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A Response to an Israeli Response

by David Dvorkin

Some years ago, my family and I toured some antebellum mansions outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For a modern liberal from the North, it's probably impossible to see the beauty and charm of those old estates without thinking about the slave labor that built and maintained them and the bloodiness of the war that brought American slavery to an end. At the same time, the moral crime of slavery doesn't change the fact that those old mansions are charming and beautiful.

At one of the mansions, the guide, a middleaged woman dressed in period costume, occasionally interrupted her recitation of the house's history to intone, "And then the Yankees came." That would be followed by tales of the destruction wrought upon all this grace and elegance and civilization by the insensitive boors from the North. But in truth the Yankees did destroy a lot that was beautiful and elegant and graceful and civilized. But they didn't just do it on a whim, appearing one day without cause like ravaging Vikings, and they did put an end to the horror of slavery. But with or without cause, they did bring death and destruction with them. But . . .

Some years later, Leonore and I spent a wonderful couple of weeks in Germany. During at least one city tour, though, our tour guide, while pointing out lovely old buildings, said bitterly that these had had to be reconstructed after WWII because British bombs had destroyed the originals. All this beauty, all this history, all this civilization . . . and then the British came. Listening to the guide, one might have thought that there was no precursor, that the British had decided to drop bombs on Germany on a whim. One could imagine a bunch of British pilots sitting around an airfield on a lazy summer afternoon in the 1940s. "I'm bored, Alf. What d'you want to do?" "Dunno. What do you want to do?" "I know! We've got some planes, we've got some bombs. Let's blow up Germany!" "Good idea, mate! What a lark!"

Of course there was a precursor, and of course England and its allies had to attack Germany - rather, to counterattack. But did they have to keep bombing until the very end, keep destroying non-military targets, keep killing civilians? How can Coventry justify Dresden? How can any military objective, whether valid or imaginary (e.g., the conviction that a terrorized and devastated German citizenry would turn against their masters), justify deliberately creating a firestorm in a city?

Obviously, the Middle East is politically messier than either of the two wars I referred to above. By contrast to today's wars, World War II and the American Civil War seem fairly simple and straightforward. One can't point to some equivalent of Fort Sumter or the invasion of Poland and say, "They started it." (Not that the grievances in those two cases began with Fort Sumter or the invasion of Poland, but those are both striking and unprovoked acts of aggression, and they were the triggers for the wars.) In the Middle East, every act of horror is justified as a reaction to an earlier act of horror by the other side. Arabs kill Jews because Jews killed Arabs because Arabs killed Jews because . . . The chain of grievances and hatreds and bitter memories stretches back far before the birth of anyone now living in the region. The ghastly murders back and forth go on. No leader seems to have the will or strength or courage or domestic political support to say, "Let's forget the past and simply stop." Horrified outsiders, viewing the madness, want to scream, "Why won't you Goddamned crazies just stop?"

If you think I'm leading up to some clever solution, you're wrong. I'm not sure such a solution exists. In fact, I'm sure it doesn't. Any lasting solution would involve not only sacrifice on both sides but also a willingness to bury old grievances forever. The chances of that happening seem low.

Nope. I'm writing this purely for my sake. I'm trying to come to terms with my own feelings about the Middle East situation.

I was brought up a good little Zionist Jewish boy, and I swallowed it all. In South Africa, which in those Apartheid days was a rather anti-Semitic country which a lot of Jews looked forward to eventually escaping from, probably to Israel, young Zionist organizations were popular. I can't remember the name of the one I belonged to, but I do remember that we wore khaki outfits and tried with great earnestness to sing kibbutz songs and dance the hora. (Pause for the obligatory Oy, vey.) We were fed - stuffed to the gills with - tales of the heroism of the early Zionist pioneers and the later Haganah. Those who fought and lived were heroes. Those who fought and were killed by the British were greater heroes. Those who fought and were killed by the Arabs were the greatest, most heroic of all.

