Many wonder why Israel as a nation appears to be so aggressive, to invade Gaza and Lebanon when attacked, to bomb Syria, Iraq and possibly now Iran when threatened by the Iranian nuclear bomb program. In general many question the way Israel violently reacts to provocation. The answer may lie in the sad history of the Jewish people. Growing up Jewish, one of the 15 million in a world of 7 billion people, is growing up feeling like a survivor of so many historical massacres, lucky to be alive and stay alive. Given our history it is not surprising that there would be a slight “paranoiac” tone to the experience on real or perceived threats. And this is not to always justify Israel’s behavior, as I think that Israel as a nation is not doing itself a favor with some of the most aggressive intervention. For example I personally support having bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactors but not attacking the Turkish ship headed to Gaza when just towing it away would have sufficed. And historically many innocent people have died as a result of Israel’s quick trigger reactions.
Still, contrary to what many believe, Jewish-Arab conflicts have killed far fewer people than Muslim-Muslim conflicts. For example the civil war in Syria these days, or the Iraq Iran war, or the Lebanon civil war or many other Muslim against Muslim conflicts that have been far more lethal than Israel’s conflicts. Just looking at the Wikipedia casualty lists of these wars I estimate for every Muslim killed by a Jew there are 100 Muslims killed by other Muslims. And there are many more Muslims killed by US and EU armies than by Israel as well. But still even one non combatant death is too many and should be avoided, so let’s try to understand why Israel responds so violently to aggression, sometimes crossing acceptable boundaries.
Israel is so aggressive because the history of Judaism is a history in which us Jews get killed for being Jewish again and again. And the few times we were spared, we celebrate it as a holidays. As one Jewish friend put it, a Jewish holiday can be summarized as “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. So we have Passover for when we saved ourselves from the Egyptians, and today, February 24th, we celebrate Purim, another survival celebration. This time we celebrate how we prevented a holocaust in Persia when Jews were deported from present-day Israel to present-day Iran. But then of course there was the very sad time we did not win, and that was the Holocaust, a systematic elimination of Jews, where nobody saved us and around a third of the Jews of the world were massacred by the Nazis. As a result, while the population of the planet has tripled, there are the same amount of Jews now as there were in 1900. And this is very much in the mind of the current generation of Israeli leaders who grew up right after the Holocaust. These leaders are haunted by the ever present question of why Jews didn’t defend themselves effectively in the Holocaust, by a conviction that if we don’t defend ourselves nobody will. And that’s why they see that their primary mission as leaders is to prevent a new Holocaust. This mission is not helped when Israel’s Sharon returns Gaza hoping for peace and Hamas who has a stated mission to eliminate Israel wins the local elections and starts an ongoing conflict with Israel. Or when Iran itself says that Jews should be thrown out of their country or exterminated. As these events unfold, Israeli leaders think “never again” and act, sometimes judiciously, sometimes not.
So given the history of the Jewish people, which could be summarized as the history of a people who tried to stay alive among Christians and Muslims and did quite poorly, a history of a people that are now only one in 500 of humanity as a whole, not one in five as Muslims or one in three as Christians, the Israeli fear is more understandable. Especially in a world in which other nations like the USA go much further in committing what I would call human rights violations (i.e use of drones) in order to defend itself. The intervention of Europe and the USA in the Arab world in the last few years in Afghanistan and Iran has resulted in far more deaths than all the Israel wars with Arabs combined, yet even these invasions seem more accepted by general public opinion around the world than Israel’s policies. So as Jews, myself included, celebrate Purim today, I hope this commentary helps to put the issue in perspective and helps non-Jews understand why Jews will always be quick to react to attacks like the rockets Hamas frequently fires into Israel.
I am Jewish and I can’t understand why attacking Iran over the threat of nuclear is a great idea. It’s not that I believe what Iran says. Of course they will develop nuclear weapons, but also Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And Pakistan is a very unstable country and we live with them and their weapons. And India, a country which most of us find easier to live with, has had to live with Pakistan, their weapons and their terrorists.
