Letter from One Jew to Another

Letter from One Jew to Another

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from One Jew to Another
October 29, 2002

I sometimes fantasize that I'm a hotel switchboard operator, making wake-up calls to all those Jews who remain fast asleep, or in a daze, or buried under the blankets. I visualize the struggle - I keep phoning; they keep ignoring the call. Eventually, I win the first round, as they pick up the receiver, if only to stop the irritating ring. But do I win the second round, when I try to get their attention and convince them to come out of their airtight bubble and see what's going on?

To be fair, the decade of the 1990s was so comforting that it lulled many Jews into a deep sleep.

Despite some very difficult moments, for America, Israel, and world Jewry, it was a particularly uplifting period.

It was a decade of remarkable economic growth and prosperity.

America's international prestige was ascendant, not only because of the dissolution of the Soviet empire, but also due to the successful U.S.-led military campaign to oust Iraq from Kuwait.

The frontiers of democracy were extended in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The Middle East, however, remained largely impervious to the growing democratic revolution.

The implosion of the Soviet Union removed the Iron Curtain. It deprived Egypt and Syria, among other Third World nations, of the chance to continue playing off one superpower against another. It denied home and haven to Middle Eastern terrorist groups that had used the Warsaw Pact countries for training and support. And it brought new life to Jewish communities that had been systematically repressed under Communist rule.

During the decade of the '90s, Israel witnessed some rather extraordinary developments.

The Gulf War removed Iraq, a nation bent on Israel's destruction, from the strategic calculus, at least temporarily. It created a new environment making possible the 1991 Madrid Conference and the first glimmerings of the possibilities of regional peace. Bolstered by the arrival of one million Jews from the Former Soviet Union, Israel's mood turned buoyant. Zionism received a significant lift, and Israeli science, engineering, medicine, and the arts benefited immensely. In fact, during the '90s the high-tech boom catapulted Israel into the top tier of nations advancing the frontiers of scientific knowledge.

Two years after Madrid came the Oslo Accords. While some were openly skeptical, many more hoped that this was the breakthrough that would finally bring to an end the Arab conflict with Israel.

In the wake of Oslo, there was more heady news.

In 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a treaty, codifying a de facto peace that had long been among the region's poorest kept secrets.

A series of annual Middle East and North African economic summits took place, bringing Arab, Israeli, and other business leaders together to help make peace a reality through enlightened mutual self-interest.

Several Arab countries, including Oman, Qatar, Morocco, and Tunisia, established formal sub-ambassadorial links with Israel, while Mauritania went the extra mile and announced full diplomatic ties with Israel. Meanwhile, a number of other Arab leaders were meeting with their Israeli political, military, and intelligence counterparts just below the radar.

India, China, Japan, South Korea, the newly democratic countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and countless other nations were rapidly upgrading their relations with Israel. It reached the point where, like a busy New York bakery on a Sunday morning, they had to take a number and wait on line for visits to an Israel that loomed large in the public imagination, but that was too small to handle all the interest and attention at once.

During the annual American Jewish Committee diplomatic marathon coinciding with the opening of the UN General Assembly, foreign ministers regularly pleaded for our intercession with Jerusalem to act on sometimes longstanding requests to pay official calls on Israeli leaders.

Meanwhile, American Jews were also doing quite nicely.

There were even Jewish leaders who went so far as to suggest that anti-Semitism had been largely relegated to remote stretches of Idaho and Montana, and that any other discussion of anti-Semitism was nothing more than a fund-raising ploy by Jewish organizations rapidly losing their raison d'être.

At the same time, some Israeli leaders were telling American Jews that their help was no longer needed, and that it was time instead to attend to the internal life of American Jewry, lest it succumb to the temptation of assimilation and disappear.

American Jewish political, economic, social, and cultural influence reached new heights.

Jews could be found near the top of most key sectors of American life, since there were no longer discriminatory impediments in their path. This culminated with the nomination of Joe Lieberman to the Democratic presidential ticket in 2000.

