Peace with Realism

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Jewish Fear

Misguided idealism is only one source of motivation for Jews whose censure of Israel goes beyond fair and objective analysis. The intense anger towards Israel, at times bordering on hatred, that one witnesses in some Jews cannot be explained exclusively by idealism, however misdirected. Underneath this idealism one can often detect fear. Many Jews seem to have a deep fear that Israel is placing them in danger. Disassociating themselves from Israel becomes both a way of coping with this fear and a strategy for survival.

The Jewish Voice for Peace is known for its one-sided support of the Palestinians. It has expressed support for a right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel (which would threaten turning Israel into yet another Arab state), and at the time of this writing its web site contains an article defending and praising Yasser Arafat. Recently Liat Weingart, one of JVP's directors, addressed members of a Presbyterian church in Chicago defending the decision of the national Presbyterian Church to divest from certain companies doing business with Israel. Her words were quite revealing.

I am an Israeli-American Jew and the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors. All four of my grandparents were forced to leave their homes and everything they knew because they were hunted by the Nazis. When my grandparents fled their homes, they left behind their entire extended family, most of who were killed. My great grandmother lost all nine of her sisters and brothers. In October of last year, I traveled to Poland to learn about how they lived and died. And I went to learn about what their murder means for people like me, the children and grandchildren of survivors.

In Poland, I stood on the soil that my family lived on for generations. It's the same soil that's stained with their blood and ashes. I walked into the crematoria and gas chambers at Auschwitz, where I think my family was murdered. Since October, I've had nightmares every night. When I close my eyes to sleep, I'll see a pile of burning human corpses. I have a recurring nightmare that I'm standing alone in front of a pile of corpses. I can't turn and run, and I can't scream, and I'm horribly alone, knowing that my family is somewhere in the pile. Or I dream that I'm surrounded by the ghosts of six million Jews, my family among them, angry beyond belief at everything that was taken from them. No scream is loud enough to express their anguish. (I'm not telling you this as a story, I'm telling you because this is my experience every night of my life.)(10)

In describing her feelings so honestly, Weingart admits to a fear that haunts many Jews. She describes how she grew up with a "legacy of persecution," and how the fears she carried even affected her physically. "I know this is a common experience for Jews," she tells us. The question is: how do Jews deal with this fear?

Weingart believes the Jews of Israel deal with this fear in a destructive way: afraid of oppression, they have become oppressors. "Today, in Israel-Palestine, terrified, nuclear-armed Jews rule over 3 1/2 million Palestinians who live without any kind of representation in the government that controls the most mundane details of their day-to-day lives."

One often hears this charge from the anti-Israel left: Israel has a "never-again" complex, and so is doing just what those who persecuted Jews have done. One Presbyterian minister calls it "a classic response to years of oppression... and after the holocaust, a way they give expression to 'Never again.'"(11) However, Weingart's statement ignores some very basic facts. She implies the Israelis are responding irrationally to an irrational fear. But how irrational is it? Nuclear weapons are of no use to Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians. At the same time Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel and whose leaders have actually threatened to use nuclear weapons against Israel, is now in the process of acquiring those weapons. If Iran is successful, other Muslim nations may try to follow suit. Iran is already at war with Israel through its proxy, Hezbollah, which also receives support and shelter from Syria. There is indeed an existential threat against Israel. The fear is not irrational.

It is true that the Palestinians don't have nuclear weapons, even though their allies are trying to acquire them. Nevertheless, the threat posed by the Palestinians is not trivial:

This constant challenge, like a continual poke in the ribs, really got to Israelis. Palestinians planted bombs in Israeli supermarkets, on their airplanes, under the seats of their buses, and even in an old refrigerator in the heart of Jerusalem. They hijacked their airplanes, murdered their Olympic team, and shot up their embassies. None of this threatened Israel's national existence in the way Egypt or Syria could. But in some ways it was worse. It destroyed the Israelis' sense of belonging, of feeling fully at home, just when they most wanted to feel at home, and it introduced a frightening unpredictability to their daily lives.(12)

These words were written years ago, before the most recent and most bloody intifada of the past five years, which through its rash of suicide bombings and rocket attacks has tried to make life in Israel unlivable. One can certainly debate specifics, but what is called Israel's "oppression" of the Palestinians cannot simply be explained away as an irrational response to fear. Much of it consists of measures Israel feels it must take to prevent terrorism, a threat that has proven very real.

In her talk Weingart expresses her own way of dealing with this admitted fear. She is looking for support from Israel's opponents. "We need you to cleave to us," she says.

I'm not asking you to selectively divest from Israel's occupation just because it's the right thing to do. But because we Jews need you to stand with us now as our allies. Cleave to us. But expect things of us. Don't let us get away with anything less than what we're capable of. We know you feel bad about what has happened to Jews. Sometimes this "feeling bad" has made our allies timid. It comes across like: we didn't keep the Jews of Europe alive, so we'll just keep quiet while they oppress and humiliate the Palestinians. We need you to stop feeling that bad. We need you at our side as partners in our liberation.

