Jewish World Review August 14, 1998 / 22 Menachem-Av, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin Holding on to our heroes

A FEW YEARS AGO, while conducting an interview for a story about American volunteers in Israel's War of Independence, one of the veterans stopped me with an interesting observation. He said he was worried that the only thing Jewish youngsters were learning about was "degradation and humiliation." Why, he wondered, weren't we providing them with more stories of Jewish heroism?

Heroes? Do we even have any left? Looking around the American political and cultural landscape, one could readily conclude that ours is not an age of heroism. Though smashing icons has always been part of American politics and culture, it has probably never been so prevalent as today. It seems as if we live in a time where heroism, devotion to duty, and sacrifice are foreign to our way of thinking. After Vietnam, Nixon, and now Bill Clinton, cynicism seems to be the defining characteristic of the American voter.

Patriotism is back at the movies

What's more, the values for which our heroes once stood are themselves often called into question. And of all those values, it is patriotism which is often considered the least fashionable and the hardest to defend. Yet despite all of our debunking, the hunger for heroes remains.

And for proof of it, one need look no farther than the latest smash-hit movie produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, "Saving Private Ryan." The World War II movie, which depicts the bloody D-Day landing at Omaha Beach and a fictional search for a lost soldier, has been packing the theaters and playing to rave reviews. But aside from the graphic depiction of carnage and suffering endured by the American soldiers who landed on the Normandy coast, what struck me the most about this very good film was how conventional it was.

Take out the blood and gore (as well as the superior technical production) and it was little different from all those old war movies that I saw as a child. It seems as if our need for heroes — such as the ethnically diverse all- American (though all white) squad of "Private Ryan" is still alive and kicking. Americans wish to think well of themselves and there is no better way to do that than to honor the veterans of the crusade against Hitler.

As the proud son of one of those veterans, I'll admit to taking pleasure in doing so (the appearance at a crucial moment of the film of a P-51 "Mustang" fighter- bomber -- the plane that my father served as a crew-chief for during his three years of service in the 8th Air Force during the war -- gave me a special thrill).

The post-Vietnam rejection of American patriotism is long past. "Private Ryan" shows that it is permissible once again to celebrate America as a nation dedicated to the cause of freedom rather than to concentrate solely on the idea that it was born in sin and atrocity against blacks and Indians. To cheer the flag which opens and closes Spielberg's film doesn't mean that we ignore the troubling aspects of our history. It does mean that we choose to define ourselves by our heroes and not our villains.

Where are our Jewish heroes?

But what of the Jewish heroes? In a year when we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the re-birth of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel (handed to us, as Natan Alterman's poem put it, on the "silver platter" of those who died in the War of Independence), there should be talk of little else but heroes. Though the veterans of that war have been recognized, there is also a tone of cynicism that seems to permeate Jewish discourse about Zionism these days that is disquieting.

Judging by much of the literature and film one has seen coming out of Israel in recent years, it appears at times to be going through its own painful adolescence. Israel's cultural elite is very much caught up in the passionate debates about the peace process which makes it unlikely we'll see any patriotic blockbusters coming out of the Israeli film industry any time soon.

Though the Israeli army remains a popular institution, Zionism which gave the Zahal its purpose, is itself under fire.

Blasting Zionist "Mom and apple pie"

The principal target this month is the most venerable of Zionist institutions: the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The JNF is pretty much the Mom and apple pie of Zionism. It is the fund founded by Theodor Herzl to buy back the Land of Israel to provide a home for the Jewish people in the land of their ancestors.

Its blue and white pushkes are ubiquitous in Jewish life. It is under attack these days because a growing segment of Jews — both in Israel and here in America — no longer can abide its historic mission. Namely, redeeming the land. In the eyes of some like the Labor party's Yossi Beilin it is an anachronism which is an embarrassment in this new age of Jewish "post-Zionism." In press releases from left-wing Jewish groups and in articles in The New York Times, the JNF is now the evil landlord evicting a helpless Arab family from their ancestral home in the Silwan district of Jerusalem (which is also the historic site of King David's city).

