August 21, 2006
By Shmuel Rosner
WASHINGTON – Two weeks ago on Wednesday, in the baggage check-in line at the airport in New York, Malka Blass sounded calm and confident. She’s immigrating to Israel, relocating to Ramat Beit Shemesh with her husband, David, and their five children. She knows there’s a war raging in the North, but doubts – or thoughts of postponing the move – have not entered her head. “I feel like I’m already there,” she says, “with my brothers and sisters.”
Here is a Zionist response to the crisis, the sort not many in the United States will emulate but which suddenly seems to be more appreciated. Vice Premier Shimon Peres met Wednesday morning with Jewish donors from the Washington area. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has raised more than $9 million so far for recovery efforts in the Galilee. Peres hopes to raise $100 million as he travels around the United States in the coming days. On Wednesday, he summed up meetings with donors in four words: “A spark was lit.”
The flame of this spark, which reflects renewed, rousing support for Israel, burned steadily in the first weeks of the war – unconditional support, almost without exception, consensus on Israel’s justness and its actions. “Most Jews understand this is a moral war,” said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and a veteran observer of the American Jewish community. Nevertheless, since it appeared that the operation would not succeed as planned, cracks have emerged. “It’s clear to everyone that this wasn’t a brilliant operation,” Wieseltier says, “but Israel does not owe the community here a constantly uplifting experience.”
John Wielgosz, president of Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Kensington, Maryland, says that the initial response to the war was uniform, on the Jewish right and left, but believes the response to its outcome will be more complex. “With those who are less committed to Israel, it might actually strengthen the sense of its being a problematic place that is better to stay away from,” he says.
Early this week, the Reform Movement registered a first twinge of discomfort. Forty-eight of its young members – many of them heads of campus branches and youth counselors – sent a letter to the leadership in protest that the movement had not come out against some of Israel’s actions in Lebanon. There were actions in the war that are inconsistence with “Reform movement values,” says Matt Adler, one of those behind the letter and an activist at Washington University in St. Louis. He stresses that his criticism stems from love for Israel, which he cares about deeply, but the criticism in itself confirms Wielgosz’s prediction: “The response to the war will change according to the politics of each member of the community.”
Despite the criticism, the war in Lebanon certainly united American Jews, for the first time in years, around a shared cause – genuine concern for Israel. “Like in 1967,” says Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations – a comparison that came up in dozens of conversations with community members and leaders.
“Everyone suffers from the myth of the Six-Day War,” Wieseltier diagnoses. That victory affixed an awareness of Israel as a country that supplies “categorical results” in every confrontation. But the vague, limited product provided by the latest bout in Lebanon undermines that awareness. “The Jewish American identity lives off the Israeli hero,” Wieseltier says – but without heroism, without a clear victory, how will it survive?
Jewish organizations have moved into high gear, hoping to maximize public support for Israel before it wanes. That’s why they brought Peres, and also why, according to a lobbyist in-the-know, they decided not to talk anymore about the amount they want to raise. “There’s no more mention of the ‘$300 million’ because it can reach a lot more than that,” he explained.
Hoenlein is also busy with practical matters. Next week, he is slated to meet with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. “We’ve got a lot of work now,” he says – to continue fighting for public opinion, to monitor implementation of Security Council resolutions, to invest in Israel-U.S. relations.
And what of the comparison to the outpouring of support in 1967? “That was another general of American Jews,” Wielgosz explains. “They had a much stronger sense of peoplehood” – that slippery concept that binds Jews.