Commentary Magazine


Israel & the Intellectuals: A Failure of Nerve?

I deeply sympathize with you and with the numerous other Jewish dissenters who have raised their voice with courage and dedication to save the adherents of the Jewish faith from the pitfalls and dangers of Zionism. The heavy price you are all paying for your courageous positions sets you apart as symbols of courage and moral integrity, in a troubled world. . . .

Yasir Arafat, chairman of the executive committee of the PLO,
commander-in-chief of the Palestine Armed Forces,
January 31, 1975

For the first twenty years the Arab attack on Israel was crude and direct. Threatening to “push the Jews into the sea,” the Arab world reformulated the Nazi theory of Lebensraum in Mediterranean terms: there was no room in the region for a Jewish homeland. The Arabs refused the partition of Palestine voted by the United Nations in November 1947; they made no overtures of peace at the conclusion of hostilities in the ensuing war; they deliberately maintained refugees at the borders of Israel as a sign of their eventual return and “resettlement.” In those early years, so vulnerable and indefensible did the Jewish state appear in its tiny stretch of land between Jordan and the sea that one could understand the Arabs’ confidence in their ability quickly to eliminate the “Zionist entity.”

But the task proved more difficult than anticipated. What the Arabs did not reckon on was that a people so recently pushed into ovens would not now permit themselves to be pushed into the sea. Indeed, Jewish determination grew stronger in the face of potential extinction. In June 1967 Israel fought off combined attacks from Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, and emerged with strategic territory on the Golan Heights, the Sinai desert, and what had been since 1948 the West Bank of Jordan, as well as a reunited Jerusalem.

The perceived strength of Israel after 1967 briefly enhanced its popularity in some quarters—while disenchanting others who in the prior period had found some political or sentimental use for the Jewish state. But after 1967 Arab fortunes also began to change. Perhaps the first sign of new opportunity could be observed in France, which up to the mid-60’s had been Israel’s supporter and chief arms supplier. In the aftermath of the Algerian war, in which France appeared to be pitted against the Arab world, President Charles de Gaulle saw a chance of reestablishing his country’s influence in a region where neither the Soviet Union nor the United States was wholly trusted. Adding urgency to the process was France’s heavy dependency on Arab oil. The fastest and simplest way to appeal to the Arabs was to use a kind of political shorthand—that is, to turn against Israel.

Just how closely de Gaulle’s overtures to the Arabs were linked to an altered image of the Jews is revealed in a thorough new study by Henry Weinberg, The Myth of the Jew in France 1967-1982 (Mosaic Press): “To carry out the policy reorientation de Gaulle needed an opportunity to distance himself from Israel in a manner that could dramatically project him as an ally of the Arab cause, while protecting him from the reaction of pro-Israel public opinion.” De Gaulle’s notorious characterization of the Jews in November 1967 as an elite and domineering people, and his description of the Six-Day War as a pretext for Israel “to grab the objectives it wished to attain,” became the cornerstone and the justification of his own realpolitik.

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Whether or not the Arabs were inspired by the moral inversion of terms introduced by the French president, they adopted a strategy based on this inversion for the next phase of the anti-Israel campaign. If the president of a European nation, a hero of the war against fascism, was prepared to recast the Jews as villains, and even to dust off old racial stereotypes reminiscent of the Nazi era, then the moratorium on Jew-baiting, which had been in effect in civilized circles since the Holocaust, might well be over. Soon enough, Arab pronouncements changed from belligerent threats to moral censure.

Under the slogan, “Zionism Is Racism,” the Arabs (with a little help from their Soviet friends) launched a propaganda assault the likes of which had not been seen in the world since the Goebbels campaign of the 1930’s. Attributing their own politics to their enemy, they accused Israel of having deprived the Arabs of the right to a land and to a life of national dignity. This formula discredited not simply the state of Israel but Zionism itself—the claim of the Jewish people to a national homeland, now redefined as the denial of that right to others. The Jews were to be fought on the very ground where they had previously seemed invulnerable—the ground of morality, of human rights, of liberal sympathy.

