I went to lecture and got unwanted advice instead

What US Jews are thinking and what they should be doing.

By DAVID FORMAN
February 8, 2006 22:00
3 minute read.

 
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I have been traveling around the United States, lecturing Jewish audiences on the role Israel can play in enhancing Diaspora Jewish identity. I may as well be talking about some esoteric point in nuclear physics. No matter what my topic, the first question always relates to Hamas's victory. And the second question is: What does Israel intend to do about Iran? That I am not schooled in political analysis seems to make no difference to anyone. I am from Israel, so I must have some unique insights into the Israeli mind-set. What will Israel do next? Will Ehud Olmert be able to fill Ariel Sharon's shoes? What does the future hold? These are legitimate questions, but have little to do with my expertise. LIKE MANY lecturers - especially Jewish ones - I answered these questions with my own set of questions. And I was surprised to learn that most of the American Jews I came into contact with see Armageddon around the corner. They've adopted President George W. Bush's fighting words on the enemies of democracy. They've all sorts of proposals for what Israel should do to address the meteoric rise of Islamic fanaticism. Many blamed Israel for not predicting a Hamas victory. There is no doubt there was a failure of intelligence, but what difference would it have made if Israel predicted Hamas's overwhelming victory? Had Israel prevented the elections from taking place, these same American Jews - the liberals, anyway - would have castigated us for blocking the workings of democracy. Most of my questioners were less interested in hearing my response than posing their own views. It is just as well. As for me, I identify with those who say that more unilateral withdrawals are needed so that we can determine our own borders, but as the same time, I see the point of those who say that more unilateralism will only bring Kassam rockets closer to Israel's main population and industrial centers. I could be convinced by either argument. In contrast to my own doubts, the Jews I met were comfortable in their certainty and stridency. They want Israel to wage an all-out war against Hamas; to conduct a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities ("like Israel's attack in Baghdad in 1981"). The shrillest voice came from members of Americans for a Safe Israel. Perhaps the group should be renamed "Safe Americans for Israel." YET, EVEN my liberal friends struck a hard-line position and didn't enjoy having their ideological bubbles burst. Like their right-wing counterparts, they urged a harsh reaction to Arab intransigence. All seem willing to shed Israeli blood for their political views. The point is that we in Israel, who will either reap the benefits or face the dire consequences of our actions, lack the surety of Diaspora Jews as to how our government should react to the revolutionary events in our region. I also noticed something else, which was very subtle, as well as disingenuous. In presenting their definitive positions they all used the appellation "you" - as in "you Israelis should" do this or that. It is not enough that they would not have to face the consequences of their proposals; symbolically they have put up a protective wall around themselves. I say this because of another question that was frequently asked: "Is it once again too dangerous to travel to Israel?" I would not be surprised to discover that there are Jews who are already canceling trips to Israel. This is the real distinction between "you" and "we," and what undermines virtually all the views I heard from American Jews vis- -vis Israel. The know-it-all positions I heard, and which echoed from place to place, aggravated me to no end. I found myself telling these well-intentioned yet ill-informed one-dimensional thinking American Jews that they would do well to temper their views based on the geographical locale from whence their suggestions and criticisms emanate. I also heard myself saying that Jewish identity is not enhanced by expressions of extremism. We have enough extremists within in our own midst. Humility must moderate black and white answers to very complex issues. For US Jews, Hamas's ascendancy presents an opportunity to explain to Israel's detractors our country's historical narrative and present reality. Instead of telling Israelis how to respond to Hamas or to Iran, American Jews can best serve Israel's interests by debunking the harsh rhetoric, and anti-Semitic tendencies, of supposedly enlightened segments of the American population. Let them speak to the Presbyterian establishment, to certain liberal intellectuals, and to those leftists in the US Jewish world who hold Israel virtually exclusively responsible for the pain it endures. We need American Jews to help us contend with these secondary enemies, rather than telling us how to deal with our immediate ones.

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