Looking at the deadly takeover of the so-called Free Gaza Flotilla and the international uproar that ensued, Israelis and their friends around the world are raising some troubling questions for public consideration. Some are new questions, some old, but all arise now with a sudden new urgency.
Why, for example, does the world rise in outrage over nine inadvertent deaths in an Israeli police action, yet look on passively as dozens of civilians are deliberately killed every week in a torrent of political violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan? Can’t the international community find the courage to judge Israel by the same standards applied to other nations? Isn’t it obvious that Israel is merely defending itself against the murderous rejectionism of Hamas? Can’t the world’s democracies see that Israel’s fight is their fight, too?
They’re compelling questions, but essentially pointless, because we already know the answers: no, no and no. The nations of the world don’t grant Israel a presumption of innocence when judging its actions. They no longer see Israel as a beleaguered victim in its conflict with the Palestinians. They stopped identifying with Israel’s struggles a long time ago.
We could make a good case that Israel gets a raw deal in the court of world opinion. We could agree that the leaders of the free world should cut Israel more slack. We could wish they would show more understanding for Israel’s predicament and give it the benefit of doubt. But they don’t, and there’s no sign they’re going to change course any time soon.
Israel has been complaining about unfair treatment for the better part of four decades, and all of its bellyaching hasn’t solved anything. There was a time when the protests elicited some sympathy, but the return has been diminishing steadily for years and has now dropped below zero. Credit in international relations is finite, much like in banking; it can be overdrawn unless it’s replenished periodically. Israel has reached a point where its protests cost it more than they contribute. The louder it complains of double standards, the more harshly it’s judged. The more it accuses its friends of abandoning it, the lonelier it finds itself.
The question Israel and its friends need to be asking at this juncture isn’t why the world’s behavior falls so far short of what should be, but how to navigate safely the imperfect world in which we actually live. Israel needs to chart a strategy for securing its borders and protecting its citizens that builds on the assets it has — not the ones it wishes it had. Kvetching is not a national security doctrine.
Israel’s leaders, of course, don’t call their approach “kvetching.” It goes by names like national honor and self-respect. And indeed, kvetching is only a part of it. The strategy begins with an assertive belief that the Jewish nation will find its destiny only if it stands tall and rejects compromise, secure in the absolute justice of its cause and the abiding wickedness of its enemies. And somehow things will work out.
In practice, this means that if Israel believes it has a right to take a particular action — building Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, for example, or keeping cement out of Gaza — then it must do so. If it falters, it sacrifices its honor. If it stands firm, right will triumph in the end, and we’re always right. Objections from the world outside can be waved away. As Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, once said, what matters is not what the goyim say but what the Jews do.
But Ben-Gurion didn’t really mean it. He was a man of action, but he understood the importance of lining up international support and legitimacy. He knew when to compromise, even if it meant accepting partition of Palestine and sharing it with an Arab state, or making a deal with Germany less than a decade after the Holocaust. He knew how to look at a balance sheet and calculate costs versus benefits.
There’s a deep irony in Israel’s current diplomatic posture. It’s commonly justified as an expression of Zionism, of standing up for Jewish rights regardless of the odds. In fact, though, it’s the very opposite of Zionism. Israel was founded by a generation of pragmatic rebels who rejected the passive legacy of Diaspora Judaism. Their Zionism was not a sentimental return to ancient symbols but a political plan to remove the Jews’ mantle of eternal victimhood, to make the Jews responsible for their own fate.
The Zionist idea was not to go off in a corner and complain about the Jews’ dysfunctional relationship with the world. The idea was to figure out how to transform the relationship and join the family of nations. With all its flaws, this world is the only one we’ve got. We need to learn how to live in it.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).