Albert Vorspan - my friend Kenny's Father - A Wonderful Man

Al Vorspan. Photo courtesy of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism


Al Vorspan, 1924-2019: A Portrait in Mentshlikhkayt

February 25, 2019
PROGRESSIVE AMERICAN JEWS have often been mistrustful and even scornful of mainstream Jewish leaders. The critique runs something like this: Their organizations are dominated by wealthy donors and overpaid executives; they claim to represent the Jewish community but are unelected and unaccountable; they withhold and actively suppress criticism of Israel’s occupation policies; and they treat the Jewish left as invisible at best, and antisemitic at worst.
Albert Vorspan, who was the vice president and social action sparkplug of the Reform synagogue movement from 1953 until 1993, was a standout exception to this portrait: He never earned a six-figure salary; he was not a rabbi and had none of the grandiloquent pretentiousness common to that profession before women came in and changed rabbinical culture; he rooted his leadership in the congregations of Reform Judaism, visiting them endlessly over the decades, and inspiring them to launch social action committees.
He also was a dissenter on Israel; a passionate Zionist since his youth in St. Paul, Minnesota, Al was appalled by Israel’s betrayal of his own idealism. In 1988, he faced sharp ostracism and broken relationships with other professionals in the American Jewish community after writing a hand-wringing piece in New York Times Magazineabout Israel’s brutal crackdown on the Palestinians during the First Intifada. Hardly anyone else in the Jewish mainstream was criticizing Israel for its twenty-plus years of occupation and settlement-building, but Al saw what he described as “the political and moral bankruptcy of Israeli policy” and predicted the “danger of alienation unless there are Jewish voices of dissent that publicly address the anxieties Jews share . . . The longer this disaster continues, the greater the danger of Jews’ simply turning off and turning away from Israel.” 
Though I hadn’t yet met him at the time, my awareness of Vorspan’s “difference” led me to invoke his name in a rural highway diner in New York in 1984. Burning up my unemployment insurance benefits after leaving my post as assistant editor of Jewish Currents, I was anxiously trying to figure out what my next career move might be. My wife Susan and I were sitting at the counter, with only one other customer in the joint. Susan was lobbying me to stop working as a “professional Jew” and to try to find work with a leftwing publication like The Nation or Mother Jones. “Maybe I could do that,” I replied, “but if I could take what I know into the liberal Jewish mainstream—if I could work, say, for Al Vorspan!—I would happily do that and spare myself the job search.”
That “only other customer” turned out to be Al’s brother-in-law. He came right over, dragged me to the pay phone, and we called Al Vorspan together. Two weeks later, Al and I were coauthoring a children’s book. He then handed me over to Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, his boss at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who retained me as a speechwriter for the next 13 years. (“And you call yourself an atheist,” Al later said to me.)
Al himself was a terrific writer, a satirist in the vein of Mark Twain or Sholem Aleichem. His book titles included Start Worrying: Details to Follow; So the Kids Are Revolting . . .?; and I’m OK, You’re a Pain in the Neck. It was his political writing, however, that had the most enduring impact. In 1961, Al coauthored the founding documents of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) in Washington, DC, creating an institution to embody the movement’s commitment to “prophetic Judaism”—and especially its commitment to the civil rights movement. Both the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 were drafted at the RAC. Al himself attended numerous civil rights actions in the South and tried to nudge Southern Jewish Reform congregations to support the anti-racist movement. Arrested in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964, where Al joined 16 rabbis who had been invited by Martin Luther King, Jr. to help undermine segregation, he collaborated on a jailhouse letter that declared that “injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria . . . ” Later in the 1960s, Al was among the first “professional Jews” to write in dissent against the Vietnam War. 
But my favorite of his writings was quieter, more personal. “My Wife Has Alzheimer’s, But She’s Great in Bed,” which Al wrote at 92, and which we published in Jewish Currents, was a poignant piece of rhyming verse that described his wife Shirley’s decline into the disease, and how lying with her, holding hands in their bed, would keep her calm whenever her evening terrors descended: 
Sometimes I simply lie there and cry
While she prays, she says, that I won’t die
The night is long, the sleep arrests
Our terrible sense of hopelessness . . .
