Washington — Even the weather suggested mourning. At the Jordanian embassy in the northwest part of the capital, a cold drizzle turned the adjacent construction sites into mud holes and a large portrait of King Hussein, who died Sunday, was streaked with rain. Still, a steady procession of mourners entered the block-like Mediterranean-style building and waited to sign a condolence book.
Limor Hasson, who works a few doors away at the Israeli embassy, was one of the first.
“He was an enemy who realized there is another way,” she said. “Once he turned onto that path, he kept walking.”
But she described an emotional connection to the late king that went beyond his actions as the leader of a country and his mixed record of peacemaking.
“What made him special
weren’t his words and deeds but the fact that he was a king for 47 years and still was so human to so many people,” Hasson said. “That’s why people like me feel the loss so deeply.”
Much of the American Jewish community shared that feeling. King Hussein — because of his personality, his Western demeanor, his flawless English, his empathy and, some say, his weakness — touched a deep vein of emotion for many American Jews.
“For years we have projected our hopes for Israel’s neighbors onto him,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice-chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“That’s not to say he was perfect, but because of his personality, because of the gestures he made, we made him a symbol.”
President Bill Clinton, who found in King Hussein a mentor, a friend and an antidote to a cast of Mideast characters many in his administration regard as unwilling or unable to reverse generations-old animosities, may have done the same thing.
Peace process critics turn the same feelings around. Hussein became an icon, they say, because American Jews are so desperate to believe there are moderate leaders in the Arab world that they overlook much of the king’s history, including his decision to join the Arab attack on Israel in 1967 and his support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 1991.
King Hussein allowed American Jews and policymakers alike to see the Middle East as they wanted to see it, not as it was, they argue.
Still, even pro-Israel hard-liners found in King Hussein a symbol they could relate to.
“The enduring appeal of the king is that he was deeply civilized, a word that we can’t easily apply to other Arab leaders,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum. “While he took steps that were tough or wrong headed, he was someone we in the West could connect to.”
Jewish leaders across the spectrum agree that the late Jordanian monarch took on an importance to American Jews that extended far beyond the details of his 1994 treaty with Israel.
“King Hussein reached iconic status because he embodied the hope for a real peace between Israel and the Arab world, not merely the hope for a cease fire or a chilly peace,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
Like numerous other Jewish commentators, he cited Hussein’s shiva call to the families of the Naharayim massacre victims two years ago. Seven Israeli schoolgirls were murdered in that episode by a deranged Jordanian soldier.
“King Hussein, like Anwar Sadat, had the ability to step into our shoes long enough to understand what it would take to make peace,” Harris said. “The Jewish community responded with almost unconditional approval.”
The imagery was stronger still because American Jews find it hard to envision other Arab leaders — including Yasir Arafat, who cannot separate himself from his terrorist past, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who has transformed Anwar Sadat’s visionary peace into a frigid peace of expedience — making such gestures.
The Western-oriented, urbane, diminutive Hussein was the perfect palliative; once he made peace with Israel in 1994, his emotional value to Jews soared.
“We have a need for someone who is upstanding and praiseworthy in the Muslim Middle East,” said Pipes. “And he was the only one we could reasonably turn to.”
“What I loved about the man is that he demonstrated the ability to change deeply held views, just as Anwar Sadat did,” said Ted Mann, co-chair of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace process group. “It was a quality that gave many of us hope for the future.”
But the veneration of King Hussein also reflects a reluctance among American Jews to confront a Middle East in which he was the exception and not the rule, said Steven Cohen, a social psychologist who has spent decades applying his skills to conflict resolution in that region and now serves as vice-chair of the Center for Mideast Peace and Economic Cooperation.
“His imagery was mixed,” he said. “He was a benign presence, but we also have to put in parenthesis that he was weak — not weak as a person but as a leader of a country that was weak and not threatening. He became a symbol of the fact that peace is possible, but underneath there was the idea of peace being possible only with someone whose demands you can always turn aside without cost.”
The reality, Cohen said, is that Israel will have to make peace with Arafat and Syria’s Hafez Assad or their successors, and American Jews will have to come to terms with Middle Eastern leaders they may find distasteful.
Hussein’s death, he said, “leaves a big emotional vacuum in the Jewish world.”
But that sounds like a particularly desperate kind of wishful thinking, critics on the right say, although most were quiet this week in the wake of the king’s death and the international outpouring of admiration for the man.
“It was a negative kind of symbolism because it showed how much we want to believe there are moderate, open-minded forces in the Arab world,” said an official with a Jewish organization that has been critical of recent Israeli-Palestinian agreements. “He was the only one they could point to as even a possibility. When you’re grasping for straws, he was the only one within reach.”
The king’s image may have been comforting, this analyst said — but “it does not provide the basis for sound national policy.”
More Stories Like This
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.