In the end, the bridge did nÕt stand a chance. It was built in haste, with too little support to withstand the pressure. So as hundreds of athletes at the Maccabiah Games on a summer night in Israel prepared to make their way into Ramat Gan Stadium, to the roar of 50,000 fans, the makeshift overpass they were crossing gave way, plunging dozens of participants into the Yarkon River. Four people died, dozens were injured, and the recriminations continue to reverberate as to how such a tragedy could happen.In many ways, the July incident symbolized the Jewish calendar year 5757, a year in which the Oslo Accords Ñ the stopgap effort to link IsraelÕs war-torn past to a future of peace Ñ tottered and collapsed under the weight of Arab terrorism and, some would say, Israeli diplomatic blunders.And the vital link between Israel and American Jewry Ñ based on a powerful notion of Jewish unity Ñ was deeply shaken as well by a series of issues and events focusing on the Jewish stateÕs attitudes toward non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism, from liberal prayer services at the Western Wall to a Knesset bill that would allow only Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions in Israel. The effect, intended or not, has been to make many American Jews feel that they are second-class in IsraelÕs eyes.The Wisdom Of HindsightAfter the traumas come the analysts and second-guessers. Just as engineers and politicians are inquiring into responsibility for the construction of the flimsy footbridge over the Yarkon, wondering how it could have been built so ineffectively, Mideast analysts are questioning the foundation of the Oslo agreements, launched four years ago by The Handshake on the White House lawn.How, in retrospect, could an agreement built on trust be carried out in a climate of deepening suspicion? How could Israel go forward when its partner, Yasir Arafat, steadfastly refused to comply with the most central components of the accord? How could Benjamin Netanyahu be expected to carry out an agreement he had labeled a suicidal mistake?No doubt, too, there are some American Jews wondering why they should support an Israeli government that seems to be moving closer to religious fundamentalism than pluralism.
For among the casualties floating in the muddied waters of Jewish life these days are American Jews who feel increasingly alienated from the Jewish state as well as Israelis wondering what turned the dream of Mideast peace into a nightmare of murderous bombings, deteriorating relations with the Arab world and increasing international isolation.Many see Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to power a little over a year ago on a promise of Òpeace with security,Ó as the source of the problem.Indeed, one of the few political issues that seemed to bind Israelis of the left and right this year was disappointment with Netanyahu. Critics on the left blamed his unilateral moves in opening the Jerusalem tunnel and starting construction at Har Homa as needlessly provocative and leading to a breakdown of the peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. On the right, former prime minister Yitzchak Shamir and Jewish settlers were among the most vocal detractors of Netanyahu, faulting him for giving away too much in the Hebron agreement, which allowed the Palestinians control of 80 percent of JudaismÕs second holiest city.And American Jewry, the vast majority of whom are not Orthodox, blame Netanyahu for giving the religious parties such a major role in his government and allowing them to pursue legislation that would strengthen the chief rabbinate at the expense of the Conservative and Reform movements.Blaming BibiSurely Netanyahu is not to blame for all of these difficulties, though it is true that he brought some of them on himself. His refusal to deal with Arafat as a partner intensified the problem between the two leaders, particularly over the Hasmonean tunnel incident, which resulted in 76 Palestinian and Israeli deaths and came close to all-out war, and over the controversial housing project called Har Homa, which resulted in the cessation of peace talks. And NetanyahuÕs role in a number of internal cabinet dealings, highlighted by the Bar-On investigation that almost resulted in his indictment, were an embarrassment.But for all the comparisons of Netanyahu to Richard Nixon Ñ haughty, trusting only an inner circle, lashing out at the ÒeliteÓ in the media Ñ it could also be argued that Netanyahu showed much flexibility in his decision-making regarding the Palestinians. He bit the ideological bullet by signing the Hebron accord and floated a peace plan, informally known as ÒAllon-Plus,Ó that would give up half the West Bank to the Palestinians.
