Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Today is 27 Rajab

It’s been a hard, tense summer and many of us share a lingering feeling that our troubles are not over yet. The indecisive war with Hizbullah has revived existential worries that are never far from the surface.

It doesn’t help that the renowned Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis recently raised the possibility that Shi’ite Islamists in Iran will do something nasty on the 27th day of the Muslim month of Rajab – which this year falls on August 22 – because the date is religiously propitious in the struggle against infidels.

While I’m hopeful we’ll all make it to August 23, this sort of gloomy talk makes me think maybe we Jews shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. Maybe – for lots of reasons – Theodor Herzl was wrong in advocating the negation of the Diaspora.

The longer I’m in Israel, the more appreciative I become of the Diaspora. It’s not just the extraordinary outpouring of emotional and financial support we’ve received in the course of the war with Hizbullah; it’s also a recognition that Israeli society needs the cross-pollination offered by a healthy relationship with a pluralistic Jewish world.

And it’s not just the warning from Bernard Lewis that got me thinking along these lines. This week also marks the first Jewish settlement in Manhattan, in 1654, as well as Herzl’s arrival in Basle to prepare for the first World Zionist Congress in 1897.

The Diaspora came to North America when Jacob Barsimson of Holland arrived on the Pear Tree precisely 352 years ago tomorrow, August 22. In September 1654 an additional 23 Jewish settlers arrived in New Netherlands, probably from the West Indies, on a ship called the Saint Catarina.

The “diversification” of Jewish civilization to the New World had begun in earnest, and a golden era of American Jewry was on the horizon. Whatever the many challenges faced by US Jews today, they do not detract from the community’s unique contribution to the larger Jewish narrative.


AS FOR Theodor Herzl, he arrived in Basle on August 25 to prepare for the Congress (which opened on August 29) and brought together some 200 delegates from 20 countries, including the United States. The Congress proclaimed that “Zionism seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured, home in Palestine.”

It is sobering that 58 years after Israeli independence what we thought was “publicly recognized” and “legally secured” apparently isn’t; that assurances offered by the “international community” don’t seem to have much of a shelf-life.

In his address to the Congress, Herzl forecast that once the Jewish state was established world Jewry would be transplanted to Israel, and the Diaspora would wither away: “Those who are able or who wish to be assimilated will remain behind and be absorbed.”

In this way, anti-Semitism (caused, Herzl was certain, by Jewish statelessness) would gradually decrease as Jews either assimilated or immigrated to Palestine.
“Thus it is,” he said, “that we understand and anticipate the solution of the Jewish problem.”

Not quite.

Far from putting an end to Jew-hatred, Israel has tragically – and metaphysically – become a lightening-rod for Jew-haters.

Over the years we’ve had no luck in fighting – or talking – our way out of the existential conundrum we find ourselves in. And all the while, an amalgamation of well-meaning friends, deceitful allies and intransigent enemies urge us to withdraw to vulnerable armistice lines that are even more dangerous today than they were when established in 1949.


ALL THIS makes it hard to be sanguine about Israel’s future. Herzl, for all his genius, misjudged the nature of the Jewish problem as well as the utility of the Diaspora.
It turns out that one of his critics, Asher Zvi Ginsberg – better known as Ahad Ha’am – was in some respects a better prognosticator than Herzl.

Ahad Ha’am, the father of “cultural Zionism,” envisioned the Zionist state as the spiritual home of Jewish civilization. But he accepted that there would always be a Diaspora, which was fine by him so long as it maintained firm Jewish values.

Ahad Ha’am was no wimp. He favored Jewish self-defense and actively opposed efforts to establish the Jewish homeland in any place but Zion. Yet he was by nature a pragmatic pessimist with little faith in the political promises of the international
community.

Moreover, where Herzl was oblivious, Ahad Ha’am anticipated that the aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs would have to be addressed.

