Last fall I attended all 3 days of the General Assembly of United Jewish Communities, billed as the largest gathering of Jewish leaders in the United states.
It was absolutely striking how the entire conference was based on generating not hope, but fear (a problem I lay at the feet of the organizers).The emotional centerpiece of the gathering was Netanyahu’s stump speech telling us that it is 1938 and that Ahmadinejad is Hitler (this is also Christian Zionist pastor John Hagee’s stump speech, which he gave at AIPAC, though which came first is not clear). This speech dovetailed nicely with Steve Emerson’s tips for secretly videotaping “anti-Israel” students on campuses, and warnings of the dangers inherent in all Islam.
Ironically, the only time I heard anyone mention peace was during Olmert’s talk…and when the P word was finally uttered, there was a healthy response from a small but strong number of attendees.
The overall level of discourse was so terrible — not even progressive Zionist groups like Americans for Peace Now or Ameinu were on panels, but a far right winger like talk show host Dennis Prager got an entire auditorium– that Olmert’s words of a future of coexistence were like a beacon of light in a long, dark night.
It turns out that the absence of meaningful discussion of peace is now a disturbing trend. Haaretz reported today in At conference on future of Jewish people, delegates ask why peace is off the agenda:
Rene Shmuel Sirat, the former chief rabbi of France, protested that the word “peace” seemed to have become a four-letter word in Jewish public discourse.
“Without peace the Jewish people have no future,” Sirat said in an interview with Haaretz.
“It is unacceptable that peace should not be included in the plans for the future of the Jewish people.”
Yesterday’s discussions dealt with formulating ways of combating anti-Semitism, assimilation, and dealing with the possible loss of the Jewish majority in Israel. Not only was advancing peace not on the agenda, it was also not mentioned in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s speech to the conference on Tuesday night. Olmert chose to tell participants that he felt more Jewish than Israeli, and admitted that he had nothing new to tell them.
Sirat burst out and challenged the participants during one of the discussion groups, asking how such a fundamental Jewish issue as pursuing peace was not even raised for discussion.
“I thought I was going to explode,” he told Haaretz. “Has peace become a rude word among us Jews? How can you plan a future for the Jewish nation without addressing the peace issue?”
Sirat says the replies reflected mostly despair and indifference.
Sirat said he was not naive, and was aware that the chances for peace in 2007 were slim. “I understand the threats and am aware of the effects of terror,” he said. “My brother was killed in a terror attack in Algiers in 1962 as he was coming out of the synagogue after prayer on Sabbath eve. I saw the grief my parents suffered. But it seems to me that we have forgotten that pursuing peace is a basic Jewish value. It’s a commandment that is not conditioned on Abu Mazen’s capabilities, or how good are the chances to reach an agreement.”
The primary objective of the UJC is to raise money for Israel, so apparently telling us Jews that we’re on the verge of annihilation is good for the coffers. (Anyone on the receiving end of fund pitches from AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, or the Simon Wiesenthal Center, can tell you that no matter what day it is, the end for all Jews is always just around the corner.) Sadly, much of American Jews understanding of Israel is mediated through fundraisers who stick to a very narrow (and non-reality based) narrative about Israel.
But the problem goes much deeper, and to be fair, it is generated in no small part by a genuine sense that war, for Israel, is simply part of existence. When a country is in denial about its role in perpetuating the conflict, there can be no hope because of course, why would the Israeli government do anything different? They just hate us, goes the refrain, because of who we are.