Letter from an Anguished Soul

Letter from an Anguished Soul

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from an Anguished Soul
August 5, 2002

The bad news just keeps coming. One terror attack after another. More and more fatalities. No place in Israel today is safe. No Israeli can feel immune from the danger.

Tragically, the response to each calamity takes on a rather eerie predictability.

Israelis are killed, and the mourners, together with an entire nation, weep, while the government vows to crush the terrorists, and the people stoically resolve to carry on their "normal" lives. Of course, this government, just like its predecessors, is unable to find a foolproof method to stop the terrorists. Who could? And what constitutes a normal life these days in a totally abnormal situation?

Israeli spokesmen are too many in number, perhaps the price to be paid for a democratic society where everyone is eager to speak, and foreign journalists, who are in Israel by the hundreds, are in need of filing a story and always looking for an angle.

Some Israeli spokesmen are on message, others not; some come across well on television, others do not; some speak fluent English, others do not; some talk the language of war, others of peace. In other words, to borrow a favorite Israeli expression, it's a bit of a balagan, chaos, and efforts to control the messenger and the message have been only partially successful.

In the wake of President Bush's landmark June 24 speech, glib Palestinian spokesmen - Arafat's minions - now appear before Western reporters to ritualistically denounce the terror attacks against Israelis, but then never fail to add that, in the final analysis, these attacks are all Sharon's fault and certainly not the Palestinians'. Following a carefully controlled script, they then quickly slip in the Palestinian buzzwords that inevitably surface whether the interview last five seconds or fifty - Israeli "occupation," "humiliation," "economic strangulation."

Not only are the Palestinians better at controlling the message and the messenger - unless it's Arafat speaking - but they have another advantage. They are practiced liars.

They can look unblinkingly at the television cameras and declare that hundreds of Jenin residents were massacred by Israeli troops, or that Israeli doctors have injected HIV in Palestinian children, or that the Israeli army is using depleted uranium shells, or whatever other outrageous fabrication comes to mind. These spokesmen know all too well that such accusations will be reported dutifully - and often uncritically - by an often gullible media that's "only doing it's job," and that there are a certain number of nations, human rights groups, and individuals who are only too ready to believe the latest charge against Israel and repeat it ad nauseum. History has taught us something about the "big lie" theory, hasn't it?

Meanwhile, back in Gaza or Nablus, the deaths of Israelis, whatever their age, ideology, or denomination, are cause for feverish celebration among many who take to the streets. Compare this to the anguished discussion within Israel when Palestinian civilians, especially children, become unintended casualties of military action to combat terror.

The United States, to its everlasting credit, can be counted on to quickly and unambiguously denounce the terror, express its understanding of Israel's situation, and defend Israel's right to strike back.

The Europeans, by contrast, stumble all over themselves, trying, but never terribly convincingly, to show sympathy for the Israeli victims, but unable to hide their profound antipathy for the Sharon-led government and their general dislike of military responses to what they believe to be political problems.

In fact, to this day the European Union cannot even bring itself to agree on designating Hezbullah, a group openly dedicated to Israel's destruction, as a terrorist organization, largely due to French objections that there are other, more "benign" aspects to the group, such as its "social welfare" agenda and participation in the Lebanese "political" process. (By contrast, Hezbullah, together with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have been on the U.S. terrorism list for many years.)

The media, with few exceptions, feeds us the "moral equivalence," "cycle of violence," and "an eye for an eye" lines, essentially two sides in an atavistic struggle to the end, with no clear distinction between democrats and dictators. The New York Times is still not prepared to label Hamas, which is hell-bent on Israel's complete destruction according to its own charter, a terrorist group, instead antiseptically referring to its members as "militants." And, as we know, the Times is far from the worst offender. That title would clearly go to one of several European candidates.

Countries like Egypt and Jordan, which, in private, express undisguised contempt for Arafat, are fearful of saying anything remotely similar in public.

The United Nations, needless to say, is a hostage of the numbers game, and the numbers are heavily stacked against Israel. That helps explain why the Geneva-based Commission on Human Rights, for example, was able to devote 30-40 percent of its time at this year's six-week session to bashing Israel. It passed no fewer than eight anti-Israel resolutions, when no other problematic regional situation was the object of more than one resolution, if that.

