[First in a series. In part, a journal of a speaking tour hosted by J Street on the West Coast, and in part, reasons why I threw out my prepared remarks before I even got there.]
Ahead of a New Orleans address to the General Assembly [GA] of the Jewish Federations of North America, sources quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as having said that there is fundamental support for Israel within the United States.
"We may have lost Thomas Friedman, but I don't think we lost America," Netanyahu was quoted as saying.
I was getting ready to leave for the airport, when my wife caught me unawares. This was the first inkling I would have of something I was to learn again and again:
Where it comes to any issue of the Mideast conflict, and where it comes to questions relating to the complex relations between the U.S. Jewish community and Israel, you can either answer in three hours, or in one sentence. This was hers:
"You know what it is - American Jews are divesting from Israel."
This is what I was to see in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Marin County, Portland and Seattle. It's not that they're getting involved in significant numbers in the divestment movement. It's that American Jews are divesting emotionally. They are quietly – but in terms of impact, dramatically – withdrawing altogether.
Not just Jews. Americans. And the younger they are, that is, the more crucial they are to Israel's future, the more likely they are to divest.
That evening before I left, we had just watched the Israeli version of Meet the Press, very often a dreary affair, soporific domestic politics, the perfect sound track for a late Saturday snooze. But this one was different.
This time the guest was The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. And not the coolly analytical pundit you're used to. This time he was talking directly to Israelis, and directly to their prime minister. There was an urgency and a passion in his voice, in his gestures, his eyes, that suggested why this was different.
This time it was personal.
"You are losing the American people," Friedman warned. "Not to dislike, not to opposition - they are fed up, fed up with the Palestinians, believe me, fed up with the Mideast in general.
"But they're also fed up with Israel. When they see their president working hard to try to tee up an opportunity. All we're asking is just test - go all the way to test whether you have a real partner.
"And you say 'No, first pay me - let Pollard out of jail, have Abu Mazen sing Hatikva in perfect Yiddish, and then we'll think about testing.' It rubs a lot of people the wrong way."
Given a consensus among Israeli analysts, rightly or wrongly, that the man they called the world's most important commentator was speaking not only for himself, but directly for Barack Obama as well, you can bet that Benjamin Netanyahu was listening.
It says everything about the Netanyahu government's attitude toward America, however, that what the prime minister heard was the polar opposite of what Thomas Friedman said.
"Israel doesn't have to worry about me," Friedman had stressed early in the interview. "At the end of the day, Israel will have my support - it had me at hello."
But many Americans, Friedman continued "just are fed up with this conflict, and over time, that will become a national security problem for Israel, given the fact that the United States is your only friend."
Long term, American emotional divestment, Jewish and non, may well prove more of a threat to Israel's future than Ahmedinejad and his bomb factories, or Nasrallah and Mashaal and their rockets.
Netanyahu's sanguine All Clear on grass-roots American support for Israel dovetails beautifully with pre-GA statements by Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky.
"Of course there are arguments about whether this policy or that policy is more productive," Sharansky said in the course of a West Coast swing of his own, dismissing the earthquake engendered by Peter Beinart's "Failure of the American Jewish Establishment."
"But basically there is no question that Israel is playing more and more a central role in the identity of American Jewry, and that American Jewry needs Israel as the best tool to guarantee its own survival as a Jewish [community]."
Sharansky's proof? "I just spent two days in San Francisco and spoke to the leaders of the [Jewish] Federation there. The main task they face now is figuring out how to send all those who want to go to Israel on short trips and long trips."
Sharansky is a brilliant man, a genius at chess and at foiling Soviet human rights policy and Israeli peace overtures. He knows and has taken advantage, as only an immigrant can, of every weakness of the Israeli personality. How ironic, then, that he should fall victim to one of the worst of them:
As the continued political survival of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak demonstrates, Israelis have a fatal weakness for the magnificent Ahbal, the omniscient blockhead, the ostentatiously intelligent person who knows everything except the one thing he really needs to know: Everything that he doesn't.
What's fatal about it? What makes Ahbal Syndrome, until recently Israel's most closely guarded secret, the silent killer?
The one sentence answer: The Palestinians have figured it out, and American Jews are now catching on.
Question: What do the Palestinians know about Ahbal Syndrome that Netanyahu, Sharansky and Barak do not?
Answer: The Palestinians know what they have to do to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.
Question: What's that?
Question: You want to explain that?
Answer: The Palestinians know, and American Jews are catching on, that no matter how many non-Jews Lieberman forces to pledge allegiance to a Jewish and democratic Israel, no matter how many ways Netanyahu can require the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state which neither Egypt [peace treaty since 1979] or Jordan [since 1994] were asked to recognize – on that very day, 15 or 20 years from now, on which there are more Palestinians than Jews in Israel and the settlement-riddled West Bank – on that very day, Israel ceases to be, not only a democracy of any kind, but it ceases to be a Jewish state.
Question: You really think North American Jews care about that?
Answer: That's what they're telling me.
Question: What else are they telling you?
Answer: Many of those who support Israel but who oppose many of its policies feel caught in a bind, slammed by the Israel - It's All Good! [and Palestinians Are All Bad] Faction if they criticize Israel when it's warranted, and by the Zionists Never Deserved a State for Their Crimes Against the Palestinians Faction, when they dare declare support and, yes, love.
Question: What are you telling them?
Answer: Read Part Two, to be posted within a week.
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