Ira Chernus  


"Yes, but hey, we're not as bad as the Nazis." That is the best our local County Commissioner, Paul Danish, could come up with to justify Israel's harsh repression of the Palestinians. "Life in Ramallah [a principle West Bank city] isn't very comfortable these days," Danish wrote in the Daily (Mar. 14), "but Dachau in the Desert it ain't." In other words: Israel is not as bad as the Nazis.

Of course Israel is not as bad as the Nazis. When anyone suggests that it is, Israelis and other Jews get outraged, with good reason. But is that really the moral standard that the U.S. Jewish community, or any religious community, wants to hold people too: just be better than the Nazis, and you are OK?

Danish does say more than that. Like all supporters of Israeli policy, he selectively interprets the facts to make sure that Israel ends up in the right, and the Palestinians in the wrong. His agument rests on the so-called "fact" that collective punishment of Palestinians is justified, because Palestinian actions in the street are controlled by the Palestinian Authority. He ignores the fact that collective punishment, under any circumstances, violates international law. He also overlooks Yassir Arafat’s public calls to curb the violence, which were ignored by many Paelstinians. In fact, observers on the scene, far more expert than Danish, are not sure how much control Arafat and the PA really have.

Danish says that food and medicine are allowed into cities blockaded by Israel soldiers. He does not tell us how much or how little. He conveniently forgets the kinds of facts reported in the Daily on March 16: the typical hardships and indignities that Palestinians suffer every day, like the woman whose baby was born dead because Israeli soldiers refused to let her get to a hospital. And he forgets the thousands of Palestinians being killed and wounded by Israeli soldiers. Some of them are innocent bystanders. All of them are simply demanding the same right of national self-determination that Jews use to justify the existence of Israel.

Of course Danish winds up with the usual supposed "fact" that Palestinians want "the destruction of Israel." Can he read the minds of the Palestinians? His only so-called "evidence" is the Palestinian demand for the right of all refugees to return to their homes. But this demand was not pressed in the most recent negotiations. No Palestinian negotiator seriously expects to have more than a few thousand return. The demand may well be a ploy, intended to be dropped in return for reparations money.

But all this fact-slinging back and forth is really beside the point. It is about as productive as a kindergarten quarrel: He did this. Yeah, but he did that. Yeah, but he started it. No, he started it. You can make the facts come out any way you want. The fundamental fact is that we each choose our interpretations, and we are responsible for our choices. The real question is why someone would choose to interpret facts so selectively that Israel always comes out smelling like a rose.

I don’t know Commissioner Danish. So I certainly won’t presume to judge his motivations. But I do know plenty of U.S. Jews who have spent all their lives justifying Israel, no matter what. They do it partly because everyone else around them does it. Many of them have never even considered that the facts might be read another way.

They do it partly because they like the power of being on the winning side, the side that tells other people what to do. They have been told that Jews have been pushed around forever. They believe it, and they believe that now it’s the Jews’ turn to do some pushing. They take pride in the fact that Jews are now conquerors, not victims. Some have no moral qualms. They tell you very openly that getting even is justified.

But many Jews do feel rather uneasy. They want to believe that Judaism is the source and guide of their moral compass. By now, most have to admit what they so long denied. Israel has tortured many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinians. Israeli soldiers have killed innocent Palestinians, some of them children. And now they see Ariel Sharon, once chastised by his own superiors for complicity in the massacre of over a thousand civilians in Lebanon, heading the Israeli government. For those who want to make Judaism the foundation of their moral lives, all this raises problems, to say the least.

Many Jews are dealing with these problems by backing away from their knee-jerk pro-Israel stance. That is why the U.S. Jewish community is so relatively quiet now, I suspect.

But other Jews continue to interpret the facts selectively, to look only at facts that will make Israel appear both powerful and righteous. They do it by casting Israel as the victim, despite its obviously overwhelming military strength. If you can pull off that trick, you can have both power and morality, the best of both worlds.

So, for example, if you are Commissioner Danish, you take a clear violation of international law, like the collective punishment of blockading whole cities, and you call it "loose house arrest," or some other innocent-sounding euphemism. But you end up saying, "Hey, we’re not as bad as the Nazis." And then you give away the game. Because if that has now become the standard of morality for the Jewish community, Judaism is in pretty bad trouble.

Jewish leaders constantly bemoan their dwindling numbers. They blame it on low birth rate and intermarriage with non-Jews. Perhaps it also has something to do with a dwindling moral standard. An embarrassed silence will not help that. It will take voices raised loudly, saying that we are each responsible for the choices we make.