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How American Jews view Israel's latest Gaza assault

By Joe Sterling, CNN
updated 2:30 PM EST, Wed November 21, 2012

Atlanta (CNN) -- The code red siren blaring in Israel Tuesday hit close to home for Rabbi Adam Starr.

His wife and daughter are visiting the Jewish state, where Israelis have been darting for cover from daily Hamas rocket fire.

Starr breathed easy after he got off the phone with his wife.

"She's in Jerusalem," said Starr, leader of Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta. "She called me to tell me she is OK."

But he and others in his congregation and across the country remain anxious over the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

"We all have many friends and family in Israel," Starr said, referring to his congregants. "We're seeing on Facebook and Twitter our good friends and what they are going through, the complexities in trying to explain this to their young children."

Starr's angst underscores the close bonds between the American Jewish community and Israel, a relationship that predates the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.

American Jews long have felt an affinity for Israel as a bulwark against anti-Semitism and a refuge for a people escaping persecution and surviving the Holocaust.

Since its 1948 founding, Israel has fought wars with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians.

Conflict after conflict, U.S. Jewish groups and Jewish citizens have wielded grass-roots political clout to garner American support for Israel.

The bonds are underscored by their size. The world's largest Jewish community is in Israel at nearly 6 million people, according to estimates. The U.S. Jewish community is the second most populous at an estimated 5 million plus.

After Israel kicked off its offensive last week to stop Hamas rockets on Israeli communities, Starr and others in the U.S. Jewish community sent an SOS across the United States: Help Israelis. Send donations. Demonstrate for the Jewish state. Let our brothers and sisters in Israel know they're not alone.

Jewish groups staged rallies in cities across the United States, including Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. More than $5 million in pledges to help the battered southern Israel communities have poured in. Jewish leaders have traveled to Israel to show their support.

"You've seen a startling consensus," said Omri Ceren, a senior adviser with the Israel Project, a pro-Israel information group, from the right to the left from secular/cultural to religious groups."

Ceren said things were different when Israel launched its Cast Lead offensive in Gaza in December 2008 when, he said, not all American Jews were on board.

"There was naïveté in parts of the Jewish community to the effect that maybe President Bush's unpopularity and his refusal to appease" rejectionist Palestinian elements blocked peace.

After four years of continued hostility, he said, there is more of a clear-eyed view of the perceived motives of Hamas, regarded by the United States and Israel as a terrorist group that is backed by Iran.

The 2008-09 operation failed to loosen Hamas' hold on power in Gaza. The militant rocket attacks from the territory ramped up year by year.

Hamas remained staunchly anti-Israel and Israel's economic blockade to choke off the delivery of weapons from abroad has generated grass-roots support for the militant group.

"Now that naivete has become impossible to justify," Ceren said. "The claim that Hamas can be peeled away from Iran doesn't pass the laugh test."

Israel has massed troops at the Gaza border, and has threatened a ground offensive. Even though American Jews widely support Israel's right to defend itself from rocket fire coming from Gaza, there is disagreement about the best way to do that. Prior to the recently announced cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, there was much hand-wringing over the wisdom of Israeli ground troops re-entering Gaza.

Some hope a ground war will be avoided, but it's a hard call.

"It seems to be a no-win situation," said Max Rosenthal, active in the small Jewish community of Huntsville, Alabama.

Israel can't live with thousands of rockets coming in every single day. And it faces the challenge of trying to thwart Hamas without killing "huge amounts of people."

"If we go in with a truce, it'll be OK for a few months, then they'll start over again, they'll get more rockets in."

But Rosenthal and other U.S. Jews stress that the destruction of Israel is Hamas' avowed goal. And the future he sees is one of constant conflict.

"There's a feeling this is not going to end well, one way or the other," he said.

"My own feeling is a feeling of despair. I don't see any way of resolving it other than going in and wiping out Gaza and that is certainly not what anyone wants to do."

The executive director of J Street, a Washington-based advocacy group which bills itself as "the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans" questions whether further military action by Israel "would end the rockets and make Israel more secure" after Cast Lead.

"Today, rockets are more numerous and powerful. Israel is more isolated in its region and more ostracized around the world," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, JStreet executive director.

"Only a political resolution to the century-old conflict with the Palestinians resulting in two states living side by side can end the conflict. Without that, in a few short years, we'll be right back here again: anger deeper, rockets more powerful, and political forces yet more extreme.

There's no question that Israel has a right to defend itself, just like any other sovereign nation, said Lindy Miller Crane, a member of Atlanta's Jewish community.

"If rockets were fired to the United States from Cuba, I would hope that the U.S. would react," she said.

Yet, like many Jews who consider themselves politically liberal, she is "ambivalent and conflicted" about how to achieve peace.

If and when a cease-fire comes together, she's worried about the follow-through.

That's because she said it seems like no progress has been made to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue since the 2008 Israeli military operation in Gaza.

It's like "Groundhog Day," Crane said.

She believes that if Israel can start addressing issues of racism and inequality, this will help the Jewish state initiate a strategy that will bring permanent peace with Palestinians.

"It's something that's going to have to happen," said Crane. "When I think about the future of Israel -- peace with the Palestinians is one aspect of that."

Israel has negotiated with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority which runs the government in the West Bank. A main stumbling block to an Israeli-Palestinian peace has been the existence and expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

There is vehement disagreement among U.S. Jews about Fatah and its motivations.

Fatah casts itself as distinct from Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel (Fatah does not). But they aren't much different, according to Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of pro-Israel group StandWithUs.

Just read and listen to Fatah's anti-Israel rhetoric, educational system, and media, she said.

They "don't acknowledge there's an Israel next door," she said.

Israel "can get tough on Hamas" and weaken it politically by working with the Palestinian Authority -- which is dominated by Hamas' rival, Fatah -- toward creating an Israel and Palestinian state, wrote Peter Beinart for the Daily Beast.

"The problem is that in order to make Hamas suffer for opposing the two-state solution, Israel's government would have to truly embrace that solution," he wrote.

But he didn't hold out any hope that Israel would do that.

"Taking a hard line against Hamas requires taking a hard line against the settlements -- and at the end of the day, this Israeli government is soft on them both," he wrote.

Near the war but far from the political ferment, Jodi Mansbach, an Atlanta urban planner, sat in a Tel Aviv cafe this week.

Her 16-year-old son is spending a semester at an Israeli high school, and she was visiting him for the Thanksgiving holiday.

After the conflict started, her son had to be transferred from his school in Be'er Sheva, in the southern Israel danger zone, to Tel Aviv --- a relatively safer location, despite a bus bomb and air raid sirens.

Mansbach admires the cool manner her son's teachers and counselors and Israelis in general cope with fear. They know how to handle life amid air raid sirens, shelters and rocket fire.

"It's so much more scary on the news," she said.

She also draws inspiration from people of other nations, tourists and business people from places like Sweden and Germany, who share her hotel in Tel Aviv.

"The American Jewish community should take a cue from the rest of the world. They are here," she said, referring to Jewish and non-Jewish visitors.

"They are not letting the conflict get in the way. To me, that's incredibly inspiring."

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