Israel Report

December 2001         

Spare Us Your Sympathy

by Gerald M. Steinberg - December 21, 2001
For a few days recently, Israel was the object of the world's sympathy, for the first time in decades. After dozens of Israelis from across the country had been murdered in a spasm of Palestinian terror attacks, and hundreds were hospitalized and recovering from their wounds, the Jewish people again became the object of pity. Some (certainly not all) of the usually hostile European voices expressed compassion for Israel, and even made efforts to pressure Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership to halt these attacks.

Instead of embracing this sympathy and expressing gratitude, Israelis should have recognized this as indications of weakness and the warnings of potential catastrophe ahead. Thankfully, much of this compassion evaporated immediately after the IDF tanks moved into Gaza and Ramallah, and missiles located some of the terrorists that Arafat had not managed to find, despite what were undoubtedly his best efforts.

The combination of Israeli self-defense and a one-time-only speech by Arafat in Arabic that talked about ending terror (but only because it was detrimental to the Palestinian image) soon brought the usual anti-Israeli voices out again in force in the UN and the media. The sympathy vote quickly shifted back to the perennial victims - the suffering Palestinians - along with the reiteration of the usual myths and cliches.

While the quick loss of the world's pity no doubt upset some Israelis whose frames of reference are centered in the Foreign Offices of liberal Europe or Canada, for many others, this is a reassuring development. In relations between peoples and nations, condolences are a consolation prize for the weak and defeated, who have little left to grasp. At many times during our history, and particularly in the case of the Holocaust, widespread sympathy came too late to prevent devastation or save any lives. Christian theology embraces suffering victims, and Jews have been forced into this role throughout history, but one of the goals of the Zionist movement was to put an end to this Jewish victimization.

Beyond ritual declarations of compassion and a warehouse full of United Nations resolutions, such words of support provide very little, and are not connected with any measure of justice and morality. While we would feel better to be on the winning side of international popularity contests rather than paying the penalty of isolation, dependence on the charity of the international community and hopes for intervention is the path to disaster.

The United States had the world's sympathy for a few weeks after September 11, but Americans would surely have preferred to have given up this pity, rather than losing thousands of lives in this terrorist atrocity.

When forced to choose between more major attacks or condemnation for removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by force, the Bush administration is likely to prefer the latter. In a cynical world in which we are forced to select survival or sympathy, we must clearly choose the former. Given our long and bitter experience, the Jewish people should have learned that scorn and condemnation, however unjustified, is much better than pity.

However, since 1967, as Israel's image in the world has steadily shifted from weak victim to regional bully, many diplomats and political leaders have seen this as our main problem. The often gratuitous condemnations and isolation that followed military responses to terror attacks were hard to take, particularly when the criticism came from the European democracies that were seen as Israel's natural allies. Israelis trying to protect their families from terrorists are simplistically and routinely condemned for humiliation of the Palestinian victims at checkpoints and other measures.

The sympathy for the Jewish people was transferred to the Palestinians (also reflecting European efforts to assuage the guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust), and this has been psychologically painful for many Israelis.

In this environment, the Oslo negotiations promoted by former justice minister Yossi Beilin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were, in large part, an effort to end Israel's isolation, particularly among the democratic societies in Europe, as well as in Canada and Australia. Israeli diplomats were tired of being shunned and isolated, and were desperate to change this situation. By creating the foundation of a Palestinian state, under the control of Arafat and the PLO, and equipping them with an army and thousands of weapons, the Peres-Beilin team also created the conditions for restoring the world's sympathy and compassion for Israel. And from the perspective of these limited and dangerous objectives, they succeeded.

As the toll of Israeli victims has mounted, Oslo and the Palestinian Authority restored Jewish vulnerability and victimhood. Had the IDF and the Sharon government taken their advice, and given Arafat a few more chances, we would have had many more victims, and more sympathy. And this would clearly have been the wrong decision.

The choice between sympathy and the projection of power necessary for survival is cruel, but pretending that we live in a just world, in which this clash can be avoided, is not a realistic solution. At some point, probably many years in the future, the environment may change, and victimhood will be separated from justice and sympathy. However, until this particular messiah arrives, if the measures necessary for survival come at the cost of the world's sympathy, so be it.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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