We have long since learned to swallow hard as the Israelis persist in policies that are ill-conceived and ill-executed, policies that threaten the entire Zionist enterprise. There are so many of these that we try to ignore and even justify — targeted killings, “collateral damage,” a fence that is in part a wall and that too often punishes the entirely innocent, and on and on. And most of all, of course, the settlers and their settlements, in both Gaza and the West Bank. True, some of us dissent, and some of us drop out entirely, but meanwhile, Israel — much like America just now — loses its moral standing. Train 10,000 more experts in hasbarah, the art of spinning, and still we will not succeed in restoring the admiration once so widely accorded the Jewish state.
It is no accident that these days, such admiration and even plain old-fashioned respect for Israel and its achievements that were once taken for granted come from President Bush and from Evangelical Christians. These are odd partners for the Israel of our hopes and dreams, partners that do those hopes and dreams no service. It is time to put it bluntly: No one who helps fuel the ambitions of the settlers, no one who winks at the fact of the occupation, and yes, no one of us who swallows hard and lets such things pass without comment, can be thought a friend of Israel. With friends like these, friends who allow Israelis to believe that there will be no penalty exacted for its excesses in violence and its incompetence at peace-making, Israel scarcely needs enemies.
Incompetence at peace-making? Didn’t Ehud Barak offer the Palestinians more than anyone thought possible, and wasn’t he rejected? Why blame Israel for what has transpired since?
The answer is easy: Peace is not a concession to the Palestinians. Peace is, in fact, the only way to ensure Israel’s future. So if this approach doesn’t work, you try that approach; and if that approach doesn’t work, you try something else. Whatever else you do, you don’t pursue a policy that increases the enmity, that produces new would-be suicide bombers every day, that leads eventually to the calamitous finding of a poll in Israel that shows that fully 25% of Israel’s young people do not intend to live their lives in Israel. They plan to leave.
Leaving Israel used to be called “yeridah,” or “going down.” The implication was that the emigrant was defecting, perhaps even betraying. But “yeridah” is no longer much used. Emigrants are called just that. And even “aliya,” or “going up” to the land, is falling out of favor. Both words have developed a kind of quaintness; they no longer capture the emotional or ideological reality of the place.
The Zionist movement and the Zionist idea do not need and do not benefit from daily injections of extreme nationalism provided by the movement’s alleged U.S. friends. A very different coalition of support needs to be built, and it can be built well and sturdy only on the basis of reformed policies, not on the basis of excuses and self-justification.
The foundations for such a coalition already exist. All over Israel, I have encountered people who are disgusted by the path Israel has taken these past years. They are not engaged in secret meetings, planning an insurrection. No, they appear on television panel discussions, they write scathing columns in the newspapers, they yearn for a real peace — the kind of peace that promises security, as well.
And in this country, they have allies. I intend here not just the praiseworthy people who get involved in Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund and such; I mean hundreds of thousands of us who are simply tired of swallowing, tired of whispering our doubts to one another, tired of finding ourselves forced to justify policies we know to be folly.
But those hundreds of thousands and their natural partners in Israel are barely aware of one another. In Israel, it is Bush and the evangelicals who command attention; in America, it is Sharon and the settlers. They deserve each other — but Israel deserves better. It deserves a coalition of the eager — of those eager to restore Israel’s moral distinction, its pride, its self-respect. Those in Israel who know that peace takes more than prayer deserve to know they have allies here; those of us who know what Israel has been and can yet be deserve to know that we are not rebels against the Zionist dream but its ardent defenders, and that we are in step with masses of Israelis.
For if we persist in our current listless way, we will inherit an Israel much admired by Tom DeLay and such as he, yet scorned by the people who are nearest us. DeLay’s “friendship” toward Israel is, after all, an embarrassment, not an asset.
To know these things, read Ha’aretz on the Web every day. Read the news, read the columnists, and then wonder how it is that what is there reported and there opined is light years away from what the “pro-Israel” community in this country deems proper.
The Jewish people have not come this far — the Jewish state has not achieved all it has — in order to become the darlings of the radical Right. The settlers do not hold title to Zionism. The bitter enmity that now characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is not our destiny, nor theirs. And we ought by now to be able to do better, much better, than to sulk and swallow.
Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).