If 'the world' betrays Israel yet again, why care?
By Gil Troy
March 7, 2008
Once again, "the world" has betrayed Israel. After more than 7,000 rockets rained down on Sderot, after rockets probably provided by Iran pummeled Ashkelon, after tolerating daily aggression from its neighbor no other country currently endures, Israel hit Hamas hard in Gaza to try to stop the shelling -- and was roundly condemned for using "disproportionate" force. As with the 1990s' failed Oslo Peace Process, Israel's disengagement from Gaza did not bank enough goodwill to temper the criticism nor did Israel's years of restraint despite constant assaults help.
The headlines condemned the tragic death toll from Israel's belated attempt to defend its citizens, ignoring the Palestinians' persistent provocations and the broader outrage of Hamas's decision to turn Gaza into a Kassam launching-base rather than into a model of how to build a constructive civil society. Even worse, when a Palestinian terrorist slaughtered eight students studying at a Jerusalem Yeshiva Thursday night, as thousands of Gazans celebrated this barbaric act, the United Nations Security Council refused to condemn it.
But rather than again bemoaning the world's myopia, deeper questions arise: who constitutes "the world" and why does Israel care so much about its opinion of a necessary, justified attempt at self-defense?
In the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy "the world" is this Johnny-one-note Greek Chorus on stage-left, always poised to pounce on Israeli "aggression." "The world" seems to be an odd amalgam of the latest UN official censuring Israel, the most vociferous NGO and EU representatives excoriating Israel, and the most slanted BBC, CNN, or New York Times headline blaming Israel.
This modern variation on the old story of the boy who cried wolf insulates Israel and the pro-Israel community from necessary self-criticism and self-reflection. The now-ritualized anti-Israel assault is so predictably disproportionate that Israel's supporters simply run for their battle stations whenever the rhetorical barrage begins. The debate's all or nothing nature muscles out thoughtful activists seeking the middle. When Israel kills 90 terrorists but critics count most of these "militants" as civilians, the fight over the unfair charge eclipses the more complicated debate about what such operations can accomplish, if anything.
Thus, repeatedly, on cue, the blood pressure rises, protests mount, indignant emails clog the in-box. Obviously, there are solid reasons to continue fighting "the world's" bias. Truth must be defended, Israel cannot afford to become a pariah, and the Palestinians' worldwide propaganda campaign demands refutation not resignation. Still, this peculiar sensitivity to "the world" seems rooted in deeper historical forces touching on core issues linked to Judaism, Zionism, and Israel's founding.
For starters, the Holocaust's horrific legacy haunts this question, like so many issues in modern Israel. Many of us first heard "the world" used as a concept in laments about "the world's" silence while six million died -- to echo Arthur Morse's book title from 1967. Obviously "the world" of 2008 is not the same as "the world" of the 1930s and 1940s, but the issue resonates deep within the modern Jewish soul. If "the world" failed to act then, how dare it betray us now.
Balancing out this abiding historical anger is abiding historical gratitude. The simplistic narrative of the post-war period treats the 1947 United Nations' Partition Plan as "the world's" response to its silence during the Holocaust. This narrative oversimplifies, ignoring the decades of Jewish settlement that preceded it, and the millennia of connection between the Jewish people and Israel that framed it. Still, the dramatic turnaround, from mass murder ending in 1945 to the sweet affirmation of Jewish statehood two years later, makes "the world" and "the UN" co-stars in the tale of modern Zionist redemption. To be condemned repeatedly by that same UN sixty years later, suspecting that only this grant of statehood seems to have been offered provisionally, conditional on good behavior, hurts, no matter how corrupt the UN has become.
Moreover, this chorus of condemnation preys on longstanding Jewish ambitions intensified by the Zionist project's relative newness. Jews have long loved to be loved. More than most peoples, Jews seem particularly attuned to world opinion, wanting to be appreciated. The concept of "Or LaGoyim," of being a light unto the nations, invites Jews to care about "the world", and about remaining in "the world's" good graces. Sometimes, enlightening the nations requires a perverse willingness to defy trends. One of Israel's greatest prophets did not will us the word "Jeremiad" for nothing. Nevertheless, the historic ambition to lead the way, shaped for nearly 2,000 years by the exile?s need not to rock the boat, has made Jews the Sally Field among the nations, always seeking to echo the long-frustrated Oscar winner of 1985: "I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me."
In returning the Jews to history, Zionism was supposed to end this exile-based thirst for approval. But Zionism was and is too Jewish a movement to avoid utopianism, to shun the world, to delight in disapproval. And the Zionist promise of becoming normal, of being accepted by other nations, updated, strengthened - and brought dignity - to this longstanding Jewish quest.
All this is complicated by the appalling outrages the world ignores: the systematic Arab campaign seeking Israel's destruction which fuels Palestinian nationalism?s nihilism preferring to destroy Israel rather than build Palestine. Harvard University's Ruth Wisse captures this complexity in her latest book, "Jews and Power." Championing Jews' "moral idealism" and our need to survive, she writes: "The obligation to be decent is complicated for Jews by the knowledge that other societies feel driven to eliminate them from the world."
It is not easy balancing the relatively new phenomenon of exercising power, this historic desire to be the world's moral exemplar, and the harsh, complicated realities Arab hostility evokes. It would be a lot easier if "the world," whatever that is, cut Israel a break occasionally, and did not make it so difficult to find balance, so easy to dismiss criticism, even if justified.