It didn't matter whether one was a Republican or a Democrat to appreciate such a milestone. Here was a Jew - a proud, observant Jew, no less, with a wife whose name was not plain vanilla but Hadassah - who had been added to a ticket to give it life when polls in the summer of 2000 showed that Al Gore was running behind the Republican team.

As an aside, I cannot help but think of the generational difference in reaction to the Lieberman nomination.

Had my grandparents been alive, though they were classic, Roosevelt-era Democrats, my bet is they would have voted for Bush and Cheney. Why? Because, according to their thinking, if things turned sour under Gore and Lieberman, no doubt the Jews would be blamed.

For me, the news came like a bolt from the blue. I couldn't stop saying, "Isn't this incredible? I never thought I'd live to see the moment. American Jewry has truly arrived."

And for my children, their response was essentially, "What's the big deal? Jews are in lots of high places, so why not on a presidential ticket?"

Again, putting aside partisan issues, the sheer number of Jews appointed to senior posts in the Clinton administration, including two Jews to fill the two Supreme Court vacancies, was additional proof that we had fully arrived. And the fact that the religion of both appointees aroused nary a murmur only underscored the welcome new reality.

Politicians seeking elected office energetically sought out the Jewish community during the decade, again boosting our sense of confidence and place in America. We knew we could rely on many friends in Congress to be responsive to our principal concerns, especially regarding the Middle East.

In an odd way, even the much-touted 52 percent intermarriage figure - the disputed finding of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study - reinforced the point, for some, that American Jews had made it in America and could finally put down their Jewish guard and relax. After all, according to this line of reasoning, not only was anti-Semitism at an all-time low, but non-Jews in large numbers viewed us as desirable marriage partners.

Underscoring this point, an informal survey of our numerous intermarried neighbors in Westchester County showed they no longer even felt a need to take surnames into account. Thus, a Mr. Shapiro could marry a Ms. Smith and give the children the name Shapiro without any intention of raising the kids as Jews, yet unconcerned that carrying such an obviously Jewish name might create difficulties in today's America, or beyond.

The decade also witnessed considerable attention paid to the Holocaust and its legacy. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington opened and, to everyone's surprise, it became an instant hit, with more than 80 percent of the visitors turning out to be non-Jews. Holocaust curricula were adopted in a number of countries and in several American states. And, more or less willingly, numerous countries and institutions, including but not limited to Europe, began a process of self-examination about their acts of omission and commission during the Holocaust. This included, of course, the issue of restitution to the victims.

Far from being forgotten, then, it seemed that the Holocaust was now indelibly etched on the world's conscience as the ultimate example of man's capacity for evil.

In sum, it was a rather extraordinary decade in Jewish history. We came as close as we ever have to the long-sought goal of the normalization of the Jewish people - a people with a state that had become a full member of the community of nations, a people with a voice that was heard in the corridors of power and decision-making, and a people that, with only a few exceptions, enjoyed equal rights and opportunities as fellow citizens elsewhere.

To borrow from the title of Francis Fukuyama's much discussed book, it seemed like the "end of history" as we had known it, and the start of something new and ever so promising. It felt so good, so comforting, so long in coming.

And then we got mugged in 2000.

It wasn't that everything that happened in the '90s vanished-far from it. It's just that we were reminded that life as a Jew is a bit more complicated, and that progress is not necessarily as linear as we lulled ourselves into believing during that golden decade.

Some Jews got the message pretty quickly; others preferred to live in denial, despite the mounting evidence over the past two years that something had gone terribly wrong.

Whether dove or hawk, any serious supporter of Israel had to be stunned by the rapidity of Israel's changed international standing after September 2000.

Despite a left-of-center government in power racing against its own self-imposed deadline to achieve a historic peace with the Palestinians, Israel found itself the target of a calculated campaign of Palestinian-instigated terror. Seeking to defend itself, as any government would under similar circumstances, it learned once again that the rules of international relations apply differently to Israel.

