I felt a sickening roiling in my stomach. It was a familiar feeling composed of anger, frustration, fear, hurt. Could someone really believe this? I decided to suppose that this person is well disposed toward Jews, and simply disapproving of Israeli policy. Let us imagine that he really reluctantly believes the Israeli army tries to shoot children. Could this be? Would it survive a scintilla of critical thought?
Whenever I hear of such a blasting critique of Israel, I am always tempted to ask the person a few questions. I used to ask: can you imagine what the United States would do if Khomeini took over Texas? Would you counsel restraint? Is there any country who, faced with an implacable enemy on its borders, has responded with the country club gentility asked of Israel?
But I would actually like to ask some more pointed questions of my typical counterpart in this discussion, if only to begin a serious dialogue, not a litany of accusation.
1. First, and most obvious: Why Israel?
I read a good deal of news, much of it on the Internet, and see little discussion of the depredations of Syria, or Zimbabwe. I read nothing of India's 1 billion dollar fence, shutting off most of the desperately poor Muslims in Bangladesh. I know that there are 188 nations in the United Nations. Among them are North Korea, a slave state, and an assortment of despots and tyrants. The only state among the 188 that may not serve on the UN Security Council is Israel.
The Holocaust, which should have signaled the end of hatred of the Jews, acts for many as a shield. "I certainly don't feel the way the Nazis do, or wish what Hitler did" is supposed to be enough to prove that the speaker is not anti-Semitic. But there is a long road between fellowship and genocide.
It is hard to credit all this to geopolitics. How can Israel be the one state that bears the brunt of such rage? Why is the vandalism in France, the community center burning in Argentina, the defacement of synagogues throughout Europe, all tied to the policy of this one small nation? Despite the raping of Tibet, the systematic destruction of the culture, there is no trade block with China, no violent protests throughout Europe, no Tibetan terrorism. Is there more to understand here--perhaps an underlying hatred apart from politics?
2. Where would all those who wish Israel to disappear want the Jews to go?
Back to Europe? Should every Jew live in America? Does anyone think that the Jews could simply live in peace next to Arabs in an Islamic state, when the Arab countries have never, in thousands of years, granted Jews equal rights?
3. Is Israel the engine of intolerance in the Middle East?
Where were the vituperative voices when the Jordanians controlled Jerusalem and turned the Western Wall into a garbage dump? There was no UN resolution about that sacrilege. Where were they when the Arab countries prevented Jews from entering the old city of Jerusalem? For that matter, where were those voices when Assad killed thousands of his own people, or when the late King Hussein of Jordan slaughtered thousands of Palestinians?
4. Do anti-Semites recognize their own prejudice? Most don't.
Recently our synagogue hosted Father Baugh, the professor of film at the Vatican Pontifical Institute in Rome. The purpose was to consider the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ," which he severely criticized, but along the way he discussed his own upbringing. He said he was taught (growing up in French Canada) to fear when he walked by the synagogue--because the Jews might run out and snatch him. He could not play with Jewish children. In church he recited scriptural comments about the "perfidious Jews." Yet well into adulthood if you had asked him, "Are you anti-Semitic?" Father Baugh said he would have insisted he was not.
It took him a long time to recognize that the attitudes he harbored were indeed anti-Semitic. His honesty is a refreshing change from the A.N. Wilsons of the world, smugly tucking themselves in at night imagining they are lovers and benefactors of humanity.
5. Could this all be coincidence?
It may be happenstance that people who live in countries where Jews were hated for millennia are saying that only Jews should not have a country, or criticize that country exclusively, or ignore atrocities perpetrated by other countries, or have deep understanding of those who are moved to murder Jews. It may show nothing but a sensitivity bordering on paranoia to be troubled at the juncture of ancient, enduring hatreds with modern censure. Criticism of Israel across Europe surely has nothing to do with the searing observation by David Cesarani in London's Guardian that "Indeed, the 'final solution of the Jewish question' was probably the only genuine pan-European enterprise of the 20th century." The last thing all Europe agreed upon was the elimination of Jews, and now it agrees on the unredeemable savagery of Israel. To assume a relation between the hatred that was and the vilification that is risks being called "a Zionist propagandist" one of those phrases designed not to describe, but to strangle discussion.