By then I was visiting Al about twice a month at Woodland Pond, a continuing care facility near my home, which he described as his “Last Resort.” Al’s mentshlikhkayt (full humanness), which I had observed over the years I was speechwriting for Schindler, had aged like the proverbial fine wine: He was still brimming with fantastically entertaining stories and jokes, but his chastening trials—his wife’s Alzheimer’s, his own prostate cancer, his uncertainty about paying the bills for this expensive Last Resort, his dependence on his children, his loss of professional status—had leavened his personality with introspection, elevated generosity, and emotional accessibility. We shared lots of laughs, lots of “shop talk,” and several very intimate conversations. I fell in love with the old man, and I was delighted to accept his invitation to help him produce his final work, Dying at Ninety-Five Is the Least of My Worries, a forthcoming scrapbook of writings (he was still producing new material) and photographs that span a remarkable life of striving for social justice.
At Al’s funeral service this week, Rabbi David Saperstein, whom Al mentored and hired to lead the RAC, recounted how at many of Saperstein’s appearances, people asked him to send their personal regards to Al Vorspan. This came, Saperstein said, from people who had met Al only once or twice, but felt the power of his attention, his energy, his humor, his mentshlikhkayt, and therefore felt certain that Al would remember his encounter with them.
Al clinched my devotion to him after his beloved wife of 72 years died last August. I left on a two-week road trip before the funeral, and I failed to make a condoling phone call. Within days, Al was calling me—not to upbraid me for neglecting him, but to make sure I was okay. I was floored by his assumption of my own mentshlikhkayt, and by his concern for me in the midst of his mourning. I pledged to myself that I would start fulfilling the mitsve of gemilut khasadim, lovingkindness, more diligently in this life; I told Al that I loved him and that I would be back at work on his book very soon.
Lawrence Bush is editor emeritus of Jewish Currents and the author of PINKO JEW: Essays and Artworks.
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May 8, 1988, Page 006040The New York Times Archives
NEW YORK, DEC. 9, 1987: Riots have erupted in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The networks show scenes of rampaging Palestinian youths hurling rocks and insults, Israeli soldiers firing back. Is this it? Has the pot boiled over at last? Twenty years of occupying an alien people, and now on our television screens a harvest of rage. Has the nightmare begun? DEC. 21: Everybody I talk to is as upset as I am, depressed and anguished. The Israelis can't cope. In the territories, it is spontaneous combustion. The press reports that some young Arabs have stood up to Israeli troops, baring their breasts and daring the soldiers to shoot. How can a humane, democratic society respond to such desperation?
Something fundamental seems to be happening. The moral equation has changed. Whether we accept it or not, every night's television news confirms it: Israelis now seem the oppressors, Palestinians the victims.
Arguments rage about riot control, live ammunition, rubber bullets, deportations. But the underlying issue is the political and moral bankruptcy of Israeli policy. And now Israeli Arabs have declared their solidarity with their Palestinian brothers and sisters. One of them, interviewed on the news, makes an analogy that turns my blood cold: just as you Jews, though American citizens, share a deep, almost mystical kinship with Jews in Israel, he says, so we Arabs, though Israeli citizens, feel a profound sense of connection with our Palestinians in the territories. CHAPPAQUA, N.Y., JAN. 8, 1988: I'm at Temple Beth El for a scholar-in-residence weekend. A snowstorm wipes out the Friday service, but the weather improves Saturday and we gather in the temple's library.
It's painfully obvious that each of us is following the grim events with deep emotion; we are implicated. It's not like discussing a foreign issue. It's about us.