Pakistan is a country ruled by people who like us but populated by people who mostly hate us, and I don’t mean hate Jews, but the whole West, India and China. Polls show that in the mid 00s most Pakistanis liked Bin Laden as a leader. And some clearly liked him enough to give him shelter for so many years. And this is a country has nuclear weapons and we tolerate it. And Israel and maybe EU and USA are planning to go to war with Iran because they may have nuclear weapons and be where Pakistan is today. Going to war with a country because it will have nuclear weapons is hardly a way to increase world security. Why didn’t USA go to war with USSR when they developed nuclear weapons? Why didnt we go to war with North Korea whose lunatic leadership is far worse than the Iranian leadership. In each of those circumstances we estimated the cost of war to be greater than the cost of preventing nuclear proliferation. North Korea for example, could already wipe out a third of South Korea with conventional artillery, in the face of that threat, we let them go nuclear. I am sure the South Koreans would prefer another neighbor, but they do what they can given the circumstances. Even after a nuclear Iran, Israel’s situation won’t be as bad as that of South Korea at war with a nation that borders it and can destroy it with conventional and nuclear weapons and threatens to do so very frequently. Plus Iran is a threat to Israel already through its proxy armies of Hezbollah and Hamas. But Syria was partners with Iran and another serious threat to Israel under the leadership of Bashar Al Assad and look at where he is now, exterminating his own people, hated by his own people. Qaddafi said there was going to be a Middle East without Israel and we ended having a Libya without Qaddafi. I think there is enough evidence that Iran is going in the same direction. Preventive warfare is flawed. It’s a doctrine that says that because you may not like war in the future you start a war now. We squandered trillions of dollars of USA and EU money with this doctrine, and precious human lives, and achieved nothing. Anyone doubts that Saddam Hussein would have survived the Arab uprisings? If we intervene we should so so to tip the balance, not to go as an invasive force trying to conquer, police and rebuild a nation for a decade. It’s wrong and we can’t afford it.
Nuclear weapons have this weirdly positive aspect to them that their utilization is so serious, so incredibly harmful, that those who have them so far in history have stayed put. It’s as if their owners developed a deep sense of nausea just about having them. The only exception in history, is of course USA, who whether we like it or not, was the only nation brutal enough to overcome their nausea and use them. Probably because nobody had used them before and the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not on anyone’s minds.
I think that we should all put more hope in the people of Iran. Iran is the opposite of Pakistan, a country ruled by people who hate us but populated by people who are fed up with them and like us and our lifestyle. Every protest in Iran seems to be about people who want to be free and a government who puts them down. So we should not give these freedom seeking people who almost overthrew Ahmadinejad, a real reason to hate us. And let’s remember that under attack everyone becomes a nationalist and sides with whoever is the dictator who rules the country. From a Jewish point of view, now that the Muslim world is finally focused on their problems attacking Iran would be to go for the limelight at the worse possible moment.
We should accept that this situation is ugly, confusing, tough to deal with and there no easy answers. And for Israel attacking Iran a country of 80 million people that is twice as big as France and far away is a daunting task, nothing like the Operation Babylon of 1981. Israel, USA, EU, should continue with covert operations and other tactics that are short of war, and put all sorts of pressures to show how great life would be for all if Iran stops. But at the same time we have to learn to live with our fears, accept that Iran may go nuclear, and focus on promoting a change of leadership that is more aligned with the Iranian people and our interests.
I used to think Israel was different from its neighbors, but lately less and less so. My religion is better than yours is no formula for peace in the region. As a secular Jew I would feel so uncomfortable if I lived in Israel with a government who makes comments like this.
It is also understandable how Europe, which is mostly secular, feels alienated from Israel now and USA which is mostly religious, identifies with the country. Israelis like to say that Europe is just anti semitic but while some of that is true, especially Spain (google “es dificil ser judío en España”) what is also true is that in Europe no politician speaks about God in general and least of all as if God liked Jews and not Muslims. Personally I think there is a very low probability that God exists but even if it did there is a proportionate lower probability that it belonged to any religion. I think that God in itself is an extremely unlikely entity but it did exist what would be the link between God and one particular religion? To me God inside a religion is a flag that some carry to do good but most carry as a symbol of their own tribe against others. In many cases God inside a religion is used to justify murder and that makes religion alien to me.
