While sitting in a local synagogue banquet hall listening to speeches about the Arab-Israeli conflict this past weekend, it occurred to me that I had spent most of my adult life doing just that.
As I scribbled my notes, I thought that it could just as easily have been 10, 15 or 20 years ago. We could just as easily have been discussing how to combat media bias against Israel in 1983 or 1988, as in 2003. The endless argument about Israel, its foes, and the rights and wrongs of the conflict drags on and on.
Those of us who care about Israel seem doomed, like Sisyphus, to continue pushing the rock up the hill.
To note this is no slight to the hundreds of activists who came together in the Philadelphia area for a conference of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Their zeal is pure, and their cause is just.
Combatting media distortions is a serious business, and Camera has played its role as the tireless gadfly well. Their campaigns pointing out the bias against Israel in the reporting of offenders such as National Public Radio and ABC anchorman Peter Jennings have been commendable, if not heroic.
But my sense of d?j? vu about of what was said at the conference leads me to conclude that much of the rhetorical back-and-forth over how the media is covering the latest permutations of the conflict ó be it Israelís security fence or the new Geneva peace plan ó misses the point.
NO SENSE OF HISTORY
Indeed, the plain truth is that a lot of the debate about these issues within American Jewry, coupled with attempts to make our case to the media establishment, is getting us nowhere.
Most pro-Israel advocates have been arguing vociferously for the last three years that the Palestinian rejection of Israel peace offers in 2000 ó and their decision to answer it with a terrorist war of attrition ó is proof of their unwillingness to make peace.
This remains entirely true, and should give us a great deal of insight about the myth that the next peace agreement lurking around the corner will succeed. But given the limited attention span of most Americans, Jews included, this fact is as much a piece of ancient history as the similar decision of the Arab world in 1947.
At that time, the Arabs also rejected the offer of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and chose war instead. Indeed, the refusal of the Palestinians to make peace at every point in the last 55 years is still pertinent, though few seem to care.
But to speak about 1947 or even 2000 is to go over the heads of much of our intended audience.
The lack of a sense of history ó or even a basic comprehension of the recent history of the Middle East ó is endemic among journalists and most ordinary observers these days. And as much as we labor to enlighten the ignorant, to say that we have been making much progress along these lines is to engage in mere optimism, not fact.
So what do we do?
The answer was provided by Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli think-tank scholar and a keen observer of the conflict and the oceans of rhetoric about it.
Steinberg, one of the speakers at the Camera event, pointed out that it was vital for pro-Israel activists to "shift the agenda" from one of arguing over whether or not "Israel is stealing Palestinian land," to one that goes back to basics.
What we need to do is to focus on the fact that the conflict is not about the fence or the settlements, or even why the democratically elected Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Israeli army are not the moral equivalent of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his terrorist thugs.
The fundamentally moral basis of having a Jewish state must be our cause because, as Steinberg put it, the "argument is still about that." The conflict is still about the right of the Jews to have their own state, and to live in it in peace and security.
The keynoter of the Camera conclave, the formidable Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse, made the same point, albeit slightly differently.
Wisse, who famously wrote many years ago that "Anti-Semitism was the most successful ideology of the 20th century," noted that if she were to amend that sentence today, it would read that it was also "the most successful political instrument" of the last 100 years.
Her point was that it was the use of Jew-hatred by Arab rulers, who employed it to distract their populations from their own nationsí lack of freedom, that had perpetuated the war against Israel.
This "magicianís trick," as she put it, enabled them to stay in power, but it also fostered a terrorist culture now beyond their control.
Attempts to appease this terrorist mindset by pressuring Israel are futile ó all of which should lead us to conclude that what we should still be focusing on is not so much specific issues, but the core principle of support for Israelís existence.
The assault on Israel from the Arab world and in much of the international media has as its goal, not the changing of some Israeli policies, but the delegitimization of Israel.
THE ANTI-ZIONIST DODGE
Many in the European and Arab media who engage in hate against Israel are quick to assert that they are not anti-Semitic, just anti-Zionist. But as much as we should be careful not to recklessly accuse all journalists who are critical of Israel of being anti-Semites, the anti-Zionist dodge must be exposed.
Anyone who isnít willing to allow the Jews the same rights of self-defense and sovereignty granted to every other population is a Jew-hater, not a legitimate critic.
This is a position shared by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a man who often differs with Camera on tactics.
In his new book, Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism, Foxman writes that "what some like to call anti-Zionism is in reality, anti-Semitism ó always, everywhere and for all time. Anti-Zionism is ... an expression of bigotry and hatred."
He goes on to note that "most of the current attacks on Israel and Zionism are not, at bottom, about the policies and the conduct of a particular nation-state. They are about Jews."
Seen in this context, it is readily apparent that much of the time the pro-Israel community spends arguing about details that divide along left- and right-wing lines is wasted. Whatís at stake here is still the survival of the Jews and their state. Itís as simple as that.
While many of us may be weary of the struggle, we must persist. This "war of words" as Wisse put it, continues.
It is, as she says, "a struggle that we dare not lose."