Given Weingart's audience, this statement sounds rather odd. The Presbyterian Church has offered no evidence lately that it "feels bad about what has happened to the Jews." In fact, a 1998 Presbyterian Church(USA) General Assembly Overture calling for a suspension of all U.S. aid to Israel shows that many Presbyterians are well over any Holocaust remorse they may or may not have felt:

Christian remorse for the Holocaust in Europe should no longer be the occasion for turning a blind eye and a blank check to policies that seem clearly designed to make Israel-controlled territory “Arab-free” and, hence, Christian-free.(13)

The language of this overture is slanderous. No Government of Israel has ever pursued or proposed any policy of making any territory "Arab-free." Unfortunately this overture is not unique, and increasingly one hears such sentiments in Presbyterian churches today. Concern about excessive remorse over the Holocaust in the Presbyterian Church would seem to be misplaced.

Weingart's statement "We know you feel bad about what has happened to Jews" seems even stranger considering that her talk is published and made available through Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian web site that accuses Israel of war crimes, racism, and apartheid, and that publishes opinion pieces attacking Israel's existence. No one need worry about finding too much Holocaust remorse on Electronic Intifada.

In essence Weingart is addressing Israel's enemies, asking them to "cleave to" the Jewish people by supporting an economic attack on Israel! Weingart tries to play down the significance of the Presbyterian divestment plan:

I've heard people say that divestment from Israel's occupation will hurt Israel's economy. There's very little evidence for that. 75% of the military aid that Israel receives from the US must be spent buying military equipment from American companies. So, selective divestment from the occupation wouldn't primarily affect Israeli companies but American ones.

This statement is transparently disingenuous. If the intention of the divestment were not to hurt Israel's economy, to inflict enough pain to get Israel to change its policies, there would be no point in doing it. As the Presbyterian Church(USA) web site states:

Proponents of divestment say it would pressure Israeli and American companies to change policies toward the Palestinians in the same way economic pressure on South Africa led to an end of apartheid.(14)

Even if most of the affected companies are American, the intention is clearly to influence them to stop doing business with Israel and thus create pressure on Israel's economy.

Weingart ends her talk with a heartfelt plea:

Cleaving to your Jewish brothers and sisters will not be comfortable now. It will not be easy. But don’t let go of us, and don’t let go of all that we’re capable of.

This entreaty for support is particularly poignant since the audience of both the spoken and written versions of her talk have shown little sympathy for the Jewish people. It is also poorly timed: Why push divestment now, when Israel is at last taking steps toward withdrawal? Such a move is bound to strengthen the opponents of withdrawal, who will charge that Israel is getting nothing from these efforts and is condemned no matter what it does. If the Palestinian side is not happy with Sharon's withdrawal plan it should start complying with the Roadmap and become a true partner in the process, instead of leaving it to Israel to conduct its withdrawal unilaterally. Even now, the Palestinian Authority still has not taken the necessary steps to end the terrorism and still continues to sponsor incitement against Jews in the media and in the mosque. The timing of the Presbyterians' divestment move makes its motives suspect, and Weingart's appeal to them as friends and protectors of the Jewish people is sad.

So what can we make of all this?

I believe that Weingart's appeal to Israel's antagonists is best understood in the context of the fear she herself expressed in the early part of her talk. Many Jewish critics of Israel have expressed concern that Israel is stimulating a worldwide resurgence of anti-Semitism, and this awakens the very fears of a new Holocaust of which Weingart spoke. The following is from an editorial on Electronic Intifada written by a prominent Israeli Jew:

It is this brand of cruel Zionism that is the real enemy of what remains of liberal Israel and of the Jews outside Israel. It is the enemy because it fuels the flames of virulent and sometimes violent anti-Semitism. Israel's policies are the cause; hatred of Israel and anti-Semitism are the consequences.(15)

Israel's policies in the territories are the cause of anti-Semitism? Was there no hatred of Israel as well as anti-Semitism before 1967? Is Israel solely to blame for all the enmity it now faces and has faced since the day it was established? Such an anti-historical statement by a well-known historian is, needless to say, rather curious.

The only way to make sense out of these illogical statements is to understand that they, too, are a response to fear. Weingart is right. Many Jews still harbor fears of a new Holocaust. And many deal with this fear by appealing to the aggressor and distancing themselves from the central object of hatred, which is Israel. While some Jews have found safety in Israel, others have found safety rejecting and condemning Israel to the world.

Whatever merit one may find in Palestinian grievances, it makes no sense to ignore completely any Palestinian responsibility and to place all blame on Israel. Therefore idealism alone cannot explain Jewish condemnation of Israel. It would be one thing if the criticisms were balanced, but the demonization of Israel and exculpation of the Palestinians is not rational. The article's one-sided condemnation, plus the intimate-sounding language ("cleave to us"), can only be understood as a response to fear, as if to say to those who have no sympathy for Israel and who may be openly hostile: "Don't blame us, love us; we are not like those evil Israeli Jews; we are on your side." Separating oneself from Israel has become the new antidote to anti-Semitism - much as separating oneself from the Jewish people was always an old one. Both are equally futile.

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