03/09/2007

In the Trenches: Self-inflicted wounds

In the Trenches: Self-inflicted wounds

By David HarrisJPost

For those who believe that bad things happen in groups of three, their view was borne out in the past week.

Much of the Jewish world's attention was focused on the planning conference, chaired by Libya and assisted by, among others, Iran, for the 2009 rendition of the Durban Conference; the release of the long awaited book, "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer; and the 300 Kassam and mortar attacks launched against Israel from Gaza in August alone.

However, three events within the Jewish community provided yet another sobering reminder that not all of our challenges are external. We're mighty capable of creating problems for ourselves, if that ever seemed in doubt.

Take the appearance of a prominent editor of Ha’aretz, widely regarded as Israel's top paper, before a UN-sponsored conference in Brussels. The gathering was organized by the notorious Committee for the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. This committee was established by the UN General Assembly on November 10, 1975, the same day that the infamous "Zionism is racism" resolution was adopted.

Its mandate was to pursue "a programme of implementation to enable the Palestinian people to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination without external interference, national independence and sovereignty, and to return to their homes and property." Note especially those last words, as in the so-called "right of return," meaning the end of Israel as we know it.

Not only did this Israeli editor, by his appearance, confer legitimacy on a body that the United States and some other countries wish to consign, as a relic of the Cold War, to the dustbin of history, but he went a step further. He chose the occasion to label Israel an "Apartheid state."

(As an aside, in a telling statement, Hungary and Romania left the committee after the break-up of the Soviet bloc.)

For a committee seeking to justify its relevance, this outrageous assertion surely helped give it a new lease on life. After all, there aren't many more charged words in political discourse today than Apartheid, as Jimmy Carter demonstrated. But there's one problem. There is no comparison between the pre-1994 South Africa of institutionalized racism and racial hierarchy imposed by a white minority seeking permanent rule over a non-white majority and Israel, an unintended occupier resulting from a war of self-defense, seeking a two-state solution that would create a sovereign Palestinian state alongside it.

I have just visited South Africa, including the powerful Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and the differences couldn't be clearer. That's not to say that all is hunky-dory in the West Bank today, but that the inflammation of language does a disservice to the complexity of the truth, even as it may garner a headline. 

Then there was the American Jewish religious leader who chose to speak before the convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Here is another discredited group eager for mainstream recognition. Inadvertently, in the name of inter-religious dialogue, he gave it.

According to well-informed critics, and there are many, ISNA was founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the US. The organization distributes materials authored by its ideological gurus, including Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi. He, it will be recalled, authored fatwas justifying suicide bombings by Hamas against Israeli civilians, and also condoning the killing of Americans and other Westerners in Iraq. Moreover, ISNA was named by the US Department of Justice as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation legal case. The foundation was closed shortly after 9/11 for Hamas fundraising. Incidentally, other speakers invited to past ISNA conventions include Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, the imam of Mecca's Grand Mosque, who famously said in 2002 that Jews are "the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the killers of prophets, and the grandsons of monkeys and pigs."

Some American Jews have stumbled in the same arena, motivated by a laudable desire to identify and engage Muslim dialogue partners but unwilling to heed the warning signs along the way.

Perhaps the best known example of this blind spot concerned Muhammad Gemeaha, imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, the state’s largest mosque, who spoke to the general public of peace, coexistence and mutual respect—music to the ears of anyone seeking interfaith cooperation. In some Jewish groups’ rush to embrace him, they ignored the cautions of those who insisted he wasn't all that he presented himself to be, and instead suggested that "Islamophophobia" or a "right-wing" political agenda was at work. But just after 9/11, the imam literally disappeared, only to resurface a few weeks later in Cairo, where he proceeded to give an interview explaining his need to flee New York because Jewish doctors were poisoning Muslim children in US hospitals and “Zionists” in the air traffic control towers were responsible for 9/11.

In other words, good intentions do not always translate into good outcomes.

And lastly, and perhaps most painful of all for me, was the cri de coeur I heard from Jewish student leaders at the recent Summer University in Italy, organized by the European Union of Jewish Students. (For purposes of full disclosure, EUJS and AJC signed an association agreement in 2005.)

It's an annual gathering. I've attended five of the past six. The students think I'm doing them a favor, all the more so given the remote locations of some of the week-long events. But the truth is just the opposite. My batteries get recharged each time I'm among the 500 or so students from across Europe, joined by their peers from Israel and other countries. What an impressive group of bright, passionate, and dedicated young people! They are the Jewish present and future. And those from Europe have an especially important role to play as ambassadors, advocates, and navigators within the 27-nation European Union and beyond. With their ease in crossing borders, speaking many languages, and adjusting to different cultures, they have so much to offer the Jewish world. And, let's not forget, they're also the last generation with a personal link to the prewar and wartime Jews who stayed in Europe after the war, and who are such a key part of Jewish history.

But then I read the EUJS annual report, which was distributed to everyone present, and one paragraph on the very first page caught my eye:

"EUJS has had to face decreasing support from the organized Jewish world across the continent and further afield. With a few notable exceptions...we have seen a lack of support for and lack of willingness to work with young people developing as a growing trend.... In maintaining our network across thirty-four countries in Europe, we were deeply disappointed to discover that this trend is affecting each of our member unions in an even more destructive way than it has EUJS."

How painful it was to read! I don't know all the facts, though the EUJS leaders say that there's still more to the story. And I do know that each Jewish community is faced with finite resources and difficult allocation decisions, based on compelling -- and, inevitably, competing -- needs. But the pain etched on the faces of the young Jewish leaders was evident, and it wasn't a pleasant sight.

I joined the Jewish world when I was in my twenties. Like many of them, I was an airtight idealist. I believed that all Jews are responsible for one another and that, whatever our religious, cultural, or ideological differences, there was something metaphysical that united us all. Inevitably, idealism clashed with reality. How could it not? But I chose to stay in the Jewish world and remain in the fray. I haven't ever regretted my decision. Essentially, that was my message to these impressive young people. Resist the temptation to succumb to disappointment, disillusionment, or cynicism. The Jewish world needs you. We depend on your youth, creativity, vision, and, yes, idealism. Fight for what you think is right -- for your sake and for ours.

These young people deserve our support -- both in word and in deed. They are at an especially critical age, in their twenties, when they begin to make decisions that can affect the direction of their lives.<!--INFOLINKS_STOP-->

And it's a safe bet that if we support them, they'll more than justify the confidence and trust we've placed in them.

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