Wednesday, January 23, 2002

The Right to Live in the Land of Israel

Rabbi Chaim Lifschitz opens the door to his office. “Come in, take a seat,” he says with a grandfatherly smile. It is my first week in Israel, and I’m still somewhat jetlagged, so I groggily do as told.

“What you have to understand about Israel,” he says by way of introduction to the country, “is that what you see on the news, more often than not, isn’t true.” He reaches behind him and pulls out an archived edition of National Geographic. He leafs through the pages until he finds an article on Israel and points to the paragraph for me to read. It is an interview he gave with the authors of the article. It quotes him, “’Israel is a land of extremes,’ says Rabbi Lifschitz…” The article goes on with Rabbi Lifschitz describing the different groups and ways of life in the country.

“Okay. What do you want me to understand from this?” I ask.

“Wait one minute.” He reaches behind to the shelf again and pulls off a copy of Life Magazine. “They came because they wanted to interview a Rabbi, so I said okay. They came over with their tape recorder and asked me some questions, and I was quite happy to answer. Then it came to the settlements. They asked me what I thought of the settlers in Yesha (the West Bank and Gaza Strip.) I told them, ‘They are the cream of the cream of the crop, the most righteous of our generation, the best of our youth.’”

He flips through the magazine and finds the article, throws it in my lap, and points to the paragraph, “Rabbi Chaim Lifschitz says, ‘The settlers are all crazy.’”

“I don’t give interviews any more,” he states conclusively.

Living in Israel today, one feels the constantly grinding pressure of the anger of the entire world directed at this tiny people living on this miniscule plot of land, a nation with a smaller population than greater Chicago and the landmass of the state of New Jersey.

The most obvious manifestation of this global rage is in the media. The most extreme is, of course, the Arab media. This morning I was in Jerusalem listening to the rock classics of the ‘80s on Jordanian state radio. At a quarter past 10, the DJ began reading the English news, hacking it out in heavily-accented cave-talk like English, “The Palestinian Holy Martyr Raed Karmi, who was massacred last week by the war-mongering Sharon government, after he sacrificed four Zionist imperialist oppressors to Allah, was laid to rest today… etc., etc.” The Arab news is usually so incredibly venomous and propagandizing as to be painful to listen to by anybody with even a pretense of objectivity.

The blatant falsification of real events, such as the Life Magazine interview with Rabbi Lifschitz, is much more dangerous. It appears in Time Life, it looks real, it’s in a reputable magazine, it feels objective, and if one didn’t know better, there would be no way of knowing that the quote is a total fabrication. Worse, there is nothing that can be done about it. The French media is still hooked on its own fabricated story, which is based on hearsay, about Israeli soldiers who gang-rape Arab women so that when the women go home, their families will kill them to preserve family honor. Of course, the story is difficult to completely disprove, a fact which is true of most fabrications. It is also difficult to disprove that there are no leprechauns in Ireland, or that there is no Loch Ness monster, which is why the burden of proof is on he who makes the claim.

Last week, CNN’s “World Report,” which broadcasts clips and news stories from all over the world, took a clip from the Palestinian Broadcast Authority. It showed clips of rioting Arabs screaming and burning flags, all the while the “reporter” is angrily listing off slogans while pretending to sound like a real news report, “These people fight and martyr themselves because they know that every day brings them one day closer to final victory and liberation over the racist fascist Zionist imperialist oppressors!” All the while, militant Islamic chanting and drum beating was ringing forth in the background. As I watched this, my jaw dropped. It’s not shocking that the Palestinian Authority would produce such a video, but it’s outrageous that it was shown on a supposedly unbiased medium, CNN, sandwiched between a story form Italy on the restoration of the Tower of Pisa and a story from Colombia about banana farmers, as if it were just another “perspective.” Of course, a little message at the end informed the viewer that CNN does not necessarily endorse the views of the producers of the news clip, which makes playing propaganda designed to incite suicide bombers perfectly acceptable.

It’s not just in the media. In every aspect of life, in every venue, Israel is constantly stamped with the mark of ”Illegitimate.” The Magen David Adom (Red Jewish Star) is still refused entry into the International Red Cross because they will not adopt the cross, with its religious implications, as a symbol. This in spite of the fact that the Red Crescent, the relief organization for Muslim countries, was long ago accepted without protest. Today, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will not travel to Belgium because the Belgian courts are going to indict him for crimes against humanity there. The case is the Sabra and Shatillah massacres, which occurred during the Lebanon War, in which the Arab Phalangist Lebanese militia slaughtered thousands of Palestinian civilians after the Phalangist leader, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated. Sharon was Israeli defense minister at the time, and Israel was allied with the Phalangists, so Sharon was found “indirectly responsible” by an Israeli commission of inquiry, and later won a libel case against Time magazine for inventing a story which claimed that the whole massacre was his idea. The real irony is that the commander of the force which actually committed the massacre, the person who was there on the scene and personally gave the orders for and oversaw the mass killings, volunteered to go to Belgium to testify against Sharon, totally unafraid of ever being held accountable by the same Belgian court for his actions. It is also, sadly, not surprising that the same court refused to even hear a case by Arafat’s victims on the same charges.

At every turn, the nations of the world constantly point to Israel to remind the Jews of the fact that they are still outsiders. The United Nations, over its half-century of history, has poured fully a third of its resources, time, and resolutions into passing condemnations of Israel. That’s 33% of its resources dedicated to a country with 0.09% of the world’s population. Are Jews really that evil?

