At one dinner party with dear friends, I find that no criticism of Israel is allowed. At another, with equally dear friends, only remarks supportive of Palestinians are countenanced. As talk -- and silence -- at dinner tables shows, no question is more polarized than this one. Indeed, the polarization can occur within an individual, leading to a kind of paralyzing ambivalence. Yet as the Middle East crisis has worsened in recent days, this polarization itself seems somehow obsolete, and at a certain point ambivalence can be irresponsible.
Questions: Has the local conflict between Israel and the Palestinians opened into a regional war between Israel on one side and Lebanon, Syria, and Iran on the other? Are these local and regional contests mere instances of a global war against Islam? How does the ancient impulse to scapegoat Jews play into perceptions of Israel, especially as it finds itself the growing bull's eye of a shrinking target? Is war the best way to respond to extremist acts that clearly aim to provoke warlike responses that empower extremists?
Has Israel overreacted? Having withdrawn from Lebanon six years ago, what did Israel get besides batteries of rockets on its northern border? Having withdrawn from Gaza a year ago, what did Israel get besides rockets fired at Israeli towns? As one who rejects war, and who asks of Israel, therefore, only what I ask of my own country, I regret Israel's heavy bombing of Lebanon last week, as I deplored Israeli attacks in population centers and on infrastructure in Gaza. Authentic concern for the seized Israeli soldiers, as much as for the welfare of innocent civilians, can prompt criticism of the Olmert government's actions. Yet, given the rejectionism of both Hamas and Hezbollah, the only relevant powers, is the path of negotiations actually open to Israel? As this conflict becomes redefined in larger terms, it seems urgent to move away from the internal polarization of ambivalence by reaffirming foundational support for Israel. There is no moral equivalence between enemies here, and those who sympathize exclusively with the suffering of Palestinians make a terrible mistake in thinking otherwise. Nothing makes this clearer than the Hamas elevation of suicide-bombing to the effective status of religious cult. This perversion, in which cowardly older men exploit the anguished gullibility of the young precisely to target innocents, reveals the depth of the life-hating cynicism with which Israel is confronted. Now Hamas turns the entire Palestinian population into a suicide-bomber writ large. To destroy Israel, the mantra becomes, we will bring destruction down on ourselves.
Much of this is new, but the apocalyptic energy of this hatred, running from Gaza City to Tehran, draws on currents that run deep in history. The fury of anti-Israel rage among Arabs and Muslims is accounted for only partially by the present conflict. It resuscitates -- and then draws breath from -- the long European habit of scapegoating Jews. The fantasy that Arab and Muslim problems will be solved by the elimination of Israel partakes of the old European illusion that climaxed in the 20th century. No one should think that embedded contempt for Jews -- anti-Semitism -- is not part of the current crisis. Nor should anyone think that fresh consequences of that contempt are limited to the Middle East.
If the United States has been made so warlike by the one attack of Sept. 11, 2001, who should be surprised at the reactions of an Israel under constant siege? Indeed, the responses of Israel and America are related. Even though the futility of vengeful belligerence is on full display in Iraq, the United States does nothing to promote alternative strategies in resolving the Palestinian question. The Bush administration has not only squandered its considerable Middle East leverage, but has done more than anything to empower Islamic extremists, beginning with Iran. Thus, a threshold of dangerous escalation has been reached. It is easy to say that Israel must step back, but such a move requires a transformation of the larger context. The United States must pursue a radically different strategy in the entire region. Here is the urgency of quickly ending the war in Iraq, while nurturing new structures of international cooperation to resolve related conflicts.
© 2006 Globe Newspaper Company