Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The University of Missouri’s Hillel Center was the only Jewish game in town when, more years ago than I care to think about, I was its student president.

There was no Jewish congregation in Columbia, Mo., back then, so when a church came looking for someone to talk about Judaism to a Sunday School class, I would be sent. One question always arose: What are the Jews exactly — race, religion, culture, nationality, ethnic group?

None of the usual, neat categories really fit, until I hit on one familiar to everybody in the class. “We are,” I said, “a family.” Heads nodded in recognition. Everybody had one of those.

I could remember overhearing conversations around the kitchen table as a child: Yes, the grown-ups might agree, after much discussion and even a little shouting, Uncle Moysh or Cousin Abie was a bum who would never make it on his own, but, nu, we had to help him make a fresh start. After all, he was mishpucha — family.

No wonder “Moonstruck” has become my favorite movie over the years; it’s really all about one thing from the opening scene to the last toast: A la familia.

I can’t remember being quite so proud in quite this way of the family as I was this past week, when the news was full of images of Jews being forced out of their homes — this time by other Jews.

The self-control of both settlers and soldiers required a kind of courage not even war may demand.

It had taken 8,000 Israeli troops to capture Gaza in the Six-Day War, when Gamal Abdel Nasser was going to drive the Jews into the sea. It would take a force of 50,000 — trained, disciplined and almost all unarmed — to remove the settlers from the Jewish settlements planted there after the war.

Young soldiers, many doubtless in agreement with the settlers, carried out their orders with tears in their eyes. Troops joined in prayers with those who resisted before carrying out their orders. An Israeli general oversaw the evacuation of his children and grandchildren from their homes. Young women in the army, assigned to look after the toddlers, took confused youngsters to the waiting buses while their parents went limp and were carried away, almost gently.

Pleas alternated with insults. (“How can you do this? You have a Jewish heart”). There was much shouting and gesticulating — for we are not from the hand-mute peoples — but in the end the soldiers did what they had to do, and so did the settlers. It was as if both sides were practicing passive resistance.

It was one noisy, emotional, voluble, even theatrical scene after another, but it all went more smoothly than almost anybody had expected. Yes, some young agitators, the kind of two-week warriors urging families who had lived in Gaza for two decades to put up a fight, began throwing paint, acid, oil, sand — anything they could — at the troops. They only disgraced themselves.

Ariel Sharon, who had planted these settlements, said it pained him to order their removal, but at the sight of these attacks on troops and police, his pain turned to rage. One woman set fire to herself in protest — talk about un-Jewish. And in two separate incidents, one in northern Israel and the other on the West Bank, two Jewish terrorists murdered innocent Arabs in hopes of foiling the evacuation.

No one in Israel, certainly not in authority, defended the killers. They had shamed their people and were denounced. Whatever they had hoped to accomplish, the evacuations went on.

And will go on. Even if these withdrawals set the stage for the next war — Arab extremists are already shouting “First Gaza, then Jerusalem” — at least when it comes, Israelis will know they tried to avoid it by pulling out of the most controversial, and most vulnerable, settlements.

It must be done despite the heart-wrenching scenes. It may look as if the people of Israel are divided. But despite all the shouting and cries, the protests and political divisions, it’s all in the family.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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