Of course, everything has its logical explanation. As far as the news media is concerned, there are always the “conspiracy” theories, that somehow because the oil barons and sheiks of Saudi Arabia have a controlling influence over CNN, they will push for stories biased against Israel. I believe that the real reason is much simpler. The news media has a very heavy leftist slant and will always “root for the underdog,” no matter how grotesque and evil his methods. This generation of reporters was raised on Watergate, in which a free press uncovered serious crimes against the constitution, crimes which would not have been uncovered had the system been left to itself. For better or for worse, the news media now considers itself an organ of democracy. Rather than simply reporting the facts, the function of modern journalism is to bring down authority, to destroy the system. Israel, with a functional democratic government, is the authority figure. The Palestinians, in their quest to destroy Israel, are trying to bring down this authority, and therefore will always elicit the sympathy of the media. It wasn’t always this way. Prior to the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel was rightly perceived as being constantly on the brink of annihilation, news stories always featured “brave little Israel.” In “The Revolt,” Menachem Begin remembered that during his days fighting in the underground against the British, the American and British newspapers would often come up with quite flattering and totally untrue stories about the heroics and bravery of the Irgun, his organization.

Even the behavior of the United Nations is perfectly understandable. The majority of nations in this world are dictatorships, whose leaders and representatives to the UN do not represent the people but the interests of the leaders themselves. It is expected that any Palestinian state will be a totalitarian despotism. Therefore, these dictators wish to strengthen their hands by crushing any democracies which are teetering on the brink, like Israel, lest these democracies prove that the people of largely despotic regions of the world, like the middle east, are capable of living free. After all, with Syria sitting on the UN Security Council drafting international law while their country has had 26,000 troops illegally occupying Lebanon, and the Sudan on the UN Human Rights commission while their country still practices slavery, the organization lacks a certain amount of credibility. Europe, for its part, will naturally go along with the Israel-bashing because they are more strongly dependent on Arab oil and are also afraid of upsetting their rapidly growing and increasingly vocal Muslim minorities.

There is always an explanation, just like there was an explanation for the Holocaust, which happened because the Germans scapegoat the Jews for their dire economic problems. The Spanish Inquisition, in which the Catholic Church killed thousands of the best and brightest of the Jewish people, happened because the Catholic Church wanted to solidify its power base. The Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem because the Jews had revolted and Rome needed to crush even the smallest inkling of independence among its peoples. Each case of anti-Semitism, on its own, is easily explained. But when it happens again and again and again, when lighting strikes not twice but constantly, then one has to conclude that there is something deeper going on.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the late 1800s Theodore Herzl wrote “Der Judenstaadt,” the article which set the Zionist movement in motion by laying out the building of a Jewish state as a diplomatic and physical initiative rather than just a vague yearning. In his case, he believed that the Jewish state was to serve as a remedy for anti-Semitism, his initial plan of combating anti-Semitism by mass conversion of Jews to Christianity having failed. In his vision, the Rabbis were to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem but have no political authority, the country was to be ruled by aristocracy, and the official language was to be German. Herzl believed the root of European anti-Semitism to be the homelessness and weakness of the Jewish people. Therefore, the cure for anti-Semitism was to make a Jewish country where the Jews could be a majority, stand on their own feet, and face the other nations as equals.

The persistence of anti-Semitism and the hatred of Israel must therefore be considered one of the major failures of Zionism. Because Zionism has achieved Herzl’s main political goals, that is, the Jews are a majority on the land and now face the other nations of the world as equals, and yet anti-Semitism persists, it can be concluded that his belief that the roots of anti-Semitism are the weakness and homelessness of the Jewish people is incorrect.

And herein lies the difference between the religious and secular perspectives. From the secular point of view, the world simply is, and there is no higher order. As Carl Sagan put it, “The universe is neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.” In a secular universe, the ideas of right and wrong are purely human concepts, and therefore dependent on the mood or spirit of the times. All moral justification for one’s actions is based on what other people think, because that’s the only standard there is. The constant criticism and white hot anger directed at Israel by the nations of the world is therefore totally devastating to some secular Jews because they undermine their belief in their right to exist here. This is why, at the beginning of the Intifada, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who has been involved in the state since before independence, who was on hand and involved with the Independence War, the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 war, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War, and the first Intifada, said, at the beginning of this crisis, that it is the worst crisis Israel has ever faced. That is not to say that all secular Jews think this way, or that all secular Jews do not believe in the inherent right of the Jews to live in Israel. Ariel Sharon, who is also secular, made a more calming and reasoned speech that, while the country is going through tough times, it’s been through worse and made it and will make it through this. However, there is a clique of left-wing secular Israelis, lead by Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, the authors of the failed Oslo Accords, who are constantly berating themselves before the UN and groveling to the Europeans, who portray themselves as the “Intellectuals” whose duty it is to show their misguided brethren how wrong they are and bring them back to the “right” path.

This is not the outlook of the religious Jew. In the universe of a religious person, right and wrong are woven into the very fabric of creation. Righteousness and evil are as real and as constant as gravity and electromagnetism. There is no need to seek personal justification for the right of the Jews to live in Israel from the other nations of the world because we have the Tanach (the bible), which validates over and over, hundreds of times, the intimate and unbreakable connection between the Jewish people and this specific plot of land. That is not to say that the voices of condemnation and lies in the media and the ostraciztion and illegitimization of Israel should be ignored, just that they should be kept in proper perspective. Israel exists in the real world, and it faces a real-world crisis of legitimacy, a crisis which can have dire effects on the ability of Israel to survive if left unchecked, and it must fight back accordingly. When a religious Jew makes his case to secular Jews or people of other religions and nationalities, he should not thump on the Tanach because most people to not believe in the Tanach, he should use rational argument and try to fit Israel’s case into the moral and ethical “flavor of the month” as best he can. However, the religious Jew will always know that his right and duty to live here comes not from Gerald Kessel of CNN or Kofi Annan of the United Nations, but he who created them.

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