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A Word Liberals Dare Not Speak

What is it about the left that causes such instinctive antipathy toward Israel? It wasn’t always that way. Years back, Israel was in fact a favorite of the left, the more so of what I will call here left-liberals.

What happened? Has the left changed? Or has Israel? Or have both?

Of course Israel has changed. We live in a very post-1967 and post-1982 world. With its victory in the Six-Day War, Israel lost its status as everyone’s favorite underdog. With its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it lost its status as a beacon of scrupulous morality. (Remember Sabra and Shatila?)

To be sure, there are other elements that contribute to left-liberal anti-Israelism. There is, even on the left, some antisemitism, for which anti-Israelism is merely a cover. And there’s the especially distasteful type of antisemitism we know as Jewish self-hatred.

There’s the general reluctance of left-liberals to buy into nationalism, which many of them see — except when it is a response to colonialism — as a throwback category that must be overcome by universal brotherhood. And there are all the ugly aspects of Israel’s now 40-year-long occupation of the West Bank, with all the checkpoints and other forms of control that render Israel in such a poor light.

In 1976, Saul Bellow wrote a little book called “To Jerusalem and Back,” wherein he described Israel as a country that was trying simultaneously to be both Sparta and Athens. Left-liberals are Athens-prone; Israel, these last years of war and intifada, has seemed more Spartan.

Everything has changed; we live now in a post-September 11 world. One might have supposed that September 11 would restore the conviction that Israel is one of the good guys. It is a favorite victim of terrorists, its citizens the targets of suicide bombings, its very existence an ongoing offense in the eyes of some of the world’s most unsavory people and forces. Is not the enemy of my enemy my friend?

But there’s the rub. Left-liberals are loath to deal with the scourge of terrorism. By and large, they see the people others label “terrorists” as merely malcontents. Enemies? People are, after all, intrinsically good, even if they have, through no fault of their own, turned bad somewhere along the way. Everyone — well, nearly everyone — can be redeemed, no? Call them “militants,” call them “insurgents,” “guerrillas,” go all the way and call them “freedom fighters,” but no, do not call them “enemies.”

There are layers upon layers here. We are dealing with fundamental notions of sin and virtue, of good versus evil, and these are concepts largely absent from the vocabulary and the worldview of the contemporary left. We — yes, I am a confirmed left-liberal — bristled when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” we snicker (or shudder) at George W. Bush’s Manichaean view of the world, that view that holds that “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists,” a view that simply deletes the vast middle ground, all the gray areas of moral ambiguity. We see that Pat Robertson is in Jerusalem praying with Ehud Olmert and that Dick Cheney is suddenly Israel’s best friend, he and his acolyte hawks who want to make war against Iran. (And, of course, prefer that it be Israel that does the actual fighting.)

But the core of the matter remains, I believe, the reluctance of the left-liberals to accept as a part of our new situation the hard reality of terrorism. Even if we worry privately that Samuel Huntington may have been prescient with his “Clash of Civilizations,” we cling to a rosier view. We remain more concerned with civil liberties than with national security.

But: Hezbollah, so savvy and determined, so cowardly (rockets into civilian populations) and so brave (resisting the Israeli military), so effective in its diverse social welfare activities, is a terrorist organization. It slaughters people if and as it can — in Israel, in Lebanon, in Argentina, in Kenya. Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization. Those were real airplanes that flew like missiles into the World Trade Center, and those were real people who were slaughtered there.

Hamas is a terrorist organization. The suicide bombings were real, the scattered body parts were real. Hamas slaughters people if and as it can. The would-be airline bombers arrested in London are terrorists; they planned to slaughter people. All these are real threats, and they are not rendered less real simply because President Bush seeks to exploit them to provide a mission for his presidency or because they introduce major inconveniences into our lives or because the ways in which America is responding to them are so distasteful or because we cannot bear to think of them.

Nor, insofar as their target is Israel, do Israel’s diverse provocations and mistakes, including some very big ones, render the terrorist threat it faces less real or in any sense more “justified.”

All this is very sad and, by now, self-sustaining. Even were Israel to become wholly Athenian tomorrow, even if all the terrorists were to see the error of their ways and repent, it would be many years before the anti-Israel elements in the left-liberal camp set aside what has become part of their worldview.

Oh, Jerusalem. Israel deserves better.

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