I DIDN'T expect to hear a call to kill a thousand Arabs while on a lecture tour across America. But one night in Houston, when I addressed a Jewish audience, I was confronted with precisely that. The listeners looked respectable, well-dressed, educated and attentive. Among them were lawyers, doctors, executives, stockbrokers and developers. In short, typical upper middle-class Americans.
I was there as an Israeli journalist and author to talk about the Middle East: the chance of war in the Persian Gulf, the Palestinian uprising and the means for advancing peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And from the start, I could sense a certain discontent among my listeners. Most people in the audience did not like my answers. They seemed, so they told me, too objective and uncommitted.
But their responses were muted until I provided my analysis of the tragic events of last October on Temple Mount in Jerusalem in which Israeli police and Palestinian youths locked in a bloody battle. Nineteen Palestinians were killed and more than 100 people were injured, including 30 Israeli police officers, tourists and Jewish worshippers at the nearby Wailing Wall. I suggested that both sides should bear the blame for the clash, which had been triggered by mutual misunderstandings and resulted in a joint mistrust.
When I expressed my regret for the death of human beings, Arabs and Israeli alike, I found that I'd stepped on a hornets' nest. My audience could not stomach a neutral approach. They wanted to hear that the Palestinians planned the attack on Israeli police -- an act of provocation ruthlessly carried on to its bloody conclusion.
At that moment, a young man stood up and said: "I do not feel sorry for those Palestinians who were killed. The Israeli police should have shot a thousand of them."
As an Israeli, I am accustomed to strong and emotional expressions by my countrymen whenever the vicious circle of death takes its toll among Israelis and Palestinians. But I did not expect to encounter that kind of feeling in Texas, 7,000 miles away from the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Let me say that I am convinced the caller did not represent the general view of the audience, but no one protested or challenged his call.
Undoubtedly, he was echoing the school of thought developed by Meir Kahane, who was assassinated the same week in New York. Kahane thrived on dark fear and frustrated emotions; being beyond the pale of Israel's politics, he was marginalized and eventually outlawed in Israel as well as despised by mainstream American Jewry.
Yet, after he was shot dead in Manhattan hotel by a lone Egyptian-born zealot, many prominent Jewish leaders attended his memorial service in a local synagogue. Among them was Abraham Fuxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League. How, I wondered, could a senior representative of a Jewish organization devoted to fighting bigotry appear at Kahane's memorial service? After all, Rabbi Kahane was an advocate of Jewish racism, calling for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel. Many members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, did not attend the memorial service held in Jerusalem for their former colleague, or left the ceremony in silent protest.
But while talking to Jewish congregations from the South, through the Midwest to the East Coast, I realized that we Israelis have the luxury of expressing ourselves more frankly than many American Jews. Israel, to be sure, is a divided society which cannot make up its mind on a solution to the Palestinian question. Yet right and left do not hesitate to express disagreements publicly.
True, the political divisions and polarization that characterize Israeli society can be found among American Jews. But American Jews fear that their public criticism might be exploited by professional critics of Israel. Hence, most American Jews prefer to conceal their disagreements about Israel.
I thought about my conversation a year ago at Harvard with Alan Dershowitz. "I am an American, a proud Jew and as a supporter of Israel may also be defined as a Zionist," he told me when I asked him if these three notions can co-exist. Dershowitz explained that he does not see any contradiction between being Zionist and a loyal American.
But in my journey I discovered less eloquent speakers, who perhaps make up the bulk of the Jewish community and who do not share Dershowitz's confidence. It was evident to me that American Jewry is in a state of confusion.
This state of affairs was already noticeable in 1985, when Israeli intelligence recruited Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. naval analyst, as a spy. Until then, Israel had been careful not to confront non-Israeli Jews with the painful question of dual loyalty; recruiting Pollard and taking advantage of his own divided allegiance shattered this tradition.
Another change took place when the new administration took office two years ago. President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker lack the emotional and ideological commitment to Israel that characterized the previous administration. During the Reagan years, the Jewish community acted as a bridge on the road to a golden era in the American-Israeli alliance. Partly in concert with the general trend to the right that swept America in the 1980s but mainly as an expression of gratitude, many Jewish voters shifted their traditional support from the Democratic Party to the Republican. "I am ready to be a born-again liberal," said a young Jewish lawyer from Jacksonville, Fla., who works as a legal adviser in an impoverished neighborhood, "but on Israeli issues I shall always remain a conservative."
However, as the Bush-Baker team departed from past practice -- pressing Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians and withdraw from the occupied territories -- the role of American Jewry as a bridging force is diminishing. The administration would like to use the weight of the Jewish community as leverage to soften the stubborness of Israel's right-wing government. The Israeli government hopes that the power of Jewish political and economic forces, as channeled into the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, will last forever and continue to provide the same level of support for the state of Israel.
In their confusion about their collective political future, many American Jews turn against the media. As long as news organizations portrayed Israel as a daring, pioneering society, American Jews were satisfied. Nowadays they do not like what they read or see on their TV screens. Israel has become a villian, described as oppressor. No wonder that most of my lectures became heated debates on the role of the media. Strong and angry voices accused the media of "distorting the truth," "overkill" and "unfairness." And some of my listeners perceived me less as the guest from Israel and more as "one of those untrusted journalists."
The American Jewish community's sense of disorientation has become more acute since the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq. This sense was transmitted to me in its most blatant but honest form in the question of a woman from a local synagogue in Kansas City, Mo: "What stand shall we take regarding the possibility of a war against Iraq?"
She confessed that as an American she did not want to see her countrymen killed in a military action. On the other hand, she knew that if U.S. forces did not destroy the one-million-strong and well-equipped Iraqi army, Saddam Hussein would eventually unleash it on Israel. Even prominent Jewish liberals and left-wing organizations concede that the "Israeli issue" contributed to their initial lack of opposition to U.S. involvement in the gulf.
The war dilemma, combined with a growing mistrust of President Bush's real intentions toward Israel, have an almost paralyzing effect on American Jews. They do not want to express disapproval of the president, but they are concerned that, once Saddam Hussein is defeated, the administration will press Israel to make territorial concessions in the Golan Heights captured from Syria in 1967 and to move towards talks with the Palestinians. They fear the reshaping of the political map of the Middle East, and their new mood is very gloomy. They feel, in fact, like troops in no man's land, under fire from both sides.
Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist who lives in Tel Aviv, is currently writing a book on Israeli society.