In addition, my mother was from Lithuania. She left not long before WWII, and much of her family was murdered in the Holocaust. So at home, I was constantly told - the Zionist belief dating back to Herzl, if not before - that only in Israel, the ancient homeland, peopled and ruled by Jews, could a Jew ever be safe.

Underlying all of this was the deeply rooted belief that Israel belonged to the Jews by right. Abraham, God, and all of that. (Hmm. Shouldn't pious Moslems therefore also believe that Israel belongs to the Jews?) Resulting from all of this was the conviction that Israelis are all brave, strong, clean, pure, moral, heroic - and, most of all, always right. Therefore, those who oppose them must be cowardly, weak, dirty, impure, immoral, craven, and, above all, always wrong.

Despite the years that have passed since that early indoctrination, and despite my having put all of that behind me, what Israel is doing to Lebanon now causes a cognitive dissonance that is hard to deal with. How can it be that Israel is committing acts that outrage the world and fill even its friends with horror?

Reality can be hard to accept. Who doesn't want to believe that his side, however he defines his side, is good and only the other side commits atrocities?

I think we have three main ways of holding onto this conviction, no matter what the evidence - three main ways, that is to say, of avoiding cognitive dissonance.

First, we simply and instantly and angrily dismiss reports of atrocities committed by our guys as lies. They aren't merely honest mistakes. They are lies deliberately told by people who want to help the enemy.

When we can longer deny the factual truth of the reports, we proclaim that the victims were appropriate targets. They deserved what they got. They weren't really civilians; they were enemy soldiers disguised as/dressed the same way as/hiding among civilians. Or they were civilians, but they supported the enemy soldiers and therefore shared in their guilt (because the enemy is guilty simply by virtue of being our enemy) and thus became legitimate targets. Or we choose a third route. This is the worst one, the one that dehumanizes us the most. We convince ourselves that those people aren't really human, anyway. They're some lower form of life, and a dirty and dangerous one. Killing them is of no moral consequence. Indeed, it's a way of cleansing the world. Nits make lice. The only good Indian is a dead Indian. That's one less future terrorist.

Now, here's the part I'm struggling with.

I'm talking about the kind of justifications offered by otherwise normal, moral people. This is a different matter from the killer who joins the army in anticipation of an opportunity to commit governmentally sanctioned murder, or the sociopath who spews evil in the guise of political commentary, dehumanizing the current enemy and pandering to the lowest impulses of his vile listeners or readers.

Let me repeat that: I'm talking about otherwise normal, moral people. Good Americans who were unmoved by the horrors visited upon the Indians or the slaves. Good Germans who were unmoved by the horrors visited upon the Jews. Good Britons who were unmoved by the horrors visited upon Dresden. Good Irish Catholics who cheered those who blew up Protestants. Good Arabs who cheer those who fire rockets into Israeli towns.

Good Israelis.

In the late 1960s, I worked at NASA in Houston, mostly on the Apollo program. One of my coworkers was a young man (we were all young!) named Jack. In many ways, he was a typical academic liberal of the times, even if he did hold to the bizarre idea, popular with the right wing back then, that the Supreme Court needed more "balance". (By which the right wing meant IMPEACH EARL WARREN!, as billboards across the South shrieked. Oh, yeah, we've got that balance now, haven't we? Scalia and Alito and Thomas, damn them all to the lowest circle of Hell.) One issue on which he held to the canonical liberal view was that Apartheid was uremittingly evil and that the government of South Africa needed to be overthrown. Not just overthrown: he yearned, he said angrily, for a black liberation army to sweep down on South Africa from the north and slaughter all the whites.

I pointed out to him that he was yearning for the slaughter of millions of people, many of them children, many of them innocent of any crime, and in fact many of them opponents of Apartheid. It didn't matter to him. The cost would be worthwhile. The murder of those millions would be justified by the liberation of millions more. There were no innocents. They should have done something to end Apartheid. Or if they really were innocent, then this was a sacrifice he was willing to make. He was willing to make!

People I had known in South Africa and still remembered well would have been among those whose deaths he was so ready to applaud. A decade earlier, I would have been one of those people. None of us was human to this liberal, socially progressive, intellectual soul.

