|Israelis watch an air show during |
Independence Day in Tel Aviv.
(AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
12 May '16..
Last week the deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces stirred up a hornet’s nest while speaking at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony. General Yair Golan was quoted as saying that the “revolting processes” present in Europe and Germany prior to the Holocaust were “here among us in 2016.” The implication of his comments was that negative Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians were somehow analogous to the rise of murderous anti-Semitism that led to the murder of six million Jews. He then went on to say that Yom HaShoah, the day the Jewish world sets aside to contemplate that terrible crime should also be used for a day of atonement on which Israelis should deal with “unsettling issues” present in the Jewish state such as the misuse of weapons and how Jews “treat the stranger.”
For this, he was cheered to the echo by Israel’s left-wing press and excoriated from the right by writers such as Israel Hayom’s Ruthie Blum, who correctly pointed out that the general was not merely making a “vile comparison” but providing material for Israel’s most malevolent critics. Prime Minister Netanyahu also rebuked Golan but since then has tried to put the controversy in the past. But it came up again when his Cabinet colleague/rival Naftali Bennett alluded to it today on Israel’s Independence Day. The Education Minister said it was time for his countrymen to stop “the festival of self-flagellation” in which so many seem to want to seize on any possible infraction by the IDF or individual citizens as proof of the moral corruption of Israeli society that is rooted in the conflict with the Palestinians.
What are Israel’s overseas friends to make of this controversy? For those on the left who regard the continuing standoff with the Palestinians and the presence of Jews in the West Bank as proof that Netanyahu — and the majority of Israelis who keep re-electing him — have strayed from Jewish values, the general’s comments seem to validate their stance. As I noted earlier this month, the growth of groups that are not only critical of Israel’s government but use the conflict as an excuse to justify their neutrality about both Zionism and the BDS movement that wages economic warfare on the Jewish state is alarming.
Israel’s open enemies that traffic in anti-Semitism while masquerading as human rights activists use any disturbing story that comes out of the country – like the recent firestorm over a soldier who is accused of killing a wounded terrorist after he had been subdued and presented no further danger — as a pretext for their hate. But for many Jews, the problem is much more subtle. Raised on an interpretation of Jewish identity that primarily emphasizes universal values while de-emphasizing more parochial ones, they tend to view Jewish nationalism as inherently suspect. Yet they also react to proof that Israel is an imperfect place filled with imperfect people as evidence that the Jewish state no longer merits their support.
Such people are right about Israel being imperfect. It is as flawed as any human creation. Israeli politics is every bit as dysfunctional and depressing as that of the United States or any other democracy. Moreover, Israeli society bears the imprint of 68 years of an existential conflict in which many of its neighbors have sought not merely an adjustment in its borders but to wipe it and its population out. While Israel has thrived in the face of adversity and in less than seven decades created a First World economy and a first class military that has met every challenge to the country’s existence, the long war has taken its toll on the country in many ways. Some Israelis have responded to the hate of the Muslim and Arab world with hatred. Not every citizen or soldier always does the right thing even though that is true of the overwhelming majority and the U.S. military regards the IDF’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties to be a model for their own conduct.
So, in a sense, what General Golan said was not entirely inappropriate, even though the timing of his remarks showed bad judgment and the Holocaust comparison was egregious (not to mention the fact that it illustrated another flaw in Israeli society: the willingness of military men to make statements in uniform that sound like auditions for a future political career). Israelis pride themselves on the “purity of arms” shown by their armed forces. There is nothing wrong with seeking to reinforce that value even at a time when they are still fighting for their lives and dealing with a frightening “stabbing intifada” in which Palestinians seek to slaughter random Jews.
But the problem with this controversy and, indeed, the entire tenor of criticism of Israel on the left, is one of proportion. The point about the unwillingness of Israelis and their government to make further concessions to the Palestinians they consider to be suicidal is not that a discussion of the peace process ought to be out of bounds but that it is not necessary to put it in the context of a century-long Arab war against Zionism in which their only goal is Israel’s destruction not merely uprooting West Bank settlements.
The same applies to the endless dirges heard on the left about the decline of Israeli values and the barbarous nature of its society that can be read on a daily basis in left-wing papers like Haaretz. The conflict with the Palestinians is complex and often leaves Israelis with no good choices. But the fact that they have to make those choices with an eye toward prioritizing their continued survival doesn’t make them bad or illegitimate. What its critics often forget is that the point of the conflict isn’t borders or settlements. If that were true there would have been peace before 1967 and would have ended when Israel offered the Palestinians statehood and a withdrawal from most of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem in 2000, 2001 or in 2008. Though Israel is not weak the debate is still about whether it has a right to exist or to defend itself.
What everyone should remember as Israel celebrates its 68th birthday today is that the Jews have the same right to such a state and to self-defense as is granted to every other people on the planet. Neither Israel’s people nor their government has to be perfect to be accorded those rights. They have those rights irrespective of how amazing their achievements in virtually every field of human endeavor have been and for which all Jews are justly proud. Their right to live in peace and security in their ancient homeland is also not contingent on conforming to the policy prescriptions or the cultural standards set down by self-righteous American Jewish liberals.
The rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel two thousand years after the Romans sought to end the national existence of the Jewish people and after two millennia of persecution that culminated in the Holocaust is one of the most miraculous events in human history. Israel continues to survive and thrive against the odds and deserves the admiration of the world. That it is viewed so negatively by so many in spite of its efforts to achieve peace is a testament to the enduring power of anti-Semitism that has legitimized the double standards by which it is often unfairly judged.
On its 68th birthday, Israelis and their friends have much to celebrate. Just as important, its foes and critics should realize that focusing on its imperfections will never be enough to destroy it. Whether or not their state is perfect, the return of the Jews to their land will not be reversed by hate or by the betrayal of those who have forgotten what is at stake in the struggle to defend Zionism.
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