March 17, 2005
Gaza Strife and American Jews
Civil strife in Israel over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan could cause new strains in the American Jewish community and accelerate the turning away from the pro-Israel cause, especially among younger Jews.
The mounting strife, which includes death threats by anti-disengagement activists and comparisons of the withdrawal to Nazi efforts to make Europe Judenrein, could add to Israel's public relations woes in this country.
Those concerns are being quietly discussed in Jewish boardrooms across the country.
Support for the Gaza plan remains strong among American Jews, despite bitter opposition by a handful of Jewish and evangelical Christian groups. But uncertainty over the outcome and the fear of further enraging strident opponents have pushed some major Jewish groups to keep a low profile on the plan.
"We're not prepared for it," said an official with one major Jewish group. "We're not prepared for the possibility of virtual civil war in Israel, and we're not prepared for the fallout in our own community."
Most major pro-Israel groups say they support the policies of the Jerusalem government, including disengagement. But many waited until the withdrawal was impending to speak up directly; others continue to keep their heads down, avoiding the issue as much as they can.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, with a diverse membership that includes some disengagement opponents, has been criticized for months for what some say has been a limp response to the plan; only in late February did its chairman tell Sharon that the umbrella group "proudly supports and has supported your historic disengagement plan."
The pro-Israel lobby has supported Sharon, but has been uncharacteristically reserved about it as the debate rages in Israel and as some pro-Israel forces in this country campaign against it.
Overall, the attitude has been this: if Sharon, who has spent his life fighting for Israel's security, wants to get out of Gaza and some of the West Bank, who are we to second-guess him? But there has also been a reluctance to be too out-front on the subject.
Very few mainstream Jewish leaders actively support the settler movement, but many are fearful of being regarded as opponents.
Some, feeling betrayed by an Oslo peace process that turned sour, are determined to restrain their enthusiasm for any new peace move, fearful that it, too, could prove a chimera.
Groups on the left are in an even more awkward position.
Many believe that Sharon's real goal is to use the Gaza plan to solidify Israel's hold on major portions of the West Bank by putting new peace talks in "formaldehyde," as a Sharon aide once said. That, most doves believe, would produce new conflict and kill any chances for peace.
At the same time, there is hope the plan, if implemented, will set a precedent that will make Israel's exit from most of the West Bank inevitable, regardless of Sharon's real motives.
Some on the left are loathe to be seen lining up behind Sharon, the early engine behind settlement expansion, but fearful of not supporting the only peace move currently on the table.
While Jewish groups try to find ways to express support for the plan without being too open about it, or simply cower before a vocal minority of opponents, the images coming out of Israel are already sending shock waves through the Jewish community and the American public.
Settlers threatening violence against the soldiers sent to remove them, or rabbis who issue religious edicts justifying the killing of the Gaza pullout planners, do not represent the picture of Israel Jewish leaders here want Americans to see.
The Christian Zionists who are traveling to Gaza to proclaim that the pullout is a violation of "God's plan" for Israel symbolize a kind of extremism that many fear will further tarnish Israel's image with mainstream America.
American Jews are busy telling their non-Jewish neighbors that Israel is a moderate, peace-loving place and the only democracy in the Middle East, but the shrill death threats against Sharon and the fiery visions of Israel's future by some of the Evangelicals contradict that message.
At a time when Jewish groups are fighting the divestment effort by mainline Protestant churches, the anti-withdrawal vitriol of some of Israel's extremists will just add fuel to that bias-fed fire.
Also troubling may be the impact on an American Jewish community that a recent study showed continues to edge away from active involvement in the pro-Israel cause.
Civil strife in Israel and the extremist positions of those who promise fierce resistance to any effort to uproot them are likely to accelerate that trend, especially among younger Jews.
Jews who are deeply committed to Israel will be saddened and disturbed by the likely confrontations over Gaza, but their attachment to the Jewish state will not be changed. But for many whose connection is much more tenuous, the expected clashes and the poisonous political atmosphere could accelerate an estrangement that will further weaken the bonds between American Jews and the Jewish state.