Another Kind of Orthodoxy

Another Kind of Orthodoxy
APRIL, 1988


In 1988, the Jewish peace movement here began to be visible.


            Police barricades, sunshine and a good stiff breeze: Demonstration weather. West 88th Street last Sunday was jammed; you could hear the shouting a block away. Grace Paley, one of the speakers, who could see the whole crowd from the platform, estimates 3,000 people came and went during the afternoon. Not only did they come, they actually listened to the speeches, visibly thinking, working things out. The air had that heady feeling of a genuine coming together, a movement being born.
            Supporters of Israel's Peace Now movement had called a rally, and New York Jews were finally taking their politics to the streets. Not Mayor Koch's Jews, or Commentary magazine's, or the ones represented by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. These were the other Jews, part of the vast majority, according to a nationwide poll of Jews by the Los Angeles Times, who think Israel should enter negotiations to resolve the Palestinian situation, They rallied because they don't like the beatings and killings in Gaza and the West Bank, the deportations, the Greater Israel land grab.
            Under-organized, politically demobilized, full of questions, but tired of letting others speak in their name, they came out, inspired by Peace Now in Israel, to hear speeches and telegrams, like the one from former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Abba Eban : "Forty years ago, Israel made a contract with the world to receive universal support for statehood but to share territory and sovereignty with the neighboring peoples."
            Many of those on the platform had opposed the Likud government's expansion policy for years. Others represented the young organizations that had pulledthe demonstration together. And since no family party is complete without discord, the Jewish Defense League, barricaded at one end of the block, had come to scream curses and insults.
            "Bang bang!" replied my 3-year-old son, shooting from the hip, Like the fresh-faced JDL boys from Riverdale at the demonstration, he is a warrior, at least in his dreams. But my husband and I are trying to teach him the difference between fantasy and real war.
            "This way to the gas chambers!" yelled the JDL. "Traitors! Hymies!"
            "Why are they calling us Hymies?" said my daughter, a peace-loving 13-year-old. "Aren't they Jews?"
            "I'll tell you later," I said, and made my way up to the front so I could hear the speakers. Journalist Aviva Cantor was addressing a recurrent theme: Do American Jews, cozy in the Diaspora, have any right to criticize the Israeli government when our own lives are not at stake?
            "For years we've prided ourselves on being partners in the Zionist enterprise," she cried. "What kind of partner is a silent partner? What kind of partner lets her partner commit national suicide?"
            It was good to hear a woman's voice in political debate. I missed such voices during the recent primary. Women played a major part in organizing this rally, and there were more of them, proportionately, on the platform than I remember from rallies during the Vietnam days: Aviva Cantor, Grace Paley, Leslie Hazleton, Elissa Sampson, Rabbi Joy Leavitt. It's funny how people never think of women when they call on American Jews to comment about something in Israel. You'd think they could ask the president of Hadassah once in a while, instead of always picking somebody like Morris Abram.
            The day has passed when those who wish to describe reality with any accuracy could afford to overlook women's perspectives. To dramatize this fact, a group calling themselves the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation has begun holding peace vigils every Monday at the office building of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The fabric of social change is woven of such small threads.
            It is time for a change in the American Jewish community. Until World War II , open debate among Jewish organizations was the rule, to the point of fistfights in coalition meetings. The shock of the Holocaust, combined with the sudden birth of a Jewish state and its success in fending off its enemies, triggered a silence that has lasted 40 years. All the time of my growing up, the gag rule prevailed—no debate, no criticism. Don't talk, just raise money.
            No wonder so many of my generation fell off the edge of the Diaspora. Silence isn't natural for Jews; as God told Moses, we're a stiff-necked bunch. Our whole culture is based on argument. Those who treasure our life as a people should welcome the current clamorous struggle as a sign of renewal.