November 1, 2001
End the Silence
Only three weeks ago it was possible to speak in optimistic terms about a united front against terrorism. History seemed to be blowing at our back, pushing the forces of civilization onward and upward to victory against the scourge of modern times. Writing in this space in early October, I quoted with admiration the prediction made by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak; that the nations of the world would now join together against terrorism much as the nations of the post-Napoleonic period had defeated piracy. For a brief heady moment, it looked like we American Jews could sit back in the warm protection of our nation acting out of grief and righteous revenge.
But the center is not holding. The coalition is falling apart, especially United States reliance on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
And Israel, which on Sept. 11 epitomized a western nation fighting valiantly against terrorism, is now isolated. Israel has gone from victim to scapegoat. The pirates seem to be winning.
The anxiety on the part of the American Jewish community is growing. It's time to regain our voice.
Last week, I spoke at a luncheon for Hadassah and Israel Bonds at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. With me on the podium was activist and law professor Susan Estrich.
We could not miss feeling the change in the wind, and the sense that our silence was hurting us.
Many in the room had recently returned from a deeply demoralized Israel, which in the aftermath of the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavan Ze'evi, was rapidly turning to a fear-driven political right. They wanted to know how to respond to the Bush administration's hypocritical warning to Ariel Sharon to stop reacting to terrorism, while the United States was trying to "take out" Osama bin Laden.
Others were alarmed by the turn in the war itself, a new Vietnam in the making. But this time American Jews could not reveal the Emperor's empty closet for fear that such truths, too, would erode support for Israel.
Still others were focused on domestic concerns, especially the America media's new fascination with our Muslim community.
How could we, as American Jews, speak up without causing ourselves and Israel backlash and pain?
I find these questions right on the money, but since Sept. 11, our community leadership has played from the sidelines. They have preferred to play out their influence behind the scenes, content to cite the Chicago Sun Times public opinion poll that 72.8 percent of the American public supports Israel, while Palestinian support is down to 7 percent, lowest since the intifada.
Polls are not enough. It's time to answer back, not only in defense of Israel, but on our own behalf.
Take for example the endlessly debated question: "Why do they hate us?" which played and replayed on American media throughout the last six weeks. That's one question American Jews should be shooting at with a sling. At best, it's a cheap rhetorical trick, at worst, it's an insult to the 5,000 dead.
"Why do they hate us?" is an old media ploy, an intellectually vacuous equivalent of "Do you still beat your wife?" designed to give the enemy the upper hand. When applied to Jews, the question is always an invitation to anti-Semitism, as more than one Los Angeles radio station learned when it opened its programming to the question. "Why do they hate us?" is open season on hate.
As it turns out, even when applied to America, "Why do they hate us?" is still an invitation to anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Israel, views. Every story about why some Muslims despise us falls into the tar pit of Middle East politics. If the question is why they hate us, the answer must be America and its Jewish ally.
"The press fall into a trap, blaming Israel," Alex Safian, of CAMERA, told me. "For if Islam means 'peace,'--" a point Safian disputes -- "Israel must be what made it violent."
With groups like MEMRI and CAMERA monitoring the press these days, such tactics don't go unanswered. CAMERA will hold its annual conference on Nov. 11 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. It will be one way to get back your voice.