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The following article appeared in the Middle East Times on Sunday, January 25, 2004.
By WILLIAM FISHER
There's an old Jewish saying about what happens when you get three rabbis in a room. You get four opinions… at least.
This truism is lost on most of the ordinary people of the Arab Middle East. To them, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. It doesn’t matter where they live. All have the same homogenous worldview. All distrust, even hate, Arabs. Arabs are ignorant and dirty. All propound the same solutions to Israel’s problems: higher fences and more settlements. All buttress their power by controlling the world’s media and banking systems. Their mantra is ‘Israel may not always be right, but it is never wrong’ -- even if it means exporting all the Palestinians to Ruanda.
It is not difficult to see where these attitudes come from. Arab children learn it from their parents and from their schoolbooks. As adults, they consume a daily diet of anti-Israel, anti-Semitic words and images in their mostly government-controlled media. Yet, in clinging to these moldy stereotypes, Middle East Arabs shoot themselves in the foot. What they – and their governments -- don’t know about Jews may result in missed opportunities for problem solving.
This is particularly relevant to American Jews. While people in the Arab Middle East often exaggerate the political clout of this six million strong Diaspora, essentially they are correct: Washington policy makers take their views very seriously. Washington, in turn, works to exert influence on Jerusalem. For this reason, there are a few basic things Middle East Arabs should know about American Jews.
The first thing Middle East Arabs need to know is that there are four major groups of American Jews – each with different political as well as theological views. Orthodox Jews are roughly equivalent to the right wing in Israeli politics. Theologically, they could be characterized as Fundamentalist. Orthodox Jews regard the Talmud – Jewry’s Koran – as literal law. They see Israel as their God-given homeland, including the lands known biblically as Judea and Samaria – Jerusalem and the West Bank. At the other end of the scale are ‘Progressives’, who call themselves ‘culturally Jewish’ but never enter a synagogue. This group is arguably the most open to political discourse and pragmatic problem solving. Between these two extremes are two other substantial groups: Reformed Jews – sometimes said to have ‘rabbis in sport jackets’ -- who take a more contemporary and flexible approach to both Judaic theology and Israeli politics; and Conservative Jews, who have made important modifications to Talmudic practice but who ordinarily tend to side with orthodoxy politically. Given the demographics and the political environment in America today, the Reformed and Progressive blocs appear to be growing fastest.
The second thing Middle Eastern Arabs need to know is that there is no unanimity of opinion within this group, and there never has been. For some, it’s unwavering, unquestioning support for Israel. For others, it's more nuanced. They believe in Israel’s right to exist, but frequently question the policies of its leaders. Today, more than in many years, American Jews are debating how best to help the Israeli government solve the seemingly intractable Palestinian situation.
The third thing Middle East Arabs need to know is that American Jews appear to be allying themselves with the Republican Party in growing numbers. An overwhelming majority of American Jews - 73 percent - describe themselves as moderate or liberal; 23 percent as conservative. While American Jews have traditionally allied themselves with the Democrats -- only 19 percent voted for Bush in the 2000 elections -- there are indications that Jewish support for the Republican Party is on the rise. The growing Orthodox communities in the New York metropolitan area and elsewhere are decidedly Republican. Among Jewish voters polled during the 2002 New York governor's race, 47 percent indicated they would consider supporting George W. Bush. A poll conducted in April 2003 showed that 48 percent of Jews surveyed would consider voting for Bush in 2004. So the Jewish vote might be significant in determining the 2004 presidential election; nine key states with significant Jewish populations account for 212 electoral votes or 78 percent of the total needed to secure the White House. Nonetheless, while most American Jews support President Bush’s roadmap, many criticize him for not giving it the attention they feel it deserves. Given the realities of election politics in the US, it is unlikely that Mr. Bush will take any action this year that might upset this growing new constituency.
The fourth thing Middle East Arabs need to know about American Jewry today is that one of its fiercest debates concerns its freedom to debate – to stand for the right of Israel to exist in peace, but to mount aggressive opposition to the policies of its Government. The Diaspora’s organized political leadership goes to great lengths to present the appearance of unity, but this distorts the reality of Jewish diversity and continues to generate acrimonious and counter-productive bickering.
March Ellis, writing in Christian Century, commented, “The dualism is stark. To be for one side is to be against the other, and from the perspective of Israel's defenders, to speak on behalf of Palestinians is to desire the annihilation of the state of Israel. American Jewish leaders have called for unity on behalf of Israel, effectively announcing open season on Jews who are critical of Israeli policy.”
Said another Jewish commentator: “Jews who argue openly for the freedom of Palestinians, over whom Israel has military and territorial power, are branded as self-haters and traitors. Such pressure to conform to an uncritically pro-Israel position spells the demise of a value-oriented and ethically concerned tradition. “
Yet despite these deep divisions, American Jewry's most influential lobbying organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has dropped its long-standing opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state. Moreover, in the 2002 annual survey of American Jewish opinion by the American Jewish Committee, American Jews were asked: "As part of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, should Israel be willing to dismantle all, some, or none of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank?" Ten percent answered "all," 55 percent said "some," 34 percent - "none" (2 percent were not sure). That means that 65 per cent of American Jews would be comfortable with dismantling all or some of the West Bank settlements.
Which leads to the fifth thing Middle East Arabs need to know about American Jews: there is a substantial reservoir of good will for Palestinian statehood and Palestinian aspirations within the Diaspora. This position obviously arises more from concern for Israel’s security than from identification with the Palestinian cause, but its effect will be the same. If the Diaspora can get its act together to advocate pragmatically for secular reality, Palestinians will have a powerful and influential friend in Washington.