uploaded : Friday 10th Oct 2003 at 18:38
by : M J Rosenberg
October 03, 2003
An occurrence at the Rosh Hashanah services I attended last week produced the realization that achieving peace with the Palestinians is not just a desired policy outcome but an imperative for any who believe that Israel must remain at the center of Jewish life.
The rabbi gave an impassioned sermon on the need for American Jews to visit Israel in the coming year. He described a country empty of tourists and a nation desperately needing the tangible demonstration of solidarity that the presence of American visitors would convey. He made clear that visiting Israel did not constitute an endorsement of any particular policy but was
simply the best means of showing our fellow Jews in Israel that they are not alone.
At the conclusion of his talk, the rabbi asked that the congregation (about a thousand people filling a high school auditorium) raise hands to indicate the willingness to consider visiting Israel during the next twelve months.
He did not ask for a promise to go but simply a commitment to give it some thought. No one was taking names.
I assumed that most of the congregation would rise. After all, it?s easy to lift a hand and say you will think about something. Moreover, this particular synagogue is a hotbed of pro-Israel sentiment. It is also a congregation known for its activism, for Israel and for a myriad of American causes.
So how many stood up?
No more than a dozen, out of a thousand.
What a sad commentary. It is, of course, understandable that some people might be afraid to visit Israel these days. For those who do not know Israel well, it might seem that visiting Israel would be like visiting a war
zone. (This misconception will be reinforced by the upcoming ?Jewish Expo 2003,? in Manhattan, which is going to feature the burned out remains of an Israeli bus in which 19 passengers were killed in a suicide bombing).
But Israel isn?t a war zone. The people I know who have gone recently confirm my own experiences. They have felt neither afraid nor depressed by the experience. On the contrary, they enjoy themselves. Bad things do happen in Israel but Israel remains, believe it or not, a deeply enriching place for tourists ? if not always for its citizens.
My interpretation of the lack of raised hands the other day is that American Jews may feel less close to Israel than in the past. If the Oslo peace process brought them closer, its collapse dispirited them. They may be able
to defend Israel?s current policies but not many are enthusiastic about them.
A community once united in support of Israel and its policies is now split on its policies and experiencing increasing detachment from the country itself. So long as the war with the Palestinians continues, this trend will continue. Meanwhile, a generation of would-be Israel supporters abroad is being lost. Three summers have passed without high school and college students experiencing not the policies of Israel -- but Israel, the place. Some of these young people ? who might have become lifelong supporters had they experienced a fun-filled summer there ? might now never visit. For
them, Israel will be a place far away to which they have affinity by religion but which, to them, has become synonymous with violence and war.
It is a depressing thought, one only exacerbated by the news that the widow of the Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia disaster, is seeking US citizenship so that she and her children can remain in the United
Of course, none of this is surprising. Can anyone blame Mrs. Ramon for wanting the stability of life in the United States?
Of course, not. But it is just another indication that the current situation cannot be allowed to continue.
On Tuesday, the Jerusalem Post ran a story under this headline: ?Hudna Brought Slew of Economic Benefits.? The article spelled out how the month
long ceasefire gave a boost to every segment of Israel?s economy. It quoted the head economist of Bank Hapoalim, Leo Leiderman, as saying that the latest official statistics from the Israeli government show ?a rise in retail sales, trade and services income, and a sharp 20 percent rise in hi-tech exports?.?. Leiderman says the cause for the improvement was clear. ?It is a product of the Palestinian Authority-Islamic Groups
ceasefire, known as the hudna,? he said.
But Leiderman added that the hudna?s collapse forced Bank Hapoalim to revise its economic forecast downward. "We readjusted our 2004 gross domestic product growth forecast last month from 2.5% to 1.5% after the hudna fell through."
The bottom line is obvious. Even a fleeting attempt to end the violence like the late hudna significantly improved Israel?s prospects. The policy implications are also obvious: there is no alternative to negotiating with the Palestinians which is why critics, so free with their attacks on Oslo and the roadmap, are unable to offer one.
It is time for friends of Israel across the political spectrum to understand that opposing negotiations -- and strong US role advancing them--amounts to support for a status quo that is profoundly harming Israel. In fact, it is
time for a new definition of what constitutes ?pro-Israel.? I can?t say that I know what it is, but I know what it is not: opposing or ignoring US or Israeli or Palestinian or other Arab initiatives to re-start negotiations
toward an agreement with the Palestinians. (Remember the Saudi initiative of two years ago that offered Israel full recognition and normalization in exchange for the West Bank and Gaza; it was utterly and completely ignored,
considered unworthy of discussion despite being endorsed by every single Arab state and the Palestinians? Would negotiations over its terms have been so terrible? Would they have been worse than the hundreds of dead since?).
That point should be brought home during these holy days, when we study, as we do every year, the story of Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
We all know the story as it is told in Genesis. Isaac, Abraham?s son with Sarah, becomes the founding father of the Jewish people. Ishmael, Abraham?s son with Hagar, is sent into exile at Sarah?s insistence and becomes the founding father of the Arab peoples.
The ensuing enmity between the two is often invoked as the archetype for the Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But, for some reason, we only focus on the parts of the story which deal with pride, jealousy, hatred and exile. We ignore what the Torah tells us happened 75 years later, upon Abraham?s death. We learn in Genesis 25:9 that when Abraham died ?his sons Isaac and Ishmael together buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron?.?
They buried their father together. Despite all that had gone before, they were still brothers.
I wonder why so few of us have ever heard about that part of the story.
It is something to think about during this week?s Day of Atonement.
MJ Rosenberg, Director of Policy Analysis for
Israel Policy Forum, is a long time Capitol Hill staffer and former editor of AIPAC?s Near East Report. If you have colleagues or friends who would appreciate receiving this weekly letter, send an e-mail to