Beyond any issue in recent years, American Jews are traumatized by events in Israel. This is the downside of the euphoric mood after the Six Day War, when we felt 10 feet tall. Now, suffering under the shame and stress of pictures of Israeli brutality televised nightly, we want to crawl into a hole. This is the price we pay for having made of Israel an icon - a surrogate faith, surrogate synagogue, surrogate God. Israel could not withstand our romantic idealization. Israel never asked us to turn it into a kidney machine to pump some Jewish blood into our moribund lives.  (Continued after gap below - I can't get rid of)
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Some members of the congregation are prepared to accept the bitter normalcy into which Israel has descended, but most are not. Israel must behave like a Jewish state, they say, measured by Jewish ethical standards; it must be better than Iran or Jordan or Syria. I pick up the prayerranquillity, then, maybe, talks. quire of us? Only to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with thy God,'' recalling that the prophets judged first and foremost their own people. The majority here seem to share my view. NEW YORK, JAN. 14: An informal staff meeting at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. What should the U.A.H.C. do or say? Last November, our General Assembly adopted a strong resolution condemning the status quo in the territories as dangerous to Israel's security and its survival as a Jewish nation. While acknowledging that the Arab world, except for Sadat, had refused to recognize Israel's right to live, we had warned against the demographic time bomb in the territories and urged prompt negotiations to end the occupation.
But what good would it do to say ''We told you so''? Maybe it would advance Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres's plan for an international peace conference, which Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir rejects. But should we get involved in the middle of the Shamir-Peres fratricide? Besides, the new conventional wisdom is that it is crazy to expect any negotiations while the riots persist. Israel will not reward violence, will not negotiate under the gun. First tranquillity, then, maybe, talks.
But what if the riots don't end? What then?
Some of us are upset about the position of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Its chairman, Morris Abram, seems to be putting a kosher stamp on everything - shootings, deportations, excessive force. Yet our group and several others represented believe in taking a more critical line. Somebody suggests we join the other critical organizations in issuing a separate joint statement, urging Israel to begin negotiations now. But many worry that speaking out now will hurt the seeming unity symbolized by the presidents conference, or that it will stir acrimony within the Jewish community - or be used by Israel's enemies.
Do the Israelis understand the profound impact of the disturbances on the American Jewish community, on American public opinion, and - at least potentially - on Israel's support in Congress? Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the president of our group, has been telling them; Henry Siegman, director of the American Jewish Congress, has been telling them; even Morris Abram has been telling them, privately - so have many other Jewish leaders. But do the Israelis really care about our opinion when they face issues vital to their national security?
David Saperstein, director of our Religious Action Center in Washington, describes the deep disquiet on Capitol Hill. No serious erosion of support has emerged, but great unhappiness lurks beneath the surface. Nobody needs to say it. The $3 billion in aid and the military alliance represent Israel's margin of safety. But the arrangement is not written in stone. WASHINGTON, JAN. 18: The Israeli Embassy has invited Morris Abram, Queens College sociologist Steve Cohen and me to present our assessments of the uprising's impact. I fly to Washington with very mixed feelings. In 40 years of service in American Jewish organizations, much of it devoted to Israel, this is the first time I can remember the Israelis' asking for my opinion.
Our audience consists of about 30 Israeli officials from consulates all over the United States. Abram speaks first. He is skillful and graceful, describing the impact of the events and the harm done by the news media, but stressing the American Jewish community's undiminished support.
My turn. I apologize for the harshness of my judgments and language, but (as I tell them) I see no point in my being here if I am merely an echo of Morris Abram. In my view, Israel is facing more than an image disaster. It is facing a moral and political catastrophe.
Yes, the media have overdosed on the violence. But for us to scapegoat the media as the heart of our problem is to engage in a colossal act of self-delusion. The central problem is the bankruptcy of the policy. Not only is a negotiating process essential to end that failed policy, it may be a necessary prelude to ending the uprising itself. Israel is perceived not only as the oppressor, but as a country with a Government divided against itself, in total gridlock, incapable of any political initiative.
As for the American Jewish community, I believe it is in trauma, that there is a danger of alienation unless there are Jewish voices of dissent that publicly address the anxieties Jews share. There are deep divisions within the Jewish community that the presidents conference and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council cannot paper over. The longer this disaster continues, the greater the danger of Jews' simply turning off and turning away from Israel.
