JERUSALEM, Oct. 23 (JTA) It was 36 hours into their hectic solidarity mission to Israel, and, after ingesting a heavy diet of gloomy prognoses by Israeli politicians and analysts, the 80 or so mostly North American Jewish leaders were increasingly pessimistic.
Not only about the prospects for peace in the Middle East, but even the prospects for averting all-out war.
Then the news hit that a busload of Israeli settlers, heading toward Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus recently decimated by Palestinian rioters had come under fire.
According to the Israelis, a gun battle had ensued between the Palestinian shooters and Israeli soldiers trying to airlift out the injured settlers.
Israelis were questioning the wisdom of allowing such a trip to happen.
But in a meeting with Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, the visitors focused less on questioning the causes of the incident than on Israel’s reaction to the violence that stemmed from the settlers’ trip.
After repeated assurances that Israeli security forces have shown “great restraint” in clashes, several in the crowd actually wanted to know when Israel would hit back harder.
“If they’re going to do something, now I would understand why they’re going to do it,” Susan Greene, president of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama, said after the meeting.
“The people of Israel cannot live like this. They’ve gone every step” in the peace process, said Greene, “and it just doesn’t seem like it’s working.”
Greene was not alone.
The two-pronged purpose of the mission was to express solidarity with the Israelis and take their message back home, but over the course of the two days there was a palpable hardening of the crowd’s attitude about the prospects for peace.
Perhaps the hardening of views was inevitable, said participants on the trip, which was co-sponsored by the United Jewish Communities, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Their visit pierced the filter of an international media seemingly tilted against Israel.
And the more they learned of the on-the-ground reality of the conflict that has engulfed the region over the past month, seemingly destroying seven years of peacemaking efforts, the harder-lined they became.
This lurch to the right may be a sign of things to come: As pundits talk of “the death of the left” in both Israel and the West, the shift among mission members who once considered themselves doves may presage a similar shift within American Jewry as a whole.
The chairman of a national U.S. organization, who did not want to be identified, conceded: “One more day of this kind of news, and I might become an unforgiving hawk.”
Speaker after speaker drilled home the message that Israel, throughout the process of negotiating with the Palestinians, took a leap of faith and willfully overlooked the failure of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to implement numerous agreements.
The most prominent of which, it now seems clear, was to stop inciting hatred against Jews in schools, in mosques, on state-controlled television, and by the “peacemakers” themselves.
Speakers included Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, opposition leaders Ariel Sharon and Natan Sharansky, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk. Interspersed were several visits to the scenes of recent clashes.
In Gilo, for example, they visited a hilltop community on the outskirts of Jerusalem that has seen heavy exchange of gunfire over the past few days with a Palestinian village in the valley below.
The mission arrived just after Israeli security forces had erected 7-foot concrete barriers and bulldozed mounds of dirt and gravel to shield hillside apartment buildings from gunfire perhaps the first step in what Barak warns could be a “unilateral separation” from the Palestinians.
The day before, on Oct. 17, an Israeli police officer had been shot and critically wounded a few feet away from where the mission now stood.
“They shot from that house there with the red roof,” a resident told the group, pointing into the valley.
Two Israeli tanks now stood watch over the valley. But gunfire continued the next day, and the day after that.
“It’s very sad to see that Jews are still living in fear in their own state,” said Jeanette Leiser, a mission participant and first-time visitor to Israel.
“I think if I were living here, I’d dig my heels in,” said Leiser, whose husband, Harry, is the campaign chairman for the Jewish Federation of New London, Conn. “Why do Jews always have to give in, to say we’re sorry?”
Leiser and others agreed that if the peace process is to continue, Arafat and the Palestinians must make tangible concessions each step of the way.
Not that the process is sure to continue.
As Israeli President Moshe Katsav told the mission: “Now I’m not sure that the path of peace is irreversible. It does not depend on us. We don’t see any determination among the Palestinian leadership.”
The mission itself couldn’t have come at a more critical time, said the Israelis.