In online arguments, I've seen tirades from fellow leftwingers - normally humane, kindly people, I'm sure - in which they call for the destruction of Israel. They are so horrified by the carnage and destruction Israeli bombs have caused in Lebanon that they want to see Israel eliminated and millions of Israelis murdered - the hawks and the doves, the guilty and the innocent, the old and the young, all slaughtered together. This is their preferred final solution.

A detestable hypocrisy is on display in this and in Jack's proposed solution to the problem of the existence of Apartheid. I suppose it's an aspect of American exceptionalism.

The first permanent English settlement in North America was established at Jamestown in 1607. The first permanent Dutch settlement in southern Africa was established at Capetown in 1652. Only forty-five years separates those two events, and yet to white American liberals like Jack it might as well have been a million years, for they view white citizens of South Africa as interlopers with no right to be there but they see white citizens of the United States as true natives.

Moreover, the whites of South Africa, whose ancestors conquered the black tribes they encountered but made no attempt to exterminate them, are forever guilty of the sins of their forebears, while white Americans, whose ancestors' slaughter of the Indians is one of the greatest and most terrible crimes in recorded history, and who quite explicitly and often as official government policy tried to kill every last Indian, are absolved from any inherited guilt simply by saying they renounce what was done in the past. Jack was ready to see millions of white people murdered or at the very least forced to leave the land where they were born and grew up and be exiled to countries their ancestors came from but that most of them had never seen and where they would be aliens all their lives, but he would never suggest that he and his kind give up their property in the United States and move to Europe. In the end, South Africa's whites lost political power because their ancestors did not - and did not try to - commit genocide. America's whites have kept their dominion because their forebears came so close to committing genocide successfully.

But that's an old argument, and Apartheid is part of history. The anger and hypocrisy of many of America's liberals is now directed at Israel.

American progressives favored Israel in the early days. The brave pioneering kibbutzniks were socialists and their state was based on socialist institutions and ideas. While Arab peasants and farmers suffered even then from the new distribution of land, few in the West seemed aware of the role armed force by Jews had played in that new distribution. The clear, visible enemy was the feudalistic ruling classes and great landowners of the Arab world, many of whom had allied themselves with European fascism during World War II - the same fascism which had murdered millions of Jews and whose death camps many of the newest Israelis had survived. The Arab armies that invaded and tried to destroy the nascent democratic state in 1948 were the armies of unelected rulers who had oppressed their own people for ages. Israelis represented and were fighting for the best ideals of Western society.

When did this pro-Israel attitude change? As I remember it, the change came after the 1967 Middle East war, and the reason for the change, as it seemed to me at the time, was that Israel was too successful. During that war, unlike those of 1948 and 1956, the little state barely managing to survive the onslaught of the huge, well equipped armies invading it suddenly revealed itself as the regional superpower, triumphant, imperial, invincible. Perhaps if history had taken a different course after that great victory, if the governments of Israel, the Arab states, the United States, and Britain and France had been very different, if there had been a succession of solid, genuine peace treaties, accompanied by Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the old goodwill American progressives used to feel toward Israel would have returned. As it was, the new imperial, colonial, paranoid garrison state became hard to like, let alone love.

It also became easy to forget that the paranoia was not baseless. There were millions in the Arab world who still spoke openly of driving the Jews into the sea and eliminating Israel. This kind of talk did not begin or end in 1967. Nor did the shameful cartoon depictions of Jews in the Arab press - hooked-nose, bent-backed, money-grubbing nightmares who could have come straight out of the newspapers of Nazi Germany and were certainly inspired by them. In more recent years, add rockets fired into Israeli towns and suicide bombers blowing themselves up in crowded shopping centers. The paranoid garrison state with its buffer of colonial lands it ruled with an iron hand was a perversion of the Zionist argument that the Jews could only be safe in their own country, governed by them and defended by them, but it was not a perversion that came out of thin air.

