US Jews Express Angst on Israel

Criticism of Jewish homeland, once never heard, abounds

While growing up Jewish in Argentina in the 1950s and feeling like a "second-class citizen," Roly Matalon looked on the new state of Israel with utter pride.

His parents had escaped from Syria, a typical story. But now, after 18 centuries of wandering, the Jewish people - who had a rich culture, but no land or power - finally had a home. In Palestine, they gathered and made the desert bloom - with industry, farms, culture - and defended it with a strong army.

Today, as head rabbi of Bna'i Jeshuron, the largest and one of the oldest synagogues in New York City, Rabbi Matalon still feels deeply about Israel. He sees its promise as a society of justice and honor, a vision he finds in the Torah and the prophesies.

But that is also why the rabbi - like many American Jews - also feels a mix of discomfort and angst about Israel, a land he lived in for five years and where his wife is from. For 25 years, if Jews in the United States disagreed with Israel, they stayed largely silent. More often, they looked with pride to Israel for guidance on questions ranging from the fate of Soviet Jews to the "Arab threat" to anti-Semitism.

No longer is this true. A schism over Israel is shaping among American Jews. Hopes for a triumphal 50th celebration have been replaced by a sober tone. The issue is not just the sharp turn to the right of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nor is it his blustery personality.

Rather, it seems to Matalon, and to many in his congregation, that divisive policies have become ingrained in the Israeli state.

The biggest beef is over the rise of Orthodoxy - the "Who is a Jew?" question. Reform and Conservative rabbis and synagogues - some 90 percent of American Jews - are not today recognized by the Orthodox chief rabbinate in Jerusalem. This deeply disturbs these Americans.

The question of Israel's Arab neighbors closely follows: Under Mr. Netanyahu, Israeli occupation of the West Bank continues, Jewish settlements are expanding, and Jerusalem is claimed de facto in its entirety. Palestinians oppose these moves. The hopes inspired by the 1993 White House handshake between former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (now assassinated) and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat now are viewed cynically, at best.

Call for a purer view

For many rabbis, these are religious, not political issues. "The idea of Israel is a pure one," Matalon says. "That's why we need to know what is and isn't pure. Because Israel holds such a special place in our hearts, our struggle to clear out the impurities is a passionate struggle. We need to purify Jerusalem. We need to criticize, but with love."

Many Jews believe the contribution of Judaism to the world is based on a development of ethical and spiritual values that define the state of Israel as much as the geographic land does. "As Jews, we have a moral imperative to share the land, to live in the spirit of 'thou shalt not harm the stranger,' " says Jacob Bender, a filmmaker and member of Jeshuron.

Of course, many deeply religious Jews applaud Israel's current policies. At the more-orthodox Reform Center, right around the corner from B'nai Jeshuron, young men standing on the sidewalk during a break in their Shabbat service say things like "I'm happier with Netanyahu. He's not going to give away our land so easily."

Yet a broad swath of American Jews from a post-Holocaust generation are expressing discontent. They give less to old-line Jewish charities. A Los Angeles Times poll shows that while American Jews identify strongly with Israel, many no longer "feel close" to the state. Fully half of US Jews polled say Israel is "on the wrong track," according to the Israel Policy Forum in New York.

This is a far cry from the 1970s, when rabbis in the US were sometimes dismissed if they expressed criticism. While 81 US senators signed a recent letter to President Clinton supporting Israel, only 60 percent of Jewish senators signed it.

Donations to the United Jewish Agency, the largest Jewish charity, have dropped. But giving to the New Israel Fund, which supports social justice and civil rights, is dramatically up. "I won't travel to Israel right now," says Jeshuron member Eileen Weiss, a New York actress who has appeared in several Woody Allen films. "I don't want my tourist dollars supporting that government."

"American Jews love Israel. But they are mad at Israel," adds J.J. Goldberg, author of "Jewish Power," a study of Jewish lobby groups. "Our rallying cry used to be 'Let's defend Israel.' Now it is: 'What are Israel's policies on religion and defense?' In some sense, that shows a maturing process."

