After the Handshake: What Next? U.S. Jews: Listening to Rabin

September 19, 1993|By GARY ROSENBLATT

In the end, it was Yitzhak Rabin, the dour and often dull speaker, whose words pierced our hearts. "It's not so easy," he said simply, and with great humanity.

And we understood. It is not easy to enter a White House ceremony together with the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, an organization founded on destroying the Jewish state. Flanked by President Clinton, Mr. Rabin had kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, as did the other two men, evoking the awkwardness and undercurrents of enmity of a divorced couple walking their son or daughter down the aisle at a wedding.

It is not easy to make peace with long and bitter enemies, particular with the PLO and Yasser Arafat, the man who has been demonized by world Jewry for decades.

And with good cause. When we look at Chairman Arafat's smiling face, we do not see a leader of a national movement but rather images of innocent women and children killed in countless terror attacks, from Rome to Maalot, and of a hooded gunmen stalking the Olympic Village in Munich 21 years ago.

When Mr. Rabin spoke, one could hear the anguish in his voice as he paid tribute to the Jewish victims of Arab wars and terrorism. "We remember each and every one of them with everlasting love," said this man who rarely shows emotion.

One appreciated his honest eloquence when he spoke of how difficult it was for him as a soldier, for the people of Israel and for Jewish people in the diaspora to be part of a process that will loosen Israel's grip on the land it shares with the Palestinians.

The burden of responsibility on him was almost palpable as he explained why he, the leader of a country with a powerful military, was prepared to cede land to an enemy that poses no serious military threat.

The time has come, he said, to put an end to the continuing cycle of violence. "We who have fought against you say today, loud and clear, enough of blood and tears. Enough."

Watching him, listening to him, we understood that it was Yitzhak Rabin whose endorsement we needed to hear.

Shimon Peres may have been the architect of the peace plan, but it is Mr. Rabin -- the general, the no-nonsense pragmatist -- who made us feel just a bit more comforted by the idea that he is fully aware of the risks in what he is doing, that he is not about to jeopardize the security of the Jewish state.

For the people of Israel, there is great hope mingled with fear. The promise and the dangers are each very real.

There is the prospect of a more normalized society, a strengthened economy, an end to dangerous army and reserve duty for virtually everyone. Yet there are worries about making Israel more vulnerable, setting in motion a possible Palestinian state dedicated to, at best, laying claim to Jerusalem.

Yet if there is to be peace, the new and delicate relationship will emerge not only from the signatures of statesmen but from the daily intercourse between Arab and Jew in the land they grudgingly share.

For the Jews of America, though, the distance between us and our Israeli brothers and sisters seems greater today. We are painfully aware that they are the players and we the observers.

And we have our own readjusting to do. We have to think about how our elaborate Jewish communal system may -- should -- change with the prospect of peace.

Will we need as many organizations advocating Israel's cause? Will our great fund-raising machine sputter if Israel's survival is no longer a daily concern? What will motivate us as Jews, as givers, if the Twin Towers of Tzedakah (charitable giving) -- the Holocaust and Israel -- are increasingly more distant?

Will we as a community begin to turn inward, focusing more on issues of Jewish identity and education in the diaspora rather than on missions to Israel where we grew accustomed to being briefed by generals on the latest conflict?

Some Israelis believe that the best thing American Jews could do for Israel is to revitalize American Jewry. These Israelis realize that the stronger our community is, the more we can help them politically and socially as well as financially.

Israelis don't need us to worry about their security. They are all too experienced in doing that over four and a half long and bloody decades of statehood. What they do need is for us to support their efforts and address the threat to our own survival, not from bullets but from boredom.

As Mr. Rabin would say, "It's not so easy." But it's necessary. And in that way, perhaps, the possibilities of peace will bear fruit not only for the Jews of Israel but for American Jewry as well.

Gary Rosenblatt, former editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York, where this column also appeared.

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