Suddenly, the Barak government received little credit for its far-reaching peace initiative, but much condemnation for its efforts to stem the violence.

The UN Commission on Human Rights even went so far as to condemn Israel for "war crimes," a charge rarely invoked by the world body.

And the media, with a few notable exceptions, came down hard on Israel, almost with a vengeance, giving rise to the impression that it had been lying in wait for just such a moment to return to the more familiar story line of "occupier" and "occupied," "overdog" (sic) and "underdog."

The performance of the media was almost surreal to witness, as if the preceding period of frenetic Israeli peacemaking, with U.S. assistance, had never happened; as if there had never been a far-reaching plan for a two-state solution put on the negotiating table by Israel; and as if Israel's credibility as a democratic nation - struggling against a corrupt, violent, dictatorial adversary - counted for little in the court of world opinion.

It went on like this for five months while Ehud Barak was prime minister, though that's conveniently forgotten by those who seek to put all the blame at Ariel Sharon's doorstep, as if he alone, by dint of his "warrior" reputation, is somehow responsible for the current conflict.

But wait a minute-Israel cannot make peace with the Palestinians in a vacuum.

With whom exactly is Israel to negotiate an accord? What is Israel to do in the absence of a credible peace partner and faced by an unending wave of terror? Is it simply to turn the other cheek in order to assuage the humanistic instincts of some well-intentioned but utterly clueless sideline observers, while getting pummeled and burying its growing number of dead? Is there to be one set of constraining rules for Israel's defense and quite another set of rules for every other sovereign nation?

Are we to ignore Arafat's direct complicity in terror up to this very day, and will him, through some chic séance perhaps, to be the peacemaker that we might wish him to be? Are we to live in la-la land and pretend that Israel is not fighting for its life against those nations and terror groups that refuse to recognize a Jewish birthright to any part of the land, and seek, however long it takes, to remove the "modern-day crusaders" from "Arab soil?"

Are we to rationalize the unending and deadly attacks on Israeli civilian targets, as if the Palestinians had no other means to achieve their political aims, assuming they are serious about a peaceful compromise with Israel?

Are we to look the other way while Palestinians cheered in the streets on 9/11, or lionize the latest "martyrs" who kill newborn children and elderly women with abandon in the streets of Israel?

Are we to succumb to a moral equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian behavior over the last two years, as if there were no fundamental difference between those plotting acts of terror and those seeking to prevent acts of terror?

Are we to dismiss as meaningless the threats of the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei who said, in a typical comment, on January 15, 2001, "The foundation of the Islamic regime is opposition to Israel and the perpetual subject of Iran is the elimination of Israel from the region?"

Or the fact that Iran's closest ally in the region is Syria, Israel's neighbor, and that Iran's proxy in Lebanon is Hizballah, which is amassing short-range missiles provided by Iran at an alarming rate, and placing them just north of Israel's border? Or that Iran provides funding to other anti-Israel terror groups operating in the region, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad?

To be sure, Israel is fully capable of making policy and operational errors, but then again, there's no neat, clean, and surgical response to such a situation, as other countries fighting wars against terror, including the U.S., Russia, India, and Turkey, have discovered.

Are we to overlook the meaning of endless UN assemblies, commissions, committees, subcommittees, emergency sessions, special rapporteurs, and staff reports that long ago threw objectivity and fairness to the wind and simply reflect a world body hopelessly stacked against Israel and held hostage to the whim of the Arab bloc? A world body where Israel has never, in the 53 years of its membership, sat on the Security Council, while Syria presided as Security Council president in June? A world body where Libya - yes, Libya - will assume the chairmanship of the UN Commission on Human Rights in January, while Israel has no chance even to participate as a member of the commission? A world body that devotes an inordinate amount of time to microscopically examining Israel, while blithely ignoring politically inconvenient but truly egregious violations of human rights elsewhere in the world?

