Making the Case for a Jewish State

Jews in more than 100 communities across the nation gathered on Sunday, March 24, to show their support for Israel — a welcome, if hastily organized, expression of solidarity as the Jewish state faces continuing terrorism and an increasingly treacherous diplomatic climate.

The same day, Newsweek released a survey of U.S. public opinion that should serve as a wake-up call to Jewish leaders about a crisis in their own backyard.

These leaders will be cheered by poll numbers showing that Americans are far more likely to blame Yasser Arafat for the current violence than his old adversary, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

However, they should be chilled by something else: a majority of Americans, according to the survey, do not think Israel should remain Jewish. Political support for Israel is strong; moral support for a Jewish state is distressingly thin.

That is bad news in an era when old canards about Zionism as racism are enjoying a strong comeback around the world. Jewish groups, busy fighting political skirmishes over today’s crises, do not seem to be gearing up for tomorrow’s big challenge.

The numbers in the Newsweek poll tell a mixed but ultimately disturbing story.

Asked if they believe Israel will exist in 50 years, 65 percent said yes — not an overwhelming vote of confidence but not surprising, given the bleak news in the past 18 months.

A strong majority disagreed with the statement that "the U.S. should reduce its ties to Israel in order to lessen the acts of terrorism against us," good news for Jewish leaders who feared a post-Sept. 11 backlash.

Sympathy for Arafat, never high, is at historic lows, with an overwhelming 70 percent calling him an "obstacle to peace."

Sharon fares better, but not much: 40 percent consider him an obstacle to peace, while 32 percent say he is "committed to peace." Three months earlier, the same question produced an even split.

A strong majority — 60 percent — say that after the current violence subsides, Washington should put pressure on both sides to forge a peace agreement. Jewish leaders are loathe to admit it, but there may be a similar split among U.S. Jews these days.

However, what stands out in the survey are questions and answers that cut to the heart of the whole Zionist dream.

Asked about Israel’s future, 42 percent of the respondents said Israel should remain a Jewish state; 38 percent said it should be "a mixed state, in which the Palestinians have a major share of power," and 6 percent said it should "no longer exist as an independent country."

In other words, more Americans reject the central idea of Israel than accept it, with an additional 14 percent having no opinion.

That represents a failure of community leaders to educate Americans about the basics: why Israel was created as a Jewish state and why it still needs to exist in a world that is very different from the one that gave birth to the country in 1948. It also may represent a failure by Israel’s leaders to offer a positive vision of how they hope to come to terms with their hostile neighbors, or at least a vision beyond using overwhelming force against the Palestinians for decades to come.

Sure, Arafat is a treacherous manipulator. But if Israel is simply viewed as the lesser of evils in the world’s worst neighborhood, support for a Jewish state will wane further.

Jewish groups these days are working overtime to counter Palestinian propaganda, defend Sharon against U.S. pressure and fend off U.S. diplomatic concessions to the Palestinians.

The pro-Israel lobby is busy promoting anti-Palestine Liberation Organization legislation and protecting Israel’s foreign aid. Last week, lobbyists rounded up 52 senators to sign a letter opposing any meeting between Arafat and Vice President Dick Cheney.

But across the globe, the "Zionism as racism" dogma is once again taking hold. At home, a plurality of Americans, according to Newsweek, no longer grasp what makes Israel different from the other nations of the world.

That unique state was created out of a shared moral imperative after the carnage of the Holocaust. That imperative still exists in a world where anti-Semitism smolders and often erupts, but the argument has gotten blurred for many.

1948 is ancient history for most Americans; a younger generation has grown up with nightly news footage of Israeli tanks rumbling through Palestinian refugee camps, not heroic Jews fighting the odds to create a homeland.

Once, Americans listened to the soaring idealism of Israel’s founders; today, they see Israeli leaders who give the impression that their only plan for the future is to batter the Palestinians into submission.

Making the case for the existence of a Jewish state is a battle many Jewish leaders believe was won years ago. The Newsweek poll is one more piece of evidence that maybe they were wrong.