Our morality is a necessity, not a luxury

By SHELDON SCHRETER
May 21, 2010 21:33

The "weakness" of American Jewish leaders and students in resisting attacks on Israel cannot be attributed to their moral blindness. If anything, its our moral blindness here.




Construction in Har Homa

Construction in Har Homa 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The argument about the morality of Zionism is crucial. Like it or not, Israel depends on public opinion in the world’s democratic nations for its survival, and that is heavily influenced by the morality of our position and by its clarity. When morality is reduced to competing claims over whose victimhood is greater, the Palestinians enjoy the advantage.

Zionism had a serious problem: Palestine was not “a land without a people.” It doesn’t matter how small and downtrodden its population was, how lacking in national consciousness, nor how much it benefited from Zionist development, even attracting Arab immigrants from neighboring areas. It doesn’t help our case to note how corrupt the Arabs’ Nazi-supporting leadership was, or how much Israel has served Arab elites as a distraction from the squalid truths of their own societies.

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None of this changes the basic picture that they (or some part of them) were here, then we came and grew, then there was a conflict which we won and they lost and since then they have become permanent refugees while we have built a modern, powerful country. Ranked on the “victimometer,” the Palestinians beat us hands down.

Is this a gross, malicious simplification and distortion of what happened here? Yes, it is. But we fool ourselves if we ignore that many people of goodwill around the world, with no particular bias against Jews or Israel, see it exactly this way. And we avoid reality if we deny the extent to which the buildup of Jewish settlements in the areas occupied by Israel in the 1967 war has added credibility and force to this depiction of events.

Caroline Glick is right to raise the moral issue in her recent Jerusalem Post column (“Convenient moral blindness,” May 3). Unlike Glick, I don’t attribute the weakness of American Jewish leaders and university students in resisting the attacks on Israel’s legitimacy to moral blindness. If anything, it is our moral blindness here which has handicapped them.

During its first quarter-century, Israel occupied the moral high ground in its struggle to survive. The state was created by a fleeting international consensus after World War II, and it addressed the extraordinary circumstances of the Jewish people, including many survivors of the Holocaust, who had literally nowhere else to go. The Arabs were plausibly represented as violent and reactionary rejectionists, cynical about the needs of the Palestinians and their own populations, and concerned only with Israel’s eradication. Israel’s image was that of a brave and embattled democracy, forced periodically to fight and win in its own self-defense.

The attacks on Israel on Western campuses abounded after 1967, but they were effectively countered by a robust Jewish student movement in that era of activism and commitment. Confidence in the justice of its cause was a powerful motivator for this generation. Some of those students, including me, wound up living here. What has changed since then?

The single most important change, in my opinion, is the steady growth of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. Of course there were other changes, too, such as Israel’s maturation and economic success, the loss of the idealism of its founders, the increasing materialism and individualism of its residents, the growing corruption of its political system, the rise in the power of religious parties – but none of them as critical as the settlements.

Different rationales for the settlements have been offered – security, religious, legal – but none has achieved any serious acceptance outside Israel, or even among most Israelis. The present government’s acceptance in principle of the two-state solution is the writing on the wall for most of the West Bank settlements. It gives expression to the national consensus in favor of separating from the Palestinians, with one crucial condition: the negotiation of reasonable security guarantees.

Meanwhile, the vigorous growth of the settlements over the past 35 years has had a clear consequence: abandonment of the moral high ground to the Palestinians. The spectacle of Israelis settling in the West Bank, often expropriating and aggressively evicting Palestinians from their olive groves and houses, building security fences and Jews-only roads and ignoring the representations of Western governments to stop this activity, all serve to verify the Palestinian narrative of an expansionist, colonial movement whose real agenda was always one of land theft and dispossession.

This makes life easy for those aiming to discredit and ridicule the Zionist narrative.

Perhaps some less squeamish settlement advocates would contend that this price is worth it, that this fulfillment of the Greater Israel destiny overrides all tactical considerations. But most of them shy away from rhetoric of this bluntness, preferring instead to offer specious arguments which impress no one outside of their own zealots about the indeterminate legal status of the territories, the Jewish religious rights to holy sites or the security significance of the settlements, which I contend are security liabilities rather than assets. And some retreat into a stunningly simplistic scenario of Jewish virtue versus Palestinian evil, and accuse anyone who fails to swallow it of moral depravity and blindness.

THIS DOESN’T work: It is often viewed as insincere whining and so backfires. Yes, Israel is often subjected to double standards, unfair reporting, rank hypocrisy and explicit anti-Semitism, but hardly anyone cares, since the mantle of victim passed long ago from us to the Palestinians. You cannot make a compelling case for feeling threatened when you have the strongest army in the region. Prolonged occupation of another people, no matter what the circumstances, does not enhance your moral stature.

This hurts us badly. We all know that Israel’s worst enemies would not be satisfied by the removal of every single settlement, but they are not our main concern. We can make the case for Israel’s legitimate self-defense where it counts politically, in the world’s democratic nations. But we cannot convince anyone of our right to annex the West Bank and expel its Arab inhabitants, which is precisely what our settlements network looks like to most people. When we confuse our self-defense position with our settlements policy, all we do is weaken international support for the former, and thus seriously undermine critical national interests.

An unforgivable moral sin is committed by the pragmatists who advocate reinforcing the settlements to enhance their value as bargaining chips in future negotiations with more reasonable Palestinians. The problem is all those settlers who refuse to be pawns on the chessboard, and who will resort to violence if challenged. This criminally increases the likelihood of eventual bloodshed between Jews over the settlements.

Surrendering the moral high ground has literally demoralized us, driving many of our intellectuals into post-Zionism, our children into apathy, our society into consumerist escapism and aimlessness, our overseas advocates into hesitancy and ambiguity.

Morality is not a luxury for us, but a necessity: That is the legacy imprinted upon us by our ancestors. Zionism was about ending our victim status, and submitting our Jewish morality to the real-world test of building a just society. The messianic madness behind the settlements has dangerously diverted us from our true course. We must straighten out urgently and negotiate our withdrawal from the settlements before it is too late, as some say it already is.


The writer, a resident of Ra’anana originally from Montreal, has been living here since 1976.


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