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Jewish Journal

‘We Made Him a Symbol’

King Hussein took on an importance to American Jews that went well beyond the details of his 1994 treaty with Israel

by James D

February 11, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Even the weather suggested mourning; at the Jordanian Embassy in northwest Washington, a cold drizzle turned the adjacent construction sites into mud holes, and a large portrait of King Hussein, who died on Sunday, was streaked with rain. Still, a steady procession of mourners entered the blocklike Mediterranean-style building and waited to sign a condolence book.

Limor Hasson, who works a few doors away, at the Israeli Embassy, was one of the first.

"He was an enemy who realized there is another way," she said. "Once he turned onto that path, he kept walking."

But she described an emotional connection to the late king that went beyond his actions as the leader of a country and his mixed record of peacemaking.

"What made him special weren't his words and deeds, but the fact that he was a king for 47 years and still was so human to so many people," she said. "That's why people like me feel the loss so deeply."

Much of the American Jewish community shared that feeling. King Hussein -- because of his personality, his Western demeanor, his flawless English, his empathy and, some say, his weakness -- touched a deep vein of emotion for many American Jews.

"For years, we have projected our hopes for Israel's neighbors onto him," said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice-chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "That's not to say he was perfect; but because of his personality, because of the gestures he made, we made him a symbol."

John Fishel, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said, "We are saddened by the death of a true friend of Israel and peace loving people in the region."

President Clinton, who found in King Hussein a mentor, a friend and an antidote to a cast of Mideast characters that many in his administration regard as unwilling or unable to reverse generations-old animosities, may have done the same thing.

Peace-process critics turn the same feelings around; Hussein became an icon, they say, because American Jews are so desperate to believe there are moderate leaders in the Arab world that they overlook much of the king's history, including his decision to join the Arab attack on Israel in 1967 and his support for Saddam Hussein in 1991.

King Hussein allowed American Jews and policy makers alike to see the Middle East as they wanted to see it, not as it was, they argue.

Still, even pro-Israel hard-liners found in King Hussein a symbol they could relate to.

"The enduring appeal of the king is that he was deeply civilized, a word that we can't easily apply to other Arab leaders," said Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum. "While he took steps that were tough or wrongheaded, he was someone we in the West could connect to."

Jewish leaders across the spectrum agree that the late Jordanian monarch took on an importance to American Jews that went well beyond the details of his 1994 treaty with Israel.

"King Hussein reached iconic status because he embodied the hope for a real peace between Israel and the Arab world, not merely the hope for a cease-fire or a chilly peace," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Like numerous other Jewish commentators, he cited Hussein's shiva call to the families of the Naharayim massacre victims two years ago.

"King Hussein, like Anwar Sadat, had the ability to step into our shoes long enough to understand what it would take to make peace," Harris said. "The Jewish community responded with almost unconditional approval."

The imagery was stronger still because American Jews find it hard to envision other Arab leaders -- including Yasser Arafat, who cannot separate himself from his terrorist past, and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who has transformed Anwar Sadat's visionary peace into a frigid peace of expedience -- making such gestures.

The Western-oriented, urbane, diminutive Hussein was the perfect palliative; once he made peace with Israel in 1994, his emotional value to Jews soared.

"We have a need for someone who is upstanding and praiseworthy in the Moslem Middle East," said the Middle East Forum's Pipes. "And he was the only one we could reasonably turn to."

"What I loved about the man is that he demonstrated the ability to change deeply held views, just as Anwar Sadat did," said Ted Mann, co-chair of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace-process group. "It was a quality that gave many of us hope for the future."

But the veneration of King Hussein also reflects a reluctance among American Jews to confront a Middle East in which he was the exception, not the rule, said Steven Cohen, a social psychologist who has spent decades applying his skills to conflict resolution in the Middle East and now serves as vice chair of the Center for Mideast Peace and Economic Cooperation.

"His imagery was mixed," he said. "He was a benign presence, but we also have to put in parenthesis that he was weak -- not weak as a person, but as a leader of a country that was weak and not threatening. He became a symbol of the fact that peace is possible, but, underneath, there was the idea of peace being possible only with someone whose demands you can always turn aside without cost."

The reality, he said, is that Israel will have to make peace with Arafat and Syria's Hafez al-Assad or their successors, and American Jews will have to come to terms with Middle Eastern leaders they may find distasteful.

Hussein's death, he said, "leaves a big, emotional vacuum in the Jewish world."

But that sounds like a particularly desperate kind of wishful thinking, critics on the right say -- although most were quiet this week in the wake of the king's death and the international outpouring of admiration for the man.

"It was a negative kind of symbolism because it showed how much we want to believe there are moderate, open-minded forces in the Arab world," said an official with a Jewish organization that has been critical of recent Israeli-Palestinian agreements. "He was the only one they could point to as even a possibility. When you're grasping for straws, he was the only one within reach."

The king's image may have been comforting, this analyst said, but "it does not provide the basis for sound national policy."

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