27 August 2006

Fair-Weather Values

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In an article about the growth of European anti-Israelism, The Economist recently noted that “many [on the left] now attack Israel with all the zeal of a convert.” (“To Israel with hate – and guilt,” 19 August 2006). In the United States, though, it seems that an opposite syndrome has taken hold – or so a few people would like to believe: that “lefties” are deserting en mass the ranks of pro-Israel peaceniks to become pro-Israel hawks or “realists.” For a prime example of the new devotee to the cause of Israel First-ism, one need look no further than Thane Rosenbaum, whose piece in The Wall Street Journal, “Red State Jews – Mugged by Mideast reality.” helps set a new public standard for this appalling change in perspective. The blog Kerckhoff Coffeehouse proudly crowed about “this mea culpa by a former Tikkun editor in the Wall Street Journal,” further stating that Rosenbaum “is waking up to the reality that maybe the Arabs don’t want peace after all.” The blog then goes on to list a number of links to other, similar change-of-heart pieces.

Well, I have not seen much evidence of a mass-conversion of American Jews to this “new,” hawkish, “realistic” perspective. There have, indeed, been some high-profile, public confessions – including this atrocious encomium to President Bush – but this hardly makes a movement. In any case, as I complained recently, I feel there are already too few American Jews willing to speak out on these issues. To my mind, these public dramas may add to the inclination on the part of left-wing, pro-peace Jews to stay quiet, to avoid too many public arguments about these issues. But this hardly suggests a wholesale shift in perspective, the “newly united Jewish consciousness” of which Rosenbaum speaks. Where are the polls or surveys supporting these claims? (And as a rabbi-reader recently wrote me, there are left-wing American Jews who do speak out publicly and are critical of Israel, including Michael Lerner, Leonard Fein, and others. I take the point, and they deserve due credit; I just wish there were more like them.)

As to the substance of these recently-confessed conversions, they appear to encompass three basic points. First is that those on the left have somehow been naïve (to use Rosenbaum’s word), failing to recognize that “the Arabs” do not want either peace or democracy, and that Israel (as I have heard from a number of people recently) is on the verge of extinction. In this context, recognizing “reality” apparently means accepting these “facts” and then embracing a whole new set of beliefs and values as a result. Second, that in this new world of “reality,” there is a lot of anti-Semitism, not just anti-Israelism. Thus goes the argument that says both that Israel’s existence may provoke anti-Semitism and that Israel is one of the best protections for Jews against anti-Semitism. Third, that the United States is essentially the only country that understands this global dynamic and the true nature of the people in the Middle East and, therefore, the Bush Administration should be thanked and supported for its unflinching support of Israel.

Were it not so terribly real – real in the sense that many people have been killed or wounded on both sides of the conflict – one might call this situation tragi-comic. The converts to Israel First-ism have replaced one set of beliefs with another, but do not really have much in the way of perspective or depth with which to back up their conversions. So, as Rabbi Steven Leder and others embrace Mr. Bush for his support of their Israeli co-religionists, they forget the American tendency to be a fair-weather friend. The U.S.-Israel alliance is, to put it bluntly, fundamentally untested. Sure, the U.S. has stood by Israel at the United Nations, has sold it weapons and technology, and given it billions of dollars in aid. However, there has yet to be a war in which America has sent its troops to fight in great numbers alongside the Israel Defense Forces against “the Arabs,” many of whom would presumably come from countries like Egypt and Jordan – with which the United States also has long-standing (if complicated) relationships. With so much of the U.S. military bogged down in Iraq, would America jump – physically, not just morally – to Israel’s defense? Faced with a choice between Israel’s small economy or the wide swath of Arab-held oil, what choice would the U.S., even under the devout Mr. Bush, make at the moment of a broader Israeli war? Let us hope we do not find out, but let us also keep our perspective on U.S. support aligned with the “reality” the converts claim to desire.

Fear, however, is a great motivator – not only the fear of attack in Israel, thousands of miles away, but a more elemental, underlying fear about one’s personal safety and livelihood. In this world that Rosenbaum describes as “post-Holocaust, post-9/11, post-sanity,” fear apparently has a lot of currency, even for the wealthy, comfortable generations of American Jews – hence, presumably, the refrain about “Israel’s extinction” I keep hearing. I can only assume this is also what is behind the attempted bolstering of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel connections and claims. As the same article in The Economist also pointed out, “there is a difference between being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel,” and that “in Central Europe, for example, there seems to be both greater anti-Semitism and more support for Israel.” Indeed, there is not much logic to the values of hatred, which makes sorting out these kind of beliefs impossible, perhaps even quixotic. Fighting anti-Semitism makes sense; fighting it in the context of educating people about “other” cultures generally makes even more sense; but fighting it by trying to strengthen a counter-balancing pro-Jewish nationalism is unlikely to be very successful, and might even backfire.

