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Surge of Optimism in the Mideast Also Breathes Life into Jewish Left

March 1, 2005
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At the height of the intifada, Daniel Sokatch made a series of appearances on National Public Radio to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During these interviews, Sokatch, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance, which promotes an agenda of social change and takes what he describes as a “center-left” tack on Mideast affairs, put forward his “triangle” theory of Israel’s political future.

Israel today is a Jewish state, a democratic state and encompasses the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sokatch recalls telling NPR. To survive, “Israel can choose any two points, but not all three.”

In other words, if Israel wishes to remain both Jewish and democratic, it would have to shed settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, according to this argument.

The shows’ producers “don’t put everyone on the air, but they tell you afterwards, ‘Fifteen people called to say you were crazy, one called to say right on,’ ” he says. “When I do these shows now, nobody calls up and says, ‘How dare you say these things.’ “

Leaders of the American Jewish left say that’s because the period since the death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as his successor has seen renewed hope for an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence — a situation that has breathed new life into the once-moribund “peace camp.”

“It’s changing very dramatically because there’s a growing recognition that there’s a leadership in Palestine that is open to nonviolence, even if it doesn’t yet have the military muscle to be able to depress the violent elements within their own community,” says Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and founder of the Tikkun Community, which defines itself as a social-justice group.

“They clearly do have the desire to end violence and to build a peaceful resolution to this conflict and that has given a great deal of energy to people on the Jewish left,” he says.

It also doesn’t hurt, leaders from the left say, that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is considered the godfather of Israel’s settler movement, is spearheading the move for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

“You’ve had someone who’s been the leader of the Israeli right wing recognize the validity of some of the arguments that Peace Now has been making for several years, and start to take action on the recognition of that validity,” says Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now. “There’s a certain sense of inevitability in terms of some of the things we’re talking about.”

But not everyone thinks events have vindicated the peace camp’s message — or that the left has learned from the failure of the Oslo peace process during the 1990s.

“I just find it astonishing that so many Jews are making the same mistakes as they did during Oslo,” says Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America. “Abbas is obligated under the ‘road map’ peace plan to dismantle and disarm the terrorists, to end all the incitement, to close the bomb factories and to arrest the terrorists and keep them in prison. He’s done almost none of these things.”

Asked if Abbas is at least an improvement over Arafat, Klein says, “Is colon cancer better than pancreatic cancer? With colon cancer the average life span is five years, with pancreatic cancer it’s five months. You still end up in the same place.”

While the intifada raged in full force, with bombings and shootings seriously disrupting daily life in Israel, many in the Jewish community who had promoted a two-state solution along something approximating the pre-1967 boundaries found their message a tough sell, both in the Jewish community and in the larger left.

Many members of the Jewish peace camp were outraged by Palestinian terrorist attacks. But the situation made it more difficult for them to mobilize energy for their cause.

“The response was, ‘It’s so awful, I just don’t want to think about it anymore,’ ” Lerner says.

In addition, leaders of the left say, some of those who opposed Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip found their attention turned elsewhere when the United States invaded Iraq.

Rabbi Brian Walt, a self-described “progressive Zionist,” says American Jews don’t respond to events in Israel in a vacuum.

“Progressive Zionists in the United States follow the lead of the Israeli peace movement, and the Israeli peace movement was very silent after the start of the intifada,” he says.

Walt is director of Rabbis for Human Rights, a group he says promotes justice and freedom but does not ally itself with particular peace plans.

Steve Masters, a Philadelphia attorney who serves as national chairman for advocacy and public policy at Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, another American group, says that as the intifada escalated, left-leaning views were shut out of certain venues.

“Our message was not as welcomed in certain places where it was more welcome before,” he says. “Our message became more controversial.”

At that point, Masters adds, if the American Jewish left wasn’t exactly dead, “We certainly were contracted.”

Lerner says his group took a financial hit because of its views on Israel.

“Some groups who have a progressive agenda on other questions have done their best to ignore the Israel question because they knew they’d have a better chance of getting into synagogues,” he says. “We lost financial support and political support for continuing to insist that a progressive middle path was necessary that was both

pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. Other parts of our agenda would have been taken more seriously, but morally we couldn’t do that.”

But over the last month and a half, leaders are saying, the American Jewish left is seeing a resurgence.

Brit Tzedek V’Shalom held a conference in Manhattan in late February that drew close to 700 supporters of a negotiated peace agreement.

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Israel’s former military chief of staff and a supporter of the “Geneva Accords,” an unofficial peace plan, spoke along with Amjad Atallah, a top aide to former P.A. Information Minister Yasser Abbed Rabbo and previously an adviser to Abbas. Both men received standing ovations.

“When you go out into the grass roots of the community, we’re the dominant opinion,” says Marcia Freedman, Brit Tzedek’s president and a former Knesset member. But, she adds, “One major suicide bombing and everything can change.”

Several days after Freedman spoke to JTA, a Palestinian bomber killed five Israelis at a Tel Aviv night club. It was the first suicide bombing in Israel in nearly four months, though many attempted attacks were foiled by Israeli security services.

When the bomb went off in Tel Aviv, Tamar Miller’s first thought was that “the darker forces have resurfaced, but that their desperation is increasing because they know that peace is on the way.”

But, says Miller, who attended the Brit Tzedek conference, “The best way to respond to the darker forces is to turn on the light — so no, I didn’t despair.”

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