NEW YORK, Oct. 10 (JTA) – At Yom Kippur services on Monday, Norman Podhoretz was approached by half a dozen fellow congregants at his synagogue, all of whom said basically the same thing: “I have to tell you, you were right all along even though I didn’t agree with you before.”
Podhoretz, editor at large of Commentary magazine, has long been critical of the Israel-Palestinian peace process, asserting that the Palestinians cannot be trusted.
Amid the escalation of violence in Israel and the Palestinian destruction of Joseph’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site in Nablus, some of Podhoretz’s longtime critics were visibly disillusioned about the chance of peace.
He wondered, he says, whether it was just a “heat of the moment” thing or a genuine shift.
Calls to a sampling of prominent American Jewish thinkers from across the political spectrum revealed that most are shaken, if not despondent, about the depth of Arab violence and deeply discouraged that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat took no action to quell the unrest.
Writer Cynthia Ozick, long an outspoken critic of the Palestinians, said she envisions the future “very darkly,” and is “feeling emotionally close to the way I felt in 1967 – it was a time of great, great horror because then it seemed as if there was going to be no Israel.”
“I think the Jews have to unashamedly defend themselves in any way they can,” she said.
Menachem Rosensaft, one of five Jewish activists ostracized for meeting with Arafat and other Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders in 1988, long before Israeli leaders recognized him as a negotiating partner, was also critical of the Palestinians.
“It’s troubling when listening to the Palestinian leaders speak that you found no sense of trying to calm the rioters,” he said. “You want to accuse Israel of using excessive force? That’s a discussion to be had once the stone throwers have stopped throwing rocks and once people have ceased sniping.”
Those who never felt peace with the Palestinians was possible are, not surprisingly, saying the violence is vindication of what they’ve been saying all along.
That Palestinians have reacted with violence to Israel’s offer of “far- reaching concessions,” said Podhoretz, means that “there is no desire for peaceful coexistence, no matter where Israel’s borders are drawn or whether or not there is a Palestinian state or even whether or not the Palestinian state shares sovereignty over Jerusalem.”
Podhoretz predicts “a big war in the future involving all the Arab states.”
But on the left, some of the most disillusioned are still arguing that the recent violence underscores the necessity of a lasting peace agreement.
Robert Freedman, professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University and a board member of Americans for Peace Now, said he is both discouraged and worried and fears “we may have a bloody war coming up.”
However, he still believes that the only solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state, giving control of the Temple Mount to neutral international authorities and removing Jewish settlements in the middle of densely populated Palestinian communities such as Nablus.
“My worry is it may take one more war to convince the Palestinians that that’s the way to go,” he said, adding that he will not be surprised if Israel intensifies armed force against the Palestinians and even forces Arafat into exile.
“I have real doubts now about the Palestinian leadership,” he said.
Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the former president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said from his home in Connecticut that he is “heartbroken and dismayed” by the violence.
“Wherever you turn people are disheartened and dispirited and hoping against hope that the leaders of the Arab world will look over the precipice and draw back,” he said
“It’s quite clear that Arafat was waiting for an excuse,” he said of the Arab rioting that has engulfed the region, comparing it to Kristallnacht in 1938 when “Hitler really wanted to firebomb all the synagogues and was just waiting for the right moment to do it.”
“I hope and pray with all my heart that the peace process will go forward because the return to the status quo is unthinkable,” he said.
Most troubling to Schindler is the recent violence among Arab citizens of Israel, calling it “the most serious problem confronting Israel right now.”
Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, a large Conservative synagogue in suburban Los Angeles, said his reaction – and that of his congregants – to the violence was “very, very profound.”
The rabbi said one of his greatest fears is that “the vision of Rabin and Barak has been damaged.”
Although still so critical of opposition leader Ariel Sharon as to call him “pathological,” Schulweis, like Schindler, blames Arafat for the violence.
Recent events have convinced him that Arafat “is not a very strong leader.”
“I had higher hopes that the reality principle would strengthen his spine and that the economic advantages and unusual generosity of Barak would make a difference and that was disappointing,” Schulweis said.
Although not surprised by the “simmering hatred” on the Arab side, Schulweis “thought there’d be a greater amount of self control.”
Nonetheless, rather than drive him away from the peace process, the violence “has confirmed my belief that the peace process must go on because the alternative is suicidal.”
“I don’t expect idealism from anyone,” said Schulweis. “I do expect people don’t want to see their children killed. If not, we’re dealing with a desperate situation.”
But Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the past president of Americans for Peace Now, is more discouraged – and less willing to leave the blame squarely on Arafat – than others on the left.
Pogrebin said she hasn’t “been this sad and depressed about the Middle East since the late 1980s,” the time of the Palestinian uprising.
The fact that “peace was so close and slipped away” is “deeply depressing,” she said.
Although critical of Arafat’s unwillingness to accept a deal at the Camp David summit in July, Pogrebin said it was the overreaction of the Israeli army to Palestinian protests that led the violence to spin out of control.
“Anyone who cares about the survival of Israel should be in mourning,” she said. “I can’t imagine what’s going to happen next. We’re going to look back on this and think – how did we let this get away?”