In the Diaspora: Cold War, mon amour

There is no grand master in Moscow now to determine the length of leash on client states.

sam freedman 88 (photo credit: )
sam freedman 88
(photo credit: )
The 40th anniversary of the Six Day War invites just about every Jew to be sentimental. Traditional Zionists can be sentimental about Israel defeating an impending holocaust. Religious nationalists can be sentimental about God using Moshe Dayan to prepare the soil for the Messiah via the conquest of Judea and Samaria. Peaceniks can be sentimental about Israel just before the preemptive strike, being the darling of the Socialist International, hunching within narrow borders and not occupying anybody except the grouchy yekkes in Tel Aviv. Heck, even the Arabs can be sentimental about their humiliation - a grievance they perversely cherish like a bubbe stroking her bunions. As for me, when I think back to June 1967, I get all nostalgic for the Cold War. Oh, to be transported back to a globe controlled, however tensely, by rational actors. Oh, to have secularism, whether in the form of democratic capitalism or the Soviet version of communism, imbuing the world with the baseline logic of sane coexistence. I have no illusions about the human toll of the Soviet empire or, for that matter, Mao Zedong's peasant variation on a totalitarian theme. Even the most cursory student of 20th-century history can estimate the body counts of the gulag, the purges, the Ukrainian famine, the persecution of Soviet Jews, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution. Yet on the matter of survival itself, communism and capitalism succeeded. At the times of greatest conflict - the Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis - both sides essentially blinked, deciding that diplomacy was preferable to destruction. Within the Arab world in particular, Marxism served as a force for power politics and tyranny, yes, but also for reason, at least in comparison to what has followed in the form of Islamism. The same Gamal Abdel Nasser who recklessly provoked the 1967 war also was alert enough to the threat of jihadist Islam that he executed Sayyid Qutb, the foundational theoretician of what would become al-Qaida. And who, knowing what we know now, would not have preferred the Soviet-backed communists who ruled Afghanistan in the 1970s to the American-supplied mujahideen who overthrew the regime and ultimately installed those champions of pluralism and critical thinking, the Taliban? TO PUT the transformation in Israeli terms, the Aksa Intifada marked the pivotal moment when the Palestinian struggle passed from being a radical nationalist endeavor into a religious (pardon the expression) crusade. The Fatah leaders with whom Israel still tries to negotiate, and in whom many American Jews have wanted to place wary trust, represent the residue of the Marxist generation. Hamas, like Hizbullah, like al-Qaida, embodies the future, which is of course a technologically sophisticated version of the past. In the Cold War, the two superpowers tested the limits, practiced brinksmanship and finally cut up the geopolitical pie to their mutual tolerance, if not exactly satisfaction. In the age of jihad, Spain is supposed to be reclaimed as the redemption of Al-Andalus and statues of Buddha are blown up into playground sand. We can all imagine what sort of destiny the Zionist entity, as our homeland is so affectionately known, is expected to have. The Six Day War, it is useful to remember, brought only tenuous peace even in the short term. The so-called War of Attrition in the late 1960s and early 1970s anticipated the full-scale invasion by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur 1973. It is tempting, and woefully wrong, to conceive of the volleys of Kassams from Gaza and Katyushas from Lebanon as some sort of contemporary analogue to that kind of insistent, low-level bloodletting. There is no grand master in Moscow now to determine, for reasons of Soviet imperial interest, just when to lengthen or shorten the leash on client states. There is only the death cult. There is only the prayer for the Hidden Imam. There is only the fundamentalists' certainty that time is moving inexorably backward, to the caliphate, albeit with a little assist from such modern toys as the Internet and IEDs - improvised explosive devices. A few months shy of 40 years ago, as a boy of 12, I went with my parents for a weekend in Washington, DC. While strolling through the city on an unseasonably balmy autumn day, we passed a deli. In its plate-glass window, the owner had put up a sign, written in magic marker on a sheet of butcher's paper. "Our Specialty: The Nasser Sandwich," it declared. "One part chicken, one part tongue, on Jewish rye with Russian dressing." Over the decades since, I've usually remembered that sign as an emblem of the swagger that Israel's lightning victory allowed American Jews, too, to participate in, the way the Six Day War absolved us golus Yids of the stereotype of being weak and vulnerable. This anniversary, though, with rockets flying into Sderot, a failed leadership in the Knesset and a largely disengaged population of American Jews, I think about the Russian dressing. Compared to the alternative condiment - a version of Islam that would destroy the world to have dominion over it - I miss it. The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.