Editor's notes: An inauspicious start

The discerning voter would at this stage be hard-pressed to ascertain precisely how Labor, Sharon and the Likud might differ.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
If we had been hoping for clarity and stark choices, the Ariel Sharon-engineered remake of Israeli politics has, so far, produced more obfuscation and confusion. Economically, the broad differences between the socialist Amir Peretz and the Thatcherite Binyamin Netanyahu are plain to see, with an Ehud Olmert-helmed approach to financial and welfare policy likely placing Sharon's newly registered "Kadima" grouping somewhere in the middle. But when it comes to the Palestinians, the discerning voter would at this stage be hard-pressed to ascertain precisely how Labor, Sharon and the Likud might differ. We've witnessed Peretz - who is an early member of Peace Now but not a signatory to Yossi Beilin's Geneva Accords (as has been widely misreported) - first robustly talking up the Oslo accords but subsequently, presumably on the advice of panicked advisers, attempting a mild makeover by rejecting the Geneva formula and the notion of a divided Jerusalem. We've seen the likes of Shaul Mofaz and Silvan Shalom, who under Sharon respectively implemented and oversaw the international explication of the Gaza pullout, choose to stay put and compete for the leadership of a Likud most of whose members opposed that pullout. And we've heard Sharon, now outside the Likud, using the same deliberately vague phraseology as he did before he left to express his desire for a peace agreement, a commitment to the road map, a rejection of further unilateral withdrawal and a readiness for painful compromises. Come election day, the picture may be clearer: Peretz will doubtless be pressed on the parameters of his Palestinian vision, and the Likud will have chosen a leader, even if Sharon manages to maintain his very deliberate ambiguity over how he intends to achieve his stated ambition to delineate Israel's permanent borders, and as to where exactly he wants to draw those lines. In these initial days, though, rather than a genuine debate over conflicting ideologies on how Israel can best safeguard its future, the campaign is proving depressingly and demeaningly personal - characterized by verbal assaults by politicians on each other, notably within a Likud riven by Sharon's departure. With more than four months to go and the landscape further muddied by uncertainties over which legislators will even be running within which party frameworks, pollsters' predictions on the nature of the next Knesset are largely meaningless. What's fascinating is the attention and weight accorded the opinion polls, the more so when, as Peretz's success in Labor showed yet again, the surveys so frequently get it wrong not only months before voting takes place, but in the final few days of the process too. In attempting to defy a history of unsuccessful bids to establish a heavyweight centrist party, Sharon is basically trying to send a message to voters that says, "Trust me. I know what I'm doing." Some of those close to him privately sketch out what they claim is the prime minister's ultimate blueprint for Judea and Samaria - a border route, they say, that follows the line of the security fence in many areas, although departing from that line to encompass Ariel and to allow for access to an Israeli-held Jordan Valley. Ehud Olmert, Sharon's frequent trial balloonist, has indicated support in the past for unilateral disengagement in the West Bank without specifying its dimensions. To judge by this week's press conference, Sharon is going to do his best not to get drawn into the specifics of his final map. He said only that he intended to "lay the foundation for a peace agreement wherein the country's permanent borders will be determined." His appeal will be bolstered somewhat if he can persuade the likes of ex-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter and ex-justice minister Dan Meridor to join him in Kadima (having "lost" Ben-Gurion University's Prof. Avishay Braverman to Peretz's new Labor). Bitterly critical of the Palestinian Authority's failure to confront terrorism, while adamant that most ordinary Palestinians seek a peaceful future that their leadership and the terror groups prevent them from attaining, Dichter often sounds very much like a man after Sharon's heart. The first question is whether Dichter and Meridor have the stomach for today's bruising party politics. The second question is how Sharon is going to manage the well-developed egos of his various recruits, and put together a Knesset list without the kind of playground in-fighting over placement that doomed the Center Party venture headed by Yitzhak Mordechai, Meridor, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Ronnie Milo six years ago. *** As the community nationwide marks 350 years of Jewish life in the United States, Savannah's Jews cannot claim membership in the longest-standing congregation. Still, by most accounts they come in an impressive third, after communities in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Neither can the Jewish populace in this extraordinarily picturesque and good-natured city claim to be at its most demographically robust. From a high of what local tour-guide Ross Stemer estimates to have been over 5,000, it now numbers about 3,700, and is now recruiting energetically from other North American communities to push numbers higher. Still, as appropriate in a city widely renowned for its heritage, Savannah's Jews do have genuine historic claims of their own - relating, among other matters, to the timing of their arrival, their prized Sifrei Torah, and the area's last duelist. Driving me slowly around the city recently, Stemer, whose mother was born in Savannah, takes me down to the banks of the Savannah river where, in 1733, the first Jews came on land. The pioneering group who sailed in from London on the William and Sarah was 42 strong - two Ashkenazi families and the rest Sephardim, originating in Spain and Portugal. One of their number was a Dr. Nunez, and it was he who proved the key to their smooth absorption in a colony that had been founded only five months earlier by General James Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe was facing a yellow fever epidemic, and was delighted to discover that a medical man had arrived in the vicinity, swiftly inviting him to leave the ship and take care of the sick. The way Marion Mendel tells it, as she guides a group around the Mickve Israel synagogue a little later, Nunez savvily conditioned his healing talents on Savannah's acceptance of the entire Jewish group, Oglethorpe gave his assent, and Jewish Savannah was born. Mendel should know; parts of her family are descended from those first arrivals. Built in the late 1870s, Mickve Israel is a striking edifice - strikingly church-like, that is, being designed in the Gothic-style that was so in vogue at that height of Victorian-era construction. Its ark and its museum house two rather more traditional Jewish artifacts, Sifrei Torah that have long been the community's prized possessions and were probably a good 200 or 300 years old when they arrived in the 1730s. Inscribed on deerskin rather than parchment, the text of the scroll on display in the museum is big, bold and still eminently readable. Opposite Mickve Israel, directly across one of the leafy squares that characterize downtown Savannah, lies one of the city's true claims to current fame - the Mercer house, where the killing at the heart of John Berendt's bestselling, true-life drama Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil took place. That tourists coming to view the scene of that crime, and the other hot-spots detailed in the book, still have plenty of traditional Savannah to see derives in part from the struggle over the nearby Davenport home. A fine example of 1820s construction, it was to have been knocked down half-a-century ago, and many more like it would doubtless have followed, by developers who wanted to use its distinctive Savannah brick in homes being constructed away from the city center. The plantation where the bricks were made had stopped production. But a group of seven local women - Mrs. Emma Adler among them - got together to halt the project, raised $22,500 to buy the Davenport house and, says Stemer, "ensured the preservation of historic Savannah." The B.H. Levy building is still standing, too, though it's no longer the department store founded by local Jews of German origin. Still, it is also a historic landmark, of sorts - the scene of the 1960s lunch-counter disputes, when local black women angrily protested the ban on their eating there. Stemer, who recalls that he himself went to a "lilywhite school" that no blacks could attend, explains that while blacks were allowed to shop at the store, they couldn't use the fitting rooms to try on clothes before they bought them, and they couldn't eat at the store's lunch counter. That all changed after the protests - a milestone, he says, on the path to integration. Further off the beaten track, Stemer points out a narrow tree-lined alley where, he says, Savannah gentlemen would attempt to resolve issues of honor with the most dramatic finality. The duelists, he says, were basically "laughed into obsolescence" by the rest of the townsfolk in the early to mid 1870s. The last known dueling fatality? An unfortunate, the nature of whose dispute has long since been forgotten, by the name of Ludlow Cohen.