When was the last time anyone remembers the UN meeting in special session because of a Palestinian terror attack against Israel? Don't count on it anytime soon, either.

American Jews react in various ways. There are those - the clear majority, according to a national survey just released by AJC - who identify ever more closely with Israel and recoil in horror at these repeated terrorist attacks.

Then there is a significant minority that remains essentially indifferent to the attacks, devoting, at best, passing attention, but then moving on, since Israel is far from their lives.

And finally, there is a much smaller minority, but a vocal one at that, people who have essentially determined that Israel has only itself to blame for its current situation, and are ready to sign on to any ad or join any protest to heap scorn on Sharon et al, while self-righteously wrapping themselves in the mantle of the Jewish ethical tradition.

Thus, on the day after the horrific tragedy at Hebrew University, one Jewish letter-writer to the Times could contemptuously blame it all on Sharon, while others publicly call on the American government to pressure Israel by withholding foreign aid.

I confess that sometimes I just don't get it.

A spokesman for Hamas publicly declares that the group's objective is to rid Israel of its Jewish population. He couldn't be more clear, nor could the Hamas charter. The same goes for Islamic Jihad, Hezbullah, and other terror groups. Israel is in a war for its survival against an enemy that celebrates death, especially Jewish death. What exactly is Israel supposed to do in response? If there's a playbook for this crisis, I'm not aware of it.

Israel has just about tried it all.

The dovish Shimon Peres replaced the slain Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister, eager to continue the work of building peace, and was almost immediately faced with one deadly terrorist bombing after another in the spring of 1996. As a result, he lost the election to his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised the nation security.

Under Prime Minister Barak of the Labor Party, and with the full support of President Clinton, Israel made a breathtakingly tantalizing offer for peace and statehood on 97 percent of the disputed land to the Palestinians less than two years ago, only to see it turned down flat. Now the Palestinians, once again seeking to rewrite history, flail about, asserting variously that the offer was never actually made in writing, or was less than meets the eye, or would have created Bantustans, but the people actually in the know - President Clinton, Prime Minister Barak, Ambassador Dennis Ross, and Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami - all reject these contentions out of hand.

Israel has tried unilateral ceasefires, restraint in the face of severe provocation, offers to ease economic conditions, and even expressions of regret when IDF mistakes occur, but that hasn't done much good either.

Let's acknowledge certain inescapable truths.

The Palestinian leadership has not prepared its people for peace with Israel or even acceptance of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, whatever its final boundaries. To the contrary, the years since the 1993 Oslo Accords have been devoted to quite the opposite - the teaching of hatred and incitement, and the creation of a military/terrorist infrastructure.

Remember that this is the very same Palestinian leadership that introduced the world to a whole new era of international terrorism in the 1970s, that was expelled from Jordan, that caused a domestic civil war in Lebanon, that violated more ceasefires in Jordan and Lebanon alone than Barry Bonds hit home runs last season, that has been utterly corrupt in the use of aid money, that supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, that colluded with Iran to purchase sophisticated weapons, and that, during the Cold War, embraced just about every communist dictator from the Soviet Union's Brezhnev to Romania's Ceaucescu.

Despite all the attempts at spin and recasting, Arafat has not changed his spots. It's tough to admit, perhaps, but he managed to pull the wool over the eyes of just about everyone, including the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

To state the painfully obvious, there are no easy or off-the-shelf answers for Israel in the face of this situation. As I've written on previous occasions, both the left and the right have flawed approaches.

The left has a blind spot. It refuses to see things as they are. Instead, it substitutes wishful thinking for reality. Since it cannot bring itself to admit that its analysis was so off base, it chooses, instead, to persist in its dangerous thinking.

The right lives under its own illusion. The Palestinians cannot be crushed militarily. Or, let me put it differently: they can be, but Israel is not prepared to do what would be required, because there are built-in restraints on Israeli behavior, both as a democracy and as a Jewish state. And don't think the Palestinians, for all their accusations against Israel, don't know it. They know it very well.

To be sure, the Palestinians can be made to pay a heavy price for their support of terror, but, as we've seen, it didn't take long after the Israeli-launched Operation Defensive Shield for the Palestinian terror infrastructure to regroup and launch more attacks.

