One day back in the late 1980s, during another interminable cocktail party in another New York Jewish office suite, I had the good fortune to find myself in a quiet corner with Malcolm Hoenlein, then recently installed as executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. It turned into one of those easy chats that switches effortlessly from reporter-and-source to sparring partners to old friends and back, like an afternoon on a porch swing. I commented on how far he had come, not yet 40, to be the nominal voice of American Jewry, for whatever it was worth. Then I was struck by what seemed like an important moment of transition: Here he was, a young Orthodox Jew, onetime Soviet Jewry militant, succeeding the late Yehuda Hellman, an aging, European-born Labor Zionist. And wasn’t it striking, I thought aloud, that he would be the one convening a community in which many if not most of the pivotal institutions were still led by Labor Zionists like Hellman? Recently I had done a head count, on a bet with another friend, and found that 12 of the 48 organizations then members of the Presidents Conference had staff directors who were Labor Zionists, despite the movement’s tiny size.
Not so odd, Hoenlein replied with a grin. Don’t forget that Israel has changed. Labor has been out of power now for a decade. America will change, too.
It wasn’t a new thought, but it hit me emotionally. Having grown up in a Labor Zionist family in New York, marched in the parades, joined and then left a kibbutz, I had been raised to think of our type as the natural leaders of the Jewish people, Ben-Gurion’s lieutenants. Those of us who didn’t stay on a kibbutz ended up, more often than not, as union organizers, federation schnorrers or Conservative rabbis. Our guys were in the first groups of radicals that went to Spain in the 1930s and to Alabama in the 1950s, and we were the first kids recruited by the secret Prime Minister’s Liaison Bureau to slip into the Soviet Union with Haggadahs and organizing leaflets in the 1960s.
But, I thought aloud, maybe it was more than that. I had been taught that we Labor Zionists were a glue that held the community together, the one group that was liberal enough to march with the leftists and communists, yet Jewish enough to talk to the Orthodox and even have them over for dinner, umbilically linked to Jerusalem yet always ready to argue when we needed to (and even when we didn’t).
Just the point, Hoenlein said, thinking, as always, four steps ahead. Now it’s my type, he said, the Modern Orthodox, that’s becoming the glue, the ones who can talk to everyone from the black hats to the Reform — allied in Jerusalem to the Likud, yet still bound by history and sentiment to Labor. And, he added, our guys are the ones leading the modern version of your pioneering kibbutz tradition, the West Bank settler movement. You watch, he said. In 10 years, you’ll be seeing a lot of knitted yarmulkes like mine sitting in those pivotal chairs where you guys were.
I thought of that chat repeatedly this week as I drank my morning coffee in New York and read the daily papers from Israel. They were filled, page after anguished page, with reportage on the growing threat of confrontation between the settlers and the army over Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza-West Bank disengagement plan. The head of the Judea-Samaria-Gaza Settlers’ Council, Pinchas Wallerstein, publicly called for the first time this week for settlers to resist evacuation with their bodies, to engage in civil disobedience and be dragged to jail, like Gandhi and King. Groups of Gaza settlers began handing out orange stars to sew on their shirts, to make it clear who was who in the looming confrontation. Perhaps most shocking, West Bank settlers reportedly began sabotaging army vehicles.
And, of course, the endless pages of commentary. The right thundering against Sharon’s deceptions and the mortal threat of a new terrorist state. The left railing against the arrogance of the settler fanatics and the threat of civil war. But the dominant theme, running through and rising above all else, was sadness. Most Israelis, thinking with their heads, disagree with the settlers, even violently, and hope for their defeat, but none with a Jewish heart could fail to sympathize with their agony. The settlers were on fire because they now knew they were about to lose their life’s work. No, more than a life’s work: a fundamental belief system — belief in a sacred land reunited and an ancient kingdom restored — crumbling before their eyes. Ami Ayalon, the former spy chief who recently joined the Labor Party, said the other week that nobody could lead Israel out of the territories and restore ties with the Palestinians who was incapable of weeping for the pain that this would cause. Israel’s withdrawal from the territories, the amputation that will save Israel’s life, means the collapse of the settlers’ vision of the world as it could and should be.
And I thought, yes, I know exactly what that feels like. It’s awful.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).