Questioning Sharon

Since Israel launched Operation Protective Wall five weeks ago, rabbis and lay leaders of national and regional Jewish organizations throughout the United States have urged American Jews to stand with Israel and express their steadfast support for its leaders. Even those American Jewish leaders who have been critical of Israeli government action in the past have suspended their criticism of Israel in the name of unity.

Disgusted with Yasser Arafat’s duplicity and his rejection of ostensibly generous territorial concessions reported to have been offered at Camp David, liberals such as Alan Dershowitz and Arthur Hertzberg have joined the leaders of mainstream groups like American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League in rallying on Israel’s behalf. With a few notable exceptions, liberals have endorsed Ariel Sharon’s policy of incursions into the West Bank and defended this policy against its many critics in the United Nations, the European Union and even the Bush administration.

There is a long Jewish tradition of "circling the wagons" in periods of crisis. At a time when Israelis are afraid to step on a bus or go to a movie and Jews in Europe face burned synagogues and violent assaults, it is tempting to put aside our differences and criticisms in the name of the time-honored principal of kol Yisra’el ‘arevim zeh ba-zeh (all Jews are responsible for one another).

American Jewish leaders must not succumb to this temptation. Critical thinking and clear-headed analyses of Israel’s long-term interests are needed now more than ever. Sadly, many of our rabbis and lay leaders appear to have sacrificed these interests for the sake of easy gestures of solidarity and unity.

Those who have called for American Jews to stand with Israel in its hour of need argue that Israel’s very existence is threatened by the wave of terror unleashed by Arafat, and that the current Israeli policy of military incursions into the West Bank is the only way to eliminate the "terrorist infrastructure" responsible for the murder of many innocent men, women and children in Israel. This policy is justified, they tell us, because every nation has a right to defend its citizens from terrorist attacks.

And yet as many Israeli security experts, generals and journalists have noted, Operation Protective Wall is liable to lead to more suicide bombings, not fewer. The Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) assault in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and other towns and villages in the occupied territories has only created more hatred, despair and desire for revenge. The number of desperate, enraged Palestinians who are willing to blow themselves up has surely tripled during the last three weeks.

The most recent suicide bombings indicate that all of Israel’s military might cannot stop fanatics from making their way into Israel. What use are Merkava tanks and F-16s when the only "terrorist infrastructure" required for a devastating attack against Israeli citizens is explosives and a volunteer to make the short walk from Qalqiliya to Kfar Sava?

It is also clear that as horrifying and demoralizing as suicide bombings are, they pose no threat to the existence of Israel. The IDF is much stronger than any army in the region, and for all of the world’s criticism, no country with existing diplomatic relations has cut them off, let alone threatened to launch a war. Indeed, many Arab countries recently offered to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal from the occupied territories. Moreover, the Jewish state still has privileged trading relations with the United States and the European Union.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policy is aimed not at defending Israel’s existence or "uprooting terrorism." Rather, he hopes to prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state by creating "buffer zones" around populated areas of the West Bank and replacing Arafat with a leader more to his liking. To this end, Operation Protective Wall was launched to eliminate the implements and symbols of Palestinian independence. How else to explain the destruction of water and electricity supplies (and the offices which supervised them), the Palestinian Authority police (responsible for imposing order and reigning in terrorists in any future settlement), cultural institutions, even the studio where Palestinians and Israelis co-produced an Arabic-language version of "Sesame Street"?

While there has been no shortage of Israeli critics who have challenged the wisdom of his current policies, American Jewish leaders from across the political spectrum have contented themselves with expressions of support and unity, rather than asking hard questions: Who will fight terrorism after the IDF eliminates all the Palestinian police units? How will Israel’s campaign against the entire Palestinian population help against terrorism? How will it advance peace, or at least the security of Israelis?

What is needed now are not empty expressions of solidarity, but rather the mobilization of wisdom and common sense directed toward a long-term strategy to end the occupation and establish secure borders. Anything less is an abdication of responsibility — and of Jewish values as well.