Today, the long-term success of the Arab strategy must be apparent to anyone who reads the daily newspapers or turns on the television news. When an American Arab, returning to his “picturesque Arab village,” is quoted by the New York Times as having told his friends with pride, “It’s changing, we’re being seen more as victims than as terrorists,” both the pride and the claim to victimization testify to a changed image not just of the Palestinian Arabs but of Israel (a change which the Times has itself done much to promote). The attack on the moral standing of the Jewish state has accomplished in just over a decade what military warfare alone could never have achieved: it has made people, including some Jews both in the Diaspora and in Israel itself, question the worth of Israel, and thereby begin to rationalize the Arab aim of destroying it. By getting it established that Israel, and Israel alone, is responsible for the great historic crime that has been committed in the Middle East, the Arabs successfully cloak their own evil intentions and the danger thereby posed to their chosen victims.

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The obvious key to the success of Arab strategy is the presence, in the disputed territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River, of Palestinian Arabs, people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery. Indeed, if we were to measure reality by the degree to which we are exposed to it, no people in the world today would appear of greater substance or in a graver predicament. Even before they took up stones and Molotov cocktails in demonstrations and riots, the Palestinians were proclaimed an oppressed and restless society. Now that their “rage” is so violently manifest, the Palestinians seem to be speaking with one voice against the very existence of Israel in the area of their habitation.

These Palestinian Arabs are part of a very large geographic and historical dispute, involving twenty-two Arab countries and stretching back thousands of years. Within this century the dispute has centered on the right of the Jews to a homeland in what the Arabs consider to be their exclusive region. In rejecting that right, both before and after it was granted by the United Nations, and confirmed in defensive wars, the Arabs have always required a refugee problem, for unless the Palestinians were visibly there to be “resettled” in their former homes, there would be no basis for protesting Israel’s existence. For forty years now the Arabs have foisted this misery on their Palestinian “brothers” as the crucial element in the war against Israel.

Consider, then, what needs to be done if Israel rather than the Arabs is to be declared the violator of the rights of others and the villainous perpetrator of the region’s refugee problem. What needs to be done is to erase all geographic and historical perspective. First, one must reduce the map of the Middle East, where Israel occupies two-tenths of 1 percent of the territory, to Israel alone; Israel will then figure as the dominating power. Next, and even more critically, one must reduce history to the present alone; Israel then will figure as the deliberate and hostile occupier of alien land. Preposterous in itself, the charge of Israeli criminality can be made to stick the minute the focus is narrowed and the clock is stopped. To prove their case before the international community, the Arabs have only to insist on the “here and now.”

And this is indeed where they have scored their most brilliant success in the West today. Some measure of how the process works—and the extent to which it has made inroads among American Jewish intellectuals—can be found in an essay by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, in a special issue of that magazine (March 14) devoted to what is ominously described on the cover as “Israel’s Moment of Truth.”

With relish, unction, and rage, Wieseltier presents, as if it were his own, the Arab case against Israel. Since, however, he is obviously aware of how much more complex the situation is when seen as a whole, and especially when the historical processes that left Israel in control of the occupied territories are brought into play, he preemptively disposes of all such geographic and historical considerations until he has duly isolated the issues in space and time. Thus, for example, he writes: “Israel did not ask for the territories. This is true. It is also beside the point. Israel has the territories.” Israel’s claim that its present situation must be seen in “context” is inadmissible, because “the appeal to history may amount to an alibi for inaction.”

What remains from such reasoning is a tautology, if with a moral twist: because it is the occupier, Israel is guilty of occupation. So, too, with the next argument of which Wieseltier disposes, namely, that “Israel has no alternatives; or, the alternatives are worse.” Here, hypothetically admitting a point into evidence, Wieseltier shifts the terms to produce a smear. Israel pleads that it controls the territories because no real alternative (apart from the dissolution of the Jewish state) has ever been proposed by those from whom the territories were won. To this Wieseltier replies that necessity is no excuse: “You cannot hoard power and plead circumstances.” In this manner possession of the territories, now divorced from circumstance altogether, is equated instead with imperial greed, with an Israeli will to power.

