Jewish community leaders in Los Angeles are struggling to cope with doubts and questions raised by weeks of violent confrontation between armed troops and rock-throwing Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories and within Israel itself.
"There is no question in my mind that the Jewish community is terribly concerned with the impact that TV and newspaper headlines are having on the good name of Israel," said Stanley Hirsh, president of the Jewish Federation Council, an umbrella group made up of more than 150 organizations.
"And short of us living in Israel, the only thing we can try to do is try to understand the problems," Hirsh said. "We really have no way of solving them."
For weeks, the crowded refugee camps of the Gaza Strip and the narrow alleys of Arab towns on the West Bank have been the scene of confrontations between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops. Starting with the rumor that a traffic accident that killed four Arabs was deliberate, the angry demonstrations have evolved into a protest against two decades of Israeli occupation.
The emergency has prompted a series of public and private meetings designed to bring the confrontations into perspective for the Jewish community of more than half a million in Los Angeles County, the nation's second largest.
It has also dominated the front pages and letters columns of recent issues of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. A headline asked: "What should we do? The stories are troubling, the news coverage extreme and America's Jews are immobilized."
Jewish Journal Editor Gene Lichtenstein said: "I think the Jewish community's response is really intense. The people I've talked to are very upset at what's going on but they're also upset at the (major media) coverage."
Israel's earlier crises were less controversial, at least for American Jews. They hailed the victories of 1948, 1956 and 1967 and shared in Israel's despair over early setbacks in the 1973 war as well as the joy that came with the Camp David accords with Egypt.
It was Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon that first saw a serious difference of opinion among American Jews about Israel's strategic aims.
Then, as now, differences in the U.S. community reflected arguments within Israel itself. Most American Jews agreed that it was up to the Israeli leadership to decide what to do. But like many Israelis, a significant number of American Jews raised questions about Israel's continued military presence in Lebanon, which was eventually reduced to a zone of influence along that country's southern border.
Many Jewish leaders interviewed in recent days said that they, too, share the alarm expressed in Israel about the long-term effects of control by the Jewish state over 2.2 million Arabs in the occupied Gaza Strip, on the West Bank of the Jordan River and within its original borders.
Predictably, hard-line groups such as Americans for a Safe Israel are focusing their efforts against what they see as distorted reports about Israel's use of force to put an end to more than six weeks of confrontations in which 36 Palestinians have been killed.
"The media don't clearly present the case in a fair light, namely that the Israelis are really trying their best to withhold any kind of lethal fire," said Julian White, a rabbi who is president of the group's local chapter.
Need for Accommodation
Other groups, such as American Friends of Peace Now, say the violence in the occupied territories shows the need to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians.
"It's saddened me enormously but it underscored the importance of assisting those groups in Israel that are working toward ending the occupation and ending the moral corrosion that it leads to," said Rabbi Sanford Ragins of the Leo Baeck Temple, a member of the Peace Now advisory board.
And middle-of-the-road organizations, while working to counter negative reports and cartoons, are saying that this is the time for discussions on the seemingly unanswerable question of how two peoples can coexist on one piece of land.
"We join with most forward-looking people in Israel who want to find a solution, and it's our profound hope that the Arab nations who have been reluctant to come to the bargaining table will now see the need to do so," said Neil C. Sandberg, executive director of the Los Angeles office of the American Jewish Committee.
'Open, Frank Discussions'
"All these problems are being 'wrassled' with between American Jews and Israeli Jews in an open fashion," said Ed Sanders, an attorney who is the former president of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Council and a former adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
"I know these discussions are very frank and open, and I participated in some of them," he said.
"All of this does not show any diminution of support for Israel, because I believe that, No. 1, there isn't any and, No. 2, my observation of the community in this instance is that it stands united in spite of their concerns about what's happening," Sanders said.