Peace isn’t high on U.S. Jewry’s agenda


WASHINGTON, March 20 (JTA) — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are resuming peace talks here this week and President Clinton has set a meeting with Syria’s president, but don’t tell the details to Julianne Berkon, a campaign associate with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

She’ll get too angry.

It’s not that she doesn’t care about Israel and the Middle East peace process. It’s that she cares too much, so much that she would just rather tune the whole thing out, or just skim the headlines.

Berkon hates the idea of Israel giving up land for peace, doesn’t believe it should cede one inch of the Golan Heights to Syria, but she also just as firmly believes that unless you live in Israel, you have no right to tell Israelis what they should or should not give up.

So both because of her role as a federation professional — in which she cannot be perceived as taking sides — and as an American Jew, she’ll keep silent and leave the future of Israel up to the Israelis.

As 3,000 Jews between the ages of 25 and 45 gathered here this week for the United Jewish Communities’ Young Leadership Conference, the handshakes between Israelis and Palestinians set to occur in this same town seemed not to be No. 1 on the list of things to think about.

To be sure, many have strong opinions about the emotional issues of the Golan and the status of Jerusalem. But some say there is too much for them to do as Jews in their own communities to get too worked up over a land to which they may have spiritual, emotional and historic ties, but is still a foreign nation.

As the Holocaust, Israel’s independence and even the 1967 and 1973 wars in Israel fade further into memory, the shift of priorities was perhaps inevitable for this generation — among the most affluent of Jewish generations in history.

How can Israel reclaim these Jews?

By speaking their language, says Sara Selber, 43, co-chair of the conference. And that language has to involve hands-on, “tactile” experiences. Hands-on work is what made this generation successful in the business world, and it can be true in its connection to Israel, she says.

With the connection to Israel not automatic among younger Jews, she says, Israel has to earn their support.

The work of the activists at this conference in helping to resettle distressed Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia is a way for them to see that Israel is more than simply another Mideast nation. As her co-chair, Louis Price, put it, they can see that Israel is a “light unto nations.”

But for New York lawyer Stacy Schneider, 33, there’s too much to do in this country to worry about what Israel represents.

She came to the Young Leadership Conference because she is frightened by the religious right, and especially their resurfacing in the presidential campaign, and wants to learn what she can do to keep the line between church and state in America well defined.

More real to her than an Arab enemy are those who would impose their religious will on her in the United States. It’s a fear that was reinforced for her when she encountered religious ignorance and anti-Semitism among her peers in a Savannah, Ga., newsroom, where she once worked as a TV news reporter.

As for Israel, she feels a connection mostly when there is a tragedy — when Jews die in a terrorist attack. During times of peace, she says, she feels removed.

Schneider says what little connection she feels to Israel is media-driven. She says “Bibi” Netanyahu — she calls him by his nickname because she says she feels she knows him — offered her a more human link to Israel when he was prime minister because he was so telegenic.

Despite the abundance here of people like Schneider, there are also a passionate core who do think and breathe Israeli politics and get emotional over the peace process.

They were evident in well-attended conference sessions on Israeli life, the religious-secular debate in Israel and, in one packed conference room, a seminar called “On a Clear Day You Can See Damascus.”

Panelist Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank, told the group that they have every right to insist that their voices be heard in Israeli politics.

“American Jews are far more hard-headed about this than Israelis,” who are fatigued after decades of endless hostilities, Pipes said.

Israelis just want to start their “dot-com companies” and get on with being a normal nation, he said, while American Jews can’t understand why Israelis would want to hand over land without getting much in return.

Among those who feels he has a personal stake in the Middle East is Steven Kaplan, 31, a New York accountant, who follows the peace process closely and is a news addict when it comes to Israeli current events.

But Kaplan says he’s an exception. Most of his Jewish peers are “either indifferent or ignorant” when it comes to Israel because they simply can’t relate.

“Their ties to Judaism are tenuous at best,” Kaplan says, and so are their ties to Israel.

Kaplan’s commitment has been reinforced over the years through trips to Israel. That’s why he thinks Birthright Israel — a program launched by Jewish philanthropists to provide young Jews with a free trip to Israel — is basically a good way to help cement ties to Judaism, although he adds with a grin: “I think there are a lot of young, rich Jewish kids getting away with murder.”

Mindy Binderman, 33, never thought she would be among the young Jews who needed to be reminded of a connection to the Jewish state.

Binderman, of Baltimore, grew up a Zionist, but lately feels “very disconnected.”

The reason? Her priorities have changed, she says. She’s a new mom and “day school issues are more timely than what’s going on in Syria.”

She was attending UJC sessions about Israel to force herself to get connected again.

But nothing can force an interest in the Middle East for Matt Steinberg, 29, of Philadelphia.

“I’m the wrong person to ask that question,” he said, when asked whether he follows the Mideast peace process. “I don’t have a high interest in politics, Mideast or otherwise, and I don’t read the papers.”

Then why is he going to Israel this summer as part of Partnership 2000, a program that promotes business ties between Israel and the Diaspora? And why is he involved in his local federation?

“It’s important for Jews to stick together,” Steinberg says.

But even among those whose focus is their local Jewish communities, there was still evidence that Israel is an attraction at least on an emotional level. Many, for example, knew the words to Hatikvah at the opening ceremonies.

And many were rolling in the aisles when on Saturday night a member of the political satire troupe the Capitol Steps walked out on stage dressed as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, did a double take at the sea of Jewish faces and said, “Boy, did I pick the wrong crowd.”

(JTA Washington correspondent Sharon Samber contributed to this report.)

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