The Arabs have no scruples about accusing Israel of crimes for which they alone are responsible; and neither does Wieseltier: “Israel has treated the Palestinians better than the Arabs have treated them. Again, true; and again, beside the point.” What good, indeed, is truth against the urgency of Palestinian misery, Palestinian despair, Palestinian hostility? For Wieseltier, these alone, and especially the last, are what determine Israel’s guilt, and that guilt, which requires immediate expiation, is so much greater than any competing exigency that if the fate of the Jewish state hung in the balance it would be a small price to pay. “There is,” he concludes, “cruelty on the Israeli side, and a little anguish. There is frenzy on the Palestinian side, and a little moderation. And time laughs.”

This prosecution of the case against Israel from the point of view of the “frenzied” Palestinians is intended to impress upon Israelis—and on American Jews—that they have no choice but to capitulate unilaterally, or, in Wieseltier’s phrase, to “give the Palestinians most of the keys [to the territories] as a gesture of good faith,” although he admits that there is no one there to take them. Convinced of the collapse of Israel’s moral purpose, Wieseltier is no longer perturbed by the risks the country may run by such a gesture. After all, the Israelis are the cruel ones, while the Palestinians are at least imbued with “a little moderation.” Why not, then, turn over to them the keys of Jewish destiny?

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I happen to agree with Wieseltier that imaginative identification with the enemy is the greatest task of the Jewish intellectual, but I would have thought that the purpose of the exercise is the better to resist hostility—not, as he does, to fuel it. When it comes to what the Arabs are up to, however, the outspoken Wieseltier goes coy: they have, he writes, changed their tactics from “violence” to “civilian resistance, which is morally and strategically more vexing.” More vexing! One can see Messrs. Arafat and Abu Nidal curling their little fingers around their teacups as they foment such vexations. Here, from directives of the PLO, one of the six terrorist groups claiming credit for the “civil resistance” of recent months, are a few typical passages:

January 30-31 [1988]: The Awakening has exposed the democratic Zionist lie and the face of the Nazi American administration, which is unable to explain the events. . . . Let us continue to use popular means as a daily weapon to be used by every inhabitant—every man and woman, every youth, every elder, every mosque, every imam, and every one of Palestine’s sons.

February 3: . . . [I]n the name of the sons of our people who have borne and bear the sacrifices with courage and with their heads held high, we stress our opposition to Mubarak’s scheme, to the attempts of the Jordanian regime and its servants, and to the emissary of imperialism, Philip Habib, who are going forth against our legitimate leadership to dictate to it defeatist conditions, such as the acceptance of Resolution 242. . . . The basis of confrontation must be broadened. . . . Let the stones of the uprising and the Molotov cocktail bombs fall on the soldiers of occupation. . . .

February 13: The National Leadership [of the PLO high command] welcomes the compliance of a number of appointed municipality members with the demand of the uprising masses to resign, and calls upon the remaining municipality members to follow in the footsteps of their colleagues and resign at once. The masses of the glorious uprising will know how to settle accounts with whoever deviates from the positions of national agreement. . . . Proclaim the uprising to be a war of attrition against the occupation in order to cause it fatalities and harm, politically, economically, and morally. . . .

The PLO has been insisting that the boys and girls it conscripts for its war against Israel must take the chance of martyring themselves by using stones rather than rifles in order to win the support of such as Leon Wieseltier, who could not otherwise be counted upon to voice Jewish remorse for Arab violence. The whole world knows (though it pretends otherwise) that the Israelis are not brutal occupiers—but for the politics of moral inversion to work they must be compelled to appear brutal and to use brutal methods. Thus are the Israelis deprived of every claim to sympathy, the Palestinians made to appear the victims they are not.

Wieseltier argues that the Jews of Israel have been corrupted by power; his own assimilation of the Arabs’ view of their conflict with Israel suggests a different conclusion. Being hated corrupts, and being the target of absolute hatred corrupts absolutely. After forty years of hostility, and fifteen years of inspired psychological warfare, the Arabs are beginning to crack the moral backbone of the Jewish intellectuals.

