Tuesday, April 02, 2002

Our Fifth Column

From nearly the first seeds of our civilization, we Jews have been a rambunctious people, even stiff-necked and quarrelsome. We have always had troublemakers, heretics, fifth columnists and self-haters. It is as if one of the conditions of choseness is the ability to choose to oppose. To state the thought differently, it is as if we are caught in a dialectical process and there are unwelcome trade-offs for our noble and epic accomplishments and sanctity.

It isn’t surprising that in this period of great danger to Israel and Jews, we have Michael Lerner and Adam Shapiro, as well as others, with their harmful language and actions. Precisely because these are Jews who go to an extreme in their anti-Jewishness, they attract media attention. Hating Jews is always in season and it’s all the better if the haters are themselves Jewish. It may be a bit heretical to say this – I have good sources – Lerner and Shapiro can serve as poster boys for the proposition that rather than by birth, Jewish identity should be determined by current actions and attitudes.

For all of its antecedents, Lerner’s virulent hatred is stunning. The cartoon that he included in the now notorious New York Times ad was in caricature and language no less anti-Semitic than the standard fare of Der Sturmer and Mein Kampf. Lerner’s formula for Tikun Ha-olam – the betterment of the world – is, in addition to self-enrichment and self-promotion, hatred of Jews.

For all of the ugliness of the man and his message, his formula is a sure bet to attract funding – and especially from Jews. We have traveled so far along the path of rejecting our heritage that self-hate has become natural, even logical, in a Jewish world which accepts and promotes the idea that each Jew is free to define what it is to be a Jew. It is inevitable that for some – and perhaps many – being a Jew means being anti-religious, being hateful to Israel, being hateful to other Jews. I’m afraid that we have not seen the worst yet.

Apart from our hard core fifth column, there is a large contingent of fellow travelers, Jews who too readily endorse everything that comes with a “peace” label, even if this means constantly beating up on Israel. There is little solace that Rolando Matalon and Marcello Bronstein of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s West Side and Irwin Kula, the top professional at CLAL, have resigned from the advisory board of Tikkun Community. What they were doing there in the first place is a question that needs to be asked, especially of Kula.

As for Shapiro, the media are doing a handstand over his treachery, over a Jew who gives homage to a man responsible for the murder of Jews. The contrast with media treatment of John Walker is extraordinary. It is a crime for an American to abet the Taliban and brave and humane for an American Jew to abet those who have engaged in terrorism against Jews. Perhaps Tikkun should give Shapiro a humanitarian award, with Yasser Arafat making the presentation.

For all of our fifth columnists, Israel’s actions throughout the Intifada demonstrate a remarkable determination not to harm civilians. We constantly hear of invasions, heavy bombardments and fierce military activity, the obvious image being of indiscriminate Israeli use of force. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, including the low number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Perhaps the media should compare civilian casualties in Afghanistan with West Bank and Gaza statistics.

There is, of course, ample ground to criticize Ariel Sharon whose government too often appears to be confused and without a plan. Admittedly, there’s nothing on the horizon that has a good prospect for success. Sharon’s choices are more difficult still because he faces constant and conflicting pressures from domestic and diplomatic sources. This is scarce justification for a strategy that consists too much of sending the tanks in – accompanied by bellicose statements – and then getting them out after the predictable international protests.

The latest foray into Ramallah illustrates the reason why there is much doubt about Sharon. After declaring Arafat a terrorist and enemy, a status that should readily justify an Israeli effort to at least capture him, Sharon sent in tanks to encircle the PLO compound and destroy part of it. As is routine for Israel but not for the U.S. in Afghanistan or other armies, there were squads of reporters and photo-journalists along for the ride, all the better to do Arafat’s bidding and to depict him as brave, ready to die and defiant against overwhelming Israeli force.

Israeli spokesmen say that the goal is to “isolate” Arafat, a term that is void for vagueness. This has been a strange isolation, as sycophants, misfits, reporters, peaceniks, and others have come and gone and as Arafat has staged one photo-op after another. If the PLO leader is being isolated, it is also true that around much of the world he is being looked at as a hero.

And what is Israel doing to make its enemy’s life more miserable? According to a report on the front page of this Sunday’s Times, “The Israeli army provided [Mr. Arafat] with 1,000 pieces of pita bread, two dozen water bottles, cheese, eggs, twenty flashlights, twenty boxes of candles, and medicine for those who are trapped inside.”

It appears that the Sharon government is suffering from a severe bi-polar disorder, perhaps because of the dualism inherent in the Sharon-Peres arrangement. There are grounds for criticism by those who believe that the Prime Minister has been too soft and there are grounds for those who believe that he has been too harsh. What should be off-limits is the hatred exhibited by Adam Shapiro and Michael Lerner.