Finally, while it is true that American public opinion has been strong and sympathetic to Israel, it is very volatile. Yes, Americans prefer Israel to the Arabs by 5 or 6 to 1, but that is partly because they have a racist and stereotyped view of Arabs. Indeed, Israel and the Jewish people have contributed to the demonization of the Palestinian people. The Arabs have demonized the Jews as well; but let us admit that Golda said the Palestinian people did not exist, that Begin likened them to ''two-legged beasts,'' and that Israeli politicians routinely equate Palestine Liberation Organization terrorism with the Palestinians themselves, thus stripping this people of any humanity and any dignity.
The Israeli officials seemed to appreciate neither my analysis nor my candor. They hurled their questions at me like stones: You worry about our dehumanizing the Arabs, you think they do not dehumanize us? Can you tell us how to achieve order without force? My son is doing his military service on the West Bank, are you saying he is a beast? With whom should we negotiate? And who are you to tell us about these things, anyway?
Only two Israelis seemed to be grateful that I had come and said my piece. One was Ambassador Moshe Arad himself, the other the Israeli Consul General in Atlanta, who is an Israeli Arab and is now under fire from some Jewish racists in Atlanta. NEW YORK, JAN. 19: As we get up in the morning, my wife, Shirley, and I listen as National Public Radio's Israel correspondent describes a new Israeli Army policy of ''breaking the bones'' of Palestinian demonstrators. The army, he says, is dragging Palestinians out of their homes and deliberately breaking their bones. Palestinians with broken hands can't throw stones, says an Israeli spokesman.
We listen in stunned disbelief. Is this possible, or has some reporter gone crazy? No, it is not possible, it cannot be. My stomach is queasy. Shirley is near tears. But when I get to the office nobody mentions it, so it must have been a phony report. Deliberately breaking bones? Israel? Come on. . . . JAN. 21: The New York Times confirms Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin's proclaimed policy of administering ''force, might, beatings'' to deter violence in the territories. Shamir says this will put ''the fear of death'' in them. The hospitals are filling up with Palestinians whose arms and legs have been deliberately broken by soldiers and settlers.
If all this is true, Israel has lost its moral compass, has become a nation in panic. Op-Ed columns are savaging Israel. I have been a Zionist since I was a child growing up in St. Paul. Is this the fruition of Zionism? JAN. 22: Alex Schindler, a Reform rabbi and the president of my group, calls from Los Angeles. He can't sleep, too upset. Alex is thinking of sending an open cable to President Chaim Herzog of Israel. Herzog won't like it, but it has got to be said. How can anyone take us seriously if we are silent on the beatings policy? What help can we be to Israel if our silence brands us as mere apologists? But going public with criticism means breaking the unwritten law: Jewish organizations don't attack Israel, at least not out loud.
Still, if anybody can and should do it, it's Alex Schindler. Schindler's support as chairman of the Conference of Presidents at the time was crucial to American Jewish leaders' acceptance of Menachem Begin when he became Prime Minister in 1977. Begin was a hawk, allied with Orthodox parties, an ex-terrorist. Schindler was liberal, a peacenik. But he immediately liked Begin personally (a feeling that was reciprocated) and decided that the first non-Labor Prime Minister in Israel's history deserved the support of American Jews.
Schindler, then, had the credibility to make the point that the policy was so damaging to Israel's reputation in America that even so deeply committed a Zionist as Alex Schindler was forced to protest. NEW YORK, JAN. 25: Everything has hit the fan. The story about Alex's open letter to President Herzog, along with lengthy excerpts, occupies the entire front page of New York Newsday. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times give it lots of space, and the networks play it big in the evening. It's a thunderbolt. You can almost hear the sighs of relief from staff members at the U.A.H.C. office and, I sense, from large segments of the Jewish community.
Morris Abram presides at an emergency meeting of the presidents conference, called to assess the awful press Israel's been getting. For many present, however, its Schindler-bashing time. How dare any Jewish leader run to The New York Times to make publicity out of Israel's troubles?