This is ironic because it was only a few years ago that the JNF was under attack from the Zionist right for being insufficiently interested in supporting settlement in the territories. Now it is the left attacking the JNF for supporting settlement!

That the home in question is on land which is owned by the JNF, and therefore the entire Jewish people for whom it acts as representative, is not in doubt. The Ghuzlan family, who squat on the land and pose as the victims of Jewish perfidy—themselves sold the land more than 70 years ago. Their fraudulent claim dates back to the time from 1948-1967 when half of Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan and Jews were forbidden to live in the part of Jerusalem (the historic City of David) where the house is located.

The courts ruled on this issue, but that doesn't seem to matter to the left- wingers who support the Ghuzlans. That the Ghuzlans are trying to cheat the Jewish people out of a piece of Israel doesn't matter, as Shlomo Gravetz, head of the JNF in Israel, neatly put it. Nor are they interested in the plight of the family -- who are land speculators and would probably love to accept a generous settlement from JNF but are prevented from doing so by the threat of retribution from Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority who want the controversy to continue. What they don't like about it is that the JNF is asserting Jewish ownership to land claimed by Arabs (especially land Arafat would like to use as a future capital of "Palestine"). This doesn't amount to "transfer" or treating Arabs unfairly. It does mean that the JNF — the heroic institution of Zionism — is now seen as somehow immoral because it defends the rights of the Jewish people to Jerusalem.

Indeed, the idea of trying to bring Jewish life back to all parts of the country, including the Galilee and the Negev, is also under attack. Some now see this process of Jewish return as "racist" and inconsistent with a value system that no longer views Zionism as a righteous cause. Jewish self-loathing on Jerusalem That this notion is rejected by most Israelis goes without saying. But a nation whose raison d'etre is called into question by much of its academic and cultural elite has serious problems. What matters here is not so much the details of the legal ownership of one plot of land (infuriating as the misinformation being put about JNF's foes is). The point of the controversy is that trashing institutions for political reasons will exact a cost. If JNF goes, a lot that we cherish will go with it.

If, in a fit of self-loathing, we sacrifice the JNF, a lack of heroes will be the least of our problems. Like the flag which waves over the graves of heroes in "Private Ryan," the JNF is worth defending.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association highest award: First Place in The Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing. The Rapoport award is named for the longtime editor of the Jerusalem Post and was given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 1997 Simon Rockower Awards dinner in Cleveland on June 18, 1998.


8/07/98: Three strikes, but they continue to play
7/23/98: Zionist vs Zionist
7/17/98: Summer news stories: Large and small
7/13/98: A step closer to school choice
6/26/98: The Holocaust Museum and Mort Klein
6/12/98: What price Jewish education?
6/5/98: Ten books for a long, hot summer: A serious vacation reading list for Jewish history lovers
5/29/98: Double standards here and there: Hypocrisy raises its ugly head in Israel and the U.S.
5/26/98: Hartford Seminary tangle points to bigger issues
5/22/98:The importance of being Bibi
5/14/98: The ‘dream palace' of the anti-Zionists: Hartford Seminary controversy has historic roots
4/26/98: All-rightniks versus the alarmists: Focussing on the Jewish bottom line
4/13/98:Of ends and means and victims
4/5/98: Hang up on Albright
3/29/98: Bigshots or activists?: Clinton's three clerics return from China
3/27/98: Will American Jews help Clinton push Israel into a corner?
3/22/98: Anti-Semitism then and now
3/15/98: Still searching for Jews at the opera
3/11/98: Remembering Eric Breindel
3/8/98: Getting lost in history
3/5/98: Follow the money to Hamas
2/22/98: Re-writing "Anne Frank" - A distorted legacy
2/15/98: Religious persecution is still a Jewish issue
2/6/98: A lost cause remembered (the failure of the Bund)
2/1/98: Economic aid is not in Israel's interest
1/25/98: Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find

©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin