Many Jews will tell you that Israel’s violence against the Palestinians is unfortunately necessary to safeguard the existence of the Jewish state. But the real threat to the Jewish people, in Israel and around the world, may come not from Palestinian bombs, but from Israel’s own policies. A backlash is brewing that could tear Jewish society apart.
For months now, left-wing Israeli commentators have been warning that their nation faces its own Vietnam syndrome. Many Israeli Jews will soon reach their limit, both as victims and as perpetrators of violence. These commentators point back to Israel’s war against Lebanon in 1982, which gave birth to the first Israeli peace movement. Eventually, public disenchantment forced Israel’s government to withdraw all its troops from Lebanon.
There are signs that the same disenchantment may be setting in against the Sharon government’s hard-line policies in the West Bank and Gaza. After more than a year of tiny peace demonstrations, huge crowds have now gathered in Tel Aviv to say “no to occupation” and “yes to peace.” Several hundred officers and soldiers have publicly pledged not to serve in the army of occupation.
For some proponents of peace, the issue is moral. They know that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories violates international law; they feel that it violates the basic norms of justice. For many more who are now joining the peace camp, though, the issue is much more practical. Israel’s reliance on military force, now as in Lebanon, appears to be a no-win policy. That nation’s outstanding military historian, Martin Van Creveld, recently warned that the immense power of the Israeli army is simply useless against an indigenous uprising determined to throw out the occupiers.
The parallel with the U.S. experience in Vietnam is striking. While the loudest antiwar voices decried the immorality of the war, the real energy of the opposition came from the millions who saw American boys dying for no good reason. It is that fear of pointless deaths on “our side” that will propel the Israeli peace movement, too. Israeli Jewish society could eventually be torn into opposing camps, as was U.S. society in the late ‘60s.
The repercussions would echo throughout the Jewish world, especially here in the U.S., the world’s largest and most influential Jewish community. Right now, some U.S. Jews view Israel’s policies as wrong or self-defeating. Many more are confused and uncertain about the best course. Most of these potential dissenters remain silent, however. They are afraid of splitting the community and intimidated by the strident right-wing voices shouting at them to “support Israel.”
The sight of Israeli Jews split down the middle would encourage the silent critics and the confused here to take a strong public stand in support of peace. Right-wing U.S. Jews would become even more strident, and the battle lines would harden. This began to happen when the former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, first set out to make peace with the Palestinians. The intra-Jewish debate was bitter and quite public. That debate, which ended with Rabin’s assassination, could easily break out again, far more intensely.
Behind this specter lies another, with even greater potential for division. In the late ‘90s, when peace seemed to be on the way, an intense struggle began to erupt between Conservative and Reform Jews, seeking to establish a foothold in Israel, and Orthodox Jews who wanted to maintain their monopoly on Israeli religious life. The Orthodox rebuff angered many U.S. Jews, most of whom (if they are affiliated at all) are Conservative or Reform. There was even talk of U.S. Jewry pulling back on its official support for Israel.
The renewal of Palestinian rebellion provided a common enemy that healed that rift, but only temporarily. If large numbers of U.S. Jews stop seeing the Palestinians as the enemy, the internal religious dissension would break out once again. A U.S. Jewish peace movement would consist mainly of Conservative and Reform Jews. Suppose Orthodox resistance to Conservative and Reform religious rights gets linked with Orthodox resistance to peace and Palestinian rights. The battle of the Orthodox against the Conservative and Reform would become even more heated.
That could swing more U.S. Jews into the peace camp. If Israeli policies continue to be militant, a majority of U.S. Jews could begin to question the centrality of Israel in Jewish life (a process that has already begun). That would split the community down the middle -- and undermine support in Congress for U.S. aid to Israel.
Of course, some non-Orthodox Jews would join the hard-line camp. Jewish groups and institutions throughout the world would be split into opposing factions. The inner divisions would be as complex as fault lines during an earthquake -- and just as unstable. The potential for internal weakening of the Jewish community is frightening to contemplate.
None of this is certain to happen. But all of it could easily happen. Jewish people, and all who care about the Jewish community, should think long and hard whether this risk is worth taking, simply in order to suppress Palestinians demands for genuine and full independence throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.