January/February 2001
Western Wall

The American Model

OpEd: (Response to Criticism of Israel written by an ex-Israeli living in America)

By Dr. Aaron Lerner - Originally appeared in The Jewish News of Detroit on 5 January 2001

What is the "Israeli experience"?

After a long period of exile, the Jewish people began to realize the dream of returning to their homeland by winning international recognition of this right. In 1948, the State of Israel declared its independence within the framework of United Nations resolutions. This was rejected by the Arab people and, as a result of the ensuing war of independence, at a high toll, Israel's borders expanded from the Arab-rejected proposed partition line to what became known as the "Green Line." The area from the Green Line to the Jordan River and the area of the Gaza Strip remained in flux as (while they were occupied by neighboring Arab states) there was no internationally recognized annexation of the lands.

In sharp contrast to the American experience with minorities, the Israeli Arab citizens fundamentally rejected the country as defined.

Eighty percent of Israeli Arabs identify themselves as either Arabs or Palestinians, not Israelis or Palestinian/Arab Israelis (November 1999 survey by Dr. Assad Ganem of the Institute For Peace Studies at Givat Haviva).

American minorities identify with the country, and jumped at the chance to prove their loyalty in the armed forces, even going to battle against their former homelands. The Arab Israelis say they will not fight their brothers.

And this extends well beyond identity.

"During the Gulf War, most of the Arabs in Israel did not feel that they were in danger. No one here believes that an Arab army will come here and will attack the Arab cities and villages," said United Arab List Member of Knesset (MK) Hashem Mahameed in August in an interview with the Independent Media Review and Analysis (IMRA).

Whose State Is It?

As expression of its raison d'etre, Israel adopted the Law of Return, which offers citizenship to any Jew wishing to immigrate to the country. But as MK Mahameed explains, "the Law of Return does not fall within the context of 'state of everyone,' the state that we are struggling for."

In 1967, Israel expanded its borders again in a defensive war, capturing the land that had been held by Egypt and Jordan. In contrast to the post-1948 situation, during which abandoned Arab villages were replaced by Jewish communities, Jewish communities were built on open land beyond the Green Line over the course of time, first on Jewish-owned land and later on newly purchased land as well as state land. For the first time in a generation (and, in some cases, generations), Jews were able to pray at their holy places.

As for the attitudes of Arabs ("Palestinians") in the West Bank and Gaza Strip vis-a-vis reconciliation with Israel, consider the results of Birzeit University Development Studies Programme's poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Nov. 6-8:

Question: If East Jerusalem comes under Palestinian sovereignty, will you accept Israeli sovereignty over West Jerusalem?

Answer: No, 74.3 percent
Question: Do you believe that peace is possible between Palestinians and Israelis if Israel does not recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return?
Answer: No, 91.5 percent
Over the course of time, many Palestinians have returned to Israel under a program of "family reunification" that applied to the basic family unit. But even the radical extremists at Gush Shalom draw the line on the wholesale return of the 1948 refugees. Yet, almost all the Palestinians reject peace unless Israel agrees to this suicidal step. Recent negotiations attempted to gloss over this issue by speaking of "family reunification" without setting the qualifying family relations. Nice for President Bill Clinton's last big photo opportunity on the White House lawn, but a certain formula for the next war.

How would America act under similar circumstances? What kind of "sacrifices for peace" would it be willing to make? How would it respond to the security threat? Would it support broad autonomy? Would it welcome an army of 40,000 "police" into its living room? How would it handle citizens who, in identification with the enemy, violently close down major roads and threaten the security of neighboring communities?

What would America do if its neighbors praised terrorist murderers and used its media and educational system to promote rejection and hatred for America?

America's Past

Let's consider the American experience:

Unlike Israeli expansion as the outcome of a defensive war, the United States unilaterally annexed Texas in 1845, then sucked Mexico into war when it rebuffed President James Knox Polk's offer to buy California and New Mexico. American forces occupied Mexico City and, in 1848, Mexico was forced to cede two-fifths of its territory to the U.S. in return for $15 million.

America responded to rioting by African American citizens by imposing curfews enforced by shoot-to-kill orders against violators.

The United States has consistently used massive force to assault and destroy what it perceived to be security threats presented by domestic groups.

How about "risks for peace"? The U.S. felt so threatened by an island nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida that it saw fit to enforce harsh sanctions that have hobbled Cuba's economy for two generations.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not claiming that America is evil, just that the America itself does not come close to the ideal some wish to apply to the Israeli experience.

Israel is far from perfect. And there is much in it that should be changed. But it is hypocritical to trash the Jewish state for policies and attitudes that are considerably more liberal, under the circumstances, than America would ever follow if facing something even close.

Short Memories

I can appreciate the frustration that American Jews can have with the situation, especially those who got caught up in the heady Oslo experience. One of my sharpest memories of these last years was meeting with excited American Jewish leaders in a Jerusalem hotel lobby who accompanied President Clinton on Air Force One. Some stood there, beaming with a collection of identification passes hanging on their necks - souvenirs of various signing ceremonies they had attended.

Yes, those certainly were heady days. But the support that Israel's massive concessions garnered were short-lived. We continuously found ourselves challenged by a "what have you done lately" attitude.

What relationship can we expect with American Jewry if we can no longer serve up periodic Kodak moments? That's a good question. But I know one thing: We simply cannot afford to continue providing this expensive entertainment.

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