By IRA RIFKIN
Never again, I expect, will I see a similar sight in Annapolis: Two-dozen black-clad Neturei Karta anti-Zionists trading insults with a dozen or so black-clad Lubavitcher Hassidim – from the Rebbe is the Messiah wing, no less – separated by a couple of dozen black-clad local police, all of it unfolding just down the street from the main entrance to the United States Naval Academy. How utterly baffled those Maryland police must have been by this exotic display of Jew-on-Jew verbal battery.
Equally incongruous was the Budget rental truck a few blocks away, cruising round and round Church Circle at the entrance to Annapolis compact historic district. A large banner hung on its side urging – in Hebrew – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to forget about the Palestinians and concentrate instead on settling his nations long-running teachers strike. What did the locals make of that?
No matter. For one day – Nov. 27, 2007 – the Colonial-era brick streets of downtown Annapolis were given over to Jewish passions. Annapolis still retains many of its Southern ways, which is to say that after living here for almost 20 years I still experience it as being quintessentially gentile. Yet here they were.
American for Peace Now left-wingers and Zionist Organization of America right-wingers, Jews for Jesus and more haredim than anyone has a right to expect to encounter in a place known for crab cakes, sail boats and the George Washington having actually slept here. Jews from Israel (including the two striking teachers who went with the truck), Florida, New York, and elsewhere. I heard Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish.
In short, Jews of virtually every stripe, here to state their opinion again and again, and as forcefully as possible, to any one who would listen – but mostly to the scores of media reps lusting after a killer quote or visual – about the Middle East peace conference taking place behind the Academys high stone walls.
JUST ONE group of Jews was conspicuous by their absence: The Jews of Annapolis.
Other than a couple of local rabbis, me, and two others I ran into during the course of the day, the 2,000 or so Jews living in the greater Annapolis area (out of a total population of perhaps 75,000 plus) were no where to be seen. I of course dont know every Jew in town, particularly those that steer clear of the organized community, which is the majority, so I likely missed some. But it wasnt many. For Annapolis Jews, the Annapolis peace talks were just another media event.
This comes as no surprise. First, it was a workday. Perhaps more importantly, the sad history of failed peace conferences has given rise to a heard-it-all-before cynicism. So why get involved? Besides its a circus. I know this is the case in Annapolis, where Jewish ties to Jewish issues outside the immediate community are rather weak.
I serve as chair of my Conservative synagogues Israel Affairs Committee. Im too familiar with the level of general disinterest in Israel-related issues, not to mention the lack of knowledge, among the membership. One of the local rabbis I mentioned above told me that 90% of the members of his congregation also have little interest in Israel.
This, of course, is in keeping with national trends among American Jews. Survey after depressing survey tells us that American Jews, and in particular younger Jews, express similar disinterest. One poll by demographers Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman found that just 55 percent of the non-Orthodox American Jews under age 35 is comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state. Only 48 percent say Israels destruction would be a personal tragedy. There was one pre-peace conference event at which some Annapolis Jews participated. Two days prior to the Naval Academy gather, a Sunday, about 150 people turned out for an interfaith rally for Middle East peace. The speakers were Muslim, Christian and Jewish (I among them), as was the crowd, so I cant say just how many of those who gathered at a World War II memorial across the Severn River from the Naval Academy were Jews.
Afterward, the speakers all agreed that some sort of ongoing local conversation between the three faiths needed to be established. Currently, there is no real structured interaction.
Can this be the hook for raising the level of local Jewish involvement in issues – and maybe even Israel – that go beyond their individual congregations, that gets them to turn out publicly to express themselves? Can this be the Annapolis conferences long-term positive local impact?
As with the Naval Academy peace conference, the real work lies ahead. I figure we have a slightly better chance – how much Im not sure – of success than does wrapping up a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian in a year.
The writer is an author and journalist living in Annapolis