Politics: Holy War

A controversial anti-Obama letter that rocked the Jewish community — and the reputations of the prominent Philadelphians who signed it — brought the conflict in the Middle East to the banks of the Schuylkill

The restaurant’s chef-owner, 30-year-old Michael Solomonov, pops by our table. Solomonov has become something of a star in restaurant circles. When he overhears our conversation, he pulls up a chair, still in his chef’s whites. His parents still live in Israel, and he self-identifies as a passionate Zionist. Yet as dinner winds down, I find myself surprised that his views seem more moderate than those of a lot of other people in the Philadelphia Zionist community, such as the hard-liners who believe that giving an inch to the Palestinians will result in nothing less than Israel’s destruction. To many, the Zionists’ intransigence seems antiquated, unenlightened. But for those whose families were slaughtered 70 years ago, the position “Never Again” means not incurring any risk waiting to find out whether your enemies actually mean what they say — that they want to kill you.
“One of the only good things [Ariel] Sharon did was move out of Gaza,” Solomonov says, “and the first thing the Palestinians did once the Israelis were gone was burn everything to the ground.” His feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict are deeply personal — his younger brother was killed by Hezbollah snipers just days before he was due to get out of the army. “I guess my view of borders is skewed,” he says.
Hadar’s wife, Penny, interrupts. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but I think Israel has done enough. It’s time for the Palestinians to do something.” She was disturbed by much of Barack Obama’s campaign rhetoric, particularly his campaign promise of a clean slate in Arab-Palestinian negotiations. “How can it possibly be a clean slate after all that’s happened?” she asks. “It’s not a clean slate.”
I look over at Rachel, who’s been talking with Penny for much of the dinner. Talking, that is, about anything but Israel. It occurs to me that Rachel’s opinion is really most relevant, since she represents the vast majority of Philadelphia — and by extension, American — Jews: She identifies as a Jew only culturally, never attends services, has no express intention of marrying a Jew, and, though she’s visited Israel and found it to be “one of the most beautiful, interesting places I’ve ever been,” seems to see it more as exotic tourist destination than ancestral homeland.
“Obviously, I support Israel,” she says quietly. “But honestly, I don’t really know that much about it to have an opinion.”
It is this figurative shrugging-off of the topic by so many casual Jews that has the Zionists here so upset, resulting in both their renewed vigor to fight for Israeli sovereignty at any cost and the occasional over-the-line gesture — like a letter comparing electing Barack Obama to the Holocaust — that exposes their collective frustration.