The eruption of violence in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel that began with last week’s Temple Mount tour by Likud leader Ariel Sharon could widen bitter divisions over the Middle East peace process among American Jews.
That is the assessment of several Jewish leaders, who warned that the worst fighting since the intifada could inflame passions and harden positions on both sides of the debate.
“We may be on the brink of a new period of internecine warfare in the American Jewish community,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “Passions will be ignited by this. Each side, which purports to know the solution, will become more deeply entrenched in their views.”
Some Jews on the right were silent because they couldn’t express their
real reaction — grim satisfaction that Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s peace policies could come crashing down, said Gilbert Kahn, a Kean University political scientist. Kahn is also a consultant for Shalom Achshav, a pro-peace process Orthodox group.
“In a way this week’s events are a tremendous relief to them,” he said. “Now they are convinced that what they feared the most — that Barak would cede part of the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount — won’t come to pass.”
Groups on the left were dismayed by the evidence that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat promoted the fighting, as well as by the heavy Israeli response.
“We still support the peace process, but making the case is harder when you see Palestinian police shooting at Israelis and when Arafat seems to encourage the violence,” said a leading peace process supporter here.
The fact that the Temple Mount was the emotional flashpoint of the current violence complicated the reaction among American Jews, several analysts said.
“An overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community still supports efforts to bring about peace,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, “but differences arise over how much you give up. It may well be that the Temple Mount is that critical point where people who are inclined to be supportive of the peace process may begin to part company.”
Major Jewish groups were quick to stand by a besieged Israel.
“The New York Jewish community supports the government and the people of Israel in their efforts to seek a just and lasting peace for the benefit of all inhabitants in the area,” said Gedale Horowitz and Michael Miller, president and executive vice-president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, in a statement.
The group called on world leaders “to refrain from judgmental statements which may ignite additional turmoil.”
Jewish groups generally were united, too, in criticizing media coverage that they said laid all of the blame for the crisis on Sharon and overzealous Israeli troops, and none on the Palestinian leaders who reportedly were encouraging the violence even after promises of a cease-fire.
“Right now people are dismayed because they don’t see a lot they can do,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “But people will start reacting, in part because of the one-sided media coverage of what’s been happening.”
In a conference call arranged Tuesday by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish community relations activists expressed concern about the negative coverage and the surge of demonstrations around the country in support of the Palestinians. Those protests included a rally on the capitol steps in South Carolina and a demonstration in front of the home of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman.
During the call with more than 100 activists, Dr. Zvi Shtauber, Barak’s senior foreign policy adviser, urged American Jews to understand the complex origins and spread of the disturbances, and expressed disappointment that the Palestinian Authority was still not working actively to restrain the rioters.
Even more likely than the media’s coverage to leave an impression on the American public are the graphic images of the violence, including the tragic picture of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy caught in the crossfire between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers as his father tried to shield him from the hail of bullets.
The boy was killed and his father severely injured.
“Pictures are worth a thousand words,” said a leading pro-Israel activist here. “That one picture will be seared in the minds of millions of Americans. It will undo so much of the effective work we’ve done in telling people just how seriously and how responsibly Israel has traveled down the road to peace.”
At least one Jewish group predicted the violence would not change the views of most U.S. Jews.
Americans for a Safe Israel president Herbert Zweibon, a persistent peace process critic, said “American Jews are still reacting as if everything is going smoothly, that Israel still knows what it’s doing. They haven’t responded to the fact that the Temple Mount has been put on the table and that the UN, of all things, may be involved in determining the fate of the holy places.”
Zweibon predicted that when the violence subsides, Barak “will give in some more” to Palestinian demands and that American Jews would remain largely apathetic.
Thomas Smerling, Washington director for the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum, said supporters of the negotiations are disappointed by the violence but not discouraged.
“It would be terribly naive to think that just being in negotiations itself can end the conflict or the potential for violence,” he said.
Most American Jews, he said, will continue to support the Barak government’s peace efforts.
“Setbacks are hard to take,” he said, “but those who have been working on this historic process know that it takes decades to unravel a conflict that took decades to create. If you look at it from that perspective, the trends are still favorable in terms of a negotiated settlement.”
The sudden plunge into violent confrontation seemed to stun Jewish groups here into relative silence. Groups on both ends of the spectrum that generally react to Mideast developments with barrages of press releases mostly were silent this week.
“People really don’t know what to say,” said Reva Price, Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “People are very apprehensive and confused about what the events of the last few days mean.”