(The flaw in this whole Zionist-protectionism argument has, anyway, been one willingly ignored. The theory is that a Jewish state could not only offer a safe-haven to Jews from other countries, but that it could, implicitly and explicitly, offer protections for Jews in other countries. Israel has met the safe-haven test, taking in Jews from Russia, Iran, Morocco, and many other places where Jewish lives were threatened. But to see how poorly this global Jewish protector role meets the test of logic, first imagine that American Jews are imprisoned in camps in California and other western U.S. areas, the way many Japanese-Americans were during World War II. Now try to imagine Israel’s military response. How would or could Israel protect or rescue these imprisoned American Jews? It probably couldn’t, any more than it could have forcibly freed the Jews trapped in eastern Europe and Russia under the Soviets.)

There are other “realities,” political and military in nature, which also go unaddressed by these converts from the peace movement. In focusing narrowly on the challenges faced by Israel, for example, there is occasionally some recognition that the Bush Administration may have used the recent Israel-Hizbollah conflict as a proxy for a potentially broader war with Iran; but presumably this is seen as OK since Iran is also Israel’s enemy. Little is said, though, about the bigger geo-political picture, such as the ongoing fight to control oil reserves and to make sure that the U.S. is more strongly-positioned to meet its fuel needs than, say, an energy-hungry, rapidly-growing China. How might this be influencing America’s philo-Israeli policies? Nor is there much “realistic” analysis of the impact of American support for the same Arab regimes that are, potentially or theoretically, problematic for Israel – like Egypt. Sure, Israel and Egypt have a peace treaty, one likely to remain in effect as long as the American-supported Mubarak regime stays in power. According to the logic of this new crop of “realists,” Egypt must be grouped with other Arabs in contributing to the existential challenges faced by Israel, but – oddly! – none seem to be calling for a cessation of American aid to Egypt. I guess that’s “reality.” (Much more realistic, philosophically and practically, is Alex Sinclair’s recent article in The Jerusalem Post, “Two Conflicts, two victims,” 22 August 2006.)

Finally, and most importantly, I want to say to Mr. Rosenbaum, Rabbi Leder, and others of their persuasion, that criticism of Israel, criticism of Israel’s racist, anti-Arab policies or its zealous and disproportionate attacks on Lebanese civilians and infrastructure in this most recent war, and condemnation of its nearly-forty-year occupation and oppression of Palestinians ... this is not about being idealistic – and therefore, by implication, unrealistic or naïve. The criticism of Israel by American Jews like me stems from having ideals, values that a community of Jews around the world strive to live up to, and to validate by action and word. It does not mean Jews going like lambs to the slaughter when threatened or oppressed – but it also means taking care that, in their zealousness not to be lambs, that Jews do not then become the slaughterers either.

Adhering to these values does not minimize the validity of self-defense, but it means that such defense must be handled appropriately, proportionately, and with great care. We must not only say that we value each and every life equally, Jewish or Arab, but we must act it – and act it regardless of the words and deeds of “the Arabs” themselves. If we abandon these (Jewish) values, having been (as The Wall Street Journal headline writers put it) “mugged by reality” then we become – bluntly – no better than our so-called enemies. Perhaps from that “realistic” perspective, Jews in Israel and elsewhere will, seeing themselves under attack, wage a more effective battle against our enemies and, in the near-term, appear victorious.

But Judaism is a religion of peace, and I am not the only one who thinks so: as Rosenbaum himself wrote, many Jews “share the profound belief that killing, humiliation and the infliction of unnecessary pain are not Jewish attributes.” When peace is in the offing, as in the 1990s, with the Oslo Accords, it is easy to believe in the importance of working for peace; it is undoubtedly more difficult when so many aspects of the conflict look so negative. Yet we must try. How sad that contemporary events have lead some American Jews to betray the values of peace in favor of what is sure to be a disappointing – and perhaps self-fulfilling – new “reality.”


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