The latest battle in the War of Independence
It's taken different forms over 73+ years, but as its core, it's the same war. The issue is not 1967 -- it's 1948.
Twenty years ago, more or less, we were having dinner at the home of friends in Sha’ar HaNegev, a small community situated very close to the Gaza border. In the midst of the standard dinner chit-chat, we heard an enormous boom, and the entire house shook. I looked at my wife, she looked at me, but no one said anything; we just kept eating and talking. A few minutes went by, and again, an enormous boom – and once again the house shook. No one so much as acknowledged the tank firing away just a few hundred meters from where we were seated.
We’d never had dinner to the sound of tank fire when I was growing up in suburban Baltimore, and eventually, I couldn’t quite sustain the nonchalance. “What is that, exactly, that we’re hearing?” I asked, trying to sound as calm as our hosts looked. “Oh, that,” our host responded. “What you’re hearing is the latest battle in the War of Independence.”
I feel a sadness in Israel these days that I don’t recall ever having felt before. Ask people how they are, and they scrunch up their face, as if to say, “How are any of us?” How, actually, are you supposed to be when you’re still fighting your war of independence, while much of the world –including many American Jews, more on whom below – has decided that you don’t deserve independence, that you’re the one country in the world that ought not exist? China can build concentration camps for the Uighurs, Syria can slaughter hundreds of thousands of its own citizens and turn millions into refugees, Russia can invade countries and poison dissidents, Saudi Arabia can dismember people, hunt down gays and lesbians and repress women – but Israel is the country that doesn’t deserve to exist? Apparently.
You have to admire at least one thing about Hamas: they’re honest. Article Six of the Hamas Charter explicitly notes that their goal is to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” That, by the way, doesn’t mean territorial compromise with Israel. When they chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” that is what they mean. Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar explicitly told British TV last week that Israel has no right to exist. What is extraordinary is not that Hamas believes that, or that they are honest about it; that I get. What is stunning is that the international community – including many Jews – makes a conscious effort not to believe them.
Other than Hamas (among others in the Palestinian world), few institutions or people state explicitly that Israel has no right to exist. They don’t need to; that, after all, is the point of saying that a country has no right to defend itself against attackers who explicitly call for its destruction. Israel’s enemies have other ways of making the point:
The UN Human Rights Council has just established the first “ongoing” commission of Inquiry into Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. No other country, no other conflict, has ever merited this. But Israel does? Anyone who is surprised, though, has not been following the HRC for years. Of all the countries in the world, how many are a standing agenda item of the HRC? Just one, of course – Israel is standing agenda item #7. Anyone wonder why Israel has no intention of cooperating with the HRC inquiry?
The New York Times published an array of photographs of Palestinian children killed in the fighting, with the heading “They Were Just Children.” They were, indeed, just children, which makes their deaths horribly tragic. I don’t know a single Israeli who is not pained by that loss of life. (There may be some, but I don’t know a single one.) Yet does anyone ask why Hamas situated its rockets where those children, who are without doubt entirely innocent, live, while it seeks to bomb Tel Aviv?
Here’s the question I just can’t answer: What would the world have us do? Keep hoping that Iron Dome works, until it doesn’t?
The Times also noted that 67 children were killed in Gaza, while two children were killed in Israel. The imbalance in the number of dead – around 250 in Gaza and about 15 or so in Israel – is ostensibly an indication of how “unfair” the battle was.
But this comparison in the numbers of victims leaves me very confused. The Allies killed about 350,000 - 500,000 German civilians during World War II. Yet “only” 40,000 Brits died in the Blitz, and virtually no American civilians were killed on American soil. Would all those people (yes, including rabbis, a prominent one of whom accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” but backed down under pressure) pointing to the imbalance in the number of casualties therefore claim that the Allies conducted an immoral war against Germany? Do the categories of good and evil still matter? Does it make any difference at all who caused the war?
Along with the UN HRC and the NY Times, we can now add several dozen American rabbinical students, who published a public letter claiming that “Israel has the military and controls the borders[.] How many Palestinians must lose their homes, their schools, their lives, for us to understand that today, in 2021, Israel’s choices come from a place of power and that Israel’s actions constitute an intentional removal of Palestinians?
