If Israel attacks alone

When the Jewish state's future is at stake, all other concerns become secondary

Pro Israel Rally in New York 521 (photo credit: brendan mcdermid / reuters)
Pro Israel Rally in New York 521
(photo credit: brendan mcdermid / reuters)
When US President Barack Obama visits Jerusalem in March, he is expected to urge Israel to refrain from taking precipitate military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But with Iran’s recently announced plan to install 3,000 advanced high-speed centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear facility, the likelihood of unilateral Israeli action may actually be greater than ever.
Many of us who deal with Jewish public affairs in the US have been quietly considering this possibility. The obvious question is: If an Israeli attack were to occur, how should the American Jewish community respond? The issue is particularly complex given the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat, the risks and multiple potential outcomes of an Israeli strike, and what’s sure to be vocal opposition to Israeli military intervention among progressive Jews already disillusioned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “hard-line” policies.
The last time Israel faced a danger of this magnitude was in 1973 when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israeli forces on Yom Kippur. Back then, American Jews from across the political and religious spectrum, united by the threat to the Jewish state’s very survival, sprang into action with an unprecedented sense of urgency.
The groundswell of concern for Israel’s security spurred a record level of fundraising and a concerted effort to generate support for Israel within Congress and the Nixon Administration.
Four decades later, Israel again faces an existential threat, yet the situation is vastly different. In 1973 the threat to Israel was palpable, unfolding on the battlefield, whereas the danger posed by Iran is only “theoretical” (that is, if you believe Iran has yet to decide whether to build a nuclear bomb). Forty years ago, Israel had no choice but to go to war; in the current situation, many observers argue, Israel should give sanctions and diplomacy more time. And whereas support among Jewish groups for Israel’s right to defend itself was absolute in 1973, today, some believe that right should be exercised only in the case of imminent attack.
But should these dissimilar circumstances dictate a fundamentally different American Jewish response? No one should dismiss the factors that could compel Israel, which has been threatened by the Iranian leadership with “full annihilation” to act preemptively. US-led negotiations with Iran haven’t produced a single Iranian concession, and sanctions, while taking a toll on the Iranian economy, haven’t slowed Iran’s nuclear program.
Moreover, the American track record in halting rogue nuclear programs – such as North Korea and Pakistan – has hardly been stellar. As Ariel Levite, former deputy head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, put it, “The US approach has been ‘too early, too early, oops, too late.’” True, an Israeli strike may cause only a short-term setback in Iran’s nuclear program while igniting a regional conflict in which Israel comes under missile attack from Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Equally troubling for American Jews, it could drag the US into a war it doesn’t want and send oil prices soaring, thereby harming the US economy.
In assuming the worst-case scenario, however, we American Jews have to ask ourselves: Do we support Israel only when it’s convenient to do so? Would we condition our support for Israel’s right of self-defense on the degree of “success” of an Israeli strike? If Israel, in its darkest hour, needs the assistance of American Jewish organizations, should it matter, for example, what any of us think about Israel’s settlement policy? No doubt there will be those who mistakenly construe calls for unity as “blind support” for Israel’s decision to act alone. Yet, precisely because of all that could go wrong, we will need to set aside our disagreements over the wisdom of military intervention and shift into crisis mode, raising emergency funds if necessary and lobbying Congress and the White House for vital military supplies. And just as there was a strategy in 1973 to counter anti-Israel sentiment triggered by the Arab oil embargo, so, too, the need could arise for communal-outreach and media campaigns in the face of record-level gas prices and US engagement in another conflict.
No, it’s not 1973. But the main lesson from that time still holds: If Israel’s future is at stake, all other concerns become secondary.
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon.