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COLUMN ONE

Tapping Into Jews' Fears

Zionist Morton Klein--once seen as an extremist--is winning support for his hard-line view of Palestinians, even among U.S. liberals.

June 26, 2002|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Morton Klein is telling a group of Reform Jews--among American Jewry's more liberal members--how much Palestinians hate them. He carries plenty of ammunition.

The bearded, bespectacled Jewish leader holds up Palestinian maps of the Holy Land that do not name Israel--proof, he says, that they do not accept the existence of the Jewish state.

Klein claims Palestinian textbooks depict Jews as odious killers of Christians and Muslims. He waves fliers reportedly posted at hundreds of Palestinian schools in 1996 praising a suicide bomber as "our hero" and depicting a cracked Star of David, rivulets of blood streaming out.

"The culture that Arabs have created and promoted is no different than Nazi Germany," said Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, the nation's oldest pro-Israel group, founded in 1897 to work for establishment of a Jewish state. The Arab goal, he tells the crowd, is to "get people to murder Jews."

Until the current outbreak of Mideast violence began 21 months ago, most American Jews dismissed Klein as a fear monger--a provocateur against peaceful relationships with Palestinians. Back then, the vast majority of American Jews supported terms negotiated in Oslo to give Palestinians land in exchange for peace. In that pursuit, Jews seemed willing to suspend suspicions of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Not any more. Once hopeful for peace, many now say their optimism was misplaced, their trust in Arafat irredeemably shattered and their faith in the Oslo process proven wrong. And nothing symbolizes this shift more dramatically than the fact that the once-vilified Klein is now basking in what he sees as vindication.

In the last two years, he says, his organization has increased its membership by several thousand. Klein, 54, says he is besieged by requests for speaking engagements, such as his recent address to Reform Jews at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles.

"Morton Klein, unfortunately, can pound his chest and say, 'I told you so,' " said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, former president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "But so many of us sadly are agreeing with him--if only for today."

David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, says Klein and others have tapped into what he called "a deeply felt historical memory of persecution" that has abruptly and spectacularly reemerged among many Jews. Despite American Jews' attainment of unparalleled economic success and social acceptance, he said, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the relentless suicide bombings in Israel have rekindled a sense of collective vulnerability.

The Passover suicide bombing in March was a psychological milestone. As a suicide bomber detonated himself at a Seder dinner of hundreds of people in the Israeli coastal resort of Netanya, Myers said, Jews worldwide were reading in their Haggada, or Passover liturgical book, the warning that every generation would bring forth a new enemy to try to destroy the Jewish people.

To Jews, he said, the Passover bombing "highlighted the fear that the enemy has returned."

At a recent forum on the Mideast at Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, one man who described himself as a secular Jew and political liberal put it this way: "After the Passover bombing, I turned to my wife and said, 'That's it!' I was electrified, because I knew that we had turned that corner. I'm really happy [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon finally said, 'Enough is enough.' People are trying to kill us."

Not all Jews have closed ranks. A national network of American Jews supporting an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state was recently launched.

At the same time, Myers, among others, bemoans what he calls the "mainstreaming of Morton Klein." Pressure to present a "united front," he says, is having harsh consequences for any dissenting Jewish voice.

The growing sentiment has led to boycott threats against even the Jewish Journal, a Los Angeles weekly newspaper, for carrying ads from a Jewish peace group. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA, who has led efforts to bring Jews and Muslims together, was recently accused by writer Avi Davis of justifying the murder of Jews and aiding Israel's enemies.

Since World War II, being against Jews "has had a very charged implication.... Your reputation can be ruined," said J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Jewish Forward newspaper in New York. "So there ought to be a premium on Jewish civility. Phrases like anti-Israel and anti-Semitism should be used with caution, but they're not."

No Apologies

Klein makes no apologies. At Stephen Wise temple, he tells the crowd that Muslim religious leaders in the Mideast preach sermons advocating the torture of Jews. He draws gasps when he says Arabs are blaming Israeli security forces for secretly plotting the suicide bombings to make them look bad.

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