Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz sat in his study, air-conditioner humming and thoughts of Israel on his mind. How, he is asked, have events of the summer affected his congregation's ideas about Israel?
"What is happening is that in all previous wars, Israel has always been a David. Suddenly it is emerging with the image of the Goliath, a power," said the rabbi, who serves Washington's Adas Israel Temple. "It's a very difficult adjustment for people in this country to make because they've never seen it as a power force. Israel has always been a victim of power, oil power, terrorism power.
"American Jews have to realize they are now talking to an adult. Too frequently Israel has elicited in American Jews a sense of pity, a sense of these rich, comfortable American Jews helping their destitute brothers. But now we are dealing with a country, a people that is tired of being pitied, and they are not necessarily going to . . . seek approval of American Jews when they conduct their foreign policy. It's the same as with parents who realize that the child they've reared is mature enough to make its own decisions."
An Israel come of age after being nurtured for 34 years on the love and financial support of American Jews, an Israel on the attack rather than on the defensive, has made for a summer of soul-searching among many of Washington's 180,000 Jews.
The sight of children burned by Israeli phosphorus bombs, of prolonged bombings of Beirut by Israeli jets, has caused many Jews to shift uncomfortably in their traditional support role of Israel; to ask, as Rabinowitz put it, "more penetrating questions," and, to a greater extent than in past crises, to voice public doubts and criticism about the wisdom of decisions made by the Israeli government.
Describing this process as a "sobering, a maturing" of American Jews, Michael Berenbaum, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, speculated that in the long haul there could be a "loss of simplicity of American Jews in the way they think about Israel; the way they think about the Mideast; the way they think about themselves. They can no longer make easy judgments, simple statements."
"It used to be the way they thought about Israel was as the good guy in the white hat against the bad guy in black hats. But now they realize Israel makes political judgments that can go both ways, that can be right or wrong and much like any other government," Berenbaum said.
As Palestinian guerrillas leave Beirut, many Jews here say the direction and scope of this reassessment will depend a lot on whether Israel's decision to use its American-supplied military power on offense will eventually prove to have been a step toward peace, thereby negating much of the criticism Israel has received.
"The ultimate test of this war is where we stand, where Israel stands a year from now," said the community council's president, Nat Lewin. "If the PLO Palestine Liberation Organization is still an effective force, if we are no further down the road to a resolution of the problem, dealing with the Arab problem, then the war will have failed."
"Israel must demonstrate that in seeking to destroy the PLO it was not seeking to destroy the Palestinians, and do it as generously and as quickly as possible," said Hyman Bookbinder, who as Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee is a stalwart of both the local and national Jewish establishment.
"The Palestinians have suffered enough. They deserve some kind of self-determination now, consistent with Israel's security interests. It would be wrong to interpret this victory as a license to postpone or reduce commitment to resolving the Palestinian problem," he said.
All this does not mean that Washington-area Jews wavered in their commitment to Israel's survival or that they did not respond to Israel's latest crisis as vigorously as they have in the past.
Berenbaum pointed out, for example, that his organization "had no trouble" in getting signatures from 110 local Jewish organizations for a resolution supporting Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
This support "from an overriding number of affiliated Jews was not a knee-jerk reaction," Lewin added, "it was done because they feel the war was justified."
Lewin said that the press coverage of the war, which angered many Jews who considered it biased against Israel, had helped unite Jews behind Israel.
Like Rabbi Nathan Abramowitz of Washington's Tifereth Israel, many Jews believed the news coverage was slanted to "mobilize sympathy for the allegedly innocent victims of the war-- PLO's Yasser Arafat smooching little children over and over again; and he's the man who uses them as a shield; he's the hostage-taker. It was very hard to take."
"The reaction of our members shows they are solidly united in recognizing that Israel still needs to be defended in every way possible," said Daniel Thursz, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith, one of the largest and oldest international Jewish organizations. "They still believe Israel leads a precarious existence. American Jews' perception is that Israel is living as a tiny speck in a huge Arab ocean and is in ever-present danger. I don't think you can underestimate the insecurity of Jews," Thursz said.
The continuing commitment of Jews across the United States has also been evident here this week at a conference of the Development Corporation for Israel, where about 600 delegates from all over North America have been discussing ways to meet their pledge to raise $100 million for Israel in bond sales by September.
