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A House Divided Cannot Heal Itself

Peace won't come to the Middle East until issues between Israeli Jews and those in the diaspora are resolved.

January 12, 1998|STANLEY K. SHEINBAUM | Stanley K. Sheinbaum, publisher of the New Perspectives Quarterly, is a board member of the American Jewish Congress and Americans for Peace Now. E-mail:

As an American Jew, I am intensely concerned about achieving peace in the Middle East. I had an Orthodox service to become a Bar Mitzvah in 1933, 15 years before the United Nations granted statehood to Israel. With the Holocaust as background, the significance of a Jewish homeland was enormous. Israel offered an essential shelter as well as an identity for me and my people.

As the years passed, my pride in the Jewish state grew. Not only was it military strength but also the social and spiritual achievements that made seemingly indelible marks. Time and again, surrounding Arab nations tried to beat back those achievements, always unsuccessfully.

Peace, I always thought, had to be the first priority. Only through peace with the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab nations would terrorism wane and Israel blossom into its fullest potential.

But today in Israel, there is a force making peace only the remotest possibility. That is the pitting of Israeli against Israeli with an intensity that is relatively new; the religious versus the secular; the Sephardim versus the Ashkenazim; the left versus the right; the rich versus the poor; and the Ethiopian Jews and the Russian Jews both feeling alienated. It is a new Israel and it is being torn asunder by Jews against each other.

A less cohesive Israel will be further endangered if the surrounding Arab world senses the weakness. The current vindictiveness of Jew against Jew must be brought to an end.

Then the question arises about the attitude of American Jews toward Israel. What has become clear in these last months is that support for Israel is diminishing. An almost steady flow of articles in the mainstream and Jewish press tell of a significant reduction in American Jewish contributions.

Several factors are at work. In addition to the concern about the divisiveness in Israel, there is the intense reaction on the part of Reform and Conservative Jews to the conversion issue.

No doubt the trend toward assimilation in the U.S. has confused the loyalty of American Jews at the same time the Israeli state is losing its meaning for many. And then occasionally someone in Israel even comments that Israel no longer needs U.S. support or even its aid. This wounds American Jews who have long supported Israel. American Jews see U.S. government aid as objective evidence that they continue to support Israel in an increasingly trying time for the Jewish state--even though their personal money is being withheld. So go figure out political psychology.

Lastly, there is the factor of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is anything but popular in the U.S. Oslo meant much to Americans and to American Jews. It seemed that finally a solution to the peace dilemma was in process. Yet Netanyahu sends mixed messages about where he stands on this important agreement. Sometimes he appears against it. Other times, he sends the message that he is locked in by the radical right, thus placing his own political survival above the need for peace. And sometimes, he sends the confusing message that what his predecessor agreed to in Oslo is OK, but it needs basic change. He has alienated not only President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright but especially the American Jewish constituency which is losing its confidence in him.

In the final analysis and regardless of American Jewish attitudes, the intensifying lack of unity among Israelis is in and of itself perhaps the most disturbing phenomenon about Israel. That divisiveness is clearly a serious impediment to achieving peace. At the same time the manifest distancing of the American Jews from Israel leaves us without the confidence of our identity.

Yes, perhaps we all should have made aliyah and become more a part of Israel's struggle. Hardly a Jew has not carefully weighed that possibility. Regardless, Israel cannot be without the support of its closest and strongest allies--American Jewry.

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