''What is this hubris, this chutzpah, this moral arrogance?'' an official of a Jewish community relations agency demands. ''When Israel was shooting and killing Palestinian rioters, he was silent. Now Israel has a policy of force to avoid shooting and he blasts them publicly?'' With a look of utter disdain, he notes that the media have been beating a path to his door, but he absolutely refuses to cater to the media at Israel's expense. Much applause. Simcha Dinitz, once Israel's Ambassador to the United States and now newly elected chairman of the Jewish Agency, urges ''restraint,'' so that the presidents conference can continue to be the vehicle of united Jewish support for Israel. I reply that on some issues, the conference has no consensus - just as there is none in Israel; that the sky will not fall if a voice of disagreement with Israel's policies is raised; and that our joint credibility will be shattered forever if an unnatural silence should descend upon the entirety of American Jewry in this moment of ultimate testing. Moreover, if Alex Schindler, of all people, must be defended against the belief that disagreement constitutes disloyalty, we are all in big trouble. Dinitz interrupts to say: ''Look, I did not even mention Alex's name, so why do you assume I was talking about him and his statement?'' WASHINGTON, JAN. 27: The founding meeting of the United States Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East. I'm one of the signers of its statement calling for reconciling Israel's security with Palestinian self-determination.
I have been asked to participate in the press conference, along with several Middle East experts, representatives of Protestant denominations, and the Roman Catholic Church. Hundreds of Jews signed the original manifesto, but only a handful are here. But who are all these Palestinians? Do I know what I'm getting into? On the other hand, what good does it do to spend your life talking to your Jewish clones about Palestinians and never getting to know any?
The press conference room is jammed. I recognize a few familiar faces, but where did this army of Palestinian and Arab reporters come from? I make a brief statement -pointing out that Jews and Palestinians have been joined at the hip by geography and destiny and that our survival requires mutual recognition - before the questions rock me: Will you call for sanctions against Israel? Support a P.L.O. state? When will you demand a cut-off of American aid to Israel? What plan do you have for the ultimate solution to Jerusalem? I become angry. I tell National Public Radio that if the Arabs had not attacked Israel in 1967 there would be no occupation, that if the P.L.O. had not betrayed the Palestinians they would have a homeland already.
One of the Arab speakers says his family was wiped out by Israeli terrorists in his village of Deir Yassin, but his Moslem faith compels him nonetheless to seek peace and mutual recognition. How many other Arabs are saying that? A couple who did were assassinated by the P.L.O. This guy's got guts. I'm not comfortable here. I'm even anxious about my fellow Jews, all controversial doves whose views I have criticized in the past - a past when establishment types like me were content with the received wisdom about the Middle East.
The best speeches are by the Israeli Mordechai Bar-On of Peace Now, and Hanna Siniora, editor of the East Jerusalem Arabic daily Al Fajr. After Siniora speaks, he refers a question to an intense Palestinian in the audience, who delivers a passionate case for a Palestinian state. Who is that guy? I ask. Oh, I'm told, that's the P.L.O.'s Washington director, the one whose office you guys just closed down.
What am I doing at a conference with a P.L.O. official? I have always regarded the P.L.O. as an international Manson gang. On the other hand, where has Israel - and American Jews - gotten over the years by not talking? One by one, the premises of our position are coming unstuck. The rocklike fortress is coming loose, stone by stone. NEW YORK, FEB. 8: Executive committee meeting of the U.A.H.C. - an opportunity to gauge the sentiment of Jewish lay leaders, at least Reform ones. Even a distinguished Orthodox rabbi and a prominent Conservative rabbi both publicly criticized Alex - for going public. That's the new Jewish schizophrenia: think one thing, say another.