Long are the days of Israel being led by agnostics or atheists like Golda Meir who when asked if she believed in God she said. I believe in the Jewish people and the Jewish people believe in God. Now Israel is being led by people who think God is on their side. Pretty dangerous.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the current President of Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu is the Prime Minister from Israel. Both leaders are disliked by many of their own citizens and people around the world. But then very much liked by some as well. What follows is a poll focused on their image outside of their countries. The question is which leader do you trust more or dislike least for the region.
Based on what you have seen on the press, blogs, TV… everything you know about these leaders, if you had to choose between them, who would you like more or dislike least?
Polldaddy seems to be working poorly right now but votes are being counted.
As Israel fights in Gaza and I, as a Jew, question the morals and effectiveness of this military campaign, as I objected that of the invasion of Lebanon in 2006, I still hear the old appeasement song. I hear it again, again, and again from my Jewish friends. Hitler, Hitler Hitler. Hezbollah is Hitler, Hamas is Hitler, Iran is Hitler, the Palestinians are Hitler, the Arabs are Hitler. They are all Hitler. They are all for the systematic extermination of the Jewish people. And when voices are heard in Europe, USA and other regions; when commentators disapprove of the methods used by the Israeli government when dealing with Hezbollah and Hamas, my Jewish colleagues are quick to dismiss those as opinions of antisemites. In their mind people who disagree with the foreign policy of Israel are simply waiting for the enemies of the Jewish people to complete the work they left undone by the Nazis. For them the Palestinians are not a people with valid claims to a country but instead a neo Nazi group that was created to make sure that Hitler´s final solution gets finally….implemented.
Now let´s compare the situation of the Jews to that of the African Americans for a moment. African Americans deserve to be mentioned in the Jewish debate because they were, as recently as 1960 in USA discriminated against in the most virulent forms. The country that now has an African American President did not allow African Americans to sit in an empty bus seat because it was reserved for whites. And in the previous century African Americans were sold as cattle and enslaved for life, frequently raped and killed without charges. As such the history of African Americans is comparable in horror to that of Jewish history.
Yet somehow, the vast majority of African Americans do not believe that slavery or mass prejudice could ever happen to them again. But unfortunately, many Jews still believe that another dictator intent on wiping the Jewish people out of the planet could arise at any moment in the world. Some believe that this could even happen in the United States. Indeed it is clear that Obama´s Muslim ancestry was an issue for Jews in America as some saw that Hussein middle name as a clear sign that it maybe him who endangers Jewish life as we know it. As unlikely as it sounds I have Jewish friends who still argue that Jews are safer in Israel than in USA or worse that Jews in USA are safer in USA thanks to the existence of Israel, something that if true, it´s probably true the other way around. Most Jews still argue that the State of Israel exists to provide a safe heaven to the Jews of the Diaspora, an argument whose validity has long expired. Now, surrounded by hundreds of millions of enemies, I believe that without the Jews of the Diaspora, and especially without the Jews in the United States the State of Israel would be in worse trouble. As military technology improves and becomes available for all it is hard to see how 5 million Jews can defend themselves against so many rich and well armed enemies. The chances that Jews are picked up country after country by Neo Nazis and exterminated as it happened during WWII is as probable as the chance that the same happens to Gays, Blacks, native Americans or any other minority that used to be discriminated against. Instead, the chances that Islamic Terrorists or Islamic states end up defeating or greatly damaging Israel with the use of advanced weapons over the next 20 years are significant. And it is my opinion that invasions such as that of Lebanon or Gaza increase the possibility of this tragic event happening. If there is ever another holocaust again in my view it will sadly happen in Israel.
