02 January 2009

Dueling E-mails

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I recently received two e-mails, from opposite ends of the America-and-Israel universe. The first e-mail, which came through my synagogue’s mailing list, was the announcement from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) of a “RALLY TO SHOW SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL'S RIGHT TO SELF DEFENSE!” [Capital letters in the original.] The e-mail went on to say:

Dear Friends,

Please join with USCJ as we rally in front of the Israeli consulate tomorrow, Tuesday, December 30th, from 5 - 6:30 pm to show our support for Israel and her right to defend her citizens. The rally will be held on the east side of Second Avenue and 42nd Street (right down the street from USCJ's NYC headquarters). It is very important that we spread the word about this rally and encourage everyone to attend.

For the sake of courtesy, I will leave out the name of the rabbi at the UCSJ who “signed” the note. My synagogue, which is a member of the USCJ, sent the e-mail with the most neutral of introductions, which (depending on one’s perspective) might have been read as an endorsement or not. Even on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there are diverse viewpoints on the wide range of subjects under the heading of “Israel.”

The second e-mail I received was through an organization called J Street, a progressive Jewish coalition, under the signature of Isaac Luria. I don’t know Mr. Luria personally, though I am starting to think I would like to. His e-mail said (in part):

When I heard the news about Gaza I got sick to stomach. More than 275 Palestinians dead. More than 100 rockets fired at Israeli civilians.

Indeed, I did get sick to my stomach, from all of this—but the UCSJ e-mail was particularly offensive, not to mention absurd and wrong-headed.

Israel has the right to defend itself. And there can be no justification for terrorism, even the kind of terrorism caused by rockets that don't kill people. But Israel's right to defend itself is not absolute, and in this case its actions are flawed by being both disproportionate to the near-term problem and a likely long-term contributor to increased Palestinian support for Hamas. In other words: it's just plain dumb.

Even more stupid, however, is the classic American Jewish communal response, as epitomized by the USCJ: pathetically rallying behind Israel, once again, come what may. If USCJ and other American Jewish organizations devoted as much time, energy, and money to pushing for peace instead of blindly rallying to “support” a right—Israel's right to self-defense—that blessedly few Americans question in the first place ... well, heaven knows what might happen.

Almost certainly something better than the current situation, because almost anything would be better than this. I am no naive peacenik. But American Jews should hang their head in shame that, given the opportunity, so many of our community prefer to “rally” to support Israel’s war (or war-like actions) than to fight for peace. We American Jews have tremendous power over Israel—what we lack is the will to exert it.
As I was saying, this situation makes me sick—just as I recently found myself a little nauseous while reading S. Yizhar's wonderful and sad novel Khirbet Khizeh. The story describes the forced evacuation of a Palestinian village by Israeli soldiers during Israel’s 1948 war for independence. For anyone with a knowledge of the holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, or of the other acts of “ethnic cleansing” from Armenia to Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur, it is impossible to read this poetic little book and not come face to face with the same kinds of issues and (particularly for Jews) a range of questions about the moral equivalencies we use to justify our actions.

People die in this book, but not in the way the above implies; there is no wholesale slaughter of villagers, no rounding-up of women and children for summary execution. The refugees from the village are trucked off to “join” their Arab compatriots, elsewhere. It doesn’t matter, because the violence and the sense of both a degraded morality and a dirtied humanity are clear. At one point, a soldier named Shlomo exclaims that he would rather be fighting—as in, waging war—than participating in this action. “When you go to a place where you might die that’s one thing, but when you go to a place where other people are liable to die and you just stand there and watch them, that’s something quite different.” (Page 102)

A few pages later and the narrator, suffering his own pangs of doubt and conscience, articulates the mythology on which we Jews still fixate, all these years later: “I felt that I was on the verge of slipping. I managed to pull myself together. My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. What hadn’t they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue … our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out—that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were the masters now.” (Page 109)
The masters remain embroiled in the conflict, 61 years later. The masters of the masters—the American Jewish community that helps with both political and financial support—have the luxury of remaining embroiled and supportive from several thousand miles away. All while following a kind of McCarthy-ite approach that too often seeks to quiet out any voice that is not unfailingly pro-Israel.

Yizhar's book—fiction, but based on his Israeli war-time experiences—is revelatory of the underlying reality. It is (alas) the same reality now as then, and that can be seen in news reports from all over: for better and for worse, Jews are not exempt from the aggressive, tribalistic, and inhuman impulses that affect the rest of our species. (Though we are no worse, either.)

Mostly, that is for the worse. (Just look at the Bernie Madoff situation.) All this may mean that Jews are just as human as everyone else.

But the bottom line is this: humanity can never be an excuse for inhumanity. That seems like the crux of the problem that Jews, both in Israel and in America, face today.


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