We have shared with committee members copies of Alex's cable as well as President Herzog's public response, which took sharp issue with him, asking: What would you have us do? One officer reports on a Jewish federation breakfast in Florida that became a frenzy against Schindler. Others report hostile reactions in their communities. Some said he should have said it, but privately. Overwhelmingly, however, they express pride in Alex's courage. Alex reads his draft response to Herzog's message. They all want copies, but nobody comments on the fact that Alex is sending this one as a private message. LOS ANGELES, FEB. 14-17: The annual plenum of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council - representing a dozen national Jewish agencies and a hundred or so local Jewish community councils - is the most serious of its conventions I've attended in 40 years. Although the program includes sessions on the end of the Reagan era, the status of the Christian Right, civil rights, poverty, Soviet Jewry, apartheid - affirming that American Jews are still liberal, still more than a single-issue community - this time there really is only one issue pervading the halls, the elevators, the talk in the bar: the place is electric with Israel.
I take part in a panel on anti-Semitism with Earl Raab, director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, and Gary Tobin, a Brandeis University sociologist. Earl offers scenarios according to which the Israeli crisis could cause a severe anti-Israel backlash among the American public and in Congress, pointing out that before the Six Day War, Israel was neither a favorite of the American public nor the recipient of massive American aid. Today, he says, though public support for Israel remains high, it is shallow and volatile. While antipathy for the Arabs continues high, there is real danger of ''a plague on both your houses'' attitude.
Part of the problem, I blurt out, is that we in the field of Jewish community relations have lost sight of our role. We have ceased to be Jewish champions of social justice and become cheerleaders for failed Israeli policies. We have served Israel ill by suppressing frank discussion of the Palestinian issue - the ''P word.''
The Jewish community is regarded as a mouthpiece, a lawyer who defends his client no matter what. We have no business defending the indefensible, whether it is beatings, the Pollard affair, Irangate, or the Iraqi pipeline scandal. Honest criticism of Israel is now impossible in American politics; indeed, any candidate who said what I was saying would be savaged by us. Does this help Israel's cause?
We owe Israel our support, yes, but we also owe to it our best judgment, our honest disagreement, and our conscience. It is utter delusion to think we can stop public criticism, keep the lid on the pot.
To my surprise, I get a burst of applause - mostly from the younger delegates. Later, some of my colleagues belabor me for exploiting a panel on anti-Semitism to justify Schindler's speaking out. Maybe they're right. But I was still glad I said what I said. JERUSALEM, FEB. 25-MARCH 3: The organizers of this year's Jerusalem mission of the presidents conference have developed a program of workshops on the Israeli media, economy, public opinion, ethnic tensions, relations with the Jewish Diaspora. But the overarching issue is the uprising. As we arrive, controversy rages over a CBS report about four Israeli soldiers' protracted beating of two bound Arabs.
One of the delegates of the presidents conference, presiding over a panel of Israeli and American newsmen, observes that a discussion of the news media is needed because of the ''sensationalist'' and ''unbalanced'' reporting of events. Israeli authorities have told us, she informs the meeting, that press reporting of the incidents is inaccurate, that 750 foreign reporters are in the territories looking for anti-Israel fodder, and maligning Israel's good name around the world.
The first panelist, Yossi Goell, columnist for The Jerusalem Post, replies that the media are not anti-Israel, the existential situation is biased against Israel: armed soldiers against unarmed civilians, mostly youngsters. Israel could not possibly win this propaganda war. Television is biased, yes, but not against Israel; it is biased toward showbiz and its penchant for blood on the rug. It is tempting but wrong to ban the press. Media are needed, Goell says, to limit excesses, prevent atrocities.
Dan Fisher, Israel bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, coldly rejects the idea that the media are biased against Israel. My job is not to write nice things about Israel, he says, but to tell the story. I'm a journalist; I'm not here to protect anybody's image, but to report reality.
Martin Fletcher of NBC concedes that occasionally the camera provokes the violence, but more often the presence of the Israeli troops does. Dan Pattir, former press adviser to Prime Ministers Rabin and Begin, remarks that Jordan and Syria managed to liquidate the P.L.O. in their countries without worrying about the media coverage.
