The Danger of Believing One's Own Rhetoric

June 18, 1991|By HAIM GORDON

Beer Sheva, Israel. -- As often happens in the Mideast, Israeli government officials have begun to believe their own jingoist rhetoric. Such is not difficult in Israel, where television and radio are government-controlled and newspapers are hesitant to criticize the official policy of the government. A few weeks ago a new peak of Israeli nationalism was attained in relation to a political figure not involved in Mideast brokering.

True, Lech Walesa, the Polish president who recently visited Israel, has a few anti-Semitic slurs to his record. True, some of the Polish people during World War II actively supported the murder of Jews by the Nazis. True, even after the Nazis were vanquished, some Poles continued to kill Jews. True, even today one finds anti-Semitism in extremist Polish groups.

But these truths became almost the sole focus of Mr. Walesa's visit. From Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the country's leading pundits, Israel played up the so-called bigotry and bad faith of the Poles and of Mr. Walesa as if the sole purpose of the visit was to subject him to the tortures of Dante's inferno.

Everything from Mr. Walesa's intellectual capacity, to the suits he wore, to his weight, to his public statements, to his warm relations with the pope were excoriated. Mr. Shamir, whose mother tongue is Polish, refused to speak to Mr. Walesa in that ''abysmal'' language.

When Mr. Walesa spoke in the Knesset and asked forgiveness of the Jewish people for his own sins and for the sins of his brethren, the speaker of the Knesset, Dov Shilansky, responded that the Jews will never be able to forgive. (Thus, Mr. Shilansky sinned not only against protocol, but also against the basic Jewish tenet, expressed every Yom Kippur, that forgiveness is always possible, and is God's wish.)

When Mr. Walesa and his wife knelt and prayed at the Holocaust Memorial, the press accused him of grandstanding. When he announced that Poland would not arm Syria, government

officials suggested that he was merely succumbing to U.S. pressure. When he promised to struggle against the remnants of anti-Semitism in Poland, columnists wrote that his ulterior motive was to play up to the Jewish lobby in Washington, the better to secure financial credits from the United States.

Mr. Walesa took everything in stride. Perhaps his advisers did not grasp the ugly nuances expressed again and again in the Hebrew press and by many government officials. Perhaps he is used to being put under unjust and stupid pressure. But for us Israelis, his graciousness should furnish a lesson in three important areas.

First, it is important to keep facts in perspective. Although one should forcefully condemn Polish anti-Semitism, one should not forget that Poland was a home and haven for the Jewish people for more than a thousand years. It was also a cradle of Jewish spirituality. The Gaonim, the Hasidim and Martin Buber all grew up on Polish soil. Furthermore, Lech Walesa is not only a Pole, he is also a freedom fighter, a struggler for human integrity and for peace. He certainly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded. The fact that he has the education of an electrician should only add credit to his character and to his willingness to struggle for freedom in Poland and in the world.

Second, the strident Israeli nationalism of this government and its supporting press has led to a total lack of humility and generosity. Heroes of human freedom, like Mr. Walesa, are not judged by their deeds or their difficult struggles, but by how they relate to the Jewish or Israeli question. (The same is true of Nelson Mandela). Thus hubris and chutzpah become typical of Israelis' way of viewing the world.

Finally, Israeli officials and journalists have strayed far from the path of authentic dialogue. If in the past decade any event showed that dialogue is a path to work toward conciliation and freedom it is the brilliant Solidarity campaign waged by the electrician from Gdansk.

Indeed, we have much to learn from him.

Haim Gordon is in the education department at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

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