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Reports of distressed American Jews are stacking up faster than airplanes trying to land at La Guardia at rush hour. On a recent visit, lovely, passionate, pro-Israel friends shared their dismay. Some admitted they avoided talking about Israel because "it is too painful." The epicenter of the worrying - and the disdain - seems to be New York's Upper West Side, still the capital of liberal American Jewry.
The latest trigger, of course, is the anti-Israel backlash following the Gaza war. The IDF has withdrawn, Hamas' rocket fire has resumed, but the condemnations of Israel have intensified. The New York Times, the New York Jew's Bible, has fed this frenzy. The Times gave splashy, repeated, front-page coverage to rehashing the unsubstantiated rumors about Israeli soldiers brutalizing Palestinians, with no independent reporting. Days later, the damage done, an article buried on page 4 treated the IDF's defense as a "he-said, she-said" disagreement rather than a strong repudiation, not only by the top brass but by many soldiers who tried hard to minimize civilian casualties.
Good people should be angry with the Palestinians, not embarrassed by Israel. Inon, a 25-year-old law student turned soldier, saw an elderly Palestinian woman in pain during the war. When Israeli medics approached to help, they noticed her suicide bomb belt. "This is what we are up against," Inon sighed on www.soldiersspeakout.com. During my two visits to the Gaza front, most Israeli soldiers I met mentioned "Hadilemot," the Heblish word for the dilemmas in fighting an enemy cowering behind civilians.
More recently, the lovely story about the Palestinian youth orchestra from Jenin that played for Holocaust survivors in Holon soured when the "moderate" Palestinian Authority shut down the orchestra, banning the conductor from the PA. The Palestinians denounced the conductor and any attempts at "normalization," which is also why Palestinians face death if they sell Jews land, and many "moderate" Fatah leaders still insist they never recognized Israel's right to exist.
It is not PC to acknowledge that we are dealing with a different culture and a murderous ideology - the resulting "dilemmot" are heartbreaking, horrible. I remain proud that under these circumstances the number of civilian deaths was far smaller than it would have been with any other army in the world - including America's. Yes, one wrongful death is too many. But given both sides' firepower (and Hamas has smuggled in another 70 tons or so since the war ended), that only a few hundred civilians died reflects Israel's moral and operational discipline.
AFTER 60 YEARS, Israel should no longer be on probation, with its legitimacy questioned in the world, or its popularity among Jews so contingent upon good behavior. American liberals did not question America's legitimacy even when they hated president George W. Bush. Yet many Jews and non-Jews repudiate Israel entirely because of one action, or one leader. Nationalism, patriotism, morality, usually runs deeper.
This Upper West Side discomfort suggests that if Israel is not the Disneyland in the Desert it promised to be in the 1960s, it is not worth supporting. Yet Israel is more friendly, pleasant and in many ways progressive than it was in the heyday of the kibbutz and Moshe Dayan. Israel today is remarkably functional. with a higher quality of life than New York Times reportage suggests. The headlines overlook the vibrant community life, the warm Jewish holiday observances, the Western comforts, the openness and diversity, let alone the scientific and hi-tech breakthroughs.
At the same time, yes, there are struggles. Ruth Gavison, the Hebrew University law professor and founding president of Metzila, a center for Zionist, Jewish, humanist and liberal thought, embraces the creative tension resulting from forging a state that is Jewish and democratic, that is moral and fights for survival. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis reminds us in his compelling new book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, the "very name 'Israel,'" the name Jacob earned after wrestling with the angel, connotes "struggling, grappling, the interaction of the human with what is beyond human." Gordis proclaims: "The real challenge facing Israel is to produce a society worthy of its name."
As Americans - and Upper West Siders in particular - adjust to the startling new economic realities, more and more are recognizing that this prolonged, Reagan-Clinton-Bush "Never, Never Land" that is ending seemed to defy the laws of gravity, unrealistically promising a life without struggle. As a result, our collective moral conscience lost its edge - which the new age of austerity may revive.
Similarly, modern Judaism has been dulled. Many Jews have simply stopped "doing Jewish," because it was too hard, too distracting when there was so much money to be made and so much fun to be had. Many Jewish leaders fed this problem, watering down Judaism, trying to make Jewish life as fluffy as the rest of American life. But this unbearable lightness of being Jewish failed to compel many, who then felt if Jewish values were pale reflections of secular values, why bother? Traditionally, the rabbis taught about "the neshama yetara," the extra soul acquired on Shabbat. This weekly boost gave Jews a taste of redemption while steeling them for the week's upcoming hardships.
Too many of us - and I regret to say, too many of my prosperous, self-righteous, Upper West Side friends - have lost that extra soul. Since Yasser Arafat led his people from negotiations toward terrorism, my family and I have set an extra seat at the Seder in memory of one terror victim who is missed at his or her Seder; this year, I am tempted to set an empty place for New York Jews' deliciously constructive grit, for their neshama yetara.
We need warrior Jews, not just worrier Jews. Israelis should justifiably say: "Don't cry for us New York Jewry (and elsewhere). Our state, for all its challenges, is thriving. Our neighbors - and the world - need fixing."
The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.