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by Diane Arieff

September 18, 1997 | 8:00 pm

Just hours after the news broke that an elite Israeli commandounit had been wiped out in Lebanon, Shula is sobbing over thetelephone from her apartment in Givatayim. Her son -- a paratroopernow in Lebanon -- is due to finish his army service in November. "Ican't take it anymore," she says, crying. "How much more do we haveto take? This has got to end."

Margalit, a grandmother in Holon, pays a sick call to a relativein Jerusalem days after the recent Ben-Yehuda bomb blast, but staysclear of public places. "No matter where I go, if there's a lot ofpeople, I leave," she said. "Even in Tel Aviv now, I avoid crowds.But, really, what are we supposed to do? If it's going to happen, itwill happen."

Motti, who lives in Tel Aviv, calls at 8 o'clock on a Saturdaynight, Israeli time, but he's not in the mood for small talk. "Wewere going to go to a political demonstration tonight, but maybewe'll just go to a movie," he says with a heavy sigh. "It's for timeslike this that we need a little escapism."

Even without the immediacy of the telephone, the fear, wearinessand anguish that Israelis are feeling is as close to us as thenightly newscast or the morning paper. But, in recent months, thespecter of brazen terrorist attacks or faltering Israeli militaryprowess doesn't seem to be enough to galvanize American-Jewishsupport. While Israeli nerves are being rattled by images of bodyparts flying through blasted shopping promenades, many American Jewswould put other issues at the top of the Israel-Diaspora agenda.

After all, there are the matters of the conversion bill, uglyscuffles at the Western Wall, stalled peace talks. It's time, someleaders and lay people are grumbling, to send Israel a message: NoIsrael Bonds push this year. No mention of the Jewish state duringHigh Holiday sermons. No unified show of support for Israel toCongress.

Throughout Los Angeles -- but particularly among Reform andConservative leaders -- the grumbling has gotten loud enough tobecome a matter of deep concern to those who maintain that this is notime for protest messages, regardless of how critical the issues ofreligious pluralism and peace negotiations may be. Some of theseconcerns were voiced recently at an emotional meeting that took placein the office of Israeli Consul General YoramBen Zé ev.

Rosalie Zalis, a senior adviser to Gov. Pete Wilson and a longtimeJewish activist, argues passionately against the recent impulse to"punish Israel" as a form of political expression. "The question of'Who is a Jew' and what happened at the Wall are both seriousissues," Zalis said. "Still, I don't think they can take precedenceright now over the kind of daily terror being propagated on the Jewswho choose to live in Israel and live through this every day.... Itis in times of distress that we have to be a staunch supporter ofIsrael, and that is not to say that we have to support every one ofit's policies."

At fund-raisers, public forums and private meetings, Zalis hasheard the arguments from the other side. At best, she said, theystrike her as misguided or politically naïve. At worst, shesaid, they seem like thinly veiled opportunities forNetanyahu-bashing, particularly among Jews who felt a strongerideological kinship to his predecessor, Shimon Peres. "Frankly," shesaid, "I believe that there are certain elements in the religiouscommunity who are exploiting the unpopularity of Netanyahu amongliberal Jews right now.... I'm appalled that some Jewish leaderswould use their dissatisfaction with developments in Israel as areason for not urging their congregants to muster support."

There's also the matter of apathy -- a drift away from identifyingwith Israel as somehow central to Jewish identity. "To a certaindegree, it may be generational," said Conservative Rabbi Joel Rembaumof Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. "Consider the percentage ofAmerican Jews who were born after 1948 or, for that matter, after the1967 war," he said. "The feelings that surrounded the establishmentof the Jewish state, and the excitement generated in the wake of '67don't exist for younger Jews. The war in Lebanon and the intifada arethe events they remember.... Also, as Israel has grown moreindependent and American Jews have grown more secure, people havelost the sense of how critical we are to each other."

Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, assistant rabbi at Conservative Adat AriEl in North Hollywood, agrees. "No matter how upsetting certainrecent events have been, like the conversion legislation, thistendency to write off Israel is really disturbing," he said. "Itindicates, I think, a lack of understanding about how important theJewish state is to all of us."

It's a tendency, Zalis said, that's as evident among leaders aslay people. Referring tothe recent closed-door meeting she attendedon the subject in the Consul General's office, Zalis said: "Among allof us, there was real dismay in that room about rabbis who have saidthey will not preach support for Israel during the High Holidays,because they don't feel positive about Israel. That shocks me....Right now, I think there's a Catch-22. We're hearing that people areapathetic. The fear is that some rabbis are reacting to theircongregants and striving to be politically correct by being criticalof Israel."

Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, president of Southern California's Boardof Rabbis and the leader of Reform Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, wasat that same meeting with Zalis. He said that, while some of his owncongregants are angry or disillusioned with Israel, it's imperative"to set aside the conversion issue for the time being. Both to mycolleagues and to the general Jewish community, I would say this isnot the time to punish Israel for specific actions and inactions thatthey are taking, because the very survival of Israel is at stake,possibly more than at any other point in history."

The fact that American-Jewish support seems to be fragmented andweakening has not been lost on Washington, according to Zalis. "Thereis a congressman I won't name who has always been a supporter ofIsrael," she said. "He has now, for the first time, voted againstforeign aid to Israel, and he told me straight out: 'Why should I?The support isn't even there in the Jewish community.' This ishappening in Congress among Democrats and Republicans alike. [VicePresident] Gore -- who may very well be our next president -- is saidto be receiving mail from Jewish constituents stating that Israelneeds to be punished. That's appalling."

Ido Aharoni, Israeli Consul for Public Affairs in Los Angeles,offered a similar impression. "Other parties in this peace processhad no idea this religious pluralism issue would become as divisiveamong Jews as it has been," he said. "That's something people shouldconsider. Washington, Congress, our opponents across the world --they're all watching."

Among politicians, ignorance about Israel's geopoliticalvulnerabilities makes the current trend even more worrisome. "Asidefrom people like [Senators] Joseph Leiberman, Alfonse D'Amato orothers who have traveled extensively to Israel and are sophisticatedabout the region," Zalis said, "Jews need to realize that there arepeople who still think that Israel is larger than the entire Arabworld, and some of them are sitting in Congress."

This shift in the American-Jewish political climatevis-à-vis Israel comes at a time when the Jewish state appearsparticularly vulnerable. Internally, Gaza and the West Bank are nowlargely controlled by an armed Palestinian police force, which hasmade Israel's efforts to gather information there about plannedattacks far more difficult. For their part, Hamas and Islamic Jihadcontinue to build a strong network of support, fueled partly by fundsraised in the United States. Yasser Arafat may make periodic arrestsof low-level operatives, but he doesn't touch Hamas leaders, exceptwhen he publicly embraces them.

Said one veteran investigative journalist who declined to benamed, "Right now, there's strong evidence that there are literallyhundreds of Palestinian suicide bombers ready at a moment's notice togo on a mission."

In the meantime, Israelis such as Shula, Margalit and Motti canonly watch, weep and worry.

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