ISRAELI JUBILEE : A Bond With Americans
From Infancy, a Helping Hand
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 1998; Page A1
A Jewish state was forming before his eyes, and the young American pilot gazed with dread. Irvin Schindler had seen the skeletal refugees of the recent world war, and he could not imagine how such depleted men and women would defend themselves in their new land.
Schindler was 32 that year, 1948, and never much of a religious Jew. But when he sat down one day at a Broadway automat, the World War II aviator found himself filling 13 pages with handwritten plans for a rudimentary Jewish air force in Palestine.
Soon he was summoned to clandestine talks with the Haganah underground and entrusted with the breathtaking sum of $50,000. He bought and smuggled Curtiss Commandos and Lockheed Constellations for a patchwork air armada, and sifted purloined U.S. Army Air Forces lists for Jewish-sounding surnames to recruit.
"A war was coming on if the United Nations voted for partition," recalled Schindler, now 82 and living in North Miami, Fla., referring to the events that led to the establishment of Israel. "There seemed to be no way the Jews would be able to fight. They simply wouldn't have the men and materiel. I went because the events required somebody to do it. If you were the one who had the background and the knowledge, you did it."
That, with less dramatic variations, became the basic transaction between Israel and its American admirers for decades to come. Attacked at birth by five Arab armies, the Jewish state subsisted in its early years in a condition of desperate want. Supporters in the United States, led by a disciplined lobby of American Jews, gave the material and political backing to build a fortress of struggling pioneers.
Gradually, as Israel has grown up, the relationship has become more complex. On its 50th anniversary, the Jewish state has nuclear weapons, a per capita national income that is nearing the United Kingdom's, an indigenous space launch capability and armed services capable of defeating any combination of regional foes. And even as they feel themselves less needed, American Jews are troubled by some of the same disputes that have riven modern Israeli society along political, social and religious lines.
Among the results has been a shift in the politics of American support for Israel, with Christian fundamentalists picking up some of the slack left by a divided and uncertain American Jewish community. Beset by criticism of his peace policies and especially his support for a strengthened Orthodox monopoly on Israeli religious life, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has chanced fewer live appearances before uncontrolled Jewish audiences here, preferring to speak by satellite. More than once he has dodged important Jewish gatherings to attend a Christian prayer breakfast or rally.
During a tense visit to Washington in January, Netanyahu's first meetings were with televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who promised to mobilize pastors nationwide on his behalf. Another TV preacher, John Hagee, who sees the Jewish return to the Holy Land as prophesy of the "rapidly approaching ... final moments of history," brought Netanyahu a rapturous crowd at the Mayflower Hotel, chanting "Not one inch!" the crowd's verdict on proposals to transfer parts of the West Bank to Palestinian control. The following month Hagee joined the top rank of donors to the United Jewish Appeal with a $1 million check aimed at hastening the "end times" he foresees in his book, "Final Dawn Over Jerusalem."
The broad American public remains consistently supportive of Israel, conforming to patterns set in the earliest opinion polls and a long record of congressional backing that has helped make Israel the leading recipient of U.S. aid abroad. According to a study by author Eytan Gilboa, the reasons included guilt at the Nazi Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews, admiration for Israel's underdog victories and antipathy for Israel's Arab and Muslim rivals, who were cast at key moments the 1972 Olympics massacre, the 1974 oil embargo, the 1979 Iranian revolution as American foes as well.
"As a career diplomat, I don't need much educating to know the United States is terribly important to us," said Yoav Biran, the second-ranking official in Israel's foreign service. "I check very often the temperature. What impresses me is what has not occurred: a change in the basic perception of Israel. If you ask an educated American, 'What is Israel?' you get a smile, a positive reaction. Israel is not a foreign policy issue. Foreign policy is rather isolated and tedious to the average American, unless it's about something dramatic. Israel is part of you."
The paradigm of the early years, and the emotional foundation of the relationship still for many Americans, was stated simply by Schindler's Haganah handler in the risky first months of evading U.S. arms embargoes.
"We need everything," Schindler recalls hearing from a youthful agent named Teddy Kollek, who went on to become mayor of Jerusalem. "You can't name something we don't need."
According to a monograph by Samuel Norich, private American contributions amounted to an astounding 25 percent of Israel's national budget in its first tenuous years of statehood, a sum without precedent in the world. Two generations of American Jews, religious and secular, grew up with cardboard coin boxes in their homes, blue and white like the Israeli flag and destined for the Jewish National Fund to plant trees.
"When I was growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, my mother had the little blue JNF box and every Friday before she lit the candles for Shabbat she put some coins in there, and when the box filled up we'd take it to the bank and my father would write a check," recalled Arthur Berger, who went on to serve in the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and now works for the American Jewish Committee. "My picture of Israel was people living in tents, poor people fighting off the Arab hordes, a denuded landscape of rocks with no trees. And trees were life, so we bought them trees."
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