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Jewish Journal

Terms of Endearment

February 11, 1999 | 7:00 pm

With everything going on lately -- the royal demise, the presidential trial, Mike Tyson's latest bust -- you may have missed the big legal story out of Israel last week.

That's a pity. Besides being a blockbuster news event, this story tells you a lot about Israel today. It also reveals a great deal about us American Jews.

Our focus: the decision by Ezer Weizman, Israel's figurehead president, to reduce the sentences of eight Jews imprisoned for killing Arabs, or trying to. Sentences were also reduced for five Israeli Arabs convicted of trying to kill Jews or, in two cases, murdering Arab collaborators. All the crimes had what Israelis call "a nationalist background," meaning the motives were tribal, not personal. The mass clemency was one of the biggest Israeli news stories in weeks.

Making the story even bigger was the name of the convict heading the list. The name that made jaws drop throughout Israel. The name Ami Popper.

Never heard of him? Sure you have. Think hard.

It was late May 1990. Ami Popper was the youngster from Rishon Letzion who walked to a bus stop on the edge of town one morning, found a group of Arab day laborers waiting for work, and opened fire with a submachine gun, killing seven, wounding 10 more.

See? You have heard of him.

You probably also remember what happened next. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir immediately denounced the carnage, calling it the "deranged" act of a lone "madman." And there it seemingly ended.

But it didn't end there. Appearing in court that fall, Popper was found perfectly sane and fit to stand trial. He did and was sentenced to seven consecutive life terms for his deliberate terror.

He was already a cause célèbre by the time of his trial. Right after the killing, the daily tabloid Yediot Aharonot carried a conversation with Ami's neighborhood friends. They gathered on a lawn and spoke of his character and courage. Several wished they had done the same thing.

In prison, Popper became something of an icon to Israel's radical right. He turned Orthodox, developed ties with the religious nationalist movement. He married a fan, a New York-born immigrant from a family that admired Meir Kahane.

Since then, Popper's name resurfaces periodically when the far right compiles lists of prisoners it wants freed, usually as a "quid pro quo" for Arab prisoners released in some diplomatic deal. Popper's name is always near the top of the list. In short, he's become a symbolic fixture on Israel's cultural landscape.

Symbolic of what? In fragmented Israel, that depends on which side you're on. To the left, Popper represents the bloody logic of the right's refusal to compromise for peace. To the right, Popper symbolizes the left's eagerness to demonize the right for the aberrations of a few.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Popper is a marginal, reviled figure. But while few endorse what he did, many more understand it -- enough so that reducing his sentence sounds politically enticing to a right-wing government.

That, in fact, is why Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi concocted the clemency last fall. It was a way to placate the right following the Wye agreement, in which Israel agreed to free Palestinian prisoners. Hanegbi said that it was unfair to free Arab killers "with Jewish blood on their hands," and not show mercy to Jews guilty of the same tribal passion. He didn't propose freeing them, merely shaving their terms. Popper's life-plus was reduced to 40 years, meaning he could be out in 18.

But the Wye deal began to collapse. Israel released a batch of car thieves instead of Fatah terrorists, as the Palestinians had expected. Rioting ensued. Talks broke down. Netanyahu's government collapsed, and new elections were called. Hanegbi's clemency plan suddenly became irrelevant -- yet politically more irresistible.

Why the president embraced it is a different story. Weizman is a Laborite with no right wing to placate. But in Hanegbi's clemency, he saw a chance to generate momentum for a Palestinian prisoner release, an essential step toward restarting the peace talks.

It was a bad gamble. Netanyahu immediately announced that he regretted the sentence reductions, and certainly wasn't going to follow up by releasing any Palestinian murderers. Murderers belong in jail.

In Weizman's view, this isn't about criminal justice. It's about ending a 100-year war between Jews and Palestinians. His view -- shared, incidentally, by Israeli military intelligence -- is that when you end a war, you expect to get your fighters back. That's difficult in this case because of the horrific "missions" the other side sent its fighters to carry out. Still, that was the nature of this awful war. Now it's time to make peace.

Amid the complications, there's one question that's never been asked. This may be the hardest question of all. What does Ami Popper say to American Jews?

Nearly all of us remember, if only dimly, the day he fired his shots. Yet almost none of us ever heard the rest of the story. The last we heard, he was still a lone madman. The ugly truth never reached us.

No great surprise here. Everyone knows our news media doesn't cover Israel too thoroughly. Besides, there are certain facts about Israel that American Jews would rather not know. We look to Israel for comfort, not grief.

But think of what we lost by not knowing. First, we lost the context of later events. When Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Arabs in Hebron in 1994, American Jews were shocked beyond belief. Israelis, who knew about Ami Popper -- and a dozen lesser cases like his -- were horrified, revolted, but not surprised.

Secondly, we lost resilience. Israel is a complicated, tortured, deeply imperfect nation. It contains evil along with the good. It has sinned along with being sinned against. We American Jews ignored that for years. That left us unprepared when we found Israel sinning against us, in denying legitimacy to American Jewish religion. Lacking scar tissue on our hearts, we were stunned and hurt. Then we started losing interest.

Today, rabbis, teachers and Israeli representatives across America report a growing apathy toward Israel. American Jews don't want to hear about it anymore. Something's broken, and nobody knows how to fix it.

One way is to go back to where we went wrong and start telling the truth. Hiding from the truth isn't a sign of love. Mature love means embracing the other as family, eyes open, warts and all.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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