How US Jews can support peace in the Middle East

SEARCHING for peaceful approaches to the bloody and endless conflict in the Middle East, one keeps being drawn to the potential role of the Jewish-American community. One of the asymmetries of our day is that even those Jewish-Americans who work for nonviolent solutions in Central America and South Africa generally acquiesce to military solutions in the Middle East. That includes condoning, by their silence, the invasion and continued occupation of Lebanon, years of bombing Lebanon, and almost two decades of military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

For years, Israeli Peace Now members as well as small peace parties in the Knesset have signaled their willingness to live alongside a disarmed Palestinian state. Rejecting their government policies as bankrupt, these Israelis know their enemy and face it directly. They have made overtures to, and met with, Yasser Arafat and other Palestine Liberation Organization leaders.

Despite this evidence of Palestinian willingness to negotiate, not only are mainline Jewish-Americans more fearful of making peace with the Palestinians than are the sizable minority of Israelis, but so are most Jewish-American activists for peace in Central America and elsewhere. Reasons for this are not hard to discover.

The self-interest that animates the Israeli peace advocates is hardly known in the United States. Nor has their record of accurate assessment of events received credit. The movement has been proved right, and superhawks such as Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir wrong, that military action could finally dispose of the PLO. The peace activists have been right in insisting that no organization other than the PLO represents the Palestinian people. They were proved right in opposing the Lebanon invasion and in predicting the high Israeli casualties that are being sustained to this day.

They have been right in condemning the corrupting influence on the occupier of 19 years of military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and they are on target in pointing to the long-term implications of the disparate birthrates of Israelis, and Palestinians and other Arabs.

Discussing with Jewish-American friends their lack of identity with the Peace Now movement, I was reminded how important stereotyped imagery is. The Arabs-driving-Jews-into-the-sea syndrome remains a dominant force in their thinking. Despite their lifelong preference for nonviolence, some Jewish-American friends obviously hoped that the Lebanese invasion would somehow produce desirable results.

One or two of my friends are happily (to themselves) ignorant of history. They subscribe to the view that Arabs, or Muslims generally, are predisposed to violence by their religion. In this view, the advent of Israel neither precipitated nor exacerbated violence. But it was not Muslims who perpetrated either the Holocaust or the Inquisition, which victimized Jews, or, more recently, Sabra and Shatila, which victimized mostly Muslims. And yet who ascribes a general disposition to violence among all Christians?

Undoubtedly, there are indeed many caring and informed Jewish-Americans all across the nation. Explaining their position, one Jewish friend said they feared castigation and isolation if they broke with their communities to favor a negotiated peace with the Palestinians.

Jewish-Americans' lack of identification with Israeli peace activists reflects the American news media's own treatment of the subject. Having enlisted on the government side, the American media project only that side, and barely hint that the subject is vehemently debated in Israel.

Can anyone imagine Ted Koppel or David Brinkley, or ``Meet the Press,'' presenting a peace activist Knesset member on prime time?

Polarized by extremists and distorted by the media, the Midle East impasse has reached a truly alarming stage. American arming of Israel with the latest weaponry is well publicized, but do the American Zionist hawks and doves suppose that French and Soviet arming of the Arabs has not proceeded apace? Are they really ready to pay the price in pain and blood that another war will exact on all sides?

Tragically, they may be operating on false assumptions. The Arabs, plus all the Arab-American peace activists I've ever met, have long since accepted the reality of Israel. It hasn't been true for over 20 years that the Arabs reject long-term peaceful relations with Israel.

There's another reason for Jewish-Americans to become concerned anew with the Middle East. Violence related to the Middle East has leaped 5,000 miles and landed in the US. So far this year, 56 incidents of harassment and intimidation of Arab-Americans have been reported to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Last year, two ADC offices and one Arab-American peace activist were blown up. Several years ago, three Arab diners in Brooklyn were incinerated by a firebomb. FBI Director William Webster has publicly pointed the finger at the Jewish Defense League, according to the New York Times. Are Jewish groups that deplore Kahaneism willing to sit by and watch his brand of violent extremism inflicted on Americans?

I do not overlook the role of Jewish-American groups, such as the New Jewish Agenda and American-Israel Council on Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which do support Israeli peace activists. But their numbers are few, and their voice, perhaps involuntarily, is muted.

With the memory of Lebanon still fresh, all Americans who grasp how horrible a future Middle East war would be are called to support the Israeli peace movement. A truly awesome change would occur in American policies that broadly shape Middle East events if Americans, and especially Jewish-Americans, spoke out.

Mitchell Kaidy is a member of the America-Israel Council on Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

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