The myth of Jewish harmony in a changing world

March 05, 1998|By Jack L. Levin

THE half-century since the founding of the state of Israel has been a time of unaccustomed unity and uncharacteristic harmony for three generations of the Jewish people.

After centuries of homeless wandering and dispersion among alien and usually hostile cultures, after discrimination, oppression, persecution, the agony of the Holocaust with its helplessness and grief over the slaughter of loved ones, after the growing anxiety in the United States over whether it could happen here with the increasingly open anti-Semitism shown by industrial and professional giants and demagogues, Jews rejoiced in the establishment at long last of a Jewish homeland, a haven, a place of refuge.

The early struggle

Israel became the bond that held us together. We supported it with funds, energy and love. We shared the tension and desperation of Israel's early years when its survival hung in the balance. We shared the jubilation over Israel's military successes, as a bastion of democracy in the Middle East and a staunch ally against the then-Soviet Union, and politically with such dynamic leaders as David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir.

We celebrated when Israel repelled attacks by five surrounding Arab nations, and its resounding triumphs in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur Arab attacks. While differing on religious practices and dress code, we were united in euphoria over Israel.

Now there is a sea change in our attitude and relations with Israel. It is no longer the focus of our community life. Fund allocations to Israel have dropped. Although older Jews are still emotionally tied to Israel, many younger contributors are not. Jewish education and local Jewish issues now have priority.

Controversies between the extreme Orthodox minority and the majority of Jews in the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular and ethnic camps are dividing the Jewish people.

So what else is new?

Tradition of rebellion

Such disputes among Jews have been going on for thousands of years. I was involved in one that divided us just before Israel declared independence: the clash between supporters of the Haganah, Israel's regular army, and the Irgun Zvi Leumi, the Organization of the National Army, the upstarts led by Menachem Begin (who later became premier).

Haganah supporters wanted funds and arms provided secretly to be held for anticipated Arab attacks. We backed the Irgun because it was actively fighting the British occupiers, who were turning away from Israel the rickety boatloads of desperate Holocaust survivors.

That conflict is being commemorated by the Jewish Museum of Maryland in an exhibit, "Bridges to Zion," concerning the relationships between Maryland and Israel, including the American League for a Free Palestine and the activities in Baltimore of three local citizens -- James Swartz, a former Marine and businessman; Oliver B. J. Krastell, a West Baltimore Irish-Catholic furniture retailer; and myself, as promoter and publicist.

Despite the opposition of most of the top Jewish leaders toward us maverick troublemakers, we put together the highly successful rally for Israel, the largest assemblage of Jews ever in Baltimore history.

Some 14,000 of us packed the 5th Regiment Armory and overflowed onto Hoffman Street and Linden Avenue. Amplifiers had to be set up so the crowd outside could hear and respond to the pleas of Irgun army officers for funds and support.

Approximately $30,000 was raised for arms. While the officers were perceived by the establishment as a band of disrupters, radicals and worse, we saw them as freedom fighters, like American minutemen of 1776, striving against enormous odds to drive out the oppressive British occupiers.

Fighting back

We had for years cringed at constant press and radio reports and newsreel shots of German-Jewish citizens degraded and humiliated by leering storm troopers. We hailed Jews who were ready to die rather than to submit to enemies. We had been ashamed of our designation as members of the "martyr race." The all-time underdogs of history, the world-class victims were finally fighting back.

When the five Arab nations attacked Israel, the experienced Irgun troops joined forces with the Haganah. The league was then no longer needed.

That was far from the first dissension between rank-and-file Jews and most of their leaders.

Such infighting has been going on for thousands of years. In the beginning was the conflict between the Sadducees, the influential ruling class that observed only the written law, rejecting the oral law, and the Pharisees, the common people who followed both written and oral law, including the concepts of resurrection and immortality. (Jesus began as a Pharisee.)

During the Roman and Greek oppressions, the Sadducees often sided with their masters, while the Pharisees fought them.

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