How We See Sharon--and Israel

"We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are."-- Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani, as quoted in the Talmudic tractate Berakhot (55b.)

Ariel Sharon is more like a cipher than a person. He is a holder of our own preconceptions, a validation of our fears and prejudices, and a symbol of our hopes and desires for peace and security for the Jewish state. He is a large man, indeed his largeness was no doubt a primary cause of his illness, but no man should be forced to become a symbol. So let me reflect on what American Jews now believe, not so much about Sharon, but about the State of Israel--of which he is such a towering symbol.

The willingness to trade land for peace has divided the Jewish world. Those Jews who reject giving up a single hectare of land underneath any Jewish settlement hold that view because of two different but complementary sets of beliefs. Some oppose withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank because of their religious beliefs. They lift up the belief that God gave us the land and it is not for political leaders to violate God's will by giving it away. Others are driven by what they consider sober and accurate assessments that the Palestinians and their leadership have never given up the aim of destroying Israel and that therefore the surrender of land is a foolhardy surrender of precious territorial security. They see the transformation of Gaza into a terrorist training ground with a porous boarder with Egypt--and now allowing tons of weapons to pour into Gaza under the eyes of impotent EU observers--as evidence for this view. Because the ultimate validity of this debate depends upon future events, it will not be resolved unless and until Israel makes the decision of whether it has a true partner for peace. Though there are exceptions, it is generally true that the more orthodox Jews in America happen to be, the more likely they are to object to the Gaza withdrawal and resist any other withdrawals in the future. The hardening of this debate in Israel has hardened the divisions of American Jews.

The rise of politically powerful ultra orthodox parties in Israel has further driven a wedge between the Jews in America and weakened the support for Israel among liberal Jews. The fractious political life of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) and the constant political need to make coalitions in order to create a functioning government has given ultra-orthodox Jewish political parties far more power than their numbers would otherwise justify. Their aims have largely been directed at solidifying their control of the religious life of Israel. They control who can perform marriages and conversions, what synagogues will and will not get funded, and they have secured exemptions for their children from otherwise mandatory military service. Not even non-combat support service has been acceptable to them. They have also periodically tried to limit the definition of who is a Jew to those born of a Jewish mother or those converted only according to the Jewish legal rulings of Orthodox Judaism. This effort was thwarted by massive opposition from American Jews and to some extent by the Israeli courts. With nine out of 10 American Jews choosing non-orthodox Judaism, the fact that, for example, a Jew for Jesus minister can perform marriages in Israel but a Reform rabbi cannot, is a galling reality that has sadly but inevitably weakened the emotional attachment of many non-orthodox Jews to the State of Israel. Sharon was brave in confronting every political challenge except this one. Coalition politics made him impotent in deciding who owns and controls the Jewishness of the Jewish state.

The prejudice against Israel in left-wing universities has further weakened the attachment of university-educated American Jews to the State of Israel. During the 1967 Six Day War, the political osmosis of a struggling Israel defeating its recalcitrant and belligerent enemies drew many young American Jews away from Vietnam-wounded America to heroically-struggling Israel. Now, sadly that process has been reversed. The divestment movement, begun on college campuses and now spreading to some liberal Christian denominations, is just the visible pathology of a deeper disillusionment with Israel and her policies by the liberal community in America and by the American Jews who are over-represented there. Moshe Dayan, the military icon of the 1967 war, was widely considered a hero. Until four years ago, Ariel Sharon was widely considered a war criminal after an Israeli commission found him indirectly responsible for a Lebanese Christian massacre of Palestinians in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

This is not just a difference of opinion about two men, it reflects a different view of the Jewish state as an oppressor of Palestinian rights rather than a defender of its beleaguered people. This view of Sharon and Israel by the academic left has resulted in increasing discomfort for Zionist students in college. Since I vigorously disagree with this defamation of Israel and Sharon, it is hard for me to give this view a fair interpretation, but the result is clear. The most hostile environment for supporters of Israel today is the colleges where we send almost all our kids. The limits of Sharon's popularity are less the result of his bulk and his not having a Dayan-type eye patch than the result of the unprecedented transformation of perceptions about Israel: from a struggling state on the front lines of the war on terror into an oppressive regime preventing the fulfillment of the natural rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people. The fact that in the 19 years between 1948 and 1967, when all the now-disputed territories were under Arab control, not a single effort was made to establish a Palestinian state is simply disregarded. Now it is common to hear Israelis compared to Nazis, and for those Jewish students who are neither contentious or informed this has weakened support for Israel among a new generation of American Jews.

On the positive side of things, Sharon and 9/11 have galvanized and symbolized a growing maturity among American Jews about the role of Israel in the war on terror. The awareness is slowly sinking in that all of us in the West are now Israelis; that we are all objects of hate by the purveyors of hate and murder and death. After his passing from the scene Ariel Sharon will leave to others the dubious and daunting task of becoming a symbolic exemplar of everyone's ideas about Israel. For his successor, as for him, the first burden will be the continuing tendency to see Israel and her leaders not as they are but as we are. For American Jews, now is the time to find a unity that has eluded us, and now is the time to find a powerful common voice of love and support for the land and the people who have returned to history just in time to feel both its bloodlust as well as its enduring hope for peace.

May God heal Ari ben (son of) Devorah speedily and in our time.