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Violence in Mideast Galvanizes U.S. Jews

April 28, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — They were packed into the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, 1,400 cheering Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces. When Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert vowed to destroy Palestinian terrorism, he got an ovation.

But one businessman, whose family donated $88,000 to the cause, was wringing his hands over Olmert's vow that the army would conduct itself honorably. "I believe we should not hold back," said Ronald Edelstein, belittling "this nonsense of morals, when our Arab colleagues have none."

Across town, at a progressive synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Rabbi Rolando Matalo was torn between his longtime support for Palestinian human rights and his support for an Israel under siege.

"There is a definite void on the left," said Matalo, who recently disavowed a controversial newspaper ad that praised dissident Israeli soldiers in the West Bank for not "following orders" and enforcing a "brutal occupation."

These are tumultuous and difficult times for American Jews, who long have been divided over the proper path to peace in the Middle East. Although many have put aside their sharp ideological differences in recent weeks and joined publicly to support Israel, they continue to be ambivalent about a long-term solution.

Many American Jewish leaders say Israel's current state of emergency--and growing signs of anti-Semitism around the world--have unified the faithful here in a way not seen since the 1967 and 1973 wars. Yet they concede that deep-seated disagreements on the left and right cannot be suppressed forever, making it unclear where the Jewish community goes from here.

This is a watershed moment, said Samuel G. Freedman, a journalist and author of "Jew Vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry." But he cautioned that the U.S. philosophical conflict over Israel and its future reflects an age-old tension. "On the one hand, there's been a universalist feeling among Jews that they need to respect human rights and work toward peace," Freedman said. "Yet there's also an embrace of tribalism--a feeling that we're now under siege, that nobody in the world likes us, so it's time to circle the wagons."

Currently a Tilt Toward Tribalism

These feelings shift back and forth, but right now they're tilting toward tribalism. A pro-Israel rally this month in Washington drew more than 150,000 people and grabbed national headlines. Thousands also have shown up at rallies in Chicago, New York, Detroit and other cities. A gathering April 21 in Encino attracted more than 40,000 people.

"I don't recall a time in modern history when Jews have felt so vulnerable," said Rabbi Martin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "Let me tell you how bad the tension is: At wedding ceremonies, under the canopy, announcements are being made about events unfolding in the Middle East."

This week, the center will be mailing out 600,000 "call to action" brochures that say "Israel is fighting for her life" and urge American Jews to contact government leaders and media organizations worldwide.

So far, the lobbying has generated results. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is sponsoring a resolution with Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) declaring that lawmakers are "gravely concerned that [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat's actions are not those of a viable partner for peace." Lawmakers have proposed other measures--some calling for sanctions against Palestinians or Syrians who support terrorism, others demanding a resumption of the peace process.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said debate over the West Bank invasion and the attack on the Palestinian Jenin refugee camp is overshadowed by "a strong sense that Israel needs us, that the world Jewry needs us, that this is our wake-up call."

He said he has been overwhelmed in recent weeks by numerous calls from members of synagogues asking what they can do to help or where they can send a check.

"Clearly Israel is at war, and innocents suffer, and that is lamentable," said Diamond, who recently returned from a trip to Israel with 12 other Los Angeles-area Jewish leaders. "But there is a profound moral difference here: Israeli people do not intentionally target innocents and civilians. That cannot be said of Palestinian bombers."

As many Jews momentarily drop long-standing disputes and rally together, however, some voice doubts about the overall message being sent. Many who attended the Washington rally were stunned when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, one of the administration's more hawkish Middle East advisors, was booed for endorsing a Palestinian state and saying innocent Palestinians were suffering.

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