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Not quite all the Jewish intellectuals, however. In the same issue of the New Republic another of that magazine’s editors, Charles Krauthammer, stoutly resists the panic that has seized Wieseltier. Even though he is convinced that the occupied territories must ultimately be yielded to some Arab authority, Krauthammer argues that precisely because the pressure is now so great, it must be withstood.

There should be no political concessions to rioting. Whatever sympathy Israelis might have with the underlying grievance of the Palestinians, it is an elementary principle of self-preservation not to reward rioting. When rioting meets its echo, it intensifies. The Palestinians have been quite open about this. Look at what we have achieved, they say: U.S. condemnation of Israel in the UN; a new peace plan; a visit by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy, then Secretary of State Shultz; doubts and criticism from American Jews; dissension in Israel. If this is what we can achieve in two months of rioting, why not six months of rioting? In six months, we will get back the West Bank. In a year all of Palestine.

The difference between Krauthammer and Wieseltier in their imaginative identification with the Arabs is that the one brings us the true report with its probable consequences while the other labors to bring us the false. Krauthammer, because he takes the full measure of Israel’s antagonists, does not wonder whether Israel has lost its soul but whether American Jews have lost their nerve. “Those who demand that a solution be forced when the minimal conditions are absent are proposing to risk Jewish history to satisfy their impatience and relieve the anguish of the moment. It is a great risk to take, or, more accurately, to impose on others. . . .”

The situation in Israel is very bad, Krauthammer warns, but this does not mean that it could not become worse yet. Though he does not say so, one of the factors compounding the present danger is the mounting assault not on Israelis alone but on American Jews. Americans have been among the chief targets of the war against Zionism these past fifteen years. As Israel’s most loyal friend, the United States must be neutralized if Israel is to be defeated, and American Jews are perceived by many (however wrongly) to be the key to American policy. Yet unlike the Israelis, who always face Arab aggression, and have no choice but to counter any new form of violence it takes, American Jews are untested by this latest form of Arab assault. How will they stand up? As the media, working always for their own purposes and convenience, exploit the democratic institutions of Israel to publicize the Arab campaign against the country, will American Jews find themselves discomfited by their association with the sullied “Zionist entity”?

Judging by the op-ed pages of leading newspapers, and the numerous ads signed by Jewish writers, academics, and intellectuals, the response so far is mixed. A little better, perhaps, than one had feared; much worse than one had dared to hope. Anyone comparing the February 1988 symposium of American Jewish intellectuals in COMMENTARY with its counterparts of the past would have to marvel at the vastly increased measure of Jewish confidence, and of appreciation for Israel, affirmed or confessed to by the great majority of contributors. At the same time, however, there have developed in intellectually sophisticated circles new strategies of dissociation from Israel’s alleged crimes.

One tactic is to draw a distinction, between the “good” Israel and the “bad.” For example, in the third of the three articles making up the special issue of the New Republic, the magazine’s editor-in-chief Martin Peretz writes:

Of course, Israel shares in the responsibility: those Israelis who reject the land-for-peace formula also reject peace. And those Israelis who have not energetically pursued every possible avenue for talks, even in the face of persistent Palestinian rejection, only guarantee that their country will remain in the morally compromised position of occupier. How much less debilitating Israel’s position as occupier would be if only it were crystal clear that its government wished the occupation to be temporary—that it would be willing to transfer most of the territories to any Arab authority genuinely dedicated to coexistence with the Jews. The fissured government of national unity makes such a clear position impossible now.

Here Peretz is trying to differentiate the pure-and-good Israel, which presumably does not share any responsibility for Arab enmity, from the stained-and-foul Israel that makes it so much harder for an upright American Jew to defend the country wholeheartedly. Speaking in moral language about a political argument, he accepts not the whole of the Arab-inspired inversion, as does Wieseltier, but only half: the Arabs are right about the immorality of the Israelis who claim Judea and Samaria, but wrong about the Israelis who claim Tel Aviv and Haifa. Well, how about the Israelis who claim Jerusalem? Are they among the “morally compromised” or among the morally uncompromised?