I don't pretend to have the answers. Indeed, for years I have contended, whatever the government of the day in Jerusalem, that it is for Israel to decide how to respond most appropriately to the challenges both of war and peace.

Those of us on the outside - however close to the situation, however well-intentioned - need to exercise restraint and intellectual modesty. It would be sheer chutzpah to believe that we want peace for Israel more than Israel wants peace for itself, or that we have solutions to Israel's military challenges that Israel, which has managed to defend itself against all the odds since 1948, has not yet come up with. And do we still need reminders that, at the end of the day, it is Israel and its citizens - and not we in the Diaspora - who will bear the most direct consequences of decisions made?

Our job, I believe, is to help Israel achieve the time and space it needs to make its own decisions on these existential questions. That does not necessarily mean that Israel is incapable of making mistakes, or that its highly pressurized society doesn't come up with some pretty bad policy from time to time. Of course it does.

Israel is an imperfect society, but then so is every other democracy. But those other nations are not faced with the same immediate threats as Israel is today. Yes, the United States and India, in particular, currently understand the menace of terrorism, but surely few citizens in either country ever stop to wonder whether their national existence is imperiled.

Israel is fighting tooth and nail to defend its citizens, who have been declared fair game by a whole host of terrorist groups fueled by hatred and a sense that they have found the Israeli Achilles' heel through suicide bombings and remote-controlled explosions.

Israel desperately needs our support, now more than ever. We have our work cut out for us here in the United States, but we've also been given an extraordinary opportunity.

How will history judge us at this defining moment?

Do we have any excuse for passivity or indifference?

Are there those who will be able to claim, down the road, that they were unaware of what was actually going on?

Are some so focused on the trees - grievances about this or that Israeli policy or tactic - that they fail to see the forest, namely, the attempt to destroy all of Israel, to kill as many Jews as possible, and to propagate a vicious anti-Semitism unknown since the days of Hitler and Stalin?

Do some hold Israel to such an unrealistically high standard of behavior that Israel will never be able to meet it, if it is to survive and win this ugly war?

It's long overdue for everyone in the American Jewish community to wake up and, as they say, smell the coffee.

We need to stand up and be counted. Now. Not at some distant time down the road, but now. Events aren't going to wait for us. There is much to be done by us, and if we're not going to do it, who will?

What do we need to do?

More than anything, we need to find ongoing ways to express our collective solidarity with Israel and its people.

We need to engage fellow Jews who don't yet grasp the importance of the moment or may not have a full appreciation for the history that led to this point.

We need to make certain that all of our political leaders know exactly where we stand, and that we support candidates for elected office of both major political parties who share our views and are prepared to act on them.

We need to reach out to our non-Jewish friends, colleagues, and neighbors more than ever and help them understand what Israel is up against and why America must continue to stand foursquare with our democratic ally.

We need to make the point to the world that if Israel succumbs to the scourge of suicide bombing then every democratic nation becomes vulnerable to the very same threat.

We need to go out of our way to buy Israeli products and otherwise support the battered Israeli economy.

We need to continue traveling to Israel, in spite of the dangers or, yes, maybe because of the dangers. We cannot allow Israelis to feel alone and abandoned. Their struggle is our struggle. They must not be asked to shoulder it by themselves.

We need to be vigilant with the media, on university campuses, and in civic groups, where anti-Israel activists are seeking to make inroads.

We need to stress that Israel's yearning for peace is unquenchable and has been demonstrated again and again, but that peace with the Palestinians requires a willing and credible partner.

We need to ask our rabbis, who are soon to preside over High Holy Day services, when vast numbers of American Jews will be attending services, to use the occasion to mobilize the community.

And we need to support those Jewish organizations that are on the front lines in this battle. As individuals, our influence is usually quite limited, but as members of influential groups we leverage our power.

The Israeli people time and again have shown the world what they are made of. It's now time for us American Jews, asked to play a supporting role, to do the same. Given our track record of support for Israel over the past 54 years, I have no doubt that we can and will rise to the challenge.

Note: This is No. 20 in a series of occasional letters on topics of current interest.

Date: 8/5/2002
Copyright 2014/2015 AJC