Few American Jews are as publicly committed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as Rabbi David Saperstein, director of Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center in Washington. So when Saperstein--a veteran of the many ups and down in the decade-long peace process--speaks of profound disappointment about the prospects of ever again trusting Yasser Arafat, it's significant.

Read it as a bellwether of the depth of frustration and hardening of attitudes within the American Jewish community in response to the Palestinian violence of the past two weeks.

"It's a bad day for the good guys," Saperstein, his voice heavy with dejection, said after a Palestinian mob murdered two Israeli soldiers who had been in the custody of Palestinian police.

"Did you see the footage?" he asked. "The police did nothing to stop the mob. Nothing!"

On Yom Kippur, the liberal rabbi of my suburban Maryland Conservative synagogue gave an impassioned sermon in which her agitation was palpable. Apologizing for "sounding right-wing," she, too, expressed outrage at what she believes is Palestinian-instigated violence intended to gain in the streets what Israel has been unwilling to yield at the negotiating table.

After the service, members of my congregation stood in small groups nodding their heads in support of what their rabbi had expressed. "They are asking to be flattened," one said of the Palestinians. Another, a retired professor, agreed.

The American Jewish right, of course, has insisted throughout the long peace process that Arafat, the Palestinian people, and the larger Arab and Muslim worlds could not be trusted. They have said Palestinian leaders were only at the table because of American pressure and to get as much as they could by guile and trickery, never intending to relinquish violence as a tactic in pursuit of their ultimate goal, the full destruction of Israel.

But poll after poll has shown American Jews to be solidly in support of the peace process. Sure, the percentage in favor dipped following a terrorist attack on a Jerusalem pedestrian mall or a Tel Aviv bus. But it generally held steady at more than 60% favoring negotiation.

That strong support has not been lost on American politicians--Bill Clinton among them--as they pushed the peace process forward, often by nudging Israel to compromise further. Any loss of American Jewish support for the peace process, then, is sure to translate into diminished enthusiasm for any American administration to push Israel into addition compromises, or to lobby for additional financial aid for Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Adding insult to the sense of injury within the American Jewish community is Arafat's refusal to acknowledge Jewish historical connection to the Temple Mount. The home of the majestic Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques, this site is ground zero in the struggle for Jerusalem. Arafat's profound disregard for not only 2,000 years of Jewish longing, but clear archeological evidence and New Testament writing attesting to the presence of biblical Israel's Temple structure on this same ground, is enraging to even the most dovish of American Jews.

The fact that the United Nations Security Council's resolution condemned Israel alone for the scale of the current violence, and referred to the Temple Mount only as Haram al-Sharif, the Muslim term, further contributed to the sense of isolation and of the need to rally to Israel's defense, even among Jerusalem's left-wing critics in the American Jewish community.

At bottom, this thinking goes, Israel can rely on no one except Diaspora Jews. So arguments over internal politics and theological differences need to be put aside in this time of crisis, as they were in past times. Liberal American Jews--and that's most of them--may complain about undue Orthodox influence in Israel, and that nation's sometimes-shortsighted treatment of Palestinians and Arab Israelis. But few--other than the likes of a Noam Chomsky--are unwilling to put aside differences when they perceive Israel to be in real danger. And that's what is happening now.

It is no overstatement to call the peace process dead for now, and, perhaps for all time. Saperstein believes that to be the case--even as he hopes he is wrong.

"Without some kind of accord that resolves the issue, the region will be trapped in these cycles of violence over and over again. That was Yitzhak Rabin's logic, and that logic still holds. But I don't see any way for that logic to take hold any time soon."

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said virtually the same thing.

It's too soon to say whether Saperstein's refusal to let hope die is still shared by the majority of American Jews. The conflict is still to be played out, and no polls have been conducted. I suspect American Jews would overwhelmingly say they still favor a peace agreement. The more important response would be whether they think a peace agreement is possible with Arafat--who sadly remains the only "moderate" Palestinian voice Israel has to negotiate with.

However, there is a more ominous undertone that is also being heard in the American Jewish community among individuals who otherwise would also appear to be the moderate middle. It flows from the logic that says: If Arafat will not renounce violence, why make him stronger by giving him more territory? If he cannot control the Palestinians, why deal with an ineffectual leader when others will continue to kill Israeli Jews? If that is the case, then is it not better for Israel to go to war today when it remains by far the stronger of the parties, rather than put off the inevitable to a time when the Palestinians have heavy and nonconventional weapons and a better chance of actually defeating Israel? That's what they're saying. It has come to that.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad