By JONATHAN TILOVE
August 2, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Since the outbreak of war in Lebanon, leaders of the mainline American Jewish organizations have presented a united front in ardent defense of Israel‘s military campaign.
But then there is Jewish Voice for Peace, which has condemned the Israeli campaign against Lebanon as disproportionate, and been inundated with calls expressing support.
“These are Jews who are profoundly upset by what’s going on,” says Cecilie Surasky, communications director for the group based in Oakland, Calif. Its national e-mail list has swelled more than 30 percent to 17,000.
And there is also Brit Tzedek v’Shalom _ in English, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace _ a larger, more cautious voice of dissent on the Jewish American left that has called for a cease-fire. With some 34,000 supporters, Brit Tzedek has added three chapters _ in Raleigh, N.C, Eugene, Ore., and San Diego _ in as many weeks, bringing their total to 38.
“In some ways, people think that when there’s a war going on things are tough for a group that’s working for peace,” says Steve Masters, advocacy chair for the organization, founded in 2002 to mobilize American Jews in support of a negotiated two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “But in other ways it actually highlights the dramatic need for a full, comprehensive solution to all of these conflicts.”
At a time when most American Jews appear to be rallying behind Israel, there are some liberal Jews who oppose Israel‘s continuing attacks in Lebanon as counterproductive, at the very least. For them, at this moment of crisis, it is a test not only of their deepest beliefs but also their ability to articulate misgivings without appearing to give aid to Israel‘s implacable foes.
“I understand that at a time like this, when the bombs are falling, with Israelis in bomb shelters, the gut reaction is support,” said Brad Brooks-Rubin, a Washington lawyer who stood by himself holding a sign calling for a cease-fire at a Solidarity With Israel Rally in the capital July 19. “I have a lot of friends in Israel.”
However, Brooks-Rubin wrote in an online posting on Semitism.net, “I feel fear at the future of my own American Jewish community, for standing by and watching it all happen with little more than vicarious rage and willing compliance in their eyes and voice.” He said he was dumbstruck when the loudest cheers at the rally rose at the mention of President Bush.
According to exit polls, Bush got about a quarter of the Jewish vote in 2004. A poll last fall found that 70 percent of Jews oppose the war in Iraq.
“We vote liberal. We vote Democratic. We are at the forefront of every human rights issue,” said Surasky. But on Israel, she said, many Jews seem to be able to tolerate some considerable cognitive dissonance. She mostly blames the leadership of the mainstream Jewish organizations, who she said toe a much harder line on Israel than the Jewish rank and file.
Consider that according to a poll conducted for the Jewish Agency for Israel in 2004, nearly half of American Jews report they are sometimes ashamed of Israel.
There was initial support in much of the world community for Israel‘s right to retaliate against Hezbollah for its cross-border raid and kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. But outside the United States, that support has largely evaporated amid terrible images of wholesale destruction in Lebanon, civilian carnage and hundreds of thousands of refugees. While Israelis were under a steady bombardment of Hezbollah rockets, the toll wasn’t nearly as great. The Arab world closed ranks behind Hezbollah.
“What Israel has done has crossed a line,” said Surasky. “It’s electrifying a whole new generation of people in the Jewish peace world.”
The back page of the newest issue of The Nation magazine is an ad placed by Jewish Voice for Peace that asks, “What is Israel Doing?”
While noting Hezbollah’s responsibility, the ad contends that “Israel’s response _ an explosion of violence and collective punishment directed against airports, bridges and populated neighborhoods of Lebanon _ is an even greater disaster.”
Brit Tzedek meanwhile is more circumspect.
Spokesman Masters, a Philadelphia lawyer, will not use words like “disproportionate.”
“Our basic message is that a cease-fire in the hostilities between Lebanon and Israel is in the best interests of Israel,” said Masters.
Hadar Susskind, Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents many of the nation’s largest Jewish organizations, said that while he counts Brit Tzedek members as good Zionists, most American Jews are focused on supporting Israel‘s efforts to defend itself.
And, as Sam Kellman, a retired psychologist from South Euclid, Ohio, who is helping to found a Brit Tzedek chapter in Cleveland, can attest, any talk now of curtailing Israel’s military options can amount to fighting words. Kellman said he supported Israel‘s initial assault on Hezbollah, but believes the time has come to negotiate.
“I can tell you plenty of people are pretty angry at me,” said Kellman, a member of Kol HaLev, a Reconstructionist congregation.
Those who second-guess Israel can stand accused of being soft-headed, self-indulgent or self-hating. Many American Jews may feel they should defer to those in harm’s way in Israel. They may feel they lack the knowledge, devotion or confidence to express their concerns. And what if they are wrong and harm comes to Israel?
In some cities, Brit Tzedek chapters have been involved in pro-Israel rallies. But the Western Massachusetts chapter agonized over whether to join a July 24 rally in Springfield.
“Some felt it was important to let people know that Brit Tzedek cares about Israel as much as anybody does,” said Carolyn Toll Oppenheim of Northampton, a coordinator of the local chapter. But others worried they wouldn’t be welcome. They stayed away.
For Jews drawn to Brit Tzedek in the current crisis, Oppenheim said, the first step is finding a safe place to talk with others who share their love for Israel and their worry that it’s on the wrong course. There, she said, they can begin “taking courage from each other.”