Reflections on Israel at 60

Burt Siegel is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia and a JSPAN Board member. My first Israel-related memory goes back to my early childhood. My family was, by most late 40’s standards, quite Zionist-oriented. I recall their frequently playing a 78 recording of Al Jolson singing Hatikvah and, on the other side of the record, a stirring, patriotic song entitled simply Israel, based on the music of the wedding classic “Chussen Kaleh Mazal Tov”. My father regularly raised money for Israel from Bayonne, New Jersey’s many Jewish merchants. I recall going into stores and offices with him and looking at the brochures he would leave behind of good looking young Jews in shorts, holding hoes or guns while rebuilding the Jewish homeland. No Jews that I knew in Bayonne looked anything like that, I can assure you, and so this Israel must have been a magic land where Jews were tough and lean and knew how to use guns. My friends and I weren’t even allowed Red Ryder Air BB rifles advertised in the back of our comic books, because we “might shoot somebody’s eye out with it”. Later on a friend of my father’s told me that some of the money they raised had been used to purchase weapons to be used by the Haganah, and I was thrilled that he had played some small role in the creation of the state. I also have a dim recollection of sitting by the radio with my mother, sister and grandmother listening to the UN partition vote, and wondering which toys I would be able to take with me when we took the boat “home”, as I must have gotten the idea into my head that every Jew would return to our homeland. I think I discussed this with my older sister, who no doubt explained that we weren’t going anywhere (she probably told me that I was being “dumb”), and my dreams of looking like a tough Jew with hoe and gun in hand were shattered. Like many Jews of my generation, though, my sense of being strongly connected to Israel remained profound. While the overwhelming majority of us never “returned home”, many of us identified with her, raised money in her support, worried about the many threats posed by her hostile Arab neighbors and took pride in her accomplishments. Some of us sang songs in Hebrew, learned Israeli dances; fewer studied conversational Hebrew and the fortunate ones actually got to travel there. Nearly all of us loved her uncritically and it was easy to do so in those years. Very few of us knew any ideology when it came to Israel, no left, no right, no peace camp, nor hardliner. Not only did Israel always seem right in all that she did, but the unadulterated hatred of the Arab world and their often stated desire to destroy her made it all but impossible to see any nuance. In 1956, in 1967 and again in 1973, there were times that such an unthinkable result seemed possible. And while terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens were a frequent occurrence, some seemed to be particularly horrific, such as the Munich Olympics murder of Israeli athletes in 1972, the Maalot massacre in 1974 where Palestinian terrorists massacred twenty-one school children and the attack in Kiryat Shimona in the same year, in which eighteen residents of one apartment, including nine children, were killed. Throughout this period, few beyond the anti-Semitic fringe groups and far left-wing apologists for the Arabs found much reason to criticize Israel, and if they did, few Jews other than organizational leaders were aware of it. World public perception and opinion largely still viewed Israel as a beleaguered, spunky, little (the size of New Jersey, as we were often reminded) outpost of western civilization and morality surrounded by murderous irrational peoples. Most western nations, the liberal Christian churches, and even those within academia were largely sympathetic to Israel, and those few that were not were rarely given mainstream platforms. The great champions of Israel were certainly not the Christian evangelicals, but the liberals of our time like Hubert Humphrey. For a myriad of reasons, that picture no longer holds true and probably hasn’t for several decades. There are numerous theories as to why this is so. Some of the growing detachment and ultimate hostility to Israel can no doubt be attributed to dormant but still virulent anti-Semitism. In the decades after the Holocaust it became largely illegitimate in polite circles to criticize that place that emerged as the refuge for the long- suffering Jews. But such sentiments, perhaps predictably, only lasted for so long before succeeding generations lost any sense of guilt or obligation previous generations might have once had to Jews. I have long argued that it is ill-placed resentment over feeling guilty about European inaction or actual collaboration with the genocide perpetrated against their Jewish neighbors, that has led a growing number of Europeans to now so unfairly and obscenely compare Israel’s behavior with that of the Nazis. “See,” they seem to be saying, ”the Jews fault us for not stopping the Nazis, but they are now acting like Nazis themselves in how they treat the Palestinians." Many educated Europeans also seem to have a need to