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Why Is Israel So Difficult To Talk About?

Think about the topics that are impossible to constructively argue about: race, feminism, abortion, religion, and for some strange reason Israel. What do all of these topics have in common? People on each side of the argument are beginning from different premises, and for this reason our common language itself takes on different meanings. We talk past one another, assuming our premises are universal without ever stating them outright; or worse yet, these premises are subconsciously held, and the people holding them are not aware of their basic assumptions.

Let me give you an example we can all relate to, of people of the same tongue speaking different languages. At work a group of women is standing in the coffee room, laughing, expressing shared views. A man approaches the group and suddenly the tone of the conversation is altered. The man speaks the same language as the women on a logical and intellectual level, but not on an emotional level. The same might be said of a group of black co-workers approached by a white person.

The premises that are not shared between men and women, or people of various races, are too complicated to go into here. Abortion, though, might have fairly distinctive divergent premises: does a fetus have a soul? Is it endowed with the spirit of God? If one person believes this and another does not, they will never be able to come to a logical agreement on the topic of abortion.

How about Israel? I believe that one basic premise underlying discussions of Israel has to do with the status of Jews on the planet earth. At one point in history this might have had religious implications, but even before Hitler’s rule, a Jew was a Jew was a Jew, no matter what that Jew’s religious beliefs. Today, very Orthodox Jews don’t recognize secular Jews as Jews. Stranger yet, secular Jews like myself do recognize ourselves as Jews, even though we might not believe in God or Moses or the basic rites of our religion. My point is that the premise that ties Jews together on the topic of Israel has nothing to do with religion.

I think most Jews, whether religious or not, have been taught that we’ve had a fairly precarious history and have been capriciously kicked around from country to country. That’s what the secular Theodor Herzl believed, despite the fact that he lived in a fairly stable Europe where Jews seemed safer than ever before. Yet he came up with the idea of a homeland where persecuted Jewish people could go for safety. In other words, he assumed that although things might have been all right for Jews during his lifetime, they would undoubtedly get bad again.

Israel was a place of refuge for Russian Jews during the pogroms at the turn of the 20th Century and after the fall of the Iron Curtain toward the end of the 20th Century. It was the only place many Jews could go to escape Hitler’s death camps. The 1950′s and 1960′s were too close to the Holocaust for Western Europeans to criticize Israel. Today it is a very different story, though. Israel is criticized by many people in the West, and I think it deserves some criticism. I also think the United States deserves very similar kinds of criticism, but I am not considering abandoning my country because I don’t agree with everything it does.

I read in one article that when Israel invaded Gaza it was like a fight between Mike Tyson and a grammar school kid. In other words, Israel’s military is so mighty, its critics are not concerned about it losing a war. Or at least that’s the understood premise underlying their criticism. Israel is such a strong country, why can’t it cut the Arabs a break? Israel can afford to give in a little, in order to get a peace deal done. This point of view is understandable; Americans like to root for the underdog.

I think the subconscious premise that is rarely spoken about in the U.S. (Israelis talk about it more than we do) is this: why do the Jews need a place of refuge in this day and age? After all, couldn’t America be considered a place of refuge? Or almost any Western European country? Is it still necessary for the Jews to dominate this piece of Arab soil, using force to make sure that they will remain in the majority so they do not have to share control with the Arabs? Aren’t the Jews a little paranoid when they argue that Israel cannot be too strong because it is surrounded by enemies? What Arab power really has a chance anymore of bringing down Israel? And if the Jews did some day have to give up their control of Israel, what would really be lost for them? We know that peace would be gained. So the positive result of the Jews giving up Israel is clear and the negative result is ambiguous.

As I said, there are Israelis who argue for a fully integrated Jewish/Muslim Israel, where the Arabs are no longer treated as second-class citizens. More hawkish Jews and Israelis argue that once the Arabs gained majority control of Israel they would somehow get rid of the Jews, and Israel would become an Arab state. Let’s assume for a second that they’re right. It could also be argued that there are not that many Jews in Israel that the pluralistic democracies in the west could absorb them.

Now we get down to premises: can the western democracies guarantee that there will not be another virulent wave of anti-Semitism in the future? Most modern people of good faith would say that Hitler’s brand of anti-Semitism is a thing of the past. Of course there will always be anti-Semites, but they won’t control a Western European country again. Nobody could imagine that the Islamic countries would be a welcome place for Jews in the near future, but the Western European countries—that’s as sure as the stock market… uh, or maybe there’s a better example… say, our banks… or if that’s a bit flawed, how about the fact that we have a pluralistic democracy that does not favor Christianity over Judaism?

See my point? How guaranteed is any brand of future America, which is generally considered as the bedrock of Western European democracies. I have Jewish friends who have recently left France because they say it is becoming an uncomfortable place for Jews. Yes, I think we are a bit paranoid, but as the old joke goes, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that nobody’s following me.

Now, the Arabs don’t even try to hide their hatred of the Jews. Granted, it is rather a recent phenomenon, and it is generally tied to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Many Arabs say that they are not anti-Jewish, but they are against Israel and Zionism. Yet I don’t hear about many Jews taking vacation trips to Syria or Lebanon or Saudi Arabia. These are not places you’d want to parade around in a yarmulke. The list of countries Jews had best stay away from, or at least not loudly announce the fact that they are Jews, is long. The list of countries that do not have Jewish residents is also long.

When we argue about Israel, it must be remembered that Jews are never totally sure that they will be welcome forever anywhere. Thus, no matter what Jews think of Israel’s politics or treatment of the Palestinians, there is still a familial bond; family is the one thing you can always count on. Most modern, intelligent, liberal non-Jews cannot quite grasp this Jewish irrationality about Israel. We are arguing from different emotional premises, just like blacks who are not thoroughly convinced by whites that just because we have a black president, people of color are now seen as equals. The Jews are never thoroughly convinced that we are truly accepted in any country except for Israel, and this is bound to color the way we discuss the topic of the Middle East.

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