If I Forget Thee,


We American Jews are always complaining that Israel does a lousy job of hasbara (public relations/propaganda). I beg to differ.

We blame Jerusalem for not presenting its case to the world properly, aggressively or successfully in countering Arab claims on a range of issues, from occupation to the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Frustrated with the fact that most of the world perceives Israel as the heavy in its conflict with the Palestinians, we tend to roll our eyes, raise our hands in exasperation and wonder how the Israelis have managed to botch their own compelling narrative.

But the truth is that over the last 40 years successive Israeli governments have done a good job of hasbara — so good, in fact, that we tend to believe their claims long after their own people have concluded otherwise.

For example, we were told after the Six-Day War that Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza were critical to Israeli security. Facts on the ground, we learned, would ensure Israel’s safety in case of enemy attack. We were among the last to recognize that the growing population of Jews in the West Bank and Gaza was making the separation of Jews and Arabs more difficult and hastening the day when an Arab majority in the State of Israel could end Jewish sovereignty, not on the battlefield but through the ballot box.

Then there was the Golan Heights. Israeli military and political leaders told us that the northern area, bordering Syria and Lebanon, was critical to Israeli security, and we believed them.

So it was only natural that we would feel shocked, even betrayed, when over the last dozen years or so Israeli leaders, in the context of peace negotiations, have entertained the notion of giving up the Golan and the vast majority of the West Bank, having already given up Gaza two years ago.

Most dramatic, though, is the case of Jerusalem. Virtually every Israeli leader, when addressing an American Jewish audience, has pledged that Jerusalem will remain the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people. It was an automatic applause line, and I heard Ehud Olmert make that statement many times, particularly when he was mayor of Jerusalem.
Now that he is prime minister, though, and about to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians, he is more circumspect in his public statements. In the Camp David talks seven years ago, there was serious discussion about Israel giving up parts of East Jerusalem, with its large Arab population, and no doubt any peace talks stemming from Annapolis that deal with Jerusalem will call for similar concessions, at the very least.

Olmert seemed testy when questioned last week about what role, if any, diaspora Jews should play in determining critical decisions about the fate of Israel in general, and Jerusalem in particular.

“Does any Jewish organization have a right to confer upon Israel what it negotiates or not?” he asked in response to a reporter’s question in Washington. “This question was decided a long time ago; the government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel.”

In fairness, I don’t know of any organizations here seeking “to confer” their own will on Israel. But a number of groups, particularly in the Orthodox community, have been urging that Israel not cede any part of Jerusalem, arguing that the city has been the spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people for millennia and, as the Orthodox Union noted, “all Jews around the globe have a stake in the holy city of Jerusalem.”

The OU, which has been a leader in the move against giving up any of Jerusalem, reminded Olmert that in addressing the group last year, in Jerusalem, he asserted that it is “totally inconceivable” that Israel would ask diaspora Jews for support in times of trouble and then “when it comes to issues that may define also the quality of your life in your communities, [we] would say, ‘this is our issue, you are not part of it.’ This is impossible.”

Olmert went on to say, “We have to be able to share with you … we have to be able to open ourselves to you and talk with you.”

Sharing and talking doesn’t mean agreeing, though. And at the end of the day, it clearly is the decision of the government and people of Israel to determine their fate. They are the ones whose sons and daughters’ lives are on the line, and we in the diaspora can and should have a say — but not a vote.

The resolution of the future of Jerusalem is a long way off, and the odds are that the proceedings of the Annapolis summit will share the same fate as those agreements reached in Madrid, Oslo, Wye River, Camp David and Taba. Namely, there has been no substantive change in the Arab position toward accepting a Jewish state in the Middle East, and thus, no peace agreement.

But now is a good time for diaspora Jews to start thinking about the differences between the ideal Israel and the real Israel. The ideal Israel may indeed have the holy city of Jerusalem as its eternal and undivided capital. But if there is to be a peace agreement — at the end of next year or at the end of this century — it may well call for formalizing the kind of division within Jerusalem that we have seen for decades, with much of East Jerusalem under the sovereignty of a Palestinian government. Not the Western Wall or the Temple Mount, but those neighborhoods that are today overwhelmingly Arab.

That’s not what I’m calling for, only predicting. And we diaspora Jews who have listened so long to Israeli leaders tell us about the state’s absolute red lines must realize that the rhetoric and realities are changing. Otherwise we will be of little help in supporting our brothers and sisters in Israel, the majority of whom have come to believe that an end to wars and bloodshed is worth real sacrifice. They will have to decide if the risks are worthwhile because they already live in the real Israel.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org