The fact that 18,000 hotel rooms are currently unoccupied many of them due to cancellations by American Jews has fueled the sense of abandonment and isolation that now pervades Jewish Israel.
But Israel is not under siege by the Palestinians, as many perceive through media reports.
Ronald Lauder, who as chairman of the Conference of Presidents, has greater access to information than most Diaspora Jews, conceded to fellow mission participants that his wife feared that he was “going to the battlefront.”
The mission’s arrival was widely reported by Israeli media, as was the vow by the UJC that a steady stream of missions will flow over the next month or two.
The next is planned for Oct. 29.
“Many more missions will come, not only to show our solidarity with you, but to make sure that our government is well aware of the response of the American Jewish community,” said Robert Schrayer, national chairman of the UJA Federation Campaign of UJC, said at an Oct. 18 news conference in Jerusalem.
Many Israelis cheered this and future visits.
“If you just watch the news, you could easily get the impression that the whole world is against us,” said Reuven Makover, a 32-year-old photographer in Jerusalem.
“It’s good when they come show us support, so that we feel we’re not alone. They’ll see things the way things really are, and we hope they will become our spokesmen and ambassadors.”
Makover was not alone in appealing to Diaspora Jewry for help. Throughout the visit, their Israeli hosts referred to them as “brothers and sisters” and “family” and “our commanders in the field.”
Indeed, aside from the show of solidarity, the participants were there to arm themselves with the facts as Israel is explaining them.
“We don’t expect others to draw a parallel between us and the Palestinians, because we have acted in the right,” Barak told the participants just before they departed for home Oct. 19.
Upon their return home, participants planned to press the Israeli case within their local Jewish communities and congregations, and especially through the local news media and their political representatives in Washington.
Mark Freedman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, said he is intent on “getting information into the hands of my community, so they can be advocates for Israel.”
“It’s the responsibility of American Jewry, particularly its leaders, to interpret what’s happening here and make sure that Israel is not perceived as the wrong-doer,” said Freedman, who is a member of the advisory board of the daily newspaper, the San Antonio Express News, which provides him a larger forum to air his views.
For its part, the Israeli government, after admitting it was slow to justify its actions as the clashes spun out of control, has now assembled a task force of former and current diplomats and spokespeople, including Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg.
They are fanning out across Western Europe and North America in hopes of swaying public opinion.
By all accounts, it will be an uphill battle.
The Israelis said the Palestinians grabbed the “underdog” mantle from them long ago, and asserted that their opponents manipulate the media to advance their cause, providing picture-driven television networks like CNN with scenes of wailing mothers or frenzied funeral processions.
Moreover, they noted, the media obsessively tallies the number of those killed, as if disproportionate Palestinian casualties is a sure-fire gauge for determining who is aggressor, who is the innocent.
Rarely is it mentioned, they said, that the youngest Palestinians somehow find their way onto the front lines of street confrontations, and are not killed in their homes, or schools, or mosques.
The most damning images, though, and those that understandably turned the world against Israel, said the Israelis, were that of 12-year-old Mohammad al-Darrah being shot and killed in his father’s arms.
However, as Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli army’s deputy chief of staff, outlined in a detailed explanation, Mohammad died in the crossfire as Palestinian snipers were to the left of him, right of him and directly above him. He also said the boy was not just an innocent passer-by, but one of a crowd of rock-throwers.
Ya’alon went on to explain the circumstances that led to several other clashes that he said were reported internationally from the pro-Palestinian standpoint.
“We can’t cope with the lies, to go into details again and again,” said the general.
Mission participants peppered Ya’alon with questions about the “excessive use of force” for which Israel has been denounced at the United Nations.
They asked why not use water canons or even soap bombs, to deny rioters the sure footing needed for hurling rocks or Molotov cocktails.
Ya’alon responded that the defense establishment had weighed the options and chosen rubber-coated bullets, and sometimes live ammunition.
He said his forces have “acted responsibly and with great restraint.”
And although “within two hours we can finish the Palestinians,” Ya’alon said, “it is vital that we have legitimacy for our activities moral legitimacy and international legitimacy.”