Israel @ 60: Confronting denial

Each year, in preparation for Israel’s birthday, newspaper editors feel an uncontrolled urge, a divine calling in fact, to invite Arab writers to tell us why Israel should not exist.

This must give them some sort of satisfaction, such as we might have in inviting officials of the Flat Earth Society to tell us why the the earth is not, could not or should not really be round, and to do so precisely on Earth Day, lest the wisdom would escape anyone’s attention.

Evidently, the banalization of absurdity has its kicks. It is sporty, “out-of-the-box-ish,” admirably “Jewish” and, if only we were not dealing with a dangerous experiment involving the lives and dignity of millions of human beings, could easily have earned its authors the National Cuteness Award.

But the issue before us is an adult matter, and the result is a depressing Kafkaesque choreography in which Israel, the heart and soul of Jewish peoplehood, is put on trial for its very existence, while pro-coexistence commentators, if they are invited, deal with the future of Israel and its achievements, but leave the accusations unanswered.

There is some wisdom to ignoring insults and unfounded accusations. By answering one tacitly bestows credence, however minimal, upon the arguments that put you on the accused bench—the last bench that Israel’s birthday deserves, even ignoring her accusers’ record. So, perhaps it is wise to write chapter and verse about Israel’s achievements (as Tom Friedman did on June 8) and let the “colonial” and “apartheid” accusations hang there, unanswered, as living witnesses of the Orwellian mentality of the accusers?

I am not totally convinced.

I am concerned about the possibility that a non-negligible percentage of Los Angeles Times readers, especially the novice and the hasty, would interpret the publication of Saree Makdisi’s call for dismantling Israel (“Forget the Two-State Solution,” L.A. Times, Opinion, May 12) as evidence that his arguments and conclusions are deemed worthy of consideration in the eyes of the editors of the L.A. Times, whose judgment the public has entrusted to protect us from Flat Earth-type deformities. This concern became especially acute after reporters Richard Boudreaux and Ashraf Khalil (“For Some Palestinians, One State With Israel Is Better Than None,” L.A. Times, World News, May 8 ) had already touted the “one-state” slogans in the same newspaper, with unmistaken sympathy, under the cover of “World News.”

I am concerned because evil plans begin with evil images. Once the mind is jolted to envision deviant images it automatically constructs a belief structure that supports their feasibility and desirability. The first phase of Hitler’s strategy was to get people to envision, just envision, a world without Jews—the rest is history. Today we are witnessing a well-coordinated effort by enemies of coexistence to get people to envision, just envision, a world without Israel—the rest, they hope, will become history.

The American press seems to fall for it.

In fairness to the editors of the L.A. Times (unlike The Nation and The Christian Science Monitor), articles calling for the elimination of Israel are often balanced by articles calling for peaceful coexistence. But, ironically, this “balance” is precisely where the imbalance occurs, for it gives equal moral weight to an immoral provocation that every Jew in Israel considers a genocidal death threat, and most Jews in the world view as an assault on their personal dignity, national identity and historical destiny. After all, we do not rush to “balance” each celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day with articles by white supremacists, and we do not “balance” a hate speech with a lecture on peaceful breathing technique; a hate speech is balanced with a lecture on the evils of hate.

A true, albeit grotesque, moral balance would be demonstrated only if for every “down with Israel” writer the newspaper were to invite a “down with Palestinian statehood” writer. But editors may have strange takes on morality; for some, questioning the legitimacy of Israel’s existence is a mark of neutrality, while questioning the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations is a social taboo.

Decency should somehow inform these editors that both “down with” calls are morally reprehensible and insulting to readers’ intelligence, hence, both should be purged from civil discourse and marginalized into the good company of white supremacy and Flat Earth rhetoric.

But until decency reigns, we can be sure to see them again at Israel’s birthdays, the predators of peace, paraded by the press, demanding their annual prey: Once more to envision, just envision, a world without Israel.

Ironically, in this context, Arab commentaries published around Yom HaAtzmaut can actually be of great service to Israel, for they provide a faithful mirror of the prevailing sentiments in the elite ranks of Palestinian society and thus gauge precisely how ready it is to accept a peace agreement, whatever its shape, as permanent.

This year, the L.A. Times (May 11), The Nation (May 26), The New York Times (May 18), the Washington Post (May 12), the Christian Science Monitor (May 30) and others lured an impressive group of Arab intellectuals into unveiling their worldview to American readers. These authors are highly educated, mostly secular champions of modernity and masters of communication—yet keenly attuned to grass-roots sentiments. Enticed by the limelight, and seemingly caught off guard, they revealed the naked landscape of the Palestinian mindset.

Sadly, what they revealed in 2008 is not what Mahmoud Abbas would have liked us to think. They revealed what we feared all along but were afraid to admit: The notion of a two-state solution never began to penetrate the surface of Palestinian consciousness.