For that matter, out here in the Diaspora, the ugliness that, even in the most civilized and advanced countries, gave rise in the first place to the Zionist insistence that Jews were never safe except in their own country has bestirred itself again. Herzl was set on his course by the Dreyfuss Affair. How could that act of anti-Semitism have happened in 19th-Century France, of all places? And since it did, couldn't it happen anywhere? In America, which still considers itself the paragon of civilization and democracy and equality and non-discrimination, progressives now mutter that America invaded Iraq on the orders of the Israeli government and that our foreign policy and news outlets are all under the control of sinister Jews. We are slipping back into an old and frightening darkness, and the old Jewish paranoia that what happened in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s could happen anywhere no longer seems quite so far fetched.

The rockets and suicide bombers are justified as the only way to fight for the liberation of the land against an occupier so powerful. The occupier insists that the occupation is necessary for his protection.

But why does the occupier have a right to protect himself if he shouldn't be in the Middle East in the first place? He is an interloper, an alien, a foreigner, and he was imposed on the region by the Great Powers a century ago. He is there only through conquest, and so his presence is inherently unjust. Let him just leave, and all the problems will be over.

This is a seductive argument for many progressive Americans who would be properly horrified by seeing millions of people murdered - or driven into the sea, as the more poetic of Israel's enemies like to put it. Let those millions just disperse again. Or, say, let's offer them some other land in exchange! Something empty that no one else wants. Some desert that they can make green. That's the ticket!

As was true in the case of the argument against white South Africans, Americans who talk blithely about millions of Jews being induced to leave Israel and move to lands alien to them have no intention of leaving the lands they took by force not so very long ago. America extends from sea to shining sea and from the Mexican to the Canadian border only because of a shameful history of mass slaughter and brazen imperialistic aggression. But I certainly can't blame other Americans for not wanting to leave just because of the evil deeds of previous generations. I have no wish to give up my house in Colorado and move to wherever it was in Eastern Europe my ancestors got the Hell out of. For that matter, my wife is of Scottish-English-Irish descent, and we're happily married, so where would the two of us go so that we could stay together? I'd certainly rather live in the British Isles than in Slavicland, but according to the unspoken and wacky race-and-land theory (Blut und Boden!) underlying the argument that the Israelis should leave Israel, I wouldn't have any right to live in England or Scotland or Ireland.

But wait! Recent genetic research has established that most of the population of England is of primarily Anglo-Saxon descent. Their ancestors violently dispossessed the Celts who were there before them - pushed them aside, murdered them, enslaved them - and so they have no right to be there, either! A tribunal must be established immediately. Anyone whose ancestry is primarily Celtic can stay in England. Anyone who is of mostly Anglo-Saxon descent must immediately move back to Friesland, or wherever his ancestors came from.

But wait! The Frieslanders aren't the original inhabitants of that area, either! They have to move further east, to wherever their ancestors came from.

But wait! . . .

If the justice dictated by the mystical ties of blood and soil is to be established, any area of the world can only be populated by the descendants of those human beings who first entered the area. (We could extend this argument to say that the descendants of the animals that were there before the humans arrived have a prior right, but let's not.) The rest of us, billions and billions of us, must somehow pack ourselves into Africa.

And a rather small part of Africa, at that. Africa has the same history of migration and violent dispossession as everywhere else. For example, most of the black peoples of South Africa are not originally native to the area. Their ancestors migrated down from the north, pushing aside, enslaving, and murdering the people they found there. So apparently most of us are going to end up living in the Olduvai Gorge. Which is only about 30 miles long. It's going to get crowded in there. Some of us, probably most of us, are going to quickly start agitating to get out of there and take over some of the surrounding land, and if the people who are living in those surrounding lands because their ancestors lived there millions of years ago object, well, history tells us what will happen.

