Two years ago, American Jewry buzzed with talk of Jewish continuity and renaissance, and fretted over intermarriage and assimilation.
Last year — already a year into the Palestinian intifada — the community wondered whether solidarity visits, street rallies or good old-fashioned fundraising was the best way to support Israel. It all seems so long ago.
"Off the top of my head, I would say the main story today is terrorism, terrorism and, oh yeah, terrorism," said Stephen Hoffman, president and CEO of United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations. "We’d been watching its poison spreading throughout the Middle East; then when it came to our shores, it was hard to lift your eyes from it."
Following the most lethal terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil last Sept. 11, a broad Jewish communal agenda — spanning the political and religious spectrums — was shoved to the back burner.
The attention of lay members and leadership turned almost exclusively to international affairs: the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America’s war on terrorism, the upsurge in global anti-Semitism, even Argentine Jewry’s plight amid the country’s economic meltdown.
First and foremost, the events of Sept. 11 produced greater American appreciation for Israel’s predicament — many Israelis said, "Now you know what it feels like."
"There is a level of anxiety about the very survival of Israel as a viable, modern society, as the wave of suicide murders literally undermines civil society," said Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "You can’t live with that kind of insecurity, and people here now understand it even more."
Added Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella of the Reform movement: "We began to see Israel not as a local conflict but in more global terms, as a struggle between democratic countries everywhere and fanatic Islam and religious fundamentalism throughout the world."
The empathy for Israel seemed to infuse and re-energize the Jewish community’s advocacy on its behalf. This would help Israel garner stronger support from somewhat surprising sources: the Bush administration, conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians.
Yet Jews were immediately thrown on the defensive by the outlandish charge that the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, was behind the attacks. The charge gained credence among Internet conspiracy theorists and throughout the Arab world.
A more serious image problem for pro-Israel advocates was the question many Americans asked after Sept. 11: "Why do they hate us?"
The media dutifully put the question to local Arab-American leaders, who responded — often unchallenged — that the Arab world’s hatred of America was derived, in large part, from perceived U.S. support for Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.
Some American analysts and pundits, desperate to assign blame for the catastrophe, went along with this. Trying to pin it on Israel, though, was not enough to stave off a frenzy of attacks, both verbal and physical, against Arab American and Muslim American individuals, shops and mosques nationwide. One Sikh man, mistaken for an Arab, was murdered.
A dragnet by U.S. immigration and police officers ensnared some 1,200 residents who looked like Arabs. In the process, it also scooped up some 60 Israelis on visa violations, many of whom subsequently were deported.
The roundup triggered a debate that would continue all year in the Jewish community and the society at large on how to strike a balance between enhanced security and protection of civil liberties.
"The war on terrorism is confronting some pretty important civil rights and liberties issues the Jewish community has championed for decades," said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "You have to constantly remember that we can’t protect or defend our values as Americans, and as Jews, by subverting those very values," she said.
Many American Jews felt insecure. American security was one thing, Jewish security, quite another.
In late September, Al-Qaida reportedly faxed a statement to Pakistani news organizations in which it warned, "Wherever there are Americans and Jews, they will be targeted." Then came the anthrax scares. The poisonous letters generally targeted the media, but Jewish institutions were on alert. In October, anthrax spores were found in the Manhattan offices of New York Gov. George Pataki, prompting a check for contamination in the numerous Jewish organizations that share his building.
Then there was the dramatic rise in attacks on European Jews and their institutions, as Israeli-Palestinian violence intensified. This followed a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe after the Palestinian intifada erupted in September 2000.
Most attacks reportedly were carried out by young Arab immigrants, but Jews were startled and distressed by the failure of governments, such as France’s, to respond.
"I’ll tell you point-blank: I have two grown daughters, and I didn’t think that my kids were going to have to deal with some of the same anti-Semitism that I did, as the daughter of Holocaust survivors," Rosenthal said. "It’s a scary time, with people losing the ability to differentiate between a Jew, any Jew, and what’s going on in Israel."
Some European pundits on the left and right brushed off charges of latent anti-Semitism. They seemed to excuse the violence by blaming it on Diaspora Jews’ presumed support for Israeli actions against the Palestinians. To some observers, however, that smacked of an age-old canard: that Jews themselves are the cause of anti-Semitism.
Closer to home, American Jews went back on alert in late June when the FBI warned Jewish organizations that Al Qaida might be planning to attack Jewish institutions with gasoline tankers. The warning wasn’t taken lightly, since Al Qaida had claimed responsibility for an April 11 attack on the Tunisian island of Djerba in which a fuel truck rammed a centuries-old synagogue, killing 21 people. Jewish facilities reinforced their security.
