Jewish minority doesn't speak for all

Strident group likened to Christian Coalition

July 18, 1999|By Norman Birnbaum

A MAJORITY OF American Jews do not belong to the groups represented by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; they aren't even found in minor Jewish organizations. Yet this strident minority, uncannily like the Christian Coalition in its self-righteousness, claims to speak for all the rest of us.

A set of Jewish organizations has obliged Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, to drop Salam al-Marayati, the respected director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, from his list of nominees to a newly created national counterterrorism commission. Al-Marayati has been quoted as saying that Palestinian terrorism comes from "pain and suffering." Several members of Congress, who unintentionally remind us of the ignoble persecutions of the McCarthy epoch, asked the FBI director to interest himself personally in the security check to which al-Marayati would have been subjected. The Jewish organizations attacking him did not need the FBI. They had already judged the case.

Gephardt capitulated ignobly to their demands, on the pretext that the background checks will take longer than the life of the commission. That fools no one: A distinguished congressman has succumbed to ideological blackmail.

Three questions arise. One is whether Americans of Arab descent have the rights of other citizens or are to be treated as guilty unless proved innocent, with the Israel lobby as prosecutor, judge and jury.

The second is whether we can debate anything and everything in this country except the conduct of the Israeli government and people toward the Palestinians.

Kosovo Albanians, Tibetans and Northern Irish Catholics have human rights; they might merit American intervention on their behalf. Palestinians constitute an exception, an unpeople whose complaints are irrelevant, tedious or mischievous.

Demands on academia

For years, some Jewish organizations have tried to impose their standards of "balance" on America's universities. They have demanded the dismissal of scholars whose views of the Middle East they did not like. The universities held firm, and the American public has access to a multiplicity of perspectives on a complex problem. It is time that our politicians began to think about the Middle East with the complexity it deserves.

The third has to do with the soul of American Jewry. We claim full rights in this country by virtue of universal criteria of citizenship. For most American Jews, life here is marvelous, free of the savage persecutions of the European past and of the subtler but still painful discrimination earlier generations encountered in America. Our Israel, in other words, is here.

That ties of solidarity and sympathy connect us to the people of Israel is clear. There is, however, a flagrant contradiction between our enjoyment of citizenship in a multiethnic, multireligious and multiracial democracy and the notion that solidarity with Israel requires that we accept any policy it might choose to follow toward the Arabs it rules. The matter is made worse when Jews who think differently are branded as self-hating, and Gentiles who disagree are told that they are anti-Semitic. Fortunately for Israel, its population debates this matter strenuously. The recent election demonstrates that an Israeli majority wishes to make a new beginning in relations with the Arabs.

Revealing ignorance

That apparently has been lost on some of Israel's supporters here. The phrase about Israel living in a "bad neighborhood" speaks volumes. It applies American notions of class and racial conflict to a totally different historical situation, and reveals the ignorance of those who employ it. Egypt and Jordan are not bad neighbors to Israel; they are very good ones.

The phrase is revealing in another way. It bespeaks a view of life as a jungle in which survival demands a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye -- and the permanent oppression of the Arabs in their own homeland. The universal morality of the Old Testament (which greatly influenced Islam) moved humanity far beyond tribalism. That is why European anti-Semites like Hitler hated the Jews: The anti-Semites could not stand to be judged by such severe standards.

A good many Israelis see that if conflict with the Arabs continues, they are in danger of becoming like the Germans from 1933 to 1945 -- accomplices if not perpetrators of permanent oppression.

American Jews can pay tribute to our tradition -- and to our own experience of America -- by backing them. We should also reach out to fellow Americans who are Arabs and whose rights to full citizenship are as great as ours. Indeed, the most profound threat to American Jewry (and to our nation) comes from the unreflective belief that humans are subject, in the last analysis, only to the law of the jungle. Nothing, in that case, can protect us -- here or anywhere else.

Norman Birnbaum is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 07/18/99

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