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Op-ed: Jerusalem, once removed

The New York Jewish Week
August 1, 2000

NEW YORK--More than ever, in recent days I have been aware of how powerful symbols are in Jewish culture, particularly when it comes to Israel, and Jerusalem. And I wonder if we have become prisoners of our own rhetoric.

What should take precedence, metaphors or reality? Ideology or human lives?

For centuries our connection to Jerusalem was more symbolic than real. We prayed for its welfare, for the rebuilding and restoration of the Holy Temple, and for our own return--ďnext year in Jerusalem.Ē

But circumstances kept us in the Diaspora. And even since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, when we were urged and encouraged to live out the Zionist dream, the overwhelming majority of Jews with a choice--not victims of anti-Semitic persecution--have opted to stay put.

Our hearts are with Jerusalem, even our checkbooks, but we debate its future from the safety of the sidelines. And today, with the days of reckoning at hand regarding the political future of Israel and its place in the Middle East and Jewish history, I am humbled by that awareness.

Our Israeli brothers and sisters are well aware of the stakes at hand, how political changes will affect their daily lives, their jobs, their homes, their families. But in some ways we here in America are having a more difficult time grappling with the realities of the situation, unprepared for either the prospect of large-scale territorial sacrifice or the likelihood of renewed warfare. For us, the issues are about long-held slogans and credos, not how we choose to chart our course.

For more than three decades we have spoken of our commitment to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people. Indeed, such a phrase in a political speech to a Jewish audience is certain to evoke applause, no matter who utters it. But what does such a pledge really mean?

There are Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem most of us would never venture near. Thatís not a political statement, just a fact. But does that mean if, as part of a peace agreement, the Israeli government gives up sovereignty of such areas, in effect recognizing the reality of the situation, the agreement should be opposed and nullified? And if that comes to pass, is Israel condemned to Arab violence and international condemnation?

For today, at least, these are hypothetical questions. But not for long. Israelis have the advantage of knowing that their vote, in a national referendum or election, will help decide the future. They know as well that having returned without an agreement while holding out hope for the end of the conflict with the Palestinians, Ehud Barak is viewed as a leader committed to peace who determined the price was simply too high; they prepare for the results, unpleasant as they may be, more united than they have been in a long time.

But American Jewry is adrift. Not those, perhaps the majority, whose concern for and connections to Israel are positive but superficial. My worry is for the active pro-Israel community whose commitment includes financial, political and emotional support.

Unlike many Israelis, who send their children to the army and yearn for their safe return, we cannot grasp the benefits of making a leap of faith to finalize a deal with Yasser Arafat. Unlike many Jerusalemites, who see their city in municipal as well as mythic terms, we have trouble confronting the issues on a realistic level.

Many Israelis--Barak is betting they are the majority--are prepared to make major concessions if they are convinced this will lead to a permanent end to the conflict. But they are far less prepared to tolerate a partial agreement, deferring not only difficult and unresolved diplomatic issues but also the expectation of an end to the violence.

Israelis may choose to hear the biblical verses we quote, speaking of Godís eternal love for His city and His people, or they may prefer to tune us--and Him--out, deciding their future course on the basis of their own equations. Thatís what democracy is all about.

We may not like it, but we had our choice to be players, and voted no. Now we will have to rely on the wisdom of our brothers and sisters who list Israel as a homeland, not a dream. And we must be prepared to support them, however they choose.

Gary Rosenblatt is the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week. E-mail him at

© The Jewish Week, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.


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