Many American Jews rally around Sharon

Though often liberal, they unite behind Israel and its hawkish leader in latest crisis.

With his prayer shawl draped around his shoulders, Assistant Rabbi Fred Hyman is giving the Saturday sermon at the Park East Synagogue, an old temple frequented by influential Jews.

"Dayenu," he says, repeating the Hebrew phrase for "It is enough."

But in this case, the phrase, normally used during the joyous celebration of Passover, is meant in the context of the escalating violence in the Middle East. "It is enough!" he intones.

Similar expressions of exasperation are echoing across the country. From the modern synagogues of Los Angeles to the more traditional congregations in New York, American Jews are despairing and, in many cases, losing confidence in prospects for peace. They are questioning how to get to two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.

Many believe that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has to go. Although their views often cover a wide political spectrum, many Jews – who consider themselves liberals – now find themselves supporting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a conservative.

"What is happening is the American Jewish community is moving more and more to the right," says Rabbi Mordecai Finley, the leader of the Ohr ha Torah, Light of the Torah, congregation in Los Angeles.

The views of many have hardened with the latest cycle of violence. More than three dozen Israelis have died in four Palestinian suicide attacks in the past week. A suicide bomber killed himself and 14 others when he blew up a restaurant in Haifa yesterday.

A show of support

Sanford Gutman, a professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland, says he sees a coalescing around Israel in synagogues, among Jewish academics, and on Internet sites. "Basically, they blame the terrorists for the collapse of the peace process," he says.

The move in Jewish opinion may ultimately color the way both Congress and the Bush administration view the situation. Already, many Jews are writing to Congress asking that it end any funding of Mr. Arafat's organization. The powerful American Jewish Committee (AJC), with a membership of 40,000, is encouraging its members to write to the White House in support of a tough policy by the United States toward the Palestinians.

"We speak to congressmen and senators and encourage them to vote in favor of legislation that tells the Palestinians that unless they end the suicide missions, there will be a price to pay," says Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Committee in New York.

Americans overall are increasingly concerned about the violence, but show no major shift in sympathies. A Gallup Poll released last week found that Americans believe both sides are to blame for the current violence, with the Palestinians getting slightly more of the fault (82 percent versus 72 percent for the Israelis).

The poll did find, however, that a sizable majority (58 percent) believe finding a peaceful solution to the conflict should be a very important policy goal of the US – the highest it has been.

For now, many American Jews say they feel helpless about the current crisis. Some are financially supporting Israel.

Others are planning trips to the country later this year. In his sermon, Rabbi Hyman plaintively asks: "What are we to do?"

Michael Kaplan, a children's entertainer on Long Island, says he is thinking about volunteering to help out some way in Israel. "Certainly, in a national emergency, they need more than military," he says.

In fact, Mr. Kaplan is one of those who has changed his views because of the latest violence. He originally thought Israel had no choice but to negotiate. Then, in December, a suicide bombing rocked an area outside a disco.

When Arafat condemned the act and called for a truce, he says he took Arafat at his word. But now, he says, he no longer believes the PLO leader. "You can only negotiate if there is a second person to negotiate," he says.

Rabbi Finley has also changed his view of Arafat. He used to consider the PLO leader a committed freedom fighter. "He had abandoned the terrorists' ideology and was willing to reach out for peace," he says, recalling Arafat's jointly shared Nobel peace prize.

Now Finley is more uncompromising in his view. "He is a committed serial terrorist," he says. "This is truly grievous because we wanted someone who wanted peace and could deliver it."

If Arafat no longer controls the Palestinian Authority, Rosen does not think the peace process will end. "We need a more reasonable leader of the Palestinians," he says. "Arafat would not be the first leader of a community to lose his position and find that void filled with competitive forces."

A different view

Still, the Jewish community is far from monolithic in its views. Case in point: Steven Groner of Long Beach, Calif. He believes it's up to the Palestinians to decide Arafat's fate – not Israel or the US. He's still hopeful there will be two states. "I don't know if I am optimistic," he says. "I'm realistic."

Until a truce is enacted, many visitors are postponing trips to the region. The US State Department is warning Americans that it's dangerous to travel to the area. Many universities, too, are trying to discourage students from visiting this summer.

But last week, Hilary Kramer, a New Yorker, purchased a ticket to visit in December.

"I can't wait to put on my Hawaiian shirt, slap on my name tag, and spend my American Express travelers checks," she says. "It's the best way I can show my support by spending my money in that country."

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