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Jewish World Review June 3, 2002 /22 Sivan, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Jews are wrong to worry about America, right to be alarmed about the rest of the world | This Friday, the World Cup of Soccer began in South Korea and Japan and will command the attention, if not the fanaticism, of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

In America, despite more television coverage and more space devoted to it in the sports pages of newspapers than in previous years, the World Cup brings little more than a yawn and a shrug.

It's true that soccer is a hugely popular youth sport in this country these days, but despite all the hype about the World Cup, the sport that the rest of the world knows as "football" is still relegated to minor league status on these shores.

And that is why I am not worried about the fate of American Jewry.

What does one thing have to do with the other?

It's simple. America is different.

And it's different not just in terms of governmental institutions, political partisanship, and our preferences in films and sports. America's different in terms of the historical, geographical and cultural factors that create our frame of reference about the world.

And so long as this country remains largely oblivious to the passions and the prejudices that govern the rest of the planet, I believe American democracy, and the future of Jews and other religious and ethnic minorities, is secure.

That future has been the subject of some debate in recent weeks, as some pundits and public intellectuals were deeply put out by what they consider to be the state of general hysteria on the part of American Jews.

The backlash against Israel's attempts to defend itself against Palestinian Arab terrorism, which manifested itself in an epidemic of anti-Semitic incidents around the world, shocked a great many Jews out of their complacence about their own status.


The virus of anti-Semitism is in full bloom in the upper reaches of European society these days. Though the apologists for Europe maintain that anti-Semitic violence is limited to Arab immigrants in those countries, the truth is much darker.

Spend an afternoon reading the invective that is routinely heaped upon the Jewish state in mainstream European publications in recent months and you'll understand that this issue is being driven by more than a disagreement over where the borders of Israel should be after a peace agreement.

The war against Israel has provoked a remarkable revival of solidarity with the Jewish state on the part of the overwhelming majority of American Jews. Only a little while ago, most of us were apathetic toward Israel and disinterested in hearing anything about the needs of overseas Jews. Today, we are turning out in thousands at solidarity rallies for Israel around the country and donating money to Israel Emergency Funds on a scale that brings back dimly recalled memories of similar efforts during Israeli crises in 1967 and 1973.

Then, as now, we are motivated by a sense of Jewish existential angst. We know we are a small endangered people who have ruthless enemies who will stop at nothing to achieve the extinction of Jewish sovereignty over our ancient homeland, and who glory, perhaps, at our possible extermination.

But unlike in previous moments of what The New Republic''s Leon Wieseltier calls "ethnic panic," the Jews are not defenseless. Israel has an army that can strike back at those who send people out to murder Jewish children. And here in America, we have achieved -via hard work and playing by the rules -both economic and political power, as well as the friendship of powerful non-Jewish allies.

Wieseltier wrote in the May 20 edition of The New Republic to heap scorn on those of us who are panicking about the newly fashionable version of anti-Semitism being seen in Europe and elsewhere. Those who have sounded the alarm about this trend, such as JWR's brilliant columnists Charles Krauthammer and George Will, arouse his contempt.

Despite our grief at the losses suffered by Israelis, analogies between Adolf Hitler and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, or between Kristallnacht and the Passover massacre in Netanya, are absurd. "Only a fool could believe that the Passover massacre was a prelude to the extermination of the Jews of Israel," wrote Wieseltier.

"Is Hamas Amalek [the biblical attackers of Israel whose perfidy we are commanded to never forget]?" he asks. "I have no idea. Also, I do not care. It is bad enough that Hamas is Hamas. Was Hitler Amalek? No, he was worse."

Though the failure of Arafat and Hamas to kill as many Jews as Hitler has more to do with opportunity rather than intentions, Wieseltier is, of course, right. He's also right to dismiss fears about the future of American Jewry. As infuriating as the daily injustices committed against Israel in American newspapers and broadcast networks are, there is a profound difference between what is going on here and what is happening in Europe.

Unlike in Europe, the majority of Americans still support Israel. And unlike Europe, our government -especially the Congress, the institution that is closest to the people -still stands strongly behind Israel.

The Jews are, Wieseltier says, "an ever-dying people," and for all too many of us, Jewish identity only seems to thrive in an atmosphere of hysteria and threats.

But where Wieseltier goes wrong is when he makes the leap to dismiss our anguish about the treatment accorded Israel. In our freedom and prosperity, he rightly calls us "the spoiled brats of Jewish history." But he betrays his own political biases when he seeks to dampen down the newly revived spirit of solidarity. "Hitler is dead," Wieseltier points out in a line that has brought down upon him some satirical comparisons of his work to the famous "Saturday Night Live!" sketch about "Generalissimo Francisco Franco" still being deceased.


But the antennae of us who sense a desire on the part of a not-inconsiderable portion of European elites to be rid of Israel, as well as rid of their guilt for the Holocaust, are not malfunctioning.

Rather, it is the instincts of those like Wieseltier and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who wrote last month with similar contempt for the upsurge of American Jewish anxiety for Israel, that are off-line.

The truth is, as much as writers like Wieseltier and Cohen may be appalled by the hysteria about anti-Semitism, they seem even more upset about the shift in the sympathies of American Jews for Israel's center-right parties. For most Jews, the worldwide assault on Israel and the betrayal of the peace process by its Palestinian beneficiaries has vindicated the views of Oslo skeptics like Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and writers like Krauthammer and Will. Though Wieseltier ridicules Netanyahu as a man for whom "every nacht [night] is Kristallnacht," the hundreds of thousands who cheered Bibi's speech at the solidarity rally in Washington know better.

For Wieseltier, the reawakening of American Jewry from the Oslo fantasy to a realization that it is a conflict "like no other" is "theology." But for the sensible, albeit at times hysterical, Jewish majority, such thinking is just common sense.

Those who perceive a coming apocalypse for American Jewry, have, as Wieseltier points out, lost touch with reality. And so long as we are immune to the passions that govern the rest of the world (like soccer and traditional anti-Semitism), this will remain true.

But buried within our "panic" about what is going on elsewhere is an understanding that even our privileged lives could not go on undisturbed if Israel was in peril, and with it that portion of the Diaspora not located near a Major League baseball franchise.

Hitler is dead, and "ethnic panic" is foolish. But it's not as foolish as a Jewish intellectual who dares to denigrate a newly revived spirit of identification with Israel and its struggle for survival.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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