The launching of a retaliatory war for the twin destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon marks a watershed event for all Americans, but for none more than the Jewish community. It could mark the end of an era of liberal innocence for America's Jews and redirect the community's allegiances in new, profoundly different directions and toward a more hardened view of the world.
Like all Americans, Jews have been deeply affected by these events, but our intimate linkage to one of the main reasons for Muslim antipathy toward America -- our country's support for Israel -- reveals a peculiar, and potentially dangerous, vulnerability. Already the nascent anti-war movement developing here and in Europe, not to mention the Third World, justifies its arguments against retaliation by tying Arab rage at America in part to its support for the Jewish state.
In European editorial pages, the charges are made clearly. In American media, the wording is more subtle: a search for the "root causes" in American policy that could provoke such outrages against us, as if the surprise annihilation of 6,000 innocents is just another form of political action.
Perhaps equally troubling might be a simmering conflict between the Bush administration, with its apparent need to mollify "moderates" in the Islamic world, and the perceived security needs of Israel. The conflict boiled over last week when Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon first accused Bush of selling out Israel to court Arab favor, then backed down in a series of apologies. Ultimately, Americans, faced with the prospect of death at home and abroad, may become resentful if they believe Israeli intransigence is putting the anti-terrorism effort at risk.
A Newsweek poll released this week -- and widely celebrated among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza -- showed that 58 percent of Americans, too, feel that American support for Israel is in some measure responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Indeed, the role of Israel in this conflict is far more central than in our last two major armed conflicts, the Vietnam and Gulf wars. In Vietnam, American interest in Israel was only tangentially linked to the war effort -- largely in the context of the Cold War. Even back then, however, those involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, as I was, could begin to see the emergence of a broader "anti-imperialist" agenda among the far left that identified U.S. support for Israel with American backing for the Saigon regime.
Fortunately, with some notable exceptions, the powerful anti-Zionist tendency lay largely dormant throughout the 1970s and 1980s. While the hard left, elsewhere and in this country, became more vociferously anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, most liberals and moderate leftists could continue to balance their Zionist sentiments with their traditional "progressive" notions about the essential harmony between Judaism and leftist ideology.
At the same time, perceived threats from the right -- particularly the emergence of the Christian Coalition and such political figures as Pat Buchanan -- helped balance the steady stream of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from the leftist fringe. The "enemies" on the right, in the form of fundamentalists, racists and ultranationalists, fit easily into traditional fears left over from the horrendous Jewish experience in Europe.
The Gulf War, however, presaged the beginnings of a process that is now coming to a head, as the far left split with liberals over the correctnes of that war. The politically correct campus left -- with its strong ties to the intelligentsia -- railed against the first Bush administration's policy to stand up to Saddam Hussein. Most Jewish politicians, even usually anti-military Democrats, ultimately rallied behind the effort, particularly after Saddam Hussein's Scud attacks on Israel.
The eight-year hiatus of the Clinton administration, probably the most Jewish-dominated American presidency in history, served to obscure the growing gap between pro-Israel Jews and the left. Not only was Clinton empathetically pro-Israel, but his New Democrat politics avoided the kind of Third Worldist perspective that increasingly required a strong anti-Israel bias.
Less obvious at the time, but clear today, the weak responses to terror under Presidents Bush and Clinton helped allow the fundamentalist terror networks to fester and grow. Today, even mainstream Democrats like U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (24th District) and others acknowledge that, in retrospect, the debilitation of the CIA and other security agencies under Clinton was a disaster that has left all Americans, and not just the Jews, more vulnerable.
Indeed, as The Economist magazine has pointed out, the new reality, particularly for Jews, does not point to 1969 -- the height of the Vietnam conflict -- but to 1941, when all but a small fringe were united strongly on the side of the Stars and Stripes. Such differences are likely to change the very dynamics of Jewish politics, which have remained predictably liberal for most of this half century. In the process, liberal Jews may find themselves more at odds with many of their traditional left-wing allies.
None of this argues that Jews should advocate the willy-nilly obliteration of Afghan villages or even preemptive strikes against Saddam Hussein. But Jewish politics will clearly never return to the kind of dreamy '60s-era liberalism that has been a major force for the last three decades.
We may see, for example, professors, Third World nationalists and Arab Americans challenging liberal Jews who support "Bush's war." It will take discipline, strength and conviction to stand up to these forces, particularly if the war becomes bloodier and less well-defined.
On the other side of the political spectrum, though most fundamentalist Christians remain largely pro-Israel, it is inevitable, particularly when American casualties mount, that some isolationist right-wingers will join the Third Worldist left in blaming Israel, and less openly the Jews, for our current predicament. Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, as usual, will find expression on both extremes of the spectrum. These are, and will become even more so, precarious times for Jews in America.
How can Jews confront this new reality as the war unfolds?
Insularity is not the right answer. Nor is detachment from our Jewish identity. Innocence and support for Israel can no longer go together; we enter the 21st century forced to seek a new relationship to our national politics. This is the time for Jews to rally behind many aspects of American society -- for example, the U.S. military and the flag so detested by bin Laden -- that for the most part many have rejected as unpalatable, even uncouth. We will find ourselves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those we may have opposed in the past politically. Realpolitick, and patriotism, must now trump old sentiments.
Our experience with Israel teaches us an important truth about terrorism that Americans are just learning: fighting terror is a long and painful struggle, not a quick win. Terrorists cannot be appeased; they do not seek negotiation, they seek annihilation. To achieve that end they will use any justification -- Israel, the Gulf War -- but we know they need no provocation. Terror continued in Israel even as its leaders sought a wide-ranging compromise with the Palestinians. American Jews must find ways to share these truths with their traditional political allies and their new ones as well.
We will have to be better informed and more outspoken, and prepared to counter the inevitable arguments that seek to undermine America's support for Israel. We will have to balance our desire for a more muscular American response to terror with our traditional, and sensible, defense of civil liberties and religious freedom.
Amid a war that, to some extent, is so directly linked to American commitments to other Jews in other parts of the world, we must understand that we have a special obligation, in a way unlike anything experienced since World War II, to defend the war effort of our shared and precious commonwealth, the United States of America.