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Jewish World Review August 5, 2002 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

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Passing the Test | When the history of the current Middle East conflict is written, Israel's killing of Hamas chieftain Salah Shehada may not turn out to be a decisive moment in the Jewish state's war on Palestinian Arab terror.

While the attack on Shehada's hideout was justified -- civilian casualties notwithstanding -- there will be other murderers to take his place. And despite signals that the Palestinians'' determination to go on pursuing their bloody war of terror against Jews is waning, there is no end in sight to the violence.

Soon enough Shehada, and even the innocents who went to their deaths because he hid among them, will be forgotten. If there is anything we should have learned by now, it is that this war - that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat launched in September 2000 --- never seems to run out of victims, both Israeli and Arab, or killers.

But the Israeli bombing of Gaza that targeted Shehada deserves to be noted for other reasons. It provided a clear test of the good sense and steadfastness of American supporters of Israel, who found themselves in an uncomfortable position when the front pages proclaimed that Israel had killed 14 Arab civilians, including nine children.

It was, perhaps, the moment that Israel's critics had been waiting for: a seemingly clear-cut case of Israeli wrongdoing that could stampede the hitherto solid American Jewish consensus behind support for Israel's right of self-defense against terrorism.

Unlike the invasion of Palestinian Arab towns and cities in April after the Passover massacre and other horrible terrorist attacks on Israeli targets, the Gaza bombing could be portrayed as pre-emptive rather than reactive.

And though much of the world press was quick to cry "massacre" during the brutal house-to-house fighting in the Jenin refugee camp that month, the charge had not resonated as easily among Americans. Indeed, it was soon proven to be a transparent hoax, and never gained traction here.

But the facts of the Shehada attack were plain enough. If Israeli intelligence thought they could take him out without killing others, they were mistaken. The decision to use an American-made F-16 jet to deliver the bomb to be dropped on his lair, combined with the initial laudatory reaction reported from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (which made no mention of the civilian casualties), created a situation tailor-made for Arab propaganda. The pictures of dead children being held aloft during the ghastly funeral procession for Shehada by his many fans in Gaza were enough to make even the most steadfast of Israeli supporters blanche.

But as the days passed, it became clear that the hopes of the anti-Israel crowd and the fears of Israel's friends were similarly misplaced. There had been times in the past when the leaders of American Jewish denominations, as well as some public policy groups, had run for cover when Israel was depicted as the villain. One such instance was the beginning of the first Arab intifada against Israel in December 1987, when the late Yitzhak Rabin - then serving as defense minister - promised to "break the bones" of Arab rioters and was denounced by many Jews.

But it didn't happen this time.

Though the temptation to stand in moral judgment over Israel was, no doubt, tempting for some of the self-infatuated leaders of American Jewish organizations, most resisted. Condemnations only came from two insignificant left-wing groups, while just about everyone else either kept their mouths shut or worked furiously to put the incident in proper perspective. While some Israelis folded in the face of condemnation and were even prepared to make concessions to atone for the operation, most American Jews held their ground.

Indeed, it wasn't long before the media was being swamped with letters and e-mails defending Israel's actions. And though regret over the deaths of civilians was nearly universal, their arguments were powerful.


Few Americans could deny that the actions of our own armed actions during the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan were any more pristine than those of the far more fastidious Israelis. Nor could anyone here credibly claim that if American forces knew the location of Osama bin Laden's hideout that anyone in this country would care whether the terrorist's entire extended family - or even the population of a small city - were with him if U.S. bombers attempted to take him out.

Not that there weren't a few left-wing Jews willing to jump on the anti-Israel bandwagon. So-called alternative American Jewish voices who earn their notoriety - and talk-show invitations - via ads in The New York Times were quick to castigate the Israelis.

Others picked up on the not-so-subtle leaks from the U.S. State Department (where Secretary Colin Powell and his clique are still pouting about President Bush's rejection of their anti-Israel policies in his June 24 speech) that claimed that a cease-fire might have been achieved but for the killing of Shehada.

This, too, was a familiar line of argument, since several times before when a leading terrorist had been eliminated, Jewish leftists were quick to believe that Israel's counterattack, rather than the continuing Palestinian terror campaign, was to blame for the violence.

Some Jewish leaders who might have wavered held fast. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and someone who has not been afraid to criticize Israel in the past, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that some in the Reform movement wanted him to attack Israel for the Shehada incident. Many congregations, he said, had even wanted him to condemn the mythical massacre in Jenin. But he refused, and was proven correct.

"There has been substantial unity [in support of Israel] because there has been substantial unity," Yoffie said. Why has the consensus held? Because unlike those times in the past, such as the 1982 war in Lebanon or the 1987 intifada, when all too many American Jews allowed themselves to be stampeded by the anti-Israel crowd, this time we know what is at stake. Even hard-core political liberals understand that after September 2000, the old arguments of right and left became obsolete. The only thing left was to stand with Israel and to pray for its success.

The memory of the gruesome evidence of the countless terror attacks on Israeli civilians has been imprinted on our hearts and minds. The overwhelming majority of American Jews know Israel offered the Palestinians a generous peace two years ago. And they know it was Arafat who chose war instead of that peace.

Yes, a few dozen Jews can always be found to demonstrate against Israel - or in favor of media that is biased against Israel - but this signifies nothing. No one should question their right to say what they want. But the pretense that their actions represents a crack in the Jewish consensus is a joke.

A few loudmouths notwithstanding, American Jewry has passed a crucial test of solidarity. Despite our grief at the continuing toll of the conflict, Israel's friends should take heart from this development. Israel's enemies should note this moment with despair.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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