repent from years of a history of racist colonialism in the third world. This has led to a sense that, by standing with the Palestinians, who are seen as being “persons of color”, one is taking an enlightened stand against the “white European domination” by Israel. Aside from these more psychologically-based reasons for anti-Israel feeling on the part of many Europeans, especially among the left and intellectuals, there are, of course, very real political and economic reasons as well. There is only one Jewish state without any much- needed oil to sell; there are at least a dozen Arab states, with plenty of it. Opposing Israel has no real economic risks; being hostile to the oil producers does. Criticism of Israel from mainstream sources is a fairly recent phenomenon in the United States. And while all public opinion polls continue to indicate very high levels of support for Israel within the American public - (according to the latest survey released by the Israel Project, “More Americans than ever believe the U.S. should take Israel's side in the conflict” with the Palestinians) - we are, to a large degree, a community that believes that US support for Israel is a fragile thing. This fear is so palpable that we keep hearing normally Democratic voters threaten to vote for John McCain in the fall because they worry that if Barack Obama becomes president, he will listen to anti-Israel advisors (or his former minister) and abandon the Jewish state. This, in spite of Obama’s impeccable pro-Israel voting record. Of course Jewish anxiety is not baseless by any means. Many of the main line Protestant denominations have, at the very least, published documents filled with anti-Israel sentiments. And while none have (yet) reached the point of fruition, a number have considered divesting in companies that provide Israel with equipment used in either the demolition of Palestinian homes or the construction of expanded settlements on the West Bank. It is very much worth noting and revealing that many American Jewish organizations that oppose the “thickening” of Israeli settlements have added their voices to those opposed to divestment. We recognize in our kishkas that in spite of their protestations that all they seek is peace between the two sides, the proponents of divestment hold no great concern for Israel’s security. Their relative silence regarding attacks on Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state speaks volumes. Those of us who love Israel deeply and consider ourselves to be political progressives and humanitarians more and more find ourselves in a painful bind. Reports of hostile environments for pro-Israel individuals on some ( but certainly not all) of our nation’s most elite college and university campuses deeply angers us, as it should. Every time another liberal church leader refers to Israel as “oppressive” or “brutal occupiers", or hosts anti-Israel forums, as just happened in Philadelphia, where several denominations sponsored a program featuring Arab-Christian Israel basher Naim Ateek, we are profoundly hurt and dismayed. As I recently told one prominent Protestant clergyman, "You have welcomed a man who wishes to destroy a nation where the Jewish heart lies." I fear our entreaties often fall on deaf ears. But can we remain silent when Israel undertakes actions that also pain more than a few, such as the continued expansion or “thickening” of settlements? At the same time, the mean-spirited attacks by some in our community against other Jews who dare to express their disagreement with any policy of the Israeli government, also causes many of us great pain. I, for one, make no judgment of the value of the new “pro-peace” Jewish lobbying group J-Street, but to glibly dismiss it as “foolish” and “irresponsible”, as was done by one leading Jewish journalist, is itself both. I have witnessed attempts to shout down no less of an advocate for Israel than ADL director Abe Foxman for having the temerity to suggest that the American media is not a calculating hotbed of anti-Israel bias. Foxman was also criticized by some noted individuals for his failure to see the Steven Spielberg film "Munich" as anti-Israel, an opinion I happen to share with him. The internal conflict of wanting to express unhappiness with selected Israeli governmental policies, but also oppose her unfair critics, sometimes places many progressive American Jews in a difficult situation. If we criticize Israel, we might be providing fodder for those who would shed few tears if she is destroyed. And the anti-Israel forces love nothing better than Jews who will tell them that they are not only correct, but also courageous. But if we hold our tongues, are we really advocating on her behalf most effectively? Frankly, I have no answers. I must note, however, that fear of advocating against positions of the Israeli government hasn’t stop the Jewish right, when they strongly believe that those positions aren’t in Israel’s best interest. Shouldn’t the same hold true for the rest of us? So, as we celebrate the 60 years of Israel’s existence as a modern Jewish state, let us promise to stop looking for enemies among our own midst. It does Israel no good.