But the Jewish consensus on how the continuing commitment to Israel should be expressed has begun to fray around the edges, judging from the diverse reactions to the war.
Jews emphasize that they have always had dissidents in their communities, that this is nothing new. Many others say the fraying of consensus began in 1977 when Menachem Begin came to power. But what seems apparent now is that the war in Lebanon has added impetus.
Although Berenbaum easily got 110 signatures, he said he also had "dozens" of lunches with longtime friends who called to say, "Not on this; Israel is wrong on this."
"Personally, it's affected me," said William Adler, a 25-year-old foreign affairs lobbyist with Americans for Democratic Action. "I feel that Israel has gone too far and I feel that I will have to look at their military and foreign policies more criticially from now on. I feel this way because I am a strong supporter of Israel."
One of the factors spurring debate in this country has been the dissent in Israel over the war, led by the Peace Now Movement there. Their example helped spur an ad hoc organization, Washington Area Jews Opposed to the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon, which charges that "the death and destruction wrought by the Begin/Sharon government are a betrayal of the vision of Israel's founders and the historical commitment of Jewish people to human rights."
"A lot of American Jews say we cannot criticize because we are not on the front line," said Deborah Goldman, who is one of the organization's about 100 members, who have passed out antiwar leaflets at synagogues and held vigils at the White House. "But if there is going to be a connection between Israel and Diaspora Jews, that connection does not come from blind support, it comes from involvement," the 30-year-old radio reporter said.
But her involvement is not easy for Goldman. "It is emotionally wrenching to walk the tender line of what I call critical support," she said. I feel threatened two ways. I feel horrified both at what is going on and also when I hear vitriolic criticism of Israel. I feel very strongly the politics Israel is following are not healthy, but also I feel there are a lot of people who question Israel's right to exist."
Despite hopes for a peace breakthrough, Jewish sentiment here toward the PLO is, if anything, more adverse than before the war. "There is a bitter hatred of the PLO in Israel and that is shared here," said Rabinowitz. Jewish attitudes "towards the Nazis may be transferred to the PLO," Rabinowitz said, but not to the Palestinian people, he added.
And yet, in the view of some, this war has given the PLO a small gain. B'nai B'rith's Thursz said he believes that "due largely to TV the PLO is no longer perceived just as a band of terrorists, as a Moscow-trained cell. There is a greater recognition in the Jewish community that these are human beings who love, kiss, weep and have wives. There is greater understanding, sympathy and empathy for the rank and file even of the PLO, and most surely of the Palestinians as a group of human beings."
In addition, Thursz believes that "the people who are arguing for recognition of the legitimate rights of Palestinians--their views are not new; they were there five years ago--they may be more persistent . . . . They are still a minority and highly disorganized, but they're being heard more than before."
Thursz said he was referring to Jewish leaders like Nahum Goldmann, a founder and president of the World Jewish Congress, and Philip M. Klutznick, a former U.S. secretary of commerce, who along with former French prime minister Pierre Mendes France jointly called last month for mutual recognition between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.
Last week a small, left-leaning political group called the New Jewish Agenda announced here a campaign to gather petitions supporting the three men's call.
They acknowledge they have a long way to go to gain any sympathy for this among the vast majority of American Jews, despite the trauma of the war in Lebanon.
Whatever political repercussions finally flow from the war, it has had a clear impact on many Jewish families here. Perhaps one of the most poignant examples is the family of 32-year-old law student Mark Cohen.
Cohen said he was brought up in a "very pro-Israeli family. My uncle is a rabbi. I grew up buying trees for people in Israel and putting my dimes and nickels into a pushke piggy bank . I was an officer in my bar mitzvah club."
"I've had questions about Israel's policies for about a year, but felt I could not question publicly," he said. But since the invasion, Cohen has passed out antiwar leaflets at synagogues and demonstrated against the invasion.
This activity initiated correspondence between him and his mother, Selma, who, despite her disapproval of the war cannot bring herself to think of the PLO as anything but terrorists or to criticize Israel publicly.
"She's going through a process of disillusionment; she's finding that Israel is behaving just like any other state and needs to be criticized," said Cohen. "But she is terrifed to do that because she fears her sentiments can be abused; could be used by anti-Semites against Israel."
But her last letter to her son ended like this: "Mark, you are my conscience and I thank you for that. Love, Mother."