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December 7, 2000

Israel 101

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/israel_101_20001208

The October Violence is the short-hand designation for the deadly sniping, shooting and police action between Palestinians and Israelis, including the unprecedented call-to-arms of Israeli Arabs. If American Jews accept "October Violence" as the title (Palestinians call it "the riots," while the American press reprises the frightening "intifada"), two months later we haven't yet found a way to talk about it, even among ourselves.



At the New Israel Fund dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel a week ago, honoring Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and community activist David Abel, I saw how controversy can grow even among those of us on the same side.

The New Israel Fund is my favorite answer whenever people ask me what to do about Israel. It endows scores of Israeli organizations that give me hope: programs promoting religious pluralism, civil rights, Israeli-Arab dialogue and the improved status of women, including attempts to resolve the problem of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce). These programs will help Israel stay the course regardless of how the Barak/Netanyahu and Gore/Bush elections are resolved. (Note: I'm a new member of the board.)

Though NIF has been around for 21 years, its work remains largely unknown to many Americans, who are still enrolled in Israel 101. Waking up to Israel now following the October Violence, as so many Americans are doing, can be harsh.

The keynote speech by Norman Rosenberg, NIF executive director, wasted no time on soft-soaping. He declared that achieving equality for Israeli Arabs is NIF's "highest organizational priority," a decision he acknowledged might challenge "sound business logic."

Rosenberg cited widely known but still appalling economic disparities endured by 1 million Israeli Arabs, including unsanitary, overcrowded Arab towns and under-funded schools, an infant mortality rate nearly double that among Jews. But here are the lines that drew blood:

"What is it like to be an Arab living in a nation where the national anthem, 'Hatikvah,' refers to the yearning of the Jewish soul, to our 2,000-year-old dream of becoming a free people in our land?

"What is an Arab citizen of Israel supposed to tell his or her child about the relationship of that child to the Jewish State? Shall the child (like children here) be told that one day, he or she may become the nation's president?

"The words of 'Hatikvah' are merely an insult; these disparities in investment are rejectionist," Rosenberg said, clinching his case. "They are a rejection of universalistic notions of fairness and the very ideals of the Jewish State."

The reference to "Hatikvah" almost threatened the hotel's smoke alarm system. Rosenberg had crystallized the tension of the Jewish State into one heart-breaking word. Long after Rosenberg left the podium, angry Jewish leaders huddled about tables, whispering "Hatikvah," their eyes scorched with pain of what was frequently called a "one-sided presentation."

They wondered: Why was there no reference to Ehud Barak's multibillion-dollar commitment to Arabs over four years? Why was there no counter-balancing statement that Israeli Arabs live better in Israel than they do across the border with the Palestinian Authority?

For activists who understand Jewish history and the sacrifices in trying to sustain both Zionism and peace, it was a brutal moment.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose political career began with the Soviet Jewry movement, was "not happy with what I heard." Days later, he took pains to tell me that there is a better way to speak of reform without calling the entire state into question.

"Rosenberg overstated his case," said Yaroslavsky, who introduced David Abel at the dinner. "It's wrong for us to sit here in and impose a Brentwood-Westside perspective on the Middle East. It's not fair to single out this one issue -- even a legitimate issue which I've been talking about for years -- as if Israel is our neighbor in West Los Angeles." Without context and perspective, he said, a newcomer would miss the point.

For Yaroslavsky, that point remains the right to a Jewish homeland.

"I don't believe the Jewish state can afford to 'de-Judify,' " Yaroslavsky said. "I've studied the words to 'Hatikvah,' and I like them. 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' makes reference to Jesus Christ, and I've learned to live with that.

"Yes, there is a need for Israeli Arab equality, but equality of what? Equality of infrastructure investment is one thing, but there are many other issues. There's a built-in contradiction in Israel, that's the genius of it all. And this contradiction will be worked out not in a laboratory or a hotel, but in the real world."

This week, by phone, Rosenberg tempered his remarks. He told me NIF is not blaming the Barak government, that he is "completely proud that the symbols of Israel are Jewish."

"I'm saying that 1 million people can be a source of pride for Israel," Rosenberg said, "and that this is not incompatible with being a Jewish state. Jewish donors need to support these changes."

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