Middle East Partisans

About a decade ago, when I was a frequent contributor to Slate, two horrifying events occurred in the Middle East that occasioned a great deal of commentary in the magazine's free-form, unrefereed letters-to-the-editor feature, "The Fray."  One involved Israeli soldiers repeatedly firing their rifles at a young unarmed Palestinian boy in the West Bank as he desperately scrambled to find cover. The other involved the lethal bombing of a Tel Aviv pizza parlor where a thirteen-year-old Israeli girl was celebrating her bat mitzvah.

What I found most distressing about readers' contributions to the The Fray during those weeks was that, with not a single exception I can recall, anyone who invoked the first incident ignored the second, and vice versa.  They weren't cited as isolated acts of barbarity, or as appalling links in an endless, strife-ridden chain of misery, but were instead adduced as clinching debating points, demonstrating something definitive about one side or the other.  You either regarded the Israelis as conscienceless sadists bent on territorial dominance and the Palestinians as innocent victims deprived of their human rights, or you considered the Palestinians to be wanton, crazed, blood-thirsty terrorists and the Israelis innocent victims of vicious and irrational hatred.

Where the Middle East is concerned, it isn't easy to find a comfortable place to alight.  One is apparently expected to act like some rabid fan of a local sports team, whose unquestioning, atavistic devotion refuses to embrace nuance or ambivalence.  Or perhaps an even better point of reference is history's first national anthem, as recalled by Mel Brooks' 2,000 Year Old Man:  "Let 'em all go to hell/Except Cave 76!"

In the Middle East, there's enough culpability to go around, and no such thing as original sin, or at least no profit in digging to excavate it.  Neither side is anything like blameless.  Were Arab families dispossessed by the creation of the Jewish state?  The evidence seems incontrovertible.  Did every other nation in the region vow to destroy Israel from the day of its founding?  It's a matter of public record.  Have Israelis mistreated the denizens of the West Bank?  Appallingly.  Were Palestinian refugees treated as unwelcome vermin by their ostensible Arab sponsors?  Absolutely.  Did Israel engage in self-defeating triumphalism after the Six Day War?  Did the various Arab states whip up anti-Israeli resentment among their citizenry?  Were Israeli West Bank settlements deliberately provocative?  Did Yassir Arafat sabotage any peace negotiations that showed promise?
Is the Pope Catholic?
But what's the point of going on with this litany?  Every fair-minded person must be aware of it.  The problem is, the debate is rarely defined or conducted by fair-minded persons.  The enemies of both sides -- and even worse, the advocates for both sides -- have big, bloody axes to grind.
It's undeniable that some of the opposition to Israel is allied with, or fueled by, anti-Semitism.  Anyone who looked at The Fray during the period in question would have been rocked back on his heels by the gross bigotry on display.  But it's worth noting that some of Israel's putative friends are motivated by a species of anti-Semitism as well;  they hope the return of Jews to the Holy Land will hasten the onset of the Rapture, at which point these self-same Jews will be forced to convert to Christianity or face the ravages of hell.  To call such demented fanatics fair-weather friends is something of an understatement, but that doesn't stop people like Senator Joseph Lieberman from addressing their gatherings and embracing their leadership.
And much more crucially, anti-Semitism isn't the only reason to oppose Israel's current policies; it's merely the one that provides the most convenient excuse for refusing to engage.  There's a level of bullying in the charge that prevents honest debate, that is, rather, obviously designed to forestall it.  Recently, Abraham Foxman of the ADL, following the lead of many cons and neocons in print and on the Web, is reported to have accused my Atlantic colleague Andrew Sullivan of anti-Semitism because of Sullivan's objection to Israel's expansionist policies and its more repressive measures in the occupied territories.  The charge is absurd on its face and disingenuous in its intent.  (Let me say parenthetically that I've met Andrew only twice in my life, both times merely to shake hands, and that I had my own disagreement with him some years ago, when I felt strongly he had mischievously misrepresented something I had written in order to score a point.  But it's my impression that his opinions as well as his polemical style have mellowed quite substantially since then -- his blog has become an indispensable daily read -- and besides, that small bit of personal history has nothing to do with any nonsensical imputation of bigotry.)  I'm a Jew, and not -- to anticipate Foxman's possible riposte -- a self-hating one, who agrees with Andrew's general assessment of the situation.  Many -- most -- of the American organizations that advocate on Israel's behalf have allied themselves with the most hawkish elements in the Israeli policy apparatus, and consider any deviation from that line as evidence of apostasy.  In many circles, including many circles of the American government, these organizations are regarded as the voice of American Jewry.  They are not.  They simply are not.  They have arrogated that role for themselves, but they have no legitimate claim to the authority they are sometimes accorded.
Jeffrey Goldberg, another Atlantic blogger colleague, recently posted an entry suggesting that the influence of these organizations has been exaggerated, and that American public opinion in general reflects the same set of attitudes Zionist lobbying groups espouse.  Maybe.  But one doesn't have to accept the legend of their omnipotence to believe their doctrinaire intransigence distorts the debate.  Their willingness to tar as bigots those who disagree with them does not encourage open-minded and vigorous discussion.
As a Jewish American -- one whose loyalties, pace Pat Buchanan, are in no way divided -- perhaps I should lay my own cards on the table.  I believe Israel has a right to exist, and a concomitant right to defend itself.  I believe the Palestinians have the right to their own viable independent state.  And I believe the general outlines of such an outcome are already known, have been known for years.  The problem isn't devising a solution so much as getting to it.  The obstacles are political far more than conceptual.  But too often, it seems as if one is compelled to declare one's allegiance and thereupon check one's brains at the door.  And for supporters of Israel especially, it seems as if the only way to prove our fealty is by granting our ally carte blanche.
I don't think that's what friendship requires.  If a friend appears to be drunk, you do him no favors by giving him the keys to your car.
No one likes to speak of this -- to acknowledge it is awkward -- but there is a logical contradiction at the heart of Israel's very existence:  Is it a liberal democracy or is it a Jewish state?  As a theoretical proposition, it can't really be both, especially when the disparate birth rates of Jews and Arabs within its borders are taken into account.  My friend Richard Cohen recently wrote a column in The Washington Post objecting to the use of the term "apartheid" to describe Israel's social structure, and I think on balance he was probably right.  At present.  But not necessarily over the long haul.
Still, in practice, this contradiction need not be crippling.  A viable, prospering Palestinian state would render the contradiction academic.  A Palestinian state would be a safety valve.  It would also be a matter of simple justice.  When the Israeli government maneuvers for short-term advantage instead of making the sacrifices that will serve its interests over the long-term, its friends, Jew and gentile, should object.  That's what friends are for.