Still, whether he lurched forward or stepped back in the peace minuet, terrorism was an ever-present concern in Israel, and its impact was devastating. On Purim eve, a suicide bomber killed three Israeli women at a Tel Aviv cafe, shattering the year-long drought of such attacks. And this summer, a double-suicide bombing in the open-air Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem was followed several weeks later by a triple-suicide explosion in the Ben-Yehuda Street mall. More than 20 people were killed in the blasts, and hundreds injured.Almost as damaging was the effect on the Israeli psyche. The prime minister who early in the summer seemed to have tempted fate by noting how secure Israel had become was forced to admit that he could not guarantee that the bombings would end. Even hardened war veterans were asking Òwhat now?ÓCompounding that sense of disillusionment was the exposed vulnerability of IsraelÕs armed forces this year. In February, two military helicopters taking soldiers into Lebanon collided, killing 73 in the worst air force disaster in the countryÕs history. The accident sparked debate about the wisdom of remaining in the Òsecurity zoneÓ in southern Lebanon, a dispute that intensified during the year as more and more young Israelis were killed there.The most serious blow came this summer when 14 Israelis were killed in one raid. Even some hawks such as Ariel Sharon were calling for a unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon, though Netanyahu and others insisted that such a move would only embolden Hezbollah and other fundamentalist groups at war with Israel.Jews Vs. JewFor many, though, the most troubling war was the one being fought between and among Jews, with religious practice the point of contention.In Israel, where church and state often mix in volatile ways, Netanyahu made up his coalition with religious parties representing 23 seats. Some of those parties were committed to fighting off attempts by the Conservative and Reform movements to achieve legitimacy in Israel, where the Orthodox chief rabbinate rules on religious matters.
Early on, a bill was proposed in the Knesset that would formalize the status quo, allowing only Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions in Israel. Leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements in America protested loudly and urged their constituents to do the same. Netanyahu, facing accusations of abusing religious freedom on the one hand and political suicide on the other, skirted the issue as best he could for as long as he could. But it kept manifesting itself in a host of related controversies, including the closing of Bar-Ilan Street in Jerusalem to auto traffic on the Sabbath; attempting to prevent a non-Orthodox woman from serving on a religious council in Netanya; and refusing to permit non-Orthodox men and women to pray as a group at the Western Wall, first on Shavuot and then on Tisha bÕAv.Sadly, there is little tolerance to go around. The increasingly powerful haredim (or ultra-Orthodox Jews) have little regard for their non-Orthodox brethren, as underscored by a statement by a little-known rabbinical group in the U.S. to the effect that the Conservative and Reform movements do not really practice Judaism.Similarly, many non-Orthodox Jews in this country tend to demonize the Orthodox, ascribing to the majority the negative traits of a small minority who made headlines for unethical behavior, including charges of housing fraud in New Square, political misuse of funds at the COJO of Borough Park, and laundering of drug money by some chasidim in Brooklyn.At yearÕs end, despite repeated pleas for an end to name-calling, negative stereotyping and chilul Hashem (bringing embarrassment to the Jewish people), there were no guarantees that any lasting lessons had been learned. Instead, there was a sense that the Western Wall, the most powerful and binding of Jewish symbols, would again become a battleground during the High Holy Days for the next round of religious warfare.One poignant plea for a renewed commitment to mutual respect, though, came from YaÕacov NeÕeman, who is IsraelÕs minister of finance and chairman of a key committee dealing with conversion and other sensitive religious issues.Addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations this week in New York, the soft-spoken NeÕeman opened his remarks with a prayer written by a chasidic rebbe several centuries ago. It asks God to allow our hearts to see the good qualities rather than the faults of others, for us to have no animosity toward another Jew, and to be strengthened in love of God and our fellow man.ÒThis is the moral of my life,Ó said NeÕeman, Òand I say these words every day.ÓIn the new year, it will take such prayers, and their fulfillment, to serve as the bridge toward a reconciliation that the Jewish people sorely needs.