In the question period, the seething frustration boils over. Reporters slant the news to please their editors, one delegate declares, and it is naive to say they are not seeking to shape the politics of the situation. There is a subliminal pro-P.L.O. bias, asserts another. ''You should call your paper the 'P.L.O. Post,' '' a delegate sneers at Goell, you're the most biased of all. Why don't you report how the Arabs refuse to accept the existence of Israel? Do you ever show the wounded Israeli soldiers in Hadassah Hospital, another delegate demands, or only the Arab wounded? Do you really pretend that you are objective?
Only Kafka could have done justice to the closing session: a glittering banquet in Jerusalem's newest and most resplendent hotel - the Hyatt Regency - which appeared to be devoid of guests; a few miles away the raging civil rebellion was entering its third month, with no end in sight. In the territories, a day of sporadic violence; in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, life seemed to go on as normal. Earlier, we delegates had strolled through the Arab quarter. There seemed to be a few more soldiers around, but not many. At the Western Wall a small crowd of worshipers stood at prayer.
For those who remembered nostalgically how terrible the food used to be in Israel, the handsome menu given us in this posh but empty hotel (''rainbow of smoked fish mousse, braised roll of rib eye in fruity cabernet . . .'') was another sign of the times: Israel laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.
Morris Abram was at his Georgia-born charming best as he thanked Prime Minister Shamir, the guest of honor, for the courtesies extended to us by so many members of the Cabinet and Knesset. Abram also declared that the ''present situation'' could not continue - which the right-leaning members of our group could interpret to mean the riots, and the more moderate members could interpret as a call for a political solution. He expressed gratification that the American initiative was continuing and that Secretary of State George P. Shultz was returning to the area. Considering the deep political and philosophic differences among the organizations, Abram once again succeeded with almost acrobatic skill in reflecting a basic consensus, which, while real enough, papered over deeper conflicts that mirrored the policy disarray in Israel itself.
Then came the turn of our distinguished guest. Things were not all that complicated, the Prime Minister said. The riots were essentially the latest chapter in an unremitting war against an Israel that had always sought peace and still does. Yes, Shultz is a good friend - but only Israel can and will judge its own security needs. The impact of the civil unrest? It is damaging, and, although Israel is a democracy, ''we have to consider taking steps, like closing parts of the country to the media, to reduce the damage they are doing unjustly to the state. They don't want to listen to us; they are looking for Arab sources. Some of them even live in Arab areas and get their information from their neighbors.''
This sounded strange, because we had heard that the American networks all had Israeli cameramen, and we had also seen that the Israeli media were at least as critical as the Western press.
Having attended to the media, Shamir took aim at dissenters in the American Jewish community: ''It is inconceivable that, God forbid, any American Jews would permit themselves to be used in the campaign against us, even if they have criticisms or doubts . . . regarding some of Israel's policies.'' Jews abroad have a ''moral duty,'' he declared, to ''support the Israeli Government, never a foreign [ read United States ] Government against Israel. It is absolutely un-Jewish and very dangerous to join an anti-Israel front with non-Jews.''
Denouncing criticism from Jews abroad, the Prime Minister said that Arabs exploit such criticism by ''first, driving a wedge between Israel and American Jewry, and then between Israel and the U.S.'' He called on the ''responsible'' Jewish leadership to clamp down on such criticism. He expressed hope ''that the great American Jewish community will have sufficient strength to put an end to this criticism.''
''It's up to you,'' he said. ''Every critical statement of a Jewish leader does much more harm than many violent demonstrations in Gaza and elsewhere.''
I was too stunned to take advantage of the question period. One distinguished American rabbi rose and pointed out that while there were differences among American Jewish groups, he wanted to urge the Prime Minister to dig in his heels and not to let anybody [ read: Shultz ] push Israel around. So much for the voice of prophetic Judaism. Shamir whisked out of the room and the delegates fell upon the dinner - at least those whose stomachs were not too queasy. How could we sit there and receive those verbal stones and not respond? BOSTON, MARCH 17: Addressing a joint social-action conference of Reform and Conservative sisterhood women, I touch on a host of issues in the current social and political scene before even mentioning Israel. But it's no help. The questions, which are mostly tough, even barbed, zero in on one issue: ''I admire you, but I am disappointed that you take it upon yourself to criticize Israel at such a time.'' ''You and those Peace Now people do not represent Israel or the Jewish people.'' ''You talk Palestinians, but that really means P.L.O., and they are still bloody killers - look at their latest butchery on the bus in Dimona - so how can we negotiate?''
