For the first time since the second world war, American Jews are largely absent from the anti-war movement. Yet, travelling from state to state, I found the liberal Jewish tradition still thrivingby Linda Grant / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
The day before the US mid-term elections last November, I was taken for lunch at a country club in a Florida city noted for its large community of retired Jews. We entered the gates and drove through what appeared to be a golf course criss-crossed by elderly men on golf carts. The club was residential and its residents were mainly elderly and around 40-50 per cent Jewish. “We’re integrated,” I was told by my hosts, two ladies in their sixties who had moved down to the warm south from Detroit and Manhattan. “Venus and Serena Williams live here.”
In the dining room, a vast opulent chamber whose windows overlooked palm trees and manicured lawns, several hundred elderly women were, at 11.45am, already well on their way through lunch. Notices invited them to book now for November’s Thanksgiving banquet and December’s Chanukah banquet. My hosts explained that when they moved to Florida their great anxiety was that they would be lost in a desert of low culture-they who, back home, had had season tickets to the Met, attended every show at Moma, bought their books at Brentano’s. One of the ladies had brought down from New York her collection of art and sculpture. “You should see her home,” the other lady told me. “Her husband is a retired lawyer, mine’s a retired professor of mathematics.” These wandering Jews had come to the Florida swamplands and built temples to art.
The retired Jews of Florida represent the familiar trajectory of postwar New York Jewish life: born in Brooklyn in the 1920s and 1930s into Roosevelt Democrat families, educated in the late 1940s when quotas still existed at Ivy League universities, entering professions and business in the 1950s when Wall Street and the law firms still restricted access to Jews, moving to the Upper West Side in the 1960s, supporting the civil rights movement, opposing the Vietnam war, refusing the drift to the right during the Reagan years, and retiring in the 1990s, feeling that they deserved the right to loaf in the sun. If there is a “Zionist lobby” in America, then the retired ladies of Florida must be its activists.
I had been the guest speaker that morning at the Jewish community centre, part of a ten-city tour with the Jewish book council. The novel I was promoting, When I Lived in Modern Times, is set during the period just before the creation of the state of Israel. It revises the Exodus version of rugged Paul Newman types building utopia in an empty land and examines how the virus of the current conflict was incubating from the start. Florida was the first stop on my tour, so I was worried about how to pitch my talk. Were they going to swallow the idea that members of the Irgun underground who bombed Jerusalem’s King David hotel in 1946 were not “freedom fighters” but terrorists? How would they handle the dismantling of one of the most cherished myths of the Jewish story: that Israel was a state created with no unnecessary bloodshed? The first questioner raised her hand. Did I think, she asked, that the Jewish narrative of anti-colonialism was separate from other anti-colonialist narratives, or was simply treated separately? Anti-colonialist narratives? In Florida?
Over lunch at the country club, where the Williams sisters play tennis next to retired New Jersey orthodontists, I pieced together my hosts’ analysis of contemporary America. They did not like the Bush family at all. George Senior had cut aid to Israel; George Junior had stolen the election; Jeb, their governor, was a crook: “George W Bush is a mamzer [Yiddish for bastard], a horrible man. Clinton I liked. Forget about the sex, who cares? Look what he tried to do for Israel. Ariel Sharon I don’t like, him and Arafat should clear off. If they haven’t got anything to offer, they should give someone else a chance. And you know this war with Iraq? Listen, it’s nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction. Believe me, it’s about oil. We always go to war for oil.”
Across America, it was the same story. Jewish America remains overwhelmingly Democratic. In only one city, San Diego, did I meet any Republicans. In the 2000 presidential election, 79 per cent of Jews voted for Al Gore, 19 per cent for George W Bush and 1 per cent for Ralph Nader. Two years later, in the midterms, not much had changed. The only Republican who was widely approved of and well-liked amongst those I met was Colin Powell-he was exactly the kind of African-American that the Jews of America’s civil rights movement hoped that desegregation would produce: intelligent, hard-headed, humane. Jewish America is pro-Israel but also sceptical about Bush’s war on Iraq. That a Jew, Paul Wolfowitz, seems to be the architect of his policy cuts no ice; after all, Kissinger was Jewish and Nixon’s America was everything they abhorred.
