American Jews and Israel's Hope for Peace

January 02, 1994|By WARREN I. COHEN

Doubtless every American Jew -- and virtually all Americans -- hope Israel and the Palestinians will succeed in the current effort to achieve peace between them. And we eagerly look forward to the day when Syria and other Arab states formally accept Israel's right to exist within secure borders.

It is now essential that American Jews recognize the extent to which they themselves have posed a major obstacle to peace for the peoples of Israel. It is time for them to remove that obstacle and support the peace process unambiguously. Too many American Jews have spent the last 25 years functioning like Irish-American supporters of the Irish Republican Army. Blindly, they have supported expansionists like Yitzhak Shamir, terrorists like Meir Kahane, and Israeli imperialism (defined by social scientists as the control of one people or land by another, regardless of means or purpose).

Since the glorious Six-Day War of 1967, American Jews have rationalized and justified Israeli occupation of Arab lands and Israeli violations of the human rights of the Arabs in those lands. They have provided funds to facilitate the expansion of Israeli settlements into territories such as the Golan Heights, to which Jews have not even a biblical claim. They have impeded efforts by the U.S. government to bring Israel into compliance with U.N. resolutions.

Too many American Jews have supported "Israel right or wrong," an appalling doctrine even when applied to one's own country. It has been painful to watch brilliant analysts become apologists for American imperialism in Vietnam and for human rights abusers in Central America, so as to avoid charges of hypocrisy when they defended Israel. They have cheated me of my youthful conviction that Jews could never be oppressors, never acquiesce in the oppression of others -- that Hitler and the centuries of persecution that preceded him and left Jews with a genetic intolerance of oppression.

Today, Israel has a government both strong enough and wise enough to trade land for peace. With an end to Soviet mischief-making in the Middle East, bereft of external support, Palestinian and Syrian leaders are willing to deal. Israel has superb negotiators: men such as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Itamar Rabinovitch, Israel's ambassador to the United States and a key Mideast negotiator, are second to none when it comes to tough bargaining in the bazaar. When they are ready to surrender Gaza, or the Golan, or land on the West Bank, it will be because they are confident that the deal they have struck is their country's best chance for peace and security.

American Jews must not stand in their way. They must not support settler extremists determined to take more land way from Arabs -- and willing to kill to accomplish their ends. The sectarian terrorism of 1948 must not be repeated. American Jews must not encourage settlers in Gaza or the Golan to believe that that land will forever belong to Israel. There must be an end to the historical nonsense about no other nation ever surrendering territory it had conquered, to lusting after the vineyards of Golan. There must be an end to support of Israeli demagogues.

When the modern state of Israel came into existence more than 45 years ago, Hannah Arendt, the great Jewish philosopher and political theorist, worried that the state would become like any other state, that Jews would lose the exceptionalism of the diaspora. She feared they would lose the sensitivity that came from always being the "other." She suspected that Israeli nationalism would be like nationalism the world over, exclusive, hostile to "others" and expansionist. She lived to see her fears realized -- and she lived to become a pariah among American Jews angered by her criticism of the transgressions of that Israeli state.

Today, Israel has a government no less nationalistic than its predecessor, no less jealous of Israel's security. But today, for the first time in many years, Israel is led by men and women prepared to acknowledge Palestinian rights, men and women who understand that if the Jews struggled for nearly a thousand years to return to their historic homeland, the Palestinians are likely to do no less. Similarly, they recognize that Syrian revanchism is not a function of Soviet chicanery or the whim of a brutal dictator. Return of the Golan is a Syrian nationalist aspiration that must be satisfied as soon as an appropriate bargain can be struck.

It is often said that the IRA would disappear without the financial support it receives from Irish-Americans. Certainly the political and financial support of American Jews has been vital to Israel throughout its existence. And no Israeli government has been more worthy of that support than the present one, as it strives to act in a manner consistent with the values we learned from our lessons both in the Torah and in American civics. Let Israel live in peace in the years to come. And should peace be lost once more, let Hamas -- and not American-supported Jewish settlers -- bear the onus.

Warren Cohen is professor of history at University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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