A Little Light Seeps Into Dark Times

It is hard to recall such despairing times.

A young Tel Aviv man spat three times on Yitzhak Rabin’s memorial — the same number as the bullets that felled him — in front of a Channel 2 news crew a few days before the anniversary of his murder. Glaring swastikas were found splashed across the site on the morning of the yahrzeit (anniversary of his death). Both of these events bring to the surface some of the toxic undercurrents running through this country.

It is hard to believe, eight years later, that this national day of grief becomes an opportunity for some to demonstrate their despicable, baseless hatred. But maybe that is the point, as suggested by many since that terrible night, and in retrospect, we will remember it as the beginning of the destruction of the Third Temple. But just when you think we have sunk as low as we can go, more than 100,000 people turn out to honor Rabin in a memorial rally in the huge square that bears his name and to voice a collective "yes" for peace that hasn’t been heard here in the last three years or more.

It may be wishful thinking to say so, but the positive energy galvanized to express support for Rabin’s way — a political track, a sustained and determined peace process — might well signal, at last, the return of Israel’s "peace camp."

For three years, once-hopeful Israelis have been stunned into silence by suicide bombings and have lapsed into an acquiescent majority that nods its assent to both prolonged military occupation and aggressive responses to terror that are not accompanied by any serious, creative political initiative.

Oslo, it was concluded, did not work, period. Ehud Barak and his generous Camp David-Taba offer did not persuade the Palestinians to negotiate for peace, proving that they do not want a peaceful compromise. So muscle is the only answer.

But after three years and nearly 1,000 Israelis deaths, compounded by the sinking realization that a strong economy and an endless conflict do not go hand in hand, the level of frustration and trepidation about the future has reached an all-time high.

This loss of hope is best illustrated by the sheer apathy of the Israeli voter in the recent local elections. Figures showed 41 percent came out to vote for their mayor, compared to 57.4 percent who voted in the last round of municipal elections, making this the lowest voter turnout in Israel’s history. The gloomy economic statistics released the day before the elections, plus a runaway government deficit and looming Histadrut (labor union) action that has already been tagged the "mother of all strikes," all put the country in a miserable mood.

The numbers were overwhelming: close to 11 percent unemployment, with towns across Israel rating as high as 27 percent (Kseife) in Arab and Bedouin towns and 12.4 percent (Acre) in Jewish towns; 300,000 families (triple the 1988 figure) living below the poverty line, meaning that one in every three children in the State of Israel is living in poverty.

By staying home, the voters made clear that they have lost faith that the political system can do much to remedy the grim situation. What does this augur for Israeli democracy?

Still, national security issues dominate the public agenda.

As support grew within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for an easing of restrictions on the Palestinians, the remarkable admission to the press by Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon that Israel’s failure to have done enough in that area not only contributed to the fall of Mahmoud Abbas but, in fact endangered Israel dominated the headlines and rocked the establishment.

Ya’alon, who was identified as the "high-ranking IDF officer" quoted in the explosive article written by Nahum Barnea in Yediot Aharonot, said, "The ongoing curfew is causing damage to Israel’s security: It destroys the agriculture, it increases hatred for Israel and strengthens the terror organizations."

Public criticism, first by pilots who refused to take part in air force attacks on civilian population centers, then by the grieving parents of soldiers killed in the territories and, finally, by the army’s top brass, is making life increasingly uncomfortable for Ariel Sharon.

To top it off, the prime minister was grilled for seven hours by police investigators over corruption charges. Sharon’s main line of defense, according to press reports, was that he knows nothing of these matters and the police should talk to his son, Gilad — a rather cynical response considering that Gilad, all along, has been "pleading the fifth."

All of this was accompanied by the announcement of the Geneva accords, the joint U.S. tour of Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, the Israel Democracy Institute’s first public discussion of a 50-page paper examining Israel’s departure from the settlements and the mass turnout at Rabin Square.

The Histadrut strike hasn’t materialized, at least for now, pushed off by a late-night Labor Court order. And, as it turns out, some cracks of light have appeared in the government’s dark refusal to talk to the Palestinian Authority, when Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter met with Jibril Rajoub — former head of preventative security in the West Bank — and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met with Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.

With a full 71 percent of the Israeli people supporting a renewal of political negotiations with the Palestinians (according to the latest Steinmetz Center poll released Nov. 5), a final glimmer of hope comes from the unsubstantiated rumor that Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei will meet this weekend — bringing us back full circle to Rabin and his way.

