Thursday, August 31, 2006

I Am Pro-Israel, Therefore I Criticize Israel

I Am Pro-Israel, Therefore I Criticize Israel
by Ira Chernus

I am pro-Israel. That’s why I criticize Israel’s violence in Palestine and Lebanon every chance I get.
I don’t say much about the immorality of Israeli actions. They are shockingly immoral. But talking about it won’t make much difference. So I appeal to naked self-interest. I point out the obvious: Every time a Palestinian or Lebanese is hit by an Israeli bomb or bullet, it spells more risk for the safety of Israel.

Most Jews who say they are pro-Israel act as if they are deaf to the moral arguments, anyway. They do have hearts and consciences. They are not unmoved by the TV pictures of the carnage their military creates. But precisely because they are touched by the suffering of their foes, they’ve become very skilled in rationalizing Israeli violence. For every moral criticism they have a rebuttal ready at hand to ease their consciences. They and their ancestors have being doing it for over a century now, so they have a whole arsenal of moral justifications.

In living rooms, town meetings, and op-ed pages, the morality of Israeli policy ends up like a ping-pong ball, batted back and forth by both sides. Since there is no objective referee to keep score, the game just goes on forever. While we all have the right and duty to speak the moral truth as we see it, that’s not likely to change anyone’s mind very soon.

So it seems more fruitful to set the ethical issues aside and appeal to the self-interest of Israeli Jews and their pro-Israel American supporters. What they want most, they say, is for the Jewish state and all of its citizens to be able to live normal lives, free from worry about terrorist rockets and suicide attacks. It’s a perfectly understandable, indeed laudable, goal. Who would argue with it?
In that sense, I am pro-Israel too -- not least because I have close family living there, just a few miles from Lebanon, within easy rocket range. And that’s precisely why I criticize Israel’s actions in Palestine and Lebanon every chance I get -- because every day, those actions make it harder and harder for Israeli Jews to live normal lives, free from worry.

The latest development in the conflict is a perfect example. Diplomats at the UN have finally hammered out a resolution to end hostilities in Lebanon. According to Aluf Benn, the top diplomatic correspondent for the top Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, “diplomatic sources in Jerusalem expressed satisfaction with the draft” resolution. And well they should, because it is, as Benn says, “asymmetric.” It puts all blame for the conflict on Hezbollah. Though it calls on Israel to halt its assault, it gives Israel the right to keep shooting in “self-defense,” while it demands that Hezbollah must cease fire completely, as if the Lebanese were not defending themselves.

Moreover, it says that all forces should remain where they are, meaning that the Israelis can stay in Lebanon. And it calls for an international force (in effect controlled by the U.S. and France) to join the Israelis there. So it would leave Hezbollah fighters seeing their own towns and villages occupied by armed foreigners, while they themselves are required to stop using their weapons completely. It’s hardly surprising that Hezbollah, and the Lebanese government, have rejected this draft plan.

What is more surprising is that, according to Aluf Benn, “Israel was very involved in its formulation. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, conducted talks with the Americans and French from Jerusalem; Tal Becker, an advisor to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, flew to New York to take part in talks conducted at the UN.” These Israelis surely knew that the resolution they helped to draft would be rejected. They knew that this would delay an end to hostilities. That means more days, perhaps weeks or even months, of Hezbollah rockets falling on Israeli Jews. Yet they call this a diplomatic victory.

Israelis are well aware of what’s happening. It’s now taken as a given that Israel’s original aim of destroying Hezbollah won’t happen. The fighting will end in a negotiated compromise that removes all Israeli troops from Lebanon. So why not make that final deal now? Why not go back to the way things have been in Israel for the last five years, with no fear of Hezbollah rockets because there were virtually none fired?

In a column titled “Cease Fire Immediately,” Haaretz journalist Uzi Benziman makes the argument succinctly: “The experience of the past three days, in which a broader ground operation has unfolded, has also involved an increase in the number of Israeli losses -- both at the front and the rear -- and in the number of rockets landing inside the country. … In this confrontation, we will not emerge clear winners. Hezbollah is about to emerge from the battle smoke with the aura of one who did not succumb to the IDF. In view of the fact that this is the expected outcome of the battle, it is best to end it immediately.”

Unfortunately few Jews, in Israel or the U.S., will admit that the Israeli government’s effort to postpone peace is just another example of a long-standing pattern. When offered a chance to reduce the violence and make its own people safer, the government typically responds in ways that perpetuate the violence against their own people. This summer’s conflict was set in motion when the elected political leaders of Hamas clearly signaled their willingness to accept Israel’s existence, start an immediate cease-fire, and then negotiate a lasting peace. Israel responded with a massive bombing campaign. The rest is tragic history: Israelis have spent weeks running to bomb shelters and living in fear, and their own government's policies insure that there’s no end of it in sight.

The practical argument for peace is one that most pro-Israeli people can easily understand. Arguments about who is more justified and more ethical will put them on the defensive. They’ll dig in their intellectual heels and just stop listening. But arguments based on the pro-Israel concern about safety and security are turning the tide of Israeli public opinion. One Israeli journalist predicts that “very soon, it won't be just the Four Mothers [a group that sparked the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000] who will be tired of this deterrence, bur rather thousands of families.”

If those of us who speak out for peace stress the pragmatic benefits, we may turn the tide of American opinion, too. By focusing on the very concrete benefits of an end to the shooting, we can stand in solidarity with Israelis and Jews everywhere. We can make it clear that we are pro-Israel. And at the same time we can be solidly pro-Lebanese, pro-Palestinian, pro-everyone in the Middle East.

Source: Monday, August 7, 2006 by

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of
American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea and the forthcoming book "Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin." He can be contacted at

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