In vain would one search these articles for an idea, or a shred of an idea, that morally justifies a two-state solution, or that acknowledges some historical ties of Jews to the land, or that makes an intellectual investment contrary to the greater Palestine agenda. One by one, the articles depict a culture forged by five generations of rejection and denial, a culture in which compromise means defeat and national identity means denying it to others.

This does not mean that the two-state solution is dead—after all, it is the only proposal worthy of the word “solution”—but it means that the current efforts to reach a peaceful settlement are absolutely futile unless they address the real obstacle: The ideological landscape as revealed to us by our Arab brethren on Yom HaAtzmaut.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (, named after his son. He and his wife Ruth are a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Cooling down the the Iran rhetoric can help get real results

The Jewish community is just as concerned as ever about the menace of a nuclear Iran, but it is starting to temper its red-hot rhetoric on the issue.

The reason: a growing sense that calling Iran the new Nazi Germany, its madman leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Hitler reborn, is hurting the community-wide effort to ratchet up the diplomatic and economic pressure on the Tehran regime.

Few are sanguine about the Iranian threat, but there is a growing realization that a war-weary nation may be hypersensitive to political arguments that sound a lot like calls for yet another war.

Talk to a random sampling of Jewish leaders and one thing leaps out: There is almost wall-to-wall agreement that a nuclear Iran represents a major threat to nations across the Middle East and Europe, to U.S. interests around the world and in particular to Israel, a country Ahmadinejad thinks should be erased from the globe.

The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of the anti-Israel terrorist groups Iran has so recklessly supported is terrifying; so is the specter of that country’s growing missile arsenal.

But is the suggestion that this is the worst Israel has ever faced justified? Does a nuclear Iran automatically mean atomic war in the Middle East and a death sentence for the Jewish state? Probably not, but that’s the impression conveyed by major Jewish groups.

The experts aren’t so sure. Many say that despite Ahmadinejad’s threats, the Iranians are not, in fact, suicidal. Even Ahmadinejad understands that any nuclear attack against Israel, with its assumed second-strike capability, would result in his country’s utter destruction.

That leads to this question: When does high-octane rhetoric work, and when does it become counterproductive?

It may be true that the Nazi comparisons from Israeli leaders such as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively mobilized Jewish activists across the political spectrum.

Israel has overcome so many dire threats over the years that there is complacency among many American Jews; framing Iran’s nuclear quest as a likely precursor to a new Holocaust rallied disparate organizations to the cause.

And let’s be honest; sounding the air raid sirens about Iran is good for fundraising, a unifying factor in a Jewish community torn by many questions of Mideast policy.

But that rhetoric has risks. Once started, it tends to build on itself as leaders and organizations try to outdo each other.

It also tends to isolate the Jewish community, especially in the current anxious political environment.

Americans have soured on the war in Iraq — which, after all, started with exaggerated claims involving weapons of mass destruction and misrepresentations about Iraq’s role in Sept. 11.

Apocalyptic talk about Iran may sell in Washington, which is used to verbal overkill, but it doesn’t work well in state legislatures and city councils across the country, where the ever-growing Iraq body count is more real and immediate.

And increasingly, that’s where the most effective action is taking place, as local and state governments take up selective divestment resolutions aimed at Iran.

International sanctions are too easily punctured by a handful of countries eager to reap profits in dealing with Iran, but targeted divestment against companies that work in Iran’s oil sector is a way to hit the Iranians where it hurts.

Some Jewish leaders say that what local politicians want to learn about is how Iran threatens U.S. interests, and how local bodies can act to help reduce that threat while also reducing the chances of another war.

And they say the hyperbole of Nazi comparisons, which imply that war is the only answer, turn off potential coalition partners and make it harder to build political support for local and state divestment efforts.

Polls show a strong majority of American Jews is opposed to U.S. military action to stop Iran. But that doesn’t come across when Jewish leaders talk about the new Nazis in the Middle East, since only those who have taken leave of their senses believe diplomacy would have stopped Adolf Hitler.

Still, the strident rhetoric keeps coming from Jewish boardrooms — in part because of uncertainty over what Israel’s leaders want.

Officials in Jerusalem are not pumping for U.S. military action, but they have made it clear they do not want the Bush administration’s hands tied when it comes to that option — the reason pro-Israel groups have generally opposed congressional efforts to force President Bush to come back to them for additional authorization before any Iran strike.

And in a recent Anti-Defamation League poll, 71 percent of Israelis surveyed said the U.S. “should use force” to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities if diplomacy and economic sanctions fail.

But around the country, local Jewish leaders are starting to realize that a measured, pragmatic and rhetorically temperate approach to Iran may be the best way to win allies in the effort to generate effective economic pressure on Iran.