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What Peretz is doing, of course, is lending his weight to the Labor party’s side of the debate in Israel over the disposition of the territories. But not only is it questionable for an American Jew—speaking in the name of democracy, yet!—to deny the Israeli electorate the right to decide on the level and character of the risk it wishes to undertake in one of the most difficult political situations any nation has ever had to face, it may also turn out to be injurious to the side he supports. A party that tries to discredit its opponents by appealing to outsiders may find that it has lost the respect and confidence of the voters. Because Israel is divided on such critical issues, only those who manifest a faith in its ability and right to make independent choices may be granted the reciprocal confidence of the electorate.

But Peretz is at least a genuine and longstanding supporter of Israel. When other American Jewish intellectuals try to play internal Israeli politics, the results are more pernicious. A recent newspaper advertisement organized by Michael Walzer, Irving Howe, and a group associated with the magazine Tikkun declares, “Israel Must End the Occupation.” The consequences of such a declaration by “American Jewish teachers, writers, and intellectuals,” all protesting their “deep concern for the character, the security, and the future of the state of Israel,” can only be to further the Arab campaign of distortion that presents Israel as the alien occupier of Arab soil and the main obstacle to regional peace. It must also help to erode Israel’s already weak bargaining position in any possible negotiations by proposing to deprive it in advance of its most important negotiable asset. One thing is clear: had the signatories called for an end to Arab aggression against Israel, they would not have had to protest their “deep concern”; it would have been self-evident, to friend and foe alike.

To help them justify their rush to attack Israel in its hour of trial, some American Jews and their sympathizers in the media have concocted a scenario of brave “dissent” from the harmful conformity imposed on American Jewry by a blindly disciplined “establishment.” According to one characteristic news report, the history of relations between Israel and American Jews goes like this:

For the first three decades after the founding of the Jewish state, it was virtually taboo for American Jews to criticize Israel. From a distance of six thousand miles and more, they saw it as their place to applaud the tiny democracy and sustain it with their generous checks. Some, in private, were mildly critical of this or that policy. But it was considered disloyal and even dangerous for the Jews to air their dirty linen in public; the arguments might have encouraged Israel’s enemies. Then, sometime in the past decade, the rules began to change—until, in the last few months, American Jews woke with a start to hear some of their most prominent leaders reproaching Israel in no uncertain terms. Today there can be no mistaking the shift: many American Jews now believe they help Israel most by airing the very doubts they so long suppressed.

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This recitation not only distorts reality but turns it inside-out. In fact, there has always been freely-voiced hostility to Israel on the part of some American Jews and complete indifference on the part of others.

First there were the groups opposed to Israel in principle. Jewish Communists and fellow-travelers toed the Soviet party line which veered from anti-Zionism (until about 1946), to initial support of Israel when Stalin thought it might serve his interests in the Middle East, to condemnation in 1948 when Golda Meir’s arrival in Moscow as Israel’s first ambassador touched off a wave of Jewish national emotion, the effects of which are still being felt today. Only part of the Jewish Communist press ever developed an independent policy on Israel, and that only after the Six-Day War.

Then there was the Jewish Socialist Bund whose fundamental ideological opposition to a Jewish state hardly evaporated in the generation after 1948. Coming from a different ideological direction, there was also the American Council for Judaism, which took as its very raison d’être opposition to the existence of Israel.

Among religious factions, the Reform movement, which had been programmatically anti-Zionist until the 1930’s, has shown great support for Israel since then, but a 1986 national study reveals that among the movement’s membership only 17 percent feel a strong attachment, and only 25 percent have ever paid a visit. And let us not overlook the Jewish religious fundamentalists who rejoice in Israel’s troubles as a sign from heaven that God would sooner His messiah saved the Jews than that they tried to save themselves.