And are we simply to dismiss the fact, as if it had no larger significance, that only twice in the 53-year history of the Fourth Geneva Convention were the High Contracting Parties (i.e., signatories) convened to discuss a specific country or regional situation, and both times it involved - guess who? - Israel and Israel alone? Incidentally, the first time was while Ehud Barak of the Labor Party was Israel's prime minister. Absolutely nothing else in the past half century of war, genocide, occupation, invasion, and expulsion has galvanized the signatories. Nothing, that is, but Israel.

And are we to ignore the fact that Israel and Israel alone is excluded from full membership in the International Red Cross - a movement that professes neutrality - regardless of what government is in power in Jerusalem, while all the Arab countries, of course, enjoy full membership?

Isn't it time to wake up and recognize that Israel is in danger and needs our help, that there is a worldwide campaign being waged to isolate, condemn, and weaken Israel? If we Jews aren't going to respond to the call, who will?

This is not about right-wing or left-wing politics. In fact, this transcends partisanship. Rather, it is about standing together as Jews who care about Israel, and doing whatever we can to help the first and only Jewish state in the past 1900 years get through yet another profoundly trying period. This is about fighting the cockiness of some who feel that they alone know what's best for Israel, and others who suffer from a psychological detachment from Israel, as if it were unconnected to the fate of American and world Jewry.

And are we to bury our heads in the sand while anti-Semitism once again rears its head?

Have some forgotten - or chosen to ignore - the anti-Semitic hate fest that erupted at Durban under the aegis of the UN in September 2001?

Or the breadth and depth of anti-Semitism in the Arab and Islamic world that has been revealed particularly in the post-9/11 period, including the revival of the notorious blood libel charge, the airing on Egyptian television of a 41-part serialization based on the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion during Ramadan this year, and the teaching of hatred of Jews - all Jews - in the Saudi-funded madrassas from the Persian Gulf to Pakistan?

Or the wave of documented anti-Semitic incidents - hundreds, if not more - that have taken place in Western Europe since the fall of 2000, largely the work of youth who are part of rapidly increasing Muslim communities throughout the continent? And how many other planned anti-Semitic attacks were foiled, as when the German authorities last April arrested 12 Arab men suspected of plotting attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets throughout Germany?

Or, equally disturbing, the hesitant, often equivocal response by governments, human rights institutions, intellectuals, and the media to this wave of hatred and violence?

Needless to say, the UN was largely silent about all this, or at best muttered concern in the context of "Islamophobia" and every other purported social ill.

But shouldn't we have expected more from the governments of Europe, which, after all, had only just gone through an examination of their own records during the Holocaust?

Instead of rushing to put out the fires, they hemmed and hawed, as if acknowledging a problem of anti-Semitism might stain their self-image as open, tolerant countries. Or was it fear of further arousing restive Muslim minorities that had already proved resistant to traditional patterns of integration? Or was it kowtowing to the Muslim vote, as in France, where a closely contested presidential election was looming and the Muslim vote could tip the scales one way or the other?

Striking, isn't it, that since the French presidential and parliamentary elections this spring there are no more reports of anti-Semitic incidents in France, which means that the government knows how to deal with the problem when it sets its mind to it. So why did it take eighteen months? Why did French Jews have to live in fear, wondering whether they should wear a kippah in public or if their children were safe in a Jewish school? Was this the price they were compelled to pay for French domestic politics? It's hard to escape such a conclusion.

And it wasn't just the UN and governments that diddled. Where were the European human rights and anti-racist groups that are so quick to speak out, hold press conferences, organize demonstrations, and issue reports when Palestinians are seen as the victims of human rights abuses, but not Jews, much less Israelis?

To be sure, there were a few outspoken voices of conscience: a human rights group here and there, some Catholic and Protestant church leaders, several politicians - most notably German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Interior Minister Otto Schilly - and a handful of intellectuals, including a powerful statement from a distinguished Polish group.