In a sense, the man was also an elitist. He didn’t want just anybody making aliya. He wanted immigrants to be adequately prepared intellectually for the sacrifices life in the Jewish state would demand. He himself came here in 1922.

For him, creating a Jewish state was not an end in itself. He expected it would help Judaism in its encounter with modernity. As opposed to the Jewishly illiterate Herzl, Ahad Ha’am was identified with Jewish tradition, though also ambivalent about it.


I’M STILL sentimentally attached to Herzl. But especially after the summer we’ve been through, and the likely troubles ahead, don’t we Jews need to reduce our risk and diversify – demographically, culturally and politically? After all, ideological purity isn’t much use to a country at risk of annihilation.

Looking beyond Rajab 27, the pragmatic pessimism championed by Ahad Ha’am may well serve strategic Jewish interests better than the messianic optimism of Herzl.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

View from the Reichstag

Europe's world is one of live and let live


Berlin is a city embarrassingly easy to fall in love with, notwithstandingeverything we know about its history. London, linguistically and politically familiar to an American-born Israeli visitor, is strangely more off-putting.

But whatever their differences, both cities are equally oblivious to whatappears obvious from Jerusalem: Islamists have embarked on a multi-front war against Western civilization. I don't blame the Europeans for not connecting the dots. The hostilities against our shared civilization have been declared in so veiled and anarchic a manner that Europe has a reasonable basis for being in denial.

Today's free and mostly-thriving Europeans are as laid-back as the Islamists are mobilized. They feel they have paid their dues. Europe was the battlefield for the anti-Nazi struggle, while throughout the Cold War the threat of nuclear hostilities hung eerily over both London and Berlin.

So instead of obsessing over the intentions of Muslim fanatics, today'sBritish and German elites are exercised about global warming, banana fungi, and how to construct non-judgmental societies.

Understandably, it's too painful for them to ponder the possibility that, 60 years after Hitler and not two decades after the Soviets were pushed into the dustbin of history,Western civilization is being threatened again.


YOU WOULDN'T sense that peril lurks from taking a stroll through the streets of Berlin. Walk your feet off, as I did, from the Fernsehturm (the giant radio tower built by the East German communists) to Checkpoint Charlie, and from the Tiergarten (Berlin¹s central park) to Potsdamer Platz, and you can¹t stop marveling at how livable and civilized the place is.

Despite their enviable underground transportation system, thousands of Berliners were taking advantage of the sunny weather to commute by bicycle. At a busy four-way intersection near my hotel automobile drivers yielded politely to each other, and to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Europe's world is one of live, and let live.

Only steps from the Brandenburg Gate stands the new, architecturally contentious Holocaust memorial. Jewish-interest sites, including the Judisches Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, and the partially rebuilt Neue Synagogue are filled with mostly non-Jewish visitors. To say that today's generation of Germans has been politically socialized to remember the Holocaust is an understatement.

But their socialization has, understandably, focused on the lessons that they as Germans can derive. The preeminent Jewish lessons of the Shoah ­-- that the Jewish people must have a secure homeland, and that Jews must never again depend wholly on the goodwill of strangers ­ are not part of Germany's universalistic Holocaust curriculum.


I'D ARRANGED to meet up with a young German at the Reichstag parliament building, a formidable Middle East specialist whom I had met a few months earlier in Jerusalem. He is a senior staffer with the opposition Green Party and has good Hebrew (having studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's overseas school) as well as a solid command of Arabic.

The Reichstag, now crowned by a glass dome, is a perfect venue for viewing Berlin¹s skyline. An unintended consequence, however, is that in broiling weather the dome feels like the interior of a hothouse.

Wilting as I climbed, I heard from my contact that his party was vigorously urging Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to use its influence with Washington to press for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah. This was even before the Kana tragedy claimed 28 civilian lives.

I protested that we'd hardly achieved any of our war aims: think of the message that an unfavorable and premature halt in the fighting would send to the Islamists, and especially to Iran. Showing weakness would also undermine Germany's efforts to keep Teheran from going nuclear.