Among the unorganized or unaffiliated, most American Jewish intellectuals—according to their own depositions in recent years—nervously tolerated Israel’s existence, but for at least two decades after its establishment their ideological leftism remained a much stronger determinant of their attitudes than did identification with a national Jewish state (each of these three terms representing a departure from the ideal of an international socialist brotherhood). And finally, many ordinary Jews who were intermarrying, moving into non-Jewish society, and imperceptibly shedding their Jewishness, were eager to distance themselves from a country to which they felt no attachment, and for which they meant to assume no responsibility.

Even in the summer of 1967, at the very moment when Israel had briefly reached the peak of its popularity (not at all coincidentally, also the peak of its strength), precisely the same Jewish “doubts” were being aired, albeit on a reduced scale, that suffuse the atmosphere today. Thus, while Arthur Hertzberg, one of today’s most vociferous “doubters,” noted in the August 1967 COMMENTARY that Israel’s victory had marked a “transforming moment” for American Jews, by the October issue Robert Alter was describing with concern the contrary reactions of some representative Jewish intellectuals: an old-time Marxist comparing Israel’s preemptive air strike against Egypt with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; a group of signatories to “A Call for Respect and Humanity in the Middle East Crisis,” more than a third of them Jews, expressing their identification with the traditions and goals of the nations of the Third World; the voice of the then still influential I.F. Stone, “who makes the Israelis seem culpable and the Arabs merely victimized.” In the November 1967 COMMENTARY, the future editor of the New Republic, Martin Peretz, still shaken by his recent experience at the National Conference for New Politics, summarized the New Left’s virulently anti-Israel doctrine and scored those Jews in the “peace movement” (like Erich Fromm and David Riesman) who had opposed the original establishment of the state of Israel and remained horrified by the “upsurge of nationalist and even chauvinist sentiment that it had occasioned.”

So much for the universal “applause” of the past three decades, the “virtual taboo” on “dissent,” and all the rest of that farce.

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As for public quarrels among Jewish leadership, one need only recall the mutual antagonism and recriminations between Nahum Goldmann, long-time president of the World Jewish Congress, and a succession of elected leaders of Israel to be reminded of just how limited was the adoration granted Israel by its supporters. Goldmann, setting a precedent that Arthur Hertzberg has breathlessly struggled to follow today, made a reputation for himself as one of the most ardent public critics of Israel, condemning its inflexibility, its lack of vision, its disrespect for Diaspora Jewry. Hertzberg has also imitated Goldmann in presuming to pursue an independent foreign policy for the state of Israel from abroad. No less than in the past, Diaspora leadership now can afford to say whatever it pleases, since unlike Israeli politicians it is accountable to no democratic constituency.

Why, then, if American Jewish support for Israel has always been partial and conflicted, do journalists invent a contrary story? For one thing, to be fair about it, in the last twenty years there has indeed been a much greater degree of internal consensus about Israel within the organized Jewish community (and even among the intellectuals) and correspondingly greater discipline when it has come to the support of Israel—this in itself reflecting the convictions of most ordinary American Jews and, in all likelihood, of most ordinary American voters. The sporadic breakdown of that discipline within the last few years (some of this, again to be fair, at the prompting of opposition Israeli figures seeking the aid of American Jews for their own domestic political advantage) thus represents a return to earlier modes, rather than a new departure—something that few journalists, with their notoriously short memories, seem to know.

But there is another and simpler reason behind the “dissent” phenomenon, which has to do with the unpleasant truth that a Jewish country under siege puts great pressure on other Jews to protect it, pressure that marginal Jews resent and that even some affiliated Jews regret when it interferes with their comfort and their pleasure. In a significant measure Jewish feelings about Israel take their bearings not from any actions the country may be involved in but from its perceived standing in American opinion, and especially in American liberal opinion.

