May 30, 2002
Generals, it is said, are always preparing to fight the last war, and so it also may be for American Jews.
Middle East terror and Palestinian suicide bombings have roused us to action. The torpor is receding. Except, we can't quite agree on which last war we expect to be fighting: World War II or Vietnam.
Published last month in the New York Observer (available online) were two articles revealing the split. Ron Rosenbaum eloquently and heatedly describes his own panic (I fear it is shared by many of this paper's readers), that what lies ahead is a "second Holocaust." Linking rising European anti-Semitism with the Palestinian bombings, he writes, "The unspoken corollary of the slogan 'Never again' is: 'And if again, not us alone.'"
Philip Weiss, in that same publication, flashes back to Southeast Asia. He reports on the activities of dissident rabbinic students from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Among the 100,000 rallying in Washington, D.C., on April 15, these Rabbinical Students for a Just Peace carried signs saying "Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace" or "Israel-Yes, Occupation-No." The anger these placards provoked will remind anyone who lived through them of protests against Vietnam. He praised the 108 signers to a petition calling on American Jewish leaders "to recognize the suffering that Israel has caused the Palestinians during its 35-year occupation of the West Bank."
But the past is an imperfect guide to selecting the moral ground. The Shoah and Vietnam are inadequate predictors of current affairs (nor do they always help the editors of TV news shows whose fear of "unjust war" and Palestinian mass destruction are two-tiered slips that keep showing).
Let's consider the echo of Vietnam, whose memory may at first seem remote to the Israel crisis. For Jewish students of the '60s and '70s, who hoped to put the sadness of death camps behind them, ending the American incursion provided an obsessive, distracting, urgent way of swimming into the American mainstream, melding Jewish universal values into the national agenda.
At the same time, American failure in Southeast Asia coincided with Israel's "incursion" -- same word was used -- into Lebanon, causing a confluence of doubt and shame. Vietnam gave the American Jewish community a standard by which to judge Israel's future foreign policy, the standard of the unjust war. Oslo, one could say, was in small part based on the hopes and lessons of Vietnam.
What a mess of metaphors comes together today. Israel and Vietnam melded into each other (aided of course by the settlements), and that's where they stay. The anger that many Jews harbor against "Lyndon Baines Sharon" for war crimes makes it impossible for them to independently evaluate which contemporary policy is actually wise and which wicked. However, we can sit in judgment.
We must begin to separate the Siamese twins of our past.
At Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist synagogue of Pacific Palisades, congregants are doing their best to make the cut.
In April, the Kehillat Israel board agreed to a banner showing solidarity with Israel.
"Kehillat Israel is the community of Israel," it would say, with American and Israeli flags.
But April's solidarity became May's disruption. Board members resisted making a political statement, regardless of their own pro-Israel sentiments.
During discussion, both the Holocaust and Vietnam hung in the boardroom. The Shoah was reflected in fear that hanging the banner outside would make the building a target.
Others feared that endorsement of Israel was tacit to uncritical support for Ariel Sharon, no matter what -- echoes of Vietnam.
The compromise to date: the banner will hang inside the synagogue until all the lessons of the past are learned.
Sooner or later, we will face the current crisis on its own terms.