By and large, the institutions we counted on to speak out against any reemergence of anti-Semitism were largely silent or tongue-tied. Perhaps they were fearful of antagonizing the Islamic world, or they retained a certain residual ambivalence about Jews and their place in the world, or they were unwilling to recognize anti-Semitism only sometimes thinly camouflaged as anti-Israelism, or perhaps they subliminally sought payback for the guilt heaped on Europe about the failure to protect Jews against Hitler's Final Solution.

The self-justifying mantra I heard a hundred times across Western Europe was that this was really all about Israel and not about Jews, as if the burning of a synagogue in Marseilles or shouts of "Death to the Jews" in Brussels could ever conceivably be justified.

And then things moved closer to home.

Near-riots against Jewish students from San Francisco to Montreal, requiring police intervention; the imam of New York's leading mosque - seen by some Jews as a dialogue partner - who suddenly disappears and resurfaces in Cairo to repeat the vilest anti-Semitic canards; the New Jersey poet laureate who asserts that Israel was linked to 9/11, and a school principal in the state who makes a point of bringing his pupils to hear this "public intellectual"; two killed at the El Al counter at LAX on July 4; government warnings to synagogues, Jewish schools, and organizations like the American Jewish Committee of possible terror attacks; arrests of terror cells from Charlotte to Buffalo to Portland; and the closure of terrorist-linked Muslim institutions from Virginia to Illinois to Texas that propagated hatred of America, Israel, and Jews.

While many Jews are alert to the dangers and are determined to do what they can to support Israel, fight anti-Semitism, and aid our government in the worldwide struggle against radical Islamic terrorism, there are others - and I see them every day - who, tragically, still don't get it, or, perhaps, don't want to get it. They cannot accept the new realities, or feel they can somehow remain insulated by keeping their distance, or, in classic fashion, they wonder how the instigator might be pacified.

Personally, despite profound concern about all the challenges we face, I remain stubbornly optimistic about the future. I have no doubt that we, the Jewish people, will get through this unsettling period. But surely it will help to stand together and in large numbers, even as we look to our friends to stand with us, and we have no better friend, thankfully, than the United States.

I am optimistic because the entire sweep of Jewish history is a metaphor for the triumph of hope over despair.

I am optimistic because I have come to believe that Jewish history defies logical analysis and linear projections. By those standards alone, we would have been goners long ago, yet we, the custodians of an extraordinary civilizational heritage, are as strong today as we have ever been.

I am optimistic because I do believe that, while the struggle is never cost-free, good will vanquish evil.

I am optimistic because the Jewish people have succeeded against all the odds, whether in establishing the democratic State of Israel and fending off the standing armies of five Arab countries; rebuilding Jewish life in Europe after the devastation wrought by the Holocaust; mounting one of history's most successful human rights campaigns on behalf of the Jews of the Soviet Union; maintaining Jewish life in Ethiopia for two thousand years with no outside contact; or witnessing an American Jewish community that has grown in influence and stature, after its failure to save European Jewry in World War II revealed its impotence.

I am optimistic because the people of Israel refuse to bend or break in the face of Palestinian terror; to the contrary, Israeli will and resolve have only grown stronger despite the horrors inflicted by suicide bombers and the campaign to isolate the state internationally. And throughout, the yearning for peace - including, I have no doubt, the willingness to compromise in the name of peace when a truly credible Palestinian partner finally emerges - remains undiminished.

I am optimistic because I have spent enough time in Europe to see that, no matter how outnumbered or overwhelmed by attempts to demonize Israel, the Jewish communities-often alone, it must be said-stand tall and proud, refusing to cower or run for cover.

I am optimistic because I believe that the panoply of American Jewish organizations will do whatever is required to ensure the right responses to the challenges before us.

And in that same spirit of optimism, I continue to hope that those who haven't yet answered the wake-up call will do so, and heed the message. Isn't it time for all of us to stand up and be counted?

Date: 10/29/2002
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