events and that it was critical they respond appropriately. What was the right tone? Clearly, the few who were quoted in the first hours callously stating, “Now Americans know how Israelis feel,” were horribly off-key.

So, at four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, an urgent conference call took place among some of the leaders of the Jewish community. The ostensible reason for the electronic huddle was the need to make a decision about a rally that had been planned for September 23 to show support for Israel. Obviously, the rally, which would have drawn as many as 60,000 people from outside New York alone, had to be canceled. The rest wasn’t so easy.

While those on the conference call discussed helping with anti-terrorism efforts and how to best support the president, one overarching concern shaped everything else: How should Jews respond to the layers of issues that affect them as a community without separating themselves from the rest of America?

The group on the phone—which included the ADL’s Foxman; Marvin Lender, of United Jewish Communities; Malcolm Hoenlein, of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and Mort Zuckerman (on a cell phone from the Azores, where he’d been stranded)—reached few conclusions. How could they?

But as the week wore on, two distinct lines of thought began to emerge. There were those in the Jewish community who saw and felt the tragedy the same way all Americans do—the only difference perhaps being the way they prayed or mourned. Then there was the more parochial outlook: those whose view included the filigreed web of issues that have an impact on American and Israeli Jews.

There were the inevitable concerns about a backlash. Though no one was eager to say it publicly, there was talk about the possibility that somehow Jews would be blamed. That people might say, If the Israelis would just settle the conflict with the Palestinians, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.

Recent American history suggests that the fear of a backlash is overblown. Israel didn’t get blamed, for instance, in 1973, when the Arab oil producers directly stated that Israel and American policy in the Middle East were the causes of the oil embargo. And there have been few signs that any backlash is in the offing now. “The people who did this hate America,” says Yoffie. “Obviously, they also hate Israel and Jews and oppose American support for Israel. But if Israel didn’t exist, they would still hate America. They hate our values, our culture, our commitment to freedom and to human rights.”

But there is still a fundamental problem that America and Israel must confront, one that American Jews are caught in the middle of. “We can hunt down Bin Laden and the other terrorists,” says Steven Spiegel, the Israel Policy Forum’s national scholar. “We can punish the governments that played a role in all this. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a communal conflict. Terrorism is a part of that problem, but it’s not the whole problem. Constructive diplomacy is still necessary.”

There is time, of course, for geopolitical arguments in the months ahead. More urgently, response in the Jewish community included what it’s probably had more experience doing than anyone else: dealing with disaster. Organizations like the United Jewish Appeal immediately mobilized and put to use the extraordinary network of Jewish agencies set up to provide services ranging from ambulances for the rescue operation to counseling and fund-raising.

In synagogues across America, every rabbi was trying to rewrite his High Holidays sermon. “I don’t know what to say,” admits Rabbi Jonathan Gerard of Temple Covenant of Peace, in a moment of startling honesty. “It’s easier to organize a food drive or a blood bank than to deal with this kind of tragedy.”Though the role of religion is to help people through difficult times and to aid them in trying to make sense of the world, dealing with the events of last week lies beyond individual group concerns and identities. “There should be no religious denominations in this,” says Spiegel. “Everyone is an American and everyone is a victim.”

For American Jews, the Middle East War Comes Home