American Jews would be rattled once more during the year: On July 4, an Egyptian man and longtime U.S. resident walked up to the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport and shot and killed a clerk and passenger. The FBI declined to brand it terrorism, but Israel said it had no doubt it was. Many American Jews nodded in agreement; they now felt they, too, recognized the face of terrorism.
Indeed, the events of Sept. 11 gave rise to a new rallying cry for pro-Israel supporters: "Israel and America share the same enemy." Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used that notion to justify his ever-stronger steps against Palestinian terrorism. But many in Washington — especially at the less-hawkish State Department — denied any parallel.
The media also was divided on the issue.
American news reporting out of Israel often was perceived as anti-Israel, but groups like the Anti-Defamation League insisted that Israel was prevailing on the opinion pages and among commentators.
Undaunted, Jewish activists lobbied elected representatives, took to the airwaves and did battle on college campuses — often against Arab and Muslim students, sometimes against left-wing Jewish students and faculty. Israel supporters also put their money where their mouths were: The UJC announced it raised $303 million specifically for Israel during the year, including $213 million since the launch of an emergency campaign on April 8, Hoffman said. In addition, some 30 percent of the $860 million raised during UJC’s annual fundraising campaign went toward Israel.
But the crowning achievement of Jewish activism was the April 15 rally in Washington. It drew some 100,000 Jews from around the country to deliver a message of solidarity with Israel to both Jerusalem and Washington. Organized in less than a week, it was the largest Jewish demonstration since 1987.
Jewish activism and events on the ground seemed to make an impression: the Bush administration came to align itself more and more with Sharon’s policies, despite Bush’s call for a two-state solution and his explicit reference to "Palestine," a first for a U.S. president. The White House also issued occasional criticism of Israeli actions, such as the April battle in the Jenin refugee camp — a nest of Palestinian terrorists — in which some 50 Palestinians died, and the July bombing of Hamas terrorist leader Salah Shehada, which also killed 14 civilians.
Jewish leaders were relieved and delighted when Bush on June 24 took the historic step of calling for the replacement of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and democratization of the Palestinian Authority.
"To me, the single most important event of the year is the unbelievable friendliness and affinity of President Bush and the major part of his administration toward Israel and the Jewish State," said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America and former president of the Orthodox Union. "He looks at the issue of suicide bombers with a vision of what’s moral and immoral, and acts on it. He has done what’s right for Israel."
Zuckerman was more surprised. "That an American president, whether you agree with him or not politically, had the political will to be as clear and outspoken, both on moral and political grounds, is unprecedented," he said.
While mainstream Jewry reveled in Washington’s support for Israel, Jews more critical of Israel’s policies felt their voices were being muzzled. By summer’s end, however, the Jewish left appeared to be gaining strength.
Their dissent was felt primarily through newspaper ads and petitions circulated via e-mail, demanding Israel "end its occupation." The movement hoped to crack the veneer of Jewish unanimity successfully projected onto Washington, which some say was done out of concern that disunity might jeopardize U.S. support and further endanger Israel.
Among U.S. Jews and their leadership, "You see signs of despair and panic all over the place, some of it with good reason," said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, vice president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "But there’s also a rhetoric of demise, a lot of us-versus-them language, and people running around saying it’s just like Germany in 1939. It’s not Germany in 1939. I think they’re sincere, but scared to death.
"As the year wore on, there was less attention paid to Jewish unity and more attention paid to Jewish uniformity," Hirschfield continued. "Very few people are out there looking for new ideas, and that’s never a recipe for community vitality."
In the end, despite the extraordinary focus on terrorism and Israel, communal life — and its lingering concerns — went on almost as normal. Few issues were shelved altogether; they only received less attention.
Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a former professional in the Orthodox Union’s youth group, was convicted of sexual abuse in a case that critics said exposed the Orthodox communal leadership’s insensitivity to the victims.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox community applauded the U.S. Supreme Court verdict that school vouchers — which the community had lobbied for — did not breach the constitutional barrier between church and state.
"We are not a unidimensional community," Ganchrow said. "Despite the fact that our community grieves unbelievably for Israel, this has in no way lessened our efforts and dedication to all the things we believed in and worked for before."
Similarly, Yoffie said, "Building and strengthening our synagogues, educating our children, adult education — those concerns are still there." But, he added, "Matters of life or death, war or peace, they take priority."
Added Hoffman: "We have a chronic problem in the Middle East, not an acute problem. Just as the Israelis have gotten adjusted to living with it, so too we’re finding that we’re going to have to live with it. That doesn’t mean we ignore it — we’ll maintain our support and activism but you don’t just put Jewish life on hold everywhere else."