Sloppy writing, I tell my students, is evidence of sloppy thinking; they’re not just closely correlated – they’re one and the same. “Removal of Palestinians” – where? Gaza? The West Bank? Or did they mean the Sheikh Jarakh legal battle (about which Israel’s Supreme Court has yet to rule – we’ll soon be posting for subscribers a podcast with a legal expert explaining the issues in that case). But how is Sheikh Jarakh, which is a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, related to Gaza, where Palestinians are losing their homes, their schools and their lives?
Summon your fortitude, and read the letter – because it’s a window into where part of the American Jewish community is headed. And then search for the word “Hamas.” Not there. Search for the word “exist.” Not there. Search for the word “terrorist.” Not there. How is it that Frank Fleming, the columnist and satirist, gets it, and they don’t?
None of this should really surprise us. Ten years ago, I wrote a few pieces, one of them in Commentary Magazine, asking “Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?” I took a lot of heat for that piece, but I didn’t really care – I knew what was coming, for the signs were everywhere. Now they’re just undeniable. Read that letter from the rabbinical students, and then recall that neither the UAE nor Bahrain, which recently signed normalization agreements with Israel, recalled their ambassadors or said anything nearly as critical of Israel as did these rabbinical students.
And then let this sink in – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and even Egypt – are far more sympathetic to Israel than are significant swathes of American Jewish life.
Rabbinical students have a right to believe whatever they’d like. All I would have asked of them, before signing that letter, is this: read the Israeli press (which, I acknowledge, is mostly in Hebrew, which I realize is an issue) and ask yourselves: Israel has had four elections in the last two years, and in none of them has the occupation or the conflict with the Palestinians been a campaign issue— even for the left-leaning parties. Why is that? Why is it that during this latest conflict with Hamas, not a single left-wing Israeli party critiqued the government, calling for a halt to the operation? Is it because Israelis by the millions are morally calloused and need American progressives to teach them ethical thinking? Or might it be because many of those progressives live in or around Tel Aviv, and they took some offense at Hamas trying to kill them and their children?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, about whom more than enough has been written, recently (implicitly) called Israel an Apartheid state. That, of course, is another way of saying that it should be dismantled. And that wasn’t surprising; she might have been channeling Bernie Sanders.
AOC also said that Israel isn’t a democracy. That was a bit surprising, given the conduct of the Congress of which she is a member.
This week, Israelis are going to get a new President (on Wednesday), elected by the Knesset that they – including Israeli Arabs, which is odd in an Apartheid state – elected, and quite possibly, a new Prime Minister as part of a broad coalition that (at least as of this writing) will likely include parties from the far-left Meretz to the right-of-center Naftali Bennet. If that happens, and Bibi Netanyahu is finally unseated, there will be Israelis who will be happy and others who will not. (Columns about both the new President and the (possibly new) PM forthcoming.) What they will have in common, though, is their understanding that flawed though the system is, the democracy works, and it’s real.
While the UN HRC and the New York Times and AOC and some American rabbinical students all assail Israel for the crime of not being vanquished, here’s what’s worth remembering:
If you want to make sure that Israeli leftists and the rightists bond together, all you have to do is remind us that you think we shouldn’t exist.
In the face of that immoral absurdity, this is actually a pretty united country.
We’ve launched our podcast series. The first episode, a conversation with Dr. Sarah Feuer of the INSS on “What Hamas was trying to accomplish” with this war is posted, and is available to those who’ve subscribed to “Israel from the Inside.” A brief excerpt of the podcast, accessible to everyone, can be found here.
Forthcoming soon — interviews with people who lived through the attacks in Lod — what life was like before, what happened, and where the city might be headed.
Also forthcoming — a close look at the Sheikh Jarakh court case, commonly referred to as “impending evictions.” What’s the legal battle about? How is it that both sides have sufficiently strong cases that the Supreme Court’s ruling is by no means certain?
And elsewhere — Dan Senor and I recorded a podcast about the conflict, which you can find here.