Jewish Journal


October 26, 2000

The Hope Deficit


A Palestinian holds a flag as youths chant anti-Israeli slogans during a demonstration outside the Old City walls. Photo by Brian Hendler

A Palestinian holds a flag as youths chant anti-Israeli slogans during a demonstration outside the Old City walls. Photo by Brian Hendler

Since the latest spasm of Mideast violence began almost a month ago, American Jewish leaders have been getting together for almost daily conference calls.

The teleconferences follow a standard format: the machers talk about how to defend Israel in the media and how to deal with an increasingly active Arab American community. They fret about inadequate Israeli hasbara efforts; they make plans for solidarity missions and rallies.

But there's an urgent subtheme to these gatherings: how to deal with the hope deficit among American Jews. And none of the Jewish leaders has any answers.

Despite the stiff-upper-lip assessments of pro-peace process groups, American Jews have lost faith in some of the key assumptions underlying seven years of negotiations with the Palestinians, starting with the assumption that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat genuinely wants peace.

But Jews here are unlikely to accept the bleak assessments of peace process opponents, who see only war and bitter isolation in Israel's future.

The result is a dangerous kind of vacuum; American Jews have nothing to hold on to as Israel faces its gravest crisis since 1973. Jewish leaders can't throw a communal life preserver because they, too, are bereft of answers.

Despite a vocal opposition, a strong majority of American Jews have consistently supported the peace process that began with such soaring hopes in Oslo in 1993. For that majority, the events of the past four weeks has had a devastating impact.

The assumption by doves has always been that Arafat would willingly relinquish violence when he saw the way clear to Palestinian statehood.

But at Camp David, Arafat was offered more than anybody expected, and yet he spurned the offer.

Worse, he once again resorted to mass violence when he felt he wasn't getting enough at the bargaining table.For years, Jewish peace process critics have complained that Palestinian media and schools have continued teaching hatred of Israel, that Palestinian summer camps were little more than training camps for rioters.

Not to worry, the doves soothed; incitement is a problem, but once an agreement is near, the Palestinians will act in their own best interests, and these things will fade into history.

It didn't work that way. The Palestinian Authority continued fueling the hatred even as it started final status talks with Israel. Arafat did nothing - less than nothing, in reality - to prepare his people for peace.

The results were tragically evident in Ramallah and other flash points in the recent violence.Many American Jews were willing to cross the most difficult line of all and support some kind of Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

But as soon as Palestinians got control over another sacred site, Joseph's Tomb, they trashed it. That religious vandalism may have irrevocably foreclosed any serious compromise on Jerusalem.

Even many ardent peace process supporters now wonder if their most basic assumptions were woefully naive.But the right wingers, while claiming that their harsh perspective has been vindicated, have little to offer a despairing Jewish community.

Some of their critiques have been proven correct, but they have no alternative vision of how to achieve peace. On the contrary, what they offer is a future in which the best Israel can hope for is a perpetual state of siege.

It's a future of big fences and security checkpoints and an endless war of attrition, punctuated by outbursts of extreme violence. The right-wingers claim to have a realistic view of this violent part of the world, but if that's realism, most American Jews are unlikely to buy it.

The result: mainstream American Jews are left with nothing to grasp.

The core assumptions of the peace process have been shattered by Arafat, but the alternatives offered by a gloating right wing are repellent and untenable, especially in an age when chemical and biological terrorism is becoming more likely by the day.

The hope deficit could produce dangerous results.

In the short term, the community has rallied to support Israel. But if the crisis persists, it could accelerate what Jewish leaders say is a longterm, gradual withdrawal from active concern about Israel by many American Jews.

That could ultimately undercut the real foundation of pro-Israel strength in Washington at a time when Israel needs American support more than ever, and could sap vital political backing for a strong U.S. role in Mideast peacemaking.

It could produce even more polarization among Jews on both sides of the peace process debate, more bitterness and incivility - another potential turnoff for the silent majority of American Jews who support Israel but are not as involved as the core of activists.

"The bleakness of the current situation is dangerous because when people think there is no hope, they may just pull away," said a leading pro-Israel activist this week. "Jews are frightened and frustrated by what they see happening; those of us in Jewish organizations have to find some way of restoring at least some hope."

But this activist conceded that for now, at least, he and his colleagues have little hope to offer.

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