In the Diaspora: The blank screen

What moderate and liberal American Jews expect from Annapolis

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
Some years ago, I had a student in my journalism class who had won a bronze medal in rowing at the Barcelona Olympics. She described to me a training regimen that included not only physical exercises but mental ones. Foremost among them was a discipline called "visualization." Visualization means what its name implies. An elite athlete will envision, in vivid detail, winning the race or scoring the goal or sinking the basket. The repeated psychic act of imagining success is meant to prepare both mind and body for enacting success when the moment of actual competition arrives. Just lately, I have been thinking about my inability to conjure an image, in this case the image of a triumphant, or even optimistic, ending to the impending Israeli-Palestinian-American peace conference in Annapolis. And maybe I am suffering from more than the usual narcissism to believe that this personal failure exists far more widely within American Jewry. I refer here not to the highly focused, highly mobilized minority of the American Jewish community that has opposed territorial compromise from Madrid and Oslo in the early 1990s to Gaza in 2005. That faction, augmented now by Christian Zionists who have their own millennialist motives for retaining Greater Israel, has always gotten out its uncompromising message. Rather, I am talking about the passive, reluctant mainstream of American Jews that has been endorsing a two-state solution for the past generation. Polling over the years has tended to show somewhere between 60 and 70% of the community holding this position, and if anything I suspect the number may have increased as the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel has spread from a liberal stance to a center-right one, thanks to the demographic threat to Israel from the Palestinian birth rate. TO USE the Nixonian cliche, this segment has been the "silent majority" of American Jewry. While it has had its public figures - Leonard Fein, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Michael Lerner, M.J. Rosenberg - it has never been able to assemble its followers the way American backers of the settlement policy have routinely been able to marshal theirs. Still, throughout the 1990s, the American peace camp provided the political cover that George H.W. Bush and especially Bill Clinton required in trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to a permanent resolution. The image of Clinton drawing Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat into a begrudging handshake permitted American Jewish doves to visualize an end to turmoil and terror, even if the peace partner had formerly been the terrorist-in-chief. It is hard to conceive of Clinton having pushed so hard at Camp David and Taba had he believed those efforts would estrange his American Jewish supporters (and future campaign contributors for his wife). The Aksa intifada supplied a different set of images, of course - bloody hands emerging from the Ramallah police station, distraught girls outside the Dolphinarium, a ravaged Seder in Netanya. For all but a sliver of the American Jewish Left, some of which is discredited by its anti-Zionism, it became impossible to sustain the image of a negotiated peace. I will never forget the abject, funereal version of Hatikva I heard on Yom Kippur 2000 in that epicenter of peace activism, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on Manhattan's Upper West Side. YEARS LATER, whatever hopes had flickered back to life with the plan for unilateral withdrawal were dampened by Ariel Sharon's stroke and definitely extinguished by the rain of Kassams on Sderot and Katyushas from Lebanon courtesy of Sheikh Nasrallah. Now come three crippled leaders (George W. Bush, Mahmoud Abbas, and Ehud Olmert) to try to accomplish what three leaders with strong mandates (Arafat, Clinton, Ehud Barak) could not at Camp David. The America that was victorious in the wake of the first Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, an America whose president could strong-arm even Yitzhak Shamir into going to Madrid, has given way to an America stuck in an Iraq quagmire and vulnerable to jihadist Islam's asymmetrical warfare. This hardly seems like the conditions for cutting the Gordian knot. For the moderate and liberal American Jews most inclined toward the Annapolis conference, there is precious little trust in President Bush to do anything right. I do not mean the facile, fashionable way the Left blames him for everything wrong in the world. (What will satirists and bloggers do when their favorite Beelzebub is gone?) I mean the collective memory in the United States of Bush's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina - an enduring symbol on these shores of the president's incompetence, or at least his inability to translate appealing rhetoric into effective action. Yes, commentators such as David Brooks in the New York Times have theorized that the common fear of an ascendant, nuclear-capable Iran may be enough to push the Israelis and the Sunni secularists of Fatah into some kind of embrace. I would love to believe this hypothesis, but in a very literal way I cannot see how it might unfold, what agreement could be struck, what constituencies back home in the Middle East could be won over. There are hundreds of channels on my cable television system at home. When it comes to Annapolis, though, my own screen is blank.