Finding a Place in the Minefield:
American Jews and the Situation

Samuel Hayim Brody

I was in Jerusalem in August 2000, the last time Israelis and American Jews alike seemed to believe in "peace" as an immediate, achievable goal in the Middle East. It was then that Ehud Barak made his "unprecedented" and "generous" offer to Yasser Arafat, indicating to the leader of the Palestinian Authority that Israel would be willing to discuss even a partition of Jerusalem.

As I recall, plenty of Israelis were outraged. One cabdriver, on whom I had decided to test my Hebrew by asking, "Ma atah choshev al Ehud Barak" ("what do you think about Ehud Barak"), responded by stopping his cab completely, turning around to face me, and slowly intoning: "Fuck Ehud Barak." The newspapers that week were filled with stories about how the head rabbi in the Shas party (the Israeli equivalent of the Christian Right or the Iranian mullahs, to my mind) had declared the Palestinians to be "snakes" with which no deal could be reached.

Today, the same folks who were incensed at Barak now trumpet his offer as proof of the impossibility of peace with the Palestinians (or at least Arafat), and wield it as the ultimate defense of Israel. "We tried," they say, "and the offer was refused. Arafat starting bombing us, now we must defend ourselves, this is a war for survival. Things are different now."

It's not the far-right of Israeli politics that I'm worried about; they're probably irredeemable. But their rhetoric and ideological interpretation of "the Situation" has become pervasive among American Jews, and this is what I find troubling. Since the second Intifada began in September 2000, more and more otherwise liberal (or even radical) Israelis and American Jews have embraced survivalism as the only politics for Jews that makes sense in this moment. They've connected the anti-Semitic dots, from the Durban conference to the synagogue burnings in Europe, and seen a new rise in anti-Semitism that is of a piece with the Passover massacre of 28 Jews by a suicide bomber. Many Jews have concluded that anti-Semitism is surging throughout the world, and that the only response possible is to support the Jewish state's actions even if they result in massive casualties for Palestinians. Liberalism, as usual, goes out the window in wartime. The defensive attitude sets in. Bunker down. Fortify. React.

I believe that many liberal Jews, like my friend Jay Michaelson, whose article in the last issue of Zeek I mean to partially respond to, are operating within a rational framework. The problem is that this framework is built upon a foundation of fear - fear for the state of Israel, fear for the Jewish people. It is my contention that idealism and hope, far from becoming useless during a time of war, are most needed during such times.

I don't claim to have all the answers. Like Jay says in his article, the Left has trouble when it tries to come up with concrete alternatives to war; the consistent criminality of suicide bombings cries out for a response, and it then seems like there's nothing else to do but invade Ramallah, invade Jenin, Beit Jala, Tulkarm, root the terrorists out and destroy them. I'll admit right off the bat even though I was against the recent incursions into the West Bank, I didn't have what a Sharon supporter would consider a satisfactory alternative. ("End the occupation," offered as a solution to anything, is starting to attain in common vernacular the same far-away impossibility that "overthrow capitalism" has to the Leftist reformist). At the same time, though, I firmly believe that the occupation is wrong and must end, for Israel's own sake as much as the Palestinians'. And I also believe that terrorism is not ended through operations that sow resentment and create more terrorists. But it's getting harder to assert these opinions in Jewish circles, and this is the problem I want to address.

If it's hard to be a Leftist and a Zionist, it is equally hard right now to be an American Jew and also pro-Palestinian. Jay says in his article that it's more acceptable to be a Leftist Zionist in Israel than in America; it may come as a surprise to Americans that it is also more acceptable to be critical of Israeli policies in Israel itself than it is in most of America. Israel has always had a more open discourse on the Palestinian conflict than America. One has only to read the Israeli daily Ha'Aretz to see opinions expressed that are almost never found in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, where columnists like Thomas Friedman and William Safire regularly support just about any action Israel takes (and yet, incredibly, some Jewish people I know are now considering a boycott of the Times, because of what they perceive as anti-Israel bias in the front-page coverage).

I attended the April 15th rally in Washington in support of Israel. I went intending to represent another voice in the Jewish community; I planned to meet some friends and hand out Peace Now flyers. I knew full well that the rally's primary message would not be one I would support, but I went because I did not want anyone at the rally thinking that they spoke for the entire Jewish community. As I expected, various politicians I have no respect for took the podium; people like Rudy Giuliani and Bibi Netanyahu spoke of the need for America to support Israel if it is to truly wage a "war on terrorism" (and oh, God, I won't even get into my feelings on that). The defining moment of the rally, now infamous (perhaps due to the anti-Semitic over-reportage in the media? Eh?) was when Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a man who regularly argues in favor of invading Iraq at the earliest possible opportunity, was loudly booed by the crowd when he mentioned that we should remember that Palestinians are suffering too.
Image of April 15 rally (Sam's in the back): Zvi Band

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June 2002

jay's head