Okay. This is silly. We won't go back that far to establish justice. Well then, how far back should we go? Far enough so that all the Israelis have to leave Israel but none of the Americans have to leave America? Further back, to 1652, so that the white South Africans have to leave South Africa, but not another 45 years back, to 1607, so that the Anglo Americans have to leave America? Further back than that, but not so far back that the Arabs have to leave North Africa? Further back, but not back to the time when there were Jews living all over the Middle East? After all, the presence of those Jews, who had been living there for so many thousands of years, might be seen as giving them some kind of inherent blood-and-soil right to the place.

History is full of tribal migrations and expansions and of the bloody dispossession of one people by another. Of course the world shouldn't tolerate it happening now (although the world did just that in the aftermath of the collapse of Yugoslavia), and the world shouldn't tolerate it in the future (although we can be sure that the world will do so again, repeatedly). But how absurd and evil it would be to try to undo the dispossessions of the past. Where would we start? And where would we stop? Surely the only morally sound position is to accept where all the peoples of the earth now live, no matter what awful deeds their ancestors committed to establish themselves there, and to concentrate on eliminating any injustices and discrimination in the present. That means that world pressure to eliminate Apartheid was right and proper, but tolerating mass dispossession of South Africa's whites or forcing them to go back to the homes of their ancestors would not be. America must finally honor its treaties with the Indians and moral obligations to them, but it would be yet another moral outrage if non-Indian Americans were forced to give up their homes and migrate back to Europe. And Israel and its neighbors must accept each other's right to exist in peace and security within secure borders.

That last sentence is a heck of an oversimplification, I know. What borders? What about water rights? What about the political rights of Israeli Arabs? Does Israel have the right to preserve its nature as a Jewish state? Don't look at me. I'm just a guy with a Web site who's speaking in generalities. The details are what diplomats are supposed to be for - diplomats and good will, or at least good intentions. If good will/good intentions exist, the diplomats laboriously working out the details will follow.

(A digression. Whenever one mentions the importance of good intentions, someone will say, usually with a pitying smile, "You know what's paved with good intentions, don't you?" As if the hoary saying that the path to Hell is paved with good intentions proves that good intentions are not fundamental. That makes as much sense as the belief of some theists who think that repeating the line from the Psalms, "The fool has said in his heart there is no God," proves that their imagined deity exists.)

But what about now? Good will apparently being scarce in the Middle East, what about the right to self-defense? Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that guerrillas really did cross into Israel and kidnap her soldiers. The rockets and suicide bombers sent into Israel for years certainly are real. What should Israel have done?

Certainly not what they're doing now (August 2006).

Of course It's easy for me to say this, but it should be clear that they should have been doing some things years ago. How could the Israeli government have allowed the remarkable Israeli intelligence apparatus of the past to deteriorate to the point where Hizbollah's actions, preparations, and competence came as a surprise? With Israel's technological superiority to its neighbors, how could an invasion and kidnapping have been possible? Yes, I'm just an armchair general thousands of miles away from the danger, but Israel once had real generals who thought of such matters, an intelligence organization that was admired and consulted by the intelligence agencies of all the great Western powers, and special forces who were able to go where they wanted to and do what they had to do. Surely the proper way to deal with mobile rocket launchers is pinpoint bombing called in by special forces and satellite surveillance, not carpet bombing of civilian towns.

I'm brought back to where I started. What kind of creature celebrates the death and maiming of innocents, their physical destruction, their psychological destruction? A monster, a psychopath, a Nazi, a Limbaugh, a Coulter, a Malkin, a Hitler. What kind of creature, without celebrating, nonetheless accepts such horrors without feeling, as necessary, as irrelevant? The good German, the good Arab, the good American, the good Israeli. These are the people who tell children to write messages on bombs that will be dropped on other children. They can look at pictures of mangled children and weeping parents and not be heartbroken, not be overwhelmed with agony and the need to see it all stop. What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. They have deafened themselves to that voice because they have made themselves see the others as having no kinship to them, as not even human. Thus these good people have made themselves into monsters.

In the end, I certainly don't pretend to have a solution to the Middle East situation. I'm left filled with horror and despair and the realization that I was wrong in what I said above. What the sane observer on the outside really wants to shout is, "Why can't you Goddamned monsters just feel?"


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