Liberal Jews are finding common ground with the right

by | Jun 3, 2002

Speaking in Los Angeles recently, on the eve of his Likud Party victory in opposing a Palestinian state, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his now-familiar approach to the Middle East: moral clarity. Coming as Newsweek reports that the GOP is courting New York’s Jewish Democrats, the fact that right-winger Netanyahu’s ideas were met […]

Speaking in Los Angeles recently, on the eve of his Likud Party victory in opposing a Palestinian state, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his now-familiar approach to the Middle East: moral clarity. Coming as Newsweek reports that the GOP is courting New York’s Jewish Democrats, the fact that right-winger Netanyahu’s ideas were met by the Jewish Federation’s 2,500 guests with several standing ovations means that American Jews are as eager for the right’s ideas on Israel as the right is eager for Jewish support. The White House would be wise to examine the root of Netanyahu’s appeal.

What’s especially revealing about the favorable reception isn’t what was said – Netanyahu has been all over the airwaves preaching a hard line against the Palestinian Authority – it’s who was applauding: mostly liberal Jews.

They came from across Southern California, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, young and old, filing into the hall up to three hours before the speech, which they had paid at least $50 to see. There were reform, orthodox and secular Jews. And there also were non-Jews; an Arab friend born in Jordan stopped me in the security line; he confided that he was wary of his family’s interpretation of Palestinian history and he wanted to hear Netanyahu.

Most welcomed Netanyahu’s alternative to the Bush administration mantra that, when it comes to Israel, peace must be negotiated with terrorists. Many came because they sense that Western civilization is under siege, and most told me they believe that peace is not an end in itself; since Sept. 11, they are more willing to agree with Netanyahu’s claim that peace is achieved when brutal thugs are put in their place.

Netanyahu provided a stern lesson in history: Britain was never told to negotiate with Hitler and, he said, when you’re being bombed by kamikazes, you don’t go man to man with each kamikaze- you go after the aircraft carrier.

But it was Netanyahu’s primary theme that left the crowd rapt with somber attention: Totalitarianism is the root of terrorism. In other words, Israel’s war against what Netanyahu called militant Islam is like America’s – the enemy is the same – and this campaign is one episode in the greater struggle against tyranny. The unspoken words that hung over the hall had been taught to most of its occupants: Never again.

“Netanyahu reminded us of the whole bloody history of the 20th century,” said Maury Abrams, a World War II veteran. “He brought tears to my eyes.” Abrams’ wife, Fran, an attorney, added: “Netanyahu was right on the mark on every issue. Western civilization is at stake. I’ve been a liberal all my life, but I’m finding myself aligned with the far right.”

Fran Abrams is not alone. Netanyahu’s prescription for unyielding self-defense also persuaded self-described liberal Sara Cannon, who attended the speech with her mother. “We’ve got to go after the regimes that sponsor terrorism,” she said, sounding like what a liberal would call a hawk. Cannon’s mother, 85-year-old Muriel Lehrman, was more precise: “My favorite moment was when he said you have to go to war with the states that are waging terrorism – Iran and Iraq.” That’s tough talk from an old woman, but Lehrman lived through World War II, and she understands Netanyahu’s moral clarity: no Palestinian state until the jihad ceases, no compromise with Arafat – and no more peace process.

Even the rabbis are fed up with the near-pathological emphasis on peace with those who sponsor and launch terrorism. During his brief talk, Rabbi David Wolpe denounced Europeanintellectuals, introduced a video presentation about Israel and urged the audience to learn from the past, when others preached self sacrifice and vowed to eradicate Jews from a particular region.

That liberal Jews are finally denouncing moral relativism – for now – and abandoning the path of acquiescence in favor of an unequivocal defense of Western civilization is encouraging.

Indeed, everyone stood for and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the fund-raiser, deemed Jews in Crisis, was properly infused with a sense that Israel is merely a prelude to fundamentalist Islam’s wider war against the West: America is the real target. When Netanyahu reminded the audience that fundamentalist Muslims claim Israel is Little Satan and America is Big Satan, the audience brimmed with nervous laughter.

However, as American Jews move to the right on the Middle East, the Republican president is paralyzed in the middle. Unwilling to apply the moral clarity he declared in the weeks following Sept. 11 to Israel, Bush has proposed the establishment of a Palestinian state, dispatched diplomats time and again in the wake of jihad terrorism, and has refused to renounce Arafat as a terrorist.

Bush, whose warning about an axis of evil has resonated with the nation, ought to consider the words of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who ordered an uninvited Arafat thrown out of a gala symphony concert in 1995, properly calling the intruder a terrorist: “I would not invite Yasser Arafat to anything, anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”

President Bush is instead mired in doubt – surrounded by countless Washington intellectuals, diplomats and former presidents, whose efforts are a failure, whose ideas are bankrupt and whose legacy is bloodstained. Bush must face the truth about the Middle East – the Arabs are at war with Israel – and replace the endless peace process with the unyielding might he once promised.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s urgent message, delivered before hundreds of cheering Gore voters, offered a profoundly American antidote to fundamentalist Islam: “Everyone is born with inalienable individual rights.”

While the Middle East crisis continues to dominate the headlines, Bush must first grasp the meaning of inalienable: it means non-negotiable; it means unconditional; it means absolute and, as the philosophical foundation of the West, including America’s ally, Israel, it must be defended absolutely.

After 50 years of compromise, appeasement and failed peace negotiations, a tense and determined meeting of American Jews demonstrates we may at last be ready to fight for it.

Scott Holleran's writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Classic Chicago, and The Advocate. The cultural fellow with Arts for LA interviewed the man who saved Salman Rushdie about his act of heroism and wrote the award-winning “Roberto Clemente in Retrospect” for Pittsburgh Quarterly. Scott Holleran lives in Southern California. Read his fiction at and read his non-fiction at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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