The press, particularly in Europe, amplifies the voices of the US-born settlers who represent the far right in Israeli politics. But to most American Jews, secular and observant, the settlers with their talk of Judea and Samaria, of God’s covenant with the Jews awarding them the whole of eretz Israel, are rowdy zealots. American Jews do not support this or that Israeli political party, it is Israel they support. If Clinton, a Democratic president, had been the person to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, they would have been ecstatic. But Oslo failed, Camp David failed, and now Jewish America backs Sharon, not because they have turned Likud, but because, like many Israelis, they no longer believe that Israel has “a partner for peace,” nor will it while Arafat remains on the scene.
The book tour circuit takes you to out of the way places and to a Jewish America that does not register at all in Europe: to Denver where the festival was organised by the gay son of Holocaust survivors who is a practising Tibetan Buddhist; to Seattle where the organiser was a convert to Judaism from Lutheran Minnesota; to San Diego where a large community of Mexican Jews rub shoulders in their neighbourhoods with Iraqi Christians from Chaldea; to Ann Arbor where the audience, mainly from the radical university campus, discussed Palestinian self-determination. What united them was their perplexity at the very notion of a British Jew, the country of castles and queens integrating shtetl immigration seemed impossible.
In one city I was driven around by Sam, whose political and personal history over the past 30 years seemed to typify the development of postwar liberal Jewish America. A leading anti-war activist at college in the 1960s, after a period as a high school history teacher, he went back to law school and then set up a firm which specialises in environmental issues in the workplace. In his state, he is the Erin Brockovich of asbestos cases, a campaigner for workers’ rights and, this being America, it has made him very rich indeed. Fifteen years ago, Sam became one of Clinton’s earliest financial backers. Before Clinton went to Camp David in July 2000, Sam told me, “I called him and asked him how he thought it would go. He said, ‘It’ll go down to the wire.’ When he got back, I called him again and asked him what had happened. He said, ‘Barak put his offer on the table, Arafat turned it down.’ I said, ‘OK, now you counter offer,’ and Arafat said to me, ‘If I counter offer the next time you see me will be at my funeral.'”
I suspect it will be another 20 or 30 years before we get to the bottom of what happened at Camp David: even the negotiators in the room all have different stories. Do we believe that Arafat never intended to negotiate, that his acceptance of Israel’s right to exist is only a PR exercise? That Barak and Clinton pushed Arafat into talks prematurely because Clinton wanted his place in the history books? That Oslo was always a fraud-as demonstrated by Israeli settlement building-and that it was Barak, backed by Clinton, who made the Palestinians a humiliating offer, knowing that their refusal would destroy the peace process? Whatever the truth, it is certainly the case that Jewish Americans, who were devastated by the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, believe that the Democratic party went further than ever before in trying to sort out the middle east and got nothing back from the Palestinians.
Travelling around America, I was struck by how very far away the middle east seemed. Here in London, Tel Aviv is simply the eastern rim of the Mediterranean; British governments have been busying themselves in the affairs of the Arab world for centuries; it’s our backyard. Americans travel little. A grand tour of Europe after college and again after retirement may be the limit for the well-educated, and many others have only seen the world during military service. Israel to American Jews does not inhabit a geographical region but, rather like in the famous New Yorker cover, it lies just across the Hudson. The voice of the Arab world is seldom heard except when it comes crashing through the World Trade Centre. An academic I met in one city, a professor of Jewish studies, told me that he felt people like himself needed to educate themselves about Israel, that the voices of the extremes on both sides had dominated the debate. The moderates felt silenced by lack of information.
