Some hostility toward Israel is just anti-Semitic. Some hostility toward Israel is Palestinian nationalism. Some is sympathy for the Palestinians generated by an enormously successful PR campaign. And some is self-inflicted. But all of us should be concerned. The policies of the Israeli government don’t represent me – nor should they. But they affect me.
Through much of the past millennium, Jews have faced very difficult conditions in Europe. Jews began to prosper in parts of Europe only after the Enlightenment but killing sprees continued, known as pogroms in the East, and culminating in the Holocaust in the West.
Throughout that period, indeed dating back to Biblical times, Jews have lived fairly comfortably in the Muslim world. I prayed with Jews in Iran, descendants of Jews who fled the destruction of the Temple. Jews famously prospered in Moorish Spain and in Egypt, and they were invited by the Ottoman Turks when the Spanish kicked them out.
At the creation of Israel, many Arabs chose to stay, and for a time they too prospered. The nations surrounding Israel gradually made their peace with the Jewish state – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon all developed decent relations with Israel. Plainly there were Arabs unreconstructed to the notion, not of Jews, but of a Jewish state in land once Arab – control of that land was a different question because European imperialism had dominated the region, itself a source of considerable unhappiness.
But the contest between Israel and non-state actors has not gone well. With no army standing behind a flag, dressed in uniforms according to international rules of warfare, Israel has never been able to find all the people causing it trouble. Gradually, Israel began to widen the war, wiping out communities in the refugee camps in Lebanon in the 70s, bombarding the West Bank with heavy weapons that could not but kill groups of people without reference to who was and who was not a combatant. I can’t parse that – I don’t know who was and who was not a combatant, only what people tell the press. But Israel never had a way to win the public relations war. The more Palestinians died, in much greater numbers than Israelis, the more they won the benefits of grieving, and the more that people were attracted to their cause. Israel helped the Palestinian PR cause with its expropriation of Palestinian land.
Unfortunately, all of that gives traction to the anti-Semites of this world. I have many Muslim friends who don’t make the transition from hostility toward Israel to hostility toward all Jews, but clearly some do, just as many Americans made the transition from periodic anger toward Iran to hostility toward Iranians, including refugees in the U.S. Some of it is comical, as when I watched a taxi driver in New York City jump out of his cab in anger and at the top of his voice call another driver an Iranian – apparently the worst epithet he could think of. Some is sad as the Iranian-American schoolgirl denied the right to be valedictorian of her class.
But the world is changing – toward us. The resurgence of the Nazis in Europe is just one example of the problem. They get traction because of hostility toward Israel. So one of the most important things we need from our government is to find a way to cool this out. That’s in the American national interest and in the personal interest of Jews around the globe.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 23, 2014.