In New York last month, it took some doing for critics of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza to sneak in to his appearance before a carefully chosen audience of leaders who could be counted on to cheer decorously at the appropriate moments.
But when Lt. Col. Lior Lifschitz spoke to a group here in Philadelphia a couple of days later at an event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Israel and Overseas, it took no effort at all for a number of dissenters to be part of the small audience for his talk about the challenges facing the Israeli military.
But for both Sharon and Lifschitz, the man in charge of training officers and soldiers for the difficult duty of evacuating Gaza on Sharon's orders this summer, the result was much the same. Though both could probably count on the applause of most American Jews, a not-insignificant number of those who care about Israel are appalled by both Sharon's plan, and the preparations Lifschitz and others are making to carry it out.
In Sharon's case, his talk was interrupted by hecklers, who were then dragged out by security. But since junior officers always have to do the dirty work that generals can avoid, Lifschitz was forced to listen to the critics and face their questions without the aid of a bouncer.
As is fitting for a serving officer, Lifschitz was at pains to point out that nothing that would happen this summer was actually the army's idea: "The government decided. The army must do it," he said bluntly. "This is democracy."
IT'S GOOD FOR ISRAEL
As for the politics of the move, Lifschitz would not take a side. But he did make a telling point when he recalled that the Gaza settlements were created by government policy, and not by the settlement movement.
"The government put us there. The government can take us out," he said with finality.
When he said that Gaza was "occupied territory," and "didn't belong to us," Lifschitz seemed to be saying that the consensus of the country was that it would be better off without it. In his opinion, the Gaza plan was "not a retreat. It's good for Israel."
The demographic challenge that a million Arabs in Gaza presents to Israel seem to be an inarguable counterpoint to the plan's critics. And whether or not the withdrawal aided the peace process was, to the colonel, irrelevant. In his military opinion, it would be easier to protect Israel if the army were on the other side of the border with Gaza rather than inside of it.
A bit less reassuring was his assertion that the claims of the terrorist movements that they were driving Israel out of Gaza didn't matter.
"We have a strong army. We're not afraid of what somebody says," he boasted. Despite the victory statements from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Lifschitz claimed "we don't have to give them a thing."
As for the precedent set by Israel's last unilateral withdrawal, the pullout from southern Lebanon in 2000, the officer said that similar victory statements from the Hezbollah terrorists were also meaningless. "After a week, everybody forgot," he said.
Even less persuasive was his failure to mention that the widely held belief that terror had pushed the Israelis out of Lebanon inspired the Palestinians to believe that they could inspire a similar result in Gaza and the West Bank. And that, in the view of most observers, was a contributing factor to their decision to launch the intifada a few months after the last Israeli left Lebanon.
Lifschitz was rewarded for coming to speak with a series of stinging queries delivered by members of his audience opposed to Sharon.
Some who were there and who identified themselves as members of the Zionist Organization of America politely asked painful questions about the disposition of Jewish graves and homes left behind. Others pointed out that there were legitimate doubts about the benefits to Israel of a unilateral withdrawal, without proof that the Palestinians intended peace or took issue with his use of the term "occupied territory."
But still others were less diplomatic.
One woman questioned the integrity of an army that would follow immoral orders to evict fellow Jews from their homes. Going further, she said she could no longer support an Israel led "by that coward Sharon." The incongruity of an American who had probably never heard a shot fired in anger calling a man a coward who had been wounded numerous times in battle was lost on no one except the person who made the remark.
After another rebuke, Lifschitz snapped back that if the questioner was so sure he was right, then he should "come and vote in Israel."
And that, despite all of the effort spent on promoting Israel-Diaspora relations, is the crux of the matter.
Israel-Diaspora communication is a bit dicey even at the best of times. But no matter how passionate American Jews may be about Israel, they are there and we are here. Some of us may oppose settlements. Others may think efforts to revive the peace process are suicidal. But right or wrong, the decision must still be up to them.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?
If that is so, should they care about what we think?
Most Israelis would probably have agreed with Lifschitz when he said in frustration to one of his ZOA tormentors that the "government of Israel doesn't need to explain [itself] to you or anyone else."
True enough. But as more than a couple of audience members murmured, then what are you doing here?
The fact is that Israel does need us to understand what they are doing and would very much like us to support its policies. And even if we aren't prepared to act as cheerleaders for whatever their genius or folly has ordered up, they'd like us to at least keep quiet about it.
The instinct for most Americans is to salute when an officer with a combat record like Lifschitz or a leader with a lifetime's worth of service like Sharon shows up. But they shouldn't be too surprised when some of us fail to stand at attention. As deep as our differences with our Israeli cousins might be, we are, after all, members of the same contentious "stiff-necked" people.
When asked if it was more difficult to face down American Jewish critics or serve in Gaza, Lifschitz merely smiled. Perhaps it is easier to conduct a dialogue of the deaf than to face battle. But at least in Gaza, he could shoot back.