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Zionist Dreams Sinking Into Despair

Mideast: U.S.-born Israelis revise their belief in a peaceful yet democratic state.


JERUSALEM — Tina Silverman walks past the boutiques and cafes on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and, for a moment, sees Israel as it was supposed to be. Mothers push their kids in strollers, grandparents nibble on ice cream, teens linger over cappuccino. Safe in their country.

But, she realizes, they're not safe.

Janet Aviad recaptures her life's work in a fleeting splash of activism each Saturday night when she joins a peace demonstration outside the Jerusalem residence of the Israeli prime minister. But crowds are small, and those who do show up, Aviad says, are depressed "to the point of despair."

Twenty-one months of debilitating warfare with the Palestinians, of suicide bombings and political stagnation and crippled economics, have had profound effects on Israeli society. Especially for Israelis such as Silverman and Aviad, who once believed peace and a normal relationship with the Palestinians to be possible, fundamental questions about the future and evolving character of the Jewish state wrench the gut and eat at the soul.

They came to Israel from America many years ago to further the Zionist cause, the building of a Jewish state that would be tolerant, secure and democratic. Instead, they see today a scared, hardened nation awash in hatreds, with space for dissent shrinking and many people, especially among younger generations, fleeing instead of arriving--in direct contradiction to the spirit of Zionism.

Thirty-five years after what Israelis saw as a glorious victory in the Middle East War, and as Israel has turned the clock back on the Oslo peace accords and reoccupied the West Bank, many now feel doomed to a life of eternal conflict. They feel trapped by the collapse of even a semblance of a peace process, the seemingly unabated rise in Palestinian attacks and fury, and the lack of leadership--anywhere--to change things.

For Janet Aviad, one of the founders of the activist group Peace Now, the hopes she had for a democratic and tranquil Israel are evaporating. And Tina Silverman, a magazine art director, has all but given up on the Zionist dream that brought her to Israel nearly two decades ago. The two women encapsulate the palpable sense of despondency that permeates Israel today.


Aviad, a petite woman of 59, was sitting in her living room the other day in Jerusalem's tony German Colony neighborhood with her 32-year-old son, Mikie. He had just finished another tour of military reserve duty that included, among other tasks, occupying the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Aviad and her son's politics once meshed absolutely. He occasionally accompanied her to peace rallies. But he is bitter now, any tolerance he once felt toward his Palestinian neighbors wiped out by the past months of violence.

The mother recoils at some of her son's harsher comments. But she also finds herself repeatedly conceding points to him.

"We lied to ourselves for years," Mikie Aviad said. The left and much of Israel's so-called peace camp ignored extremism on the Palestinian side, the pace at which Palestinians were amassing guns and the continued anti-Jewish rhetoric, he said.

His mother essentially agrees. Many in the Israeli left felt betrayed when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat walked away from peace talks at Camp David in the summer of 2000, then supported an armed uprising against Israeli occupation. Like those on the right, many leftists no longer trust Arafat--and wonder how they could have been so wrong.

"We all blinded ourselves," she said. "All of us are sobered up now."

Force is the answer, Mikie says. He believes what he did in Bethlehem was necessary and right. The army invaded Bethlehem, and most of the rest of the West Bank, as part of a five-week offensive this year with the stated aim of wiping out terrorism.

"We went in a house, took the family, put them downstairs and slept in the house two days," Mikie recalled. "I have no problem with it. I have no problem using them to protect myself. That's exactly what we did. We didn't kick them out--we [kept] them there so no one would blow us up. I have no problem with it whatsoever.

"I don't want to use Palestinian civilians as targets, but if some get hurt while we're doing what we're doing, then that's how it has to be," he said.

His attitude has been shaped by the suicide bombings, by the fear and anger that have gripped the nation. More than 2,000 people, Palestinians and Israelis, have been killed since September 2000, and in recent months the number of Israeli dead in certain periods has outpaced the number of Palestinian dead.

"I just feel they are a bunch of barbarians," Mikie Aviad said, adding that his preferred solution is to build a fence between the two peoples--an idea fast becoming reality. "I don't want Arab friends.... I don't want to see Arabs, I admit it."

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