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There's a push for monolithism toward Israel among American Jews

By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2002


Although the war on the ground between Israel and Palestinians is nearly 6,000 miles away from New York City, its toll on personal relationships among countless American citizens here on our soil is profound and destructive in several ways.

Although the war on the ground between Israel and Palestinians is nearly 6,000 miles away from New York City, its toll on personal relationships among countless American citizens here on our soil is profound and destructive in several ways.

For many, the harm may be permanent.

The divide is over Israel, and those who disagree with the Israeli government's policies toward the Palestinians and voice sympathy for innocent Palestinians are caught in the crossfire. Israel's critics are targeted as anti-Semites and are subjected to scorn and sometimes violence. Surprisingly enough, they need not be gentile to suffer these indignities.

Take the case of Adam Shapiro, the Brooklyn native who is a humanitarian worker among the Palestinians in Ramallah. In addition to his work among the Palestinians, he received international notoriety among Jews because, during Israel's recent siege of Ramallah, he went to Yasser Arafat's compound in an ambulance to do what humanitarians do. He also spoke to the press, saying innocent people are suffering.

Anger toward Shapiro is to be expected, if not accepted. But something worse happened: Nearly 6,000 miles away -- back in Brooklyn -- Shapiro's parents had to flee their house to escape death threats from fellow Jews because of their son's humanitarian efforts.

Another victim of the new Jewish-American monolithism is Paul Wolfowitz, the Bush administration's deputy secretary of defense. In April, Wolfowitz, representing the administration, spoke to a pro-Israel gathering in Washington. He was heckled and denounced by many in the audience. He committed the sin of saying that in the Mideast conflict, "innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well."

But there is more about Wolfowitz than his being in the Bush administration and his being a Jew. Wolfowitz is a card-carrying hawk of the first order. Even more, his Jewish bona fides cannot run deeper: His father's family was killed in the Holocaust.

Then, we have Henry Siegman. For me, perhaps because I have met him several times, admire him and interviewed him by telephone years ago, the injustice the forthright Siegman faces is most troubling. Anyone who has seen the classic film Casablanca has a picture of what Siegman and his family went through as Jews fleeing to the United States during World War II. When the Nazis ascended to power in Germany in 1933, Siegman and his family escaped to Belgium. Even after his mother became pregnant, the family had to run from the Germans, through Belgium, through Vichy, France, to Casablanca and finally to Ellis Island.

Before becoming a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Siegman led the American Jewish Council for 16 years. He studied to become a rabbi. His is a military hero. He served as an army combat chaplain during the Korean War and won a purple heart and a bronze star.

In a New York Times article, he said his World War II nightmare as a Jew and his Korean War encounters with fear, suffering and death give him some understanding of the Palestinian's "fear and humiliation" under Israeli occupation. He also believes that the Palestinians deserve and will have a state.

For having the capacity for such understanding and for voicing his opinions, Siegman has become an outcast among American Jews. And closer to home, as it were, most of his family, except for a brother, refuse to speak of Israel with him.

What does the American Jewish reaction say about American Jews and their relations with gentiles who oppose Israeli policies? And what does it say about American Judiasm itself?

"We have lost much in American Jewish organizational life," Siegman told the Times. "I was a student and an admirer of Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I read his books. We were friends. We marched together in the South during the civil rights movement. He helped me understand the prophetic passion for truth and justice as the keystone to Judaism. This is not, however, an understanding that now animates the American Jewish community. Without that understanding there is little to distinguish the call of Jewish leaders for Jewish unity and solidarity from the demands made by narrow nationalist movements that too often degenerate in xenophobia."

About the push for monolithism toward Israel among American Jews, Siegman said: "American Jewish organizations confuse support for the State of Israel and its people with an uncritical endorsement of the actions of Israeli governments, even when those governments do things that in an American context these Jewish organizations would never tolerate. It is inconceivable that a Jewish leader in America 20 or 30 years ago would be silent if a political party in the Israeli government called for the transfer of Palestinians -- in other words, ethnic cleansing. Today, there are at least three such parties, but there has not been a word of criticism from American Jewish organizations."

Siegman told the Times that political ideology for the State of Israel has became a "surrogate religion" that fills a spiritual void for American Jews. The result, he said, is a dangerous no-win situation: "If you do not support the government of Israel then your Jewishness, not your political judgment, is in question."

Gentiles do not get off so easily: We are branded anti-Semites and utterly cast aside.

Siegman offers this sobering insight: "Future Jewish historians who will be writing about our times will not be kind to us because of such political and moral blindness."

As one who intends to travel to Israel soon and one who believes that Israel has the right to exist in peace, I believe that American Jews are looking for -- and often creating -- enemies in all the wrong places.

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