What they do about those feelings, however, is of potentially great moment. The real issue is not the right of Jews to criticize Israel, which no one has the authority to deny, but the possible consequences of such criticism. One imagines Yasir Arafat would be only too glad to write a personal letter of congratulation not only to the “Jewish critic of Israel” he addressed in 1975, but to every Jew who similarly contributes his drop of condemnation or demurral to the sea of Arab invective. There is not a Jew in America who does not know and understand at some level of his consciousness the stakes of this conflict; the myth of dissent, a diversionary issue if ever there was one, serves to obscure this knowledge from consciousness.

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Arab aggression against Israel scored its first decisive strike when it discredited the right of the Jews to a national homeland within the walls of the very institution that had confirmed that right in 1947. United Nations Resolution 3379, declaring Zionism a form of racism, proclaimed the Jews to be a pariah people, as the Germans had done several decades earlier—this time, in full view of the world. The passage of that resolution affirmed not only the enduring strength of Arab hostility to the Jews, but the inability or unwillingness of the international community to counteract the Arab threat.

The Jewish targets of this moral assault were defeated the minute they agreed to make Israel’s “occupation” of the territories won in 1967 the main subject of Arab-Israeli contention. For the Arab rejectionists, the West Bank of the Jordan and the Gaza Strip remain only tactical points in the war that is waged on Israel as a whole. When Jews abroad allowed themselves to be sucked into debating the merits of territorial occupation, instead of uniting to condemn the Arab rejectionism that had brought the occupation about, they suffered a defeat that has returned to haunt them today. Many Jews yielded to the temptation; rather than challenging the Arabs to accept regional pluralism, they tacitly agreed to take the argument “inside,” to internalize it. They not only failed to concentrate on exposing the genocidal thrust of Arab strategy, they consented to making themselves the object of moral scrutiny.

About six years ago I asked a prominent Jewish professor why he did not deploy his considerable authority to oppose the UN resolution, or even to oppose the propaganda use to which it was being put on his own campus. He replied, “Because no one pays any attention to the United Nations.”

If this professor were to grant the UN’s power to disseminate information worldwide, to formulate opinion in Third World countries, to influence nations that can court the Arabs by simply scuttling their commitment to Israel—if he were, that is, to acknowledge the full weight of the attack on Israel—he might feel called upon to devote some of his intellectual energy to engaging the enemies of the Jews. Far more convenient for him, and for thousands of Jewish professors like him, is to play the old Jewish game of “pupik politics,” of examining their own navels, or rather the navels of their fellow Jews, for dirt. I was not surprised, therefore, when, during the first days of Arab rioting, I read this same professor’s public protestations of moral outrage against Israel, or heard from mutual friends that he had declared himself fed up with the Jewish people.

But in truth the moral problem of the Jews today is very different from the one of which they stand accused and of which so many are accusing themselves. Twice in one century Jews have been singled out as targets of annihilation. The first time they could do nothing to prevent it. This time they can.

In all the forty years that Israel has tried to convince the Arabs of its ability to stand firm, American Jews have been asked for little. The vast sums of money, the political support, the demonstrations of affection, however impressive when compared with the generosity of ethnic and religious minorities that are not so besieged, are as nothing in the case of a people targeted for destruction. Now in the hour of crisis, it remains to be seen whether American Jews will meet or fail the moral test with which they are faced.

What might they do? Instead of wallowing in their “anguish” over Israel’s “soul,” and instead of spending all their time performing a perverse and altogether misplaced penance, American Jews, and particularly the intellectuals among them, might summon up both the courage to recognize the true nature of Arab opposition, and the correlative courage to go on the political offensive.

They might insist at long last on the unconditional recognition of Israel by every state in the Arab world. They might insist on direct negotiations, which alone can define Israel’s relations with its closest neighbors. They might insist on the immediate repeal of UN Resolution 3379, which delegitimates a member state and makes a mockery of international justice. And they might insist on the emergence of a Palestinian Arab leadership that accepts Israel’s sovereign presence in the Middle East even as it presents its own demands for territorial compromise.

It is not, in short, the self-proclaimed fear for Israel’s “soul” being expressed by so many Jewish intellectuals but the uncertainty as to whether the Jews in general will withstand the war on Zionism that should constitute the real source of Jewish anguish and pain today.

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About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).




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