Is Shamir's digging in his heels against American pressure evoking a defensive circle-the-wagons mentality among American Jews, as it apparently is doing in Israel? Is the tide of American Jewish public opinion moving to the right, as in Israel? NEW YORK, MARCH 20: Prime Minister Shamir meets with the presidents conference to report on his talks in Washington. If the Shamir mission was a failure, as many believe, you would not know it from him. The American-Israeli relationship, he assures us, remains excellent; there is full agreement on the goal of peace, but understandable differences on the means to it.
The international conference proposed by the Americans, he repeats, would be a way to gang up on Israel and impose a settlement, not contribute to peace. The only way to peace is through direct, face-to-face negotiations with the Arab states. Yes, he accepts United Nations resolutions 242 and 338, but implies that giving up the Sinai under Camp David satisfied the resolutions' requirement for territorial compromise.
''When Israel decides, the Jews of America must support it,'' Shamir says. ''We are on the front line.'' Those who speak out publicly do harm, and especially if they encourage foreign governments (read: United States) to pressure Israel.
In the question-and-answer period, each speaker rises to pay tribute to Shamir for standing firm against the United States. ''We are 100 percent behind you,'' one says. Another blasts those American Jews who think they have a ''right'' to go public in their criticism.
That does it. I get up to ask a question, but it doesn't turn out to be a question. ''Mr. Prime Minister,'' I hear myself saying, ''Jews are united in a commitment to Israel and its security, but we do not serve you or Israel by telling you whatever you want to hear. Given the fact that the people and the Government of Israel are divided right down the middle, isn't it obvious that American Jews are going to be divided as well? And if Israelis are embroiled in debate over these issues, isn't it to be assumed that American Jews will be debating these issues as well?
''And, Mr. Prime Minister, isn't it the worst way to build unity by equating disagreement with a particular policy with disloyalty to the Jewish people, and to Israel?''
Shamir lowers the boom: yes, there are arguments, but Israel must decide, and under no circumstances do American Jews have the right to contribute to American Government pressure on Israel. Stormy, sustained ovation. I feel like Daniel in the lions' den. O.K., that's telling me, but telling me what? Shut up and mind my own business? Israel - love it or leave it? Are those of us who are lovers - but critical lovers - of Israel going to permit ourselves to be marginalized?
I make my way out, with several leaders taking their shots along the way. ''Now you know how unrepresentative you are,'' one says. ''In that room, yes,'' I say. ''Out there, no.''
Back home, I turn on the radio and listen to the news: The first Israeli soldier has died at the hands of a Palestinian. WASHINGTON, APRIL 12: Meeting of the full Commission of Social Action of Reform Judaism. Gen. Yehoshafat Harkabi, former head of Israeli military intelligence, tells us that to continue the occupation indefinitely will bring on the ''Belfastization'' of the West Bank. Territorial compromise is essential to Israel's security.
But even here, where territorial compromise is widely accepted, positions are so nuanced that we spend hours debating our own position paper. Somebody passes out a national survey on Americans' views toward the Middle East, just published in The Los Angeles Times. It finds American Jews overwhelmingly support the United States proposal for a Middle East peace conference, approve of public dissent, wish Israel to come to ''some sort of accommodation with the Arabs in the occupied territories'' - and hold a more favorable opinion of George Shultz than of Yitzhak Shamir.
I remember the comment at the Shamir meeting in New York three weeks before: ''Now you know how unrepresentative you are,'' they had told me. I smile faintly, thinking of that, and feel more hopeful about the future.


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