I know people in Israel whose children have been killed. Not because someone else was the intended target, not because of clumsiness or the heedless use of great force, but because the children were deliberately targeted. After all, the murderers last month of the Hatuel family stopped a pregnant woman and four children in a Jeep and systematically shot each of them. Neither the mother nor the little children were armed. They were merely Jews. Imagine if it were done on the streets of a major American city. Here such a person is called Charles Manson; in the halls of the Hague, they are fighters for freedom.
Are Jews always the victims? Certainly not. Israel is in a grip of mutual despair with Palestinians who have suffered much, and their plight is intolerable. That is why more than 150,000 people showed up to demonstrate in Israel on May 15 in favor of a Gaza pullout, the only country in the area where such a demonstration could peaceably take place.
But surely five million Jews surrounded by a billion Arab and Islamic peoples have some right to be terrified. What do we suppose would have happened if Saddam Hussein had a nuclear bomb--which was prevented only by Menachem Begin's decision to bomb its incipient reactor? (Should you not recall, Begin was universally condemned for this action which later saved the world from nuclear terror.)
In writing this I feel the enormous frustration of knowing it will not sway the minds of those for whom hatred for Israel is deeper than reason. I wonder, does anyone imagine that if given the means to wipe Israel off the map, the surrounding Arab countries would not do so? Dear God, professors comfortably sipping their teas and Turkish coffee in the universities of London, Brussels, and Paris would do so--why not the Islamic nations in whose midst Israel's presence is an offense, and her successes an affront?
And yet we are told that it is only Israel's belligerence that prevents peace.
Here is a quotation that explains the problem far more crisply than I, from the Polish critic Konstantyn Jelenski. His essay, published in Kultura in Paris, May 1968, and quoted later by Abraham Brumberg in the New York Review of Books, reads:
Poles have never come out against Jews "because they are Jews" but because Jews are dirty, greedy, mendacious, because they wear ear-locks, speak jargon, do not want to assimilate, and also because they do assimilate, cease using their jargon, are nattily dressed, and want to be regarded as Poles. Because they lack culture and because they are overly cultured. Because they are superstitious, backward and ignorant, and because they are damnably capable, progressive, and ambitious. Because they have long, hooked noses, and because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them from "pure Poles." Because they crucified Christ and practice ritual murder and pore over the Talmud, and because they disdain their own religion and are atheists. Because they look wretched and sickly, and because they are tough and have their own fighting units and are full of Khutspah. Because they are bankers and capitalists and because they are Communists and agitators. But in no case because they are Jews.Today, too, the enemies of Israel insist their hatred has nothing to do with Israel being a Jewish state. Rather we are told it is because Israel is singularly evil, oppressive and murderous--but certainly, assuredly, NOT because they are Jews.
The misrepresentations are not new. Sadly they have roots that go back hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years. Other victims of hatred recognize the symptoms. As the black representative John Lewis, central to the civil rights movement, said:
"During a recent U.N. conference on racism we were all shocked by the attacks on Jews, Israel and Zionism...Once again, the words of (Dr. Martin Luther) King ran through my memory, `I solemnly pledge to do my utmost to uphold the fair name of the Jews--because bigotry in any form is an affront to us all.' During an appearance at Harvard University shortly before his death, a student stood up and asked (Dr. Martin Luther) King to address the issue of Zionism. The question was clearly hostile. King responded, 'When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism.'"
In the Talmud Rabbi Hanina points out that the eye has a dark part and a light part, but it is only through the dark part that we can see. Perhaps the darkness of this hatred will enable those with reserves of goodwill to rethink their position. May they come to appreciate that this single struggling state, fallible, run by human beings and therefore liable to the failings and vices that afflict human nature, is nonetheless a beacon of light in history, born of humanity's darkest age.