An Israeli liberal’s lament
It is increasingly difficult to reconcile a liberal social philosophy with harsh political realities
I am from Israel, and am visiting Honolulu, lecturing on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I have found that there is a tendency to view the confrontation between our two peoples in broad strokes of black and white. It is far more appropriate - and honest - to color the Middle East imbroglio in shades of gray.
Having grown up in a home of diehard New Deal Democrats, with a wider family circle that included hard-core socialists and communists, and having come of age during the turbulent '60s in the United States, every fiber in my body is filled with political and social liberalism. Throughout the years, I have tried to maintain a universal outlook on life, no matter the winds of change that continually blow across the international arena, relentlessly testing my ideological world view - especially during the 35 years I have lived in Israel, and, particularly the last ten.
Since the onset of the second Intifada, the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hamas' takeover of Gaza, the encroachment of Hezbollah, I am fighting forces within me that are edging to the political right - all the while desperately holding on to a progressive philosophical mind-set.
In the deepest recesses of my being, I am finding it difficult to maintain my usual equilibrium.
I am constantly doing battle with two competing inclinations - one to preserve my body (my physical well-being) and one to preserve my soul (my moral integrity). And, right now, the urges of my body seem to be getting the upper hand. I feel my corporeal self under siege from all sides. I ache with the historical burden of persecution knocking at my door every minute of the day, fired by forces like those that engulfed us during the Crusades - read: Hamas; and expelled us during the Inquisition - read: Hezbollah; and led by the warriors of anti-Semitism like Chelmnitski - read: Hassan Nasrallah; and those who slaughtered us mercilessly like Hitler - read: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
How do I maintain a sense of justice for Palestinians whose freedoms have been compromised under Israel's 40-year occupation and continue to advocate for their human rights, when I know they are being swept up by a new pan-Arabism that possesses a theological weapon of mass destruction: Islamic fundamentalism?
No wonder the Israeli 'left' has gone underground. Many of our cherished values have gone up in smoke. We hate the security barrier because it steals Palestinian lands, divides their villages and separates their families, but we sleep better, knowing our children no longer play Russian roulette with their lives when they venture out in public. We deplore targeted assassinations, but should we kill terrorists on their way to fire rockets into a mall in Ashkelon, we breathe a sigh of relief - even if innocent Palestinians are caught in the cross-fire.
Has the 'right' read the political map better than we have? Everything that those who opposed the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza predicted would happen has happened. Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south are squeezing us; and at a moment's notice could wreak havoc upon the country. The internecine fighting in Gaza, where Palestinians kill each other with impunity, proves a harsh reality: These Muslim fanatics are out for anyone's blood that gets in the way of their ultimate goal - spilling the last drop of Jewish blood.
So, what's an Israeli liberal Jew to do - turn to our leftist sympathizers abroad to gain some perspective and objectivity?
Who are they - the American Center for Constitutional Rights that has issued warrants for the arrest of Israeli soldiers for war crimes; the International Solidarity Movement, the Christian Peacemaker Teams, Friends of Sabeel - all whose prejudicial views of the conflict are little more than veritable well-springs for anti-Semitic drivel? You see why I feel besieged - even my natural allies put me on the defensive.
We activists for decency and fair play for the 'other' can no longer bury our heads in the sand. We must find a way to reconcile our ideological liberalism with the harsh political realities of a bellicose neighborhood and an indifferent at best, hostile at worst, world community that allows the U.N. Human Rights Commission to single out Israel for permanent scrutiny - not Myanmar, China, Sudan and virtually every Muslim country that tramples civil liberties, not the least being the Palestinian Authority.
So as not to further darken the gathering storm hovering above, we liberals will have to temper our views and moderate our behavior. Does this mean that we limit self-criticism and curtail what we say and what we do because our words and actions can supply ammunition to our detractors and to those who decry our legitimacy as a state? Does it mean that we sacrifice our moral conscience on an altar of fear?
No! But, it does mean that we must carefully weigh the possible consequences of our rhetoric and activities. Indeed, I take pride that Israel is such an open society as opposed to the military dictatorships, monarchies, feudal states and religious fanatics that surround it.
We who are sympathetic to Palestinian suffering cannot become mirror images of our right-wing adversaries - abandoning any sense of balance, thus discounting Israeli pain. More so, even as we concede Israeli offenses, we must acknowledge Palestinian violence, and more importantly, its global implications. With the radicalization of Gaza, surely to be exported to the West Bank, Palestinians are part of a growing Islamic threat to Western stability, and we stand at the forefront of its eventual onslaught.
For those of us born with a liberal spoon in our mouths, the challenge is formidable - almost frantic. Painful memories of our history, presently reflected in the mirror of a dangerously new piercing reality, compel us to examine and re-examine, evaluate and re-evaluate our deeply-held principles - even as we resolutely cling to our ideals, steadfastly advancing a social agenda that impels Israel to be a "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6) in an environment where darkness has gripped the countries that surround us.
Rabbi David J. Forman is the founding chairman of Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights. He recently served as a visiting scholar at Temple Emanu-El in Honolulu.