Originally published on Nov. 28, 2011 on Open Salon.
This is a post about Israel, Jews, and perceived vulnerability. I've read a lot of comments about this particular topic, including one about how the difference in power between Israelis and Palestinians is roughly equivalent to the difference between a car and a dog.
Maybe so, but it will never feel like that to Israelis, a fact that will always drive policy. If you're going to judge, it helps to understand the actors. I know a few things about the actors on my side of the fence (or fences, depending on where you are).
I don't want to give a history lesson here, at least not much of one. It would be too long, too redundant, too didactic. I just want to talk about what the given population experiences, particularly in terms of perceived vulnerability.
This may seem like an odd thing to say, but if you don't belong to a minority, Jews may be hard to get. A minority mentality is different from a majority mentality. We watch our backs differently. We worry about different things. We know that a lack of acceptance is the way life works for us in most places.
Jews are generally safe in the United States. Our safety here, thank God, is likely to continue, not because the US is so liberal (comparatively speaking), nor because discrimination is mostly a thing of the past here, but because the US is The big country where ethnicity has nothing to do with nationality. Wherever ethnicity and nationality overlap, which is most places in the world, living in a country where you aren’t of the majority ethnicity is likely to bite you in the ass sooner or later.
For a while, educated western countries were the safest places for us to be. In the old days, for a few centuries at least, the biggest pogroms (sort of organized anti-Jewish riots frequently involving massacres) happened where there were large superstitious peasant populations, like in Ukraine. Educated and western didn’t mean no problems, just smaller ones. France was educated at the turn of the last century, but the Dreyfus case still happened, where a Jewish army officer was convicted for treason (later overturned) based on evidence pretty universally regarded as flawed by the journalists covering the trial. (The Dreyfus verdict contributed heavily to the foundation of modern Zionism.) But Germany was educated and western and you see where that got us – in fact, one of the biggest surprises about the Holocaust to us isn’t how many of us were killed – we’d seen big numbers plenty of times before – but that it was a western, educated country with an extremely loyal Jewish population that did this. Many Jews of my parents’ generation conclude that if it could happen in western, educated Germany, it could happen here. It can’t, but that’s because there is no viable candidate for Master Race here. We are used to turning outsiders into insiders in ways that most countries in this world just can’t, and that’s a strength that keeps American Jews safe.
So what do Jews in safe America know from anti-Semitism? A few things:
American Jewish immigration came overwhelmingly from Northern and especially Eastern Europe – over 90% of us. When families came over, they didn’t typically come over complete. They left Europe because conditions there weren’t good – the ones who left typically witnessed (or suffered through) some sort of persecution, frequently life-threatening, though some came more for economic reasons than reasons of physical safety. Jews my age and older knew or know relatives from Europe, and they all saw stuff over there. The family members that didn’t come over, voluntarily or involuntarily (I had a great aunt turned back at Ellis Island in the late 1930’s because of a medical issue), were there when the Nazis went through the region. Most American Jews lost family in the Holocaust. I can remember my grandmother taking me through a family album, turning a page and saying “This page was killed by Hitler.” I haven’t experienced the life-threatening stuff, but it was in the family, mine and the rest of the Jewish families here. It shaped us.
The lack of prevalent American anti-Semitism is relatively recent. My grandfather passed, which is to say he pretended not to be Jewish, in order to get a job during the Second World War with a company involved in the War effort that didn’t hire Jews in spite of the fact that they were located in New York City. He was the American-born son of American-born parents and not integrated into Judaism at all, but he still had to pass.
Anti-Semitism isn’t completely gone here. I was in Indiana about a dozen years ago when the following incident happened: Nativity scenes had recently been prohibited from the local courthouse lawn. There were some people protesting this. The local Jewish community wrote e-mails and letters in support of the ban because the nativity scenes were more about “taking back” the courthouse than about inclusion. There were plenty of nativity scenes close to the courthouse at local churches. Keeping them off the lawn was a great way of saying to non-Christians in the community: This is your courthouse too. Putting the nativity scenes there was about staking a claim, yielding an ultimately non-inclusive result. The county had three commissioners. One of them answered an e-mail from a local Jewish woman, a very civil e-mail, with an answer that said that we live in a Christian country, we were essentially guests here and if we didn’t like it we should go back to Israel. By the way, the Jewish woman in question belonged to a local congregation that had recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. After a century and a half, a government official still assumed we didn’t belong. (That county commissioner was forced out of office pretty quickly after that.) Our gentile friends were shocked and outraged. We were sad and resigned. Being a Jew entails that. It always has.
By the way, on major holidays my temple has a police presence. It never used to, but it does now. Terrorism is a risk we take seriously.
Like a lot of other minorities, we get targeted by hate groups. One oddball manifestation of this is a strange bit of historical revisionism called Holocaust Denial – it was in reaction to this that American Holocaust survivors petitioned President Carter to allow them to take the private funding they were able to raise and build the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, DC.
That’s who we are here. The other major Jewish population in the world is in Israel. Their experiences are somewhat different, mainly because their experiences with anti-Semitism tend to be more direct and more recent.