Sensing no progress, I tried a different tack: A bad outcome could finishEhud Olmert politically, and he certainly would not be replaced by anyone more accommodating regarding the Palestinians.

My arguments were unpersuasive. What could be more right-wing than what Olmert was doing to Lebanon's infrastructure? Violence, said the German Middle East expert, can only make things worse; you can't achieve your goals militarily. Negotiation is the only way forward.


FUNDAMENTALLY, German elites see the Palestinian issue as the crux of the Middle East conundrum and Hizbullah as a sideshow.

They are resolutely convinced that the Palestinian Arabs are not out to destroy Israel and that our two peoples are destined, with time and patience, to live peaceably sideby side. Indeed, West Germany first invoked the idea of self-determination for the Palestinians back in 1974.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the Middle East, Germany walks on egg shells.

"As Germans," Merkel said last week "we should proceed in this region with utmost caution."

Nor does Berlin want to see NATO involved in our region.

And Germany is unlikely to be part of any European force stationed on Israel's border (though the possibility of Bundeswehr troops patrolling Lebanon's boundary with Syria, to combat Hizbullah arms smuggling, is only slightly moreplausible).

The German Jewish leadership is also not keen on Berlin'sparticipation in any multinational force for Lebanon.


FOR THEIR part, the Greens are disappointed that Merkel, a ChristianDemocrat, explicitly blamed Hizbullah for the war but hasn't also unambiguously joined France's Jacques Chirac in demanding an immediat cease-fire.

In more recent days, her spokesman did complain that Israeli bombing raids have been "exaggerated."

Merkel's Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has, however, made the requisite European noises about the need for Israel's response to the Hizbullah threat to be "proportionate."

The war is drawing attention to the inherent foreign policy differences among the coalition partners.

Steinmeier, incidentally, has valuable experience in the region, having worked with Lebanese terrorist factions on past prisoner exchanges. It would not surprise if the Germans were now engaged in helpful behind-the-scenes efforts to bring Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev home from Hizbullah captivity.

Berlin's less than robust support for Israel in the current conflict is disappointing, but not unexpected.

Germany does not want to champion Israel's cause inside the EU.

The German government's overriding national interest is to toe the consensus line of the 25-member union.

Still, 40 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, it's distressing that the best one can say about Berlin's policies is that they handily beat those of Paris.

But as the Germans see it, they are trying to be helpful.

Committed to the principle that nations can negotiate their way out of virtually any tight spot, late last week the Foreign Ministry in Berlin tried to mobilize support within the EU to bribe Syria into breaking with Iran (and its Hizbullah proxy) by offering Damascus duty-free access to the EU market.

[Steinmeier is in Israel today having spent yesterday in Beirut]


BACK IN parched London, it was almost painful to behold Prime Minister TonyBlair¹s isolation.

He was being unremittingly derided not just by the media and the Conservative opposition, but by his own cabinet ministers for refusing to break with Washington over George Bush's refusal to demand an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon.

And yet, together with Germany, Britain had been striving mightily to keep the EU from forcing Israel into an untimely cease-fire.

The formulators of public opinion in Britain so critical of Blair range narrowly from befuddled moral relativists to implacable opponents of the Zionist enterprise.

My European sojourn reminded me that nations pursue policies based on a combination of ethos, domestic and regional influences, power politics, historical perceptions and economic interests.

That being the case, there is no magic bullet, no public relations scheme, and no appeal to sentiment that could transform the policies of London or Berlin into those of Washington.

What ultimately turned the tide in US perceptions ­-- what makes this White House different from Ronald Reagan's during the 1982 Lebanon War ­-- was 9/11.

Despite German authorities' worry that Islamists are now preparing an operation on their soil, and the attacks already carried out in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005, European decision makers prefer not to connect the dots.

I envy them them their serenity.

My Archive