Since 11th September, Jewish America broadly accepts the Bush administration view that the war on terror and the war that the Israeli government is waging against terrorist attacks inside Israel are one and the same. Across the country, the book events which drew the largest crowds were those addressing Islamic fundamentalism inside the US; if there could be said to be an ur-book that Jewish Americans are reading it would be called Islamic Terrorists are Operating in America and Believe Me, it’s Bad for the Jews. Every American Jew can tell you about the conspiracy theories that have swept the Muslim world, everyone knows about the “4,000 Jews who were warned to stay away from the World Trade Centre on 11th September.” The Somalian taxi driver who picked me up at the airport in Washington when I arrived peddled the same story.
There was one question that was asked without fail by every single audience I spoke to: what is happening with antisemitism in Europe? To American Jews, the soil of Europe is saturated with Jewish blood and antisemitism is the natural condition of European life. To me, a British Jew who defines herself as European, this is preposterous: crude, xenophobic, hysterical. But my answer to the question was the same on every occasion, “There is far less antisemitism in Europe than Americans fear, but rather more than Europeans are prepared to admit to.” I said that I thought that anti-Zionism, while not itself antisemitic, if pursued vigorously by enough people, lays the foundations on which it becomes possible to construct a political agenda in which Jews are principally responsible for the world’s problems today.
It is, indeed, received opinion amongst parts of the left that the war on Iraq will be Israel’s war, demanded by Ariel Sharon, backed by the all-powerful Jewish-American lobby. Amongst many who watch the news every night, there is a view that at the heart of all the difficulties in the region is the Israel-Palestine conflict, that a fair, just and equitable solution to it would melt away all the terrorism and the need for war against Iraq and this could be achieved by the US having a more “balanced” foreign policy.
Amongst the Jews who are supposed to make up this lobby the war is subject to a muted debate. Since Roosevelt went to war against the Nazis, which American war have Jews not opposed in large numbers? Why would they back a war led by a Republican, the very man who stole the election from out of the hands of the Jewish voters of Palm Beach county?
Opposition to the war in the US is now said to be the biggest protest movement since Vietnam, but where is liberal Jewish America which took such a leading role 30 years ago? Where are today’s Jerry Rubins or Abbie Hoffmans, who organised the student movement, or a Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the Pentagon’s secret bombing campaign? While the protest movement maintains its present high pitch of anti-Israel rhetoric, not many Jews would want to participate and they would probably not be welcome if they did. The linkage between the suffering of the Palestinians and US aggression in Iraq-exemplified by all those anti-war banners in which the swastika is superimposed over a Star of David-creates a formidable barrier to Jewish participation.
Travelling around Jewish America for two months-clambering in and out of taxis, flopping exhausted onto hotel beds-I was struck by a few other ways in which Jewish life there is evolving. Jews are worried that their declining numbers, due to inter-marriage and assimilation, will, within a generation, render them smaller and less influential than Arab and Muslim Americans. I wondered whether the US, the real promised land of the pogrom immigrants of eastern Europe, could turn out to be just another stage of the Jewish journey. I met few Arab Americans on my travels but I did meet many Indians, priding themselves on coming from the world’s largest democracy, determined to enjoy the American dream. India, with a small but significant Jewish population, has no antisemitism, unlike Pakistan. An alliance between these two formidable ethnicities, Jewish and Indian, might indeed lay a firm hand on the tiller of US policy in years to come.
Back home I envied America’s Jews their self-confidence. They are immigrants in an immigrant land. Your problem, a man told me in Pennsylvania (and I think he was addressing me, not just the Jews of Britain in general), is that you care too much about what the goyim will think. Someone else, addressing the question of Tom Paulin’s on-again, off-again Harvard lecture asked me if he was an antisemite. I said no, but it was a complicated issue. What’s complicated? he argued. To Jewish Americans the middle east is a battle between us and them. In that regard, they speak not just as Jews but, proudly, as Americans.