If nothing else, let them talk.

Roberta Fahn Schoffman is an expert in U.S.-Israel relations and Diaspora Jewry and founder of MindSet Media and Strategic Consulting.

Supporting Israel

In a display of creativity and generosity, several Jewish groups in Orange County in

recent weeks set out to demonstrate their unswerving support for Israel.

Calling a suggestion by Israel’s minister of tourism to visit hospitals a “wet blanket,” Fullerton travel agency owner Pnina Schichor instead lined up an awareness-raising tour of the sort she, herself, would like.

“Injured people don’t want gawking strangers,” she concludes after returning in May from a planning trip, during which she sensed the isolation of Israeli citizens. “I want them to know we’re standing with them,” says Shichor, who organized a trip for members of MERIT, Middle Eastern Reporting in Truth, a media-watch group she and her husband, David, co-founded last August.

Billed the MERIT Interfaith Solidarity Tour, it includes Haim Asa, rabbi emeritus of Fullerton’s Temple Beth Tikvah, and Pastor Garry Ansdell of Bellflower’s Calvary Chapel, along with 20 others scheduled to depart July 18 on the $1,795, eight-day trip. The itinerary includes working as volunteers at a military facility, visiting a Jewish-Arab cultural center, seeing Galilee’s water conservation and wetlands restoration projects, touring a Druse village and holding a rally outside a foreign embassy.

The high point of the trip, for Schichor at least, will be a hoped-for reunion with Jaber Abirukin, education director of Isifyia, a Druse village. The Druse, expected to join the Israeli military, are an ancient Muslim sect that broke away from Islam.

During the 1987 intifada, Abirukin spoke to students on California campuses roiled by unrest over the conflict. He was escorted by Schichor’s son, Nadar, a member of the American Zionist Youth Federation.

“He could see from both sides,” recalls Schichor, who remembers Abirukin’s spellbinding affect on an audience. “Israelis were sitting with their mouths open,” she says.

Abirukin’s sobering conclusion was remarkably prescient. “The shocking thing I got out of it,” Schichor recalls, “was if you’re looking for peace immediately, you’ll have to be steadfast; if you’re going to be impatient, you’re going to lose.”

“We’re learning it now,” Schichor says. “There’s no quick fix.”

Just a few weeks earlier, another contingent of nine residents went to Israel and were privileged to spend an hour asking questions of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as attending other top-level political and military briefings organized by the American Jewish Committee.

“I find it personally embarrassing having a pilot thank me for coming to Israel on a tourist trip,” says Irvine’s E. Scott Menter, a member of the 100-person delegation. Even so, he saw the group’s impact in empty shops. “I had one guy turn the lights on for me. No one had been there all day,” says Menter, who took home more tchotchkes than he wanted.

Forty other local residents in May pledged $150,000 to Israel road construction. The effort is part of a $10 million commitment by Israel’s Jewish National Fund/Keren Kayemeth Leisrael (JNF) to construct secondary “security” roads and repair others destroyed by tanks.

The 2.5 miles funded by the JNF’s Orange-Long Beach region parallels the Har Adir-Sasa Road, says Gail W. Weiss, the group’s regional director. In March, six Israelis were killed and seven wounded on the main road when passing cars were fired on from Lebanon. “We’re 75 percent of the way to reaching our goal,” she says.

Since May, members of Irvine’s University Synagogue have contributed $25,000 toward purchasing a $60,000 ambulance for American Red Magen David, the Santa Monica-based support group for Magen David Adom, Israel’s equivalent to the Red Cross.

The vehicle will bear the congregation’s name. “An ambulance saves lives,” says Henry Wyle of Irvine, chair of the project. “It’s a symbol of values Jews place on life.”

The computer lab in Anaheim’s Temple Beth Emet religious school typically hums with students studying Torah on CDs. Recently, students took time out to write 30 e-mail letters to Israeli soldiers, says Margalit Moskowitz, Beth Emet’s education director. (lettertosoldier@jazo.org.il)

While none of the students received replies, Moskowitz says the process alone is valuable. “The most important thing was the children felt connected, that they are contributing something to Israel. It’s so hard to have a connection, to create a link.

She says, “I think the letter helped achieve it.”