A diverse New York temple

B'nai Jeshuron, on 88th Street in the upscale Upper West Side, is itself in the vanguard of the emerging consensus on Israel. The temple is the fastest growing in New York, a city with about 1.5 million Jews. The congregation has grown from 30 mostly older members in the mid-1980s to more than 4,000 today, half of whom spill over to worship in a Methodist church nearby.

Many members are young,, and relatively liberal. The approach of Jeshuron is a "good New York mix," as a congregant puts it, of social outreach programs for singles, homeless, and homosexuals - but also emphasizes a traditional Hebrew study of text, and ritual observance.

Talking with congregants produces a variety of opinions about Israel. "We were on the land first in ancient times," says one woman. "After the Holocaust, we needed that land back. Look what they did to us in Europe!"

Another cautions against "self-hating liberal Jews" who naively think that " 'Gee, if the Arabs hate us, we must be wrong.' It's not that simple. I think they would like to drive us into the sea."

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres will speak on the other side of the question at the temple next week.

Jeshuron's 50th-anniversary celebration has been carefully planned to accommodate all views. There was traditional dancing and singing. Classic Israeli films were screened. One evening old black-and-white newsreels showed happy workers harvesting tomatoes on a kibbutz with a beaming David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, standing in their midst saying: "In Israel, we don't expect miracles, we depend on them." Tears welled in the audience.

But more daring forms of expression have emerged. This week a Palestinian scholar and an Israeli columnist discussed their different views of how Israel was created 50 years ago.

"I grew up in Los Angeles and like kids in hundreds of Jewish Sunday Schools in America was raised to believe that Arabs were just Nazis with a headwrap, and that Palestinians willingly left their homes in 1948," Mr. Bender says. "Most of us were unaware of another side to the story."

Last week in the darkened synagogue the music group Habrera Hativit played a blend of Arab and Jewish folk music using congas, bongos, tambura, and flute. Hosting them was a political act since in Israel the leader of the group, from Morocco, insists they are "Arabic Jews," That term is unpopular with many in Israel who eschew Arab roots.

A one-person play, "Vanunu," was also controversial. It examined the life of a worker at the Dimona nuclear plant in Israel who in 1986 leaked photos to Britain's Sunday Times newspaper. (Based on the photos, the CIA estimated Israel had 200 nuclear devices.) Israel has never admitted to possessing nuclear weapons. Mordechai Vanunu was lured into a hotel room in Rome by Israeli agents, abducted to Israel, and now sits in prison.

American Jews continue to assimilate and intermarry at high rates, despite recent moves to return to tradition. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has written about "the disappearing Jews in America" - due in part to the fact that no threat, exclusion, bias, or pogrom has rallied them.

Discontent with Israel began building in the late 1980s. Nightly news programs showed images of Palestinian women and children being wounded by rubber bullets as they conducted an intifadah against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

"We! We Jews after all could now be persecutors," Matalon says. "So we were just like the others then? We were not special people in a special place? We were corrupted then."

For a brief moment on the White House lawn in 1993, many US Jews were proud that Israel was making peace. The Oslo accords appeared to offer hope for a just solution. But terrorist bombings by Palestinian splinter groups, the assassination of Rabin, and the election of Netanyahu turned many American Jews away. Reports of political corruption, of hungry Palestinians unable to work, of maltreatment of guest workers from Eastern Europe, and so on tempered the hopes of many.

A retreating movement

Today, much of mainstream American Jewry is in retreat - letting an elite group of leaders on the left and right fight over Israel. For many, Israel looks hopelessly complex. Meanwhile, in their own lives there are families to raise and food to put on the table. An increasing number are turning inward, looking to spiritual and mystical traditions, and to local communities, as a way to depoliticize the uncomfortable question of the future of Israel.

"There is a new rudderless quality among us, as far as Israel is concerned. But that could change in many directions," author Goldberg says. "Right now there is trouble in the relationship. But Jews haven't fallen out of love with Israel. But if Israel doesn't begin to take its American Jews more seriously, we could see a serious falling out in 10 years."

Last in an occasional series, "Israel at 50 - Through the Lives It Has Changed. Previous installments ran April 29, April 30, May 4, 5, and 6.

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