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CRISIS IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Mideast Violence Divides American Jews

September 28, 1996|LARRY B. STAMMER and ABIGAIL GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The escalating crisis in the Middle East has rekindled divisions among Jews in the United States and Southern California over the hard-line policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and provoked outrage among American Muslims.

While American Jews and Muslims alike expressed horror Friday at the dozens of Israeli and Palestinian deaths and the hundreds of injuries in the wake of the Israeli government's decision to excavate an archeological tunnel near Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, the burden of blame seemed to fall heaviest on Israel.

Muslim leaders were unanimous in their condemnation of the Israeli government.

Jews found themselves torn between wanting to back Israel in a time of crisis and admitting that the Netanyahu administration had seriously mishandled the tunnel matter--the flash point of the latest violence.

The overarching issue among Jewish leaders in Southern California on Friday was the future of peace in the Middle East and the Netanyahu administration's plans.

"The bottom line question for the prime minister is, 'What is his vision?' " Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Friday. "We know security is first. So where does he want to take it and where do you want to see it played out? Now this incident creates new realities, and clearly [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat has grabbed the initiative."

The middle-of-the-night completion of the controversial tunnel clearly weighed on the minds of local Jewish leaders. "Many people say they should have discussed it and let [Palestinians] know. They didn't have to [tunnel] at midnight. It was sloppy," said Cooper, an Orthodox rabbi.

Rabbi Harvey J. Fields of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Reform congregation, agreed. "There shouldn't have been any kind of surprise, and [the tunnel] shouldn't have been opened in the stealth of night. I just think that was a mistake on the part of the Netanyahu government in doing this," Fields said.

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Meanwhile, Herbert Gelfand, president of Los Angeles' Jewish Federation Council, tried to put the best face on the controversy, saying: "Nobody thought there was any reason that the opening of this gate would result in what it resulted in. It was not a mistake."

Rabbi Michael Lerner, leader of the Beyt Tikkun synagogue in the Bay Area and editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, said the crisis is dividing U.S. Jewry.

"It rips us apart," Lerner said. "Part of the American Jewish community starts questioning Israeli policy in public. . . . And the other part of the Jewish community says, 'You're being traitorous.' "

But even Jewish leaders in the United States who questioned how the government handled the tunneling said the Israeli government had a right to undertake the project. They contended it is erroneous and inflammatory to report that the tunnel runs beneath the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

But in a statement issued Friday on behalf of 35 Southern California mosques, the Majlis Al Shura consultation group accused the Israeli government of a "deliberate attempt to undermine the peace process in its tunneling underneath Islamic religious sites."

In a Friday sermon at the Islamic Center of Southern California, spokesman Maher Hathout assailed the Israelis, telling a prayer service: "It is not the Muslims who went into other people's places. It is not mutual violence. The violence was done when they raped the soul of the Islamic people by violating the Al Aqsa mosque."

Looking ahead, Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada observed: "We're back again to a state of where the peace process looks like it's in tremendous jeopardy. A number of my congregants are concerned about the peace process. Some are blaming Netanyahu. Some are blaming Arafat."

Times staff writer Eric Malnic also contributed to this report.

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