A college friend married an Israeli woman who one could describe as Jewish Palestinian – in other words, her family had been in Palestine for as long as she knew about – but there aren’t too many of those. Like with the United States, most Jews came from elsewhere. (Recently, not ancestrally.) However, they came more recently than Jews came to the United States, and a larger percentage of them faced serious persecution. Sure, there are a few Jews from America and elsewhere who emigrated to Israel for religious reasons, but emigration for that reason is the exception rather than the rule. People move when they have to. Throughout Europe and the Middle East, Jews had to. So Israel is primarily made up of immigrants who left places where it wasn’t safe to be Jewish and their descendants. Some of these places used to be safe; at least one, Iraq, was safe for about two and a half millennia but, even after that amount of time, we still ultimately needed to watch our backs.
The big difference between the Israeli and American Jewish populations is that moving to Israel didn’t make Jews safe from the rest of the world but it made them very safe from their countrymen. They live in a little country that’s been in mortal danger a few times, including at birth, invaded immediately when declaring independence. One major tactical surprise meant that they won decisively in 1967; without pulling that one off, they might have been eliminated then. The Egyptian attack on Yom Kippur in 1973 didn’t lead to a foregone conclusion either. I was in college during the Yom Kippur War and, between classes, I went to the student union and climbed the stairs to the fourth floor office of the college radio station to check the teletype because it was the fastest source of news at the time. I didn’t know if Israel would survive any given day. None of us did.
Israel is little and has universal conscription (well, almost), so everyone knows war wounded and war dead and everyone knows people personally affected by terrorism. They’ve all seen terrorism sites that they’re familiar with in daily life. It’s a little place surrounded by hostility – all of this violence is personal. Personal for everyone. Never forget who Prime Minister Netanyahu is: He is the brother of a major national hero, Yonatan Netanyahu, the mission leader and only casualty of the hostage rescue mission in Entebbe, Uganda.
I visited Israel once, in 1979 or 1980. Picture living with daily security somewhere between normal American and American Airport. I can remember going to lunch with my sister in an outdoor cafeteria in Jerusalem. We’d just made a purchase, a gift for our parents, and we’d left our package at our table while we got up to get food. The manager came over to me and asked “Is that package yours?” “Yes,” I replied. “Sit with it.” His point was that if it was going to blow up it was taking me with it. (Suicide bombers came later.) I flew to Israel on El Al and a young man asked me the security questions. The difference between being questioned by Israeli security and by American security is that, to the Israelis, this wasn’t cursory or pro-forma, it was survival. I was approached in the waiting area individually; we did not wait in lines. “Has anyone given you a package?” It was asked quietly, looking into my eyes, worried that I might be the guy who brought the package on board that would cause this jetliner to fall out of the sky. I was being asked as a matter of life and death…………because it was.
Missiles landed in Sderot, near Gaza, on a daily basis for years. The Israeli citizens of Sderot built bomb shelters and hid in them frequently. There weren’t very many casualties because the Israelis hid in the shelters. I’ve heard from some on OS that the rockets were too crude to be a big deal – except that the few who were killed by them and their families might have a different take on that assertion.
You can tell us American Jews that we’re paranoid. You can tell the Israelis that the balance of military power is such that Palestinian organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah are relatively harmless. But none of us will buy it. Too many Israelis have seen buses that pass them every day or on which they ride show up as flaming hulks on the evening news because someone bombed it. Too many have walked past a pizza parlor where a suicide bomber strolled in, noticed that there were sixteen people inside and that half of them were children, and detonated anyway. Fences go up, terrorism goes down, and people complain about the fences, but the truth is that such fences keep them safer.
It’s not just Palestinians that make the Israelis feel less than safe. Israel has had nukes for a long time that they don’t admit. Why? Because they needed a way to say “Killing us all will cost you too much.” Other countries in the region have attempted to gain nuclear power but there’s a difference: No one is interested in exterminating any of them. At the time Saddam Hussein tried to develop nukes the first time and Israel bombed the plant, his country wasn’t in mortal danger. Neither is Iran now. This isn’t about defense, it’s about offense. No one dreams of driving the Iranians out of Iran, emphatically including the Israelis. When Iran talks about getting nuclear weapons, when the president of Iran talks openly about blowing up Israel, when that same president hosts international conferences supporting Holocaust denial, that threat has to be considered a threat, because it is one. By the way, because Hezbollah behaves basically as an Iranian proxy, it must be understood that Iranian threats to Israel are a lot more than just theoretical – they have been, albeit not in a nuclear way so far, locally manifested.
When the United Nations releases resolution after resolution condemning Israel and singles it out as the only member nation permanently forbidden to serve on the Security Council, how can the Israelis trust the UN to be impartial about settling disputes? When the leadership in Turkey changes and an aid mission is sent to the people firing missiles at Israeli civilians, a mission launched with chants about Auschwitz, and the end result is a souring of relations with Turkey, how does anyone expect the Israelis to react? When President Obama took office and appeared to tilt more toward the Arabs than his predecessors did, I saw a lot of Jews panic. (I was not one of them.) Israel is politically pretty isolated and that isolation isn’t shrinking.
My point isn’t whether Israel is right or wrong. My point is what kind of reaction to expect from Israelis and American Jews and why. This is where we come from. This is what shapes us. We’ve spent thousands of years living in other peoples’ countries, dependent on their good will for survival. In Israel, the government will never arrest us for being Jewish, at least as long as Israel has a Jewish majority. It ultimately doesn’t matter if someone thinks Jews are safer than we think we are. I’m afraid that it is our concern over our own safety that drives us. It also doesn’t matter if someone thinks we Should feel safe; what matters is whether we Do feel safe.