The reason why I firmly believe in the right of Israel to exist but oppose the recent policies of the Israeli government including the invasion of Lebanon and of Gaza is that I believe that both invasions are unethical and tactically wrong. They are unethical because in both cases Israel is attacking, killing and greatly damaging the infrastructure of other countries or quasi countries (Lebanon and Gaza) in retaliation for dangers that are minimal. Casualty ratios of 900 to 13 can hardly be called a war regardless of the fact that human life should be impervious to mathematics. In Spain where I live we take higher number of casualties from Islamic and Basque terrorists. I am not happy to live in Madrid 10 minutes from an airport that was partly blown up a year ago with 2 casualties. But I do not want my government to send helicopters to Bilbao to shoot missiles at the Basque terrorists who are guilty of that crime. Such action would only make it more likely for ETA to recruit members and grow. Where 5 are killed, 50 others would arise. Moreover, in asymmetrical warfare of the kind that Israel fights, the danger to Israel is not that it is defeated by the regular armies of its neighbors, the danger is that its neighbors evolve to have better and better terrorist weapons and that next time Israel is hit with 4000 missiles these actually hit their targets. I am concerned that Israel is precipitating the evolution of Hamas into a more sophisticated enemy. And it is only a matter of time for terrorist technology to get better. Terrorism is defeated by making it harder for terrorists to recruit and evolve, not by attacking terrorists hidden among the general population with regular armies and killing hundreds of children whose siblings will grow up with the single minded purpose of destroying you. Terrorism is defeated as we do in Spain by patiently making the case for terrorists weaker, not by military force.
Furthermore I see another risk and that is that as Israel escalates in violence the Muslim world unifies against it. Yes I do know that Fatah hates Hamas and that the Muslim world is divided in all sorts of battles. I do know that in the last 20 years over a million Muslims have died killed by Muslims and less than 10,000 killed by Jews in all sorts of Muslim-Muslim conflicts such as the Iran Iraq war or the constant Sunni and Shia conflicts. But there are many Muslim leaders out there who are waiting for a unifying theme to get to rule whole Muslim world. Osama Bin Laden tries, Ahmadinejad tries, and unfortunately the theme of exterminating Israel grows more popular every year. Indeed Ahmadinejad seems to have better than Osama Bin Laden because he picked Israel and not USA as his stated enemy and now Al Qaeda seems to also be shifting in that direction.
So before invading a country, destroying its infrastructure, because they kidnap some soldiers as in the case of Lebanon, or because they throw potentially lethal rockets after a truce as in the case of Gaza, I think that Israel should think about how easier it makes the life of Islamic terrorist recruiters when it retaliates with tremendous force. Terrorists feed on anger and invasions, air bombardments, massive killings are certainly valid reasons for the attacked population to be angry about. Jews should learn from African Americans and realize that it is possible to be discriminated in the past, to be hated in the past, to be enslaved in the past, to be abused in the past and somehow…not be hated in the future. That if you lose a few soldiers is bad, but creating the conditions to lose your whole country is worse. Jews seem to talk about history as if it is destiny when instead I believe it is the destiny of the current generation of Jews to change history forever and make peace. Jews should learn to distinguish from the people who hate them because of territorial claims and the rest of the world who temporarily hates them because of the way they react against people who have territorial claims. These claims, while not valid in the case of the Lebanese, are pretty valid in the case of the Syrians and the Palestinians and as Jews we must acknowledge this and move back towards Oslo. Jews should learn that the reason why most people in secular Europe dislike us Jews is for the aggressive policies of the State of Israel. Jews should not confuse disagreement with Israel´s foreign policy with the virulent racism that characterized societies of 70 years ago. This type of racist thinking is historically over. It´s over against African Americans and its over against Jews. Indeed it´s so over that in the current anti Israel demonstrations in Europe the right wing parties, traditionally known as Neo Nazis were not present. Moreover I am convinced that if tomorrow Israel and Palestine learn to live in peace most people around the world will forget about both countries. They will be as relevant to the world as Croatia and Serbia are today. An irrelevance that is surprisingly great as a country tries to rebuild its future in a peaceful manner.
The present dislike for Jews around the world is not because of rampant global antisemitism but because most non Jews and non Muslims believe that Israel is reacting too strongly and too unfairly to the aggression it receives. Of course Israel has the right to defend itself. But while at the beginning of its history the world saw Israel as a country trying to survive, now the world sees Israel as a country using excessive force against the right of another country to exist. The best hope for Israel is that Palestine has a strong leader, that Israel can deal with in matters of security. Even as enemies Israel and USA are better off when the enemy is a state and not a terrorist entity. Until such leader arises Israel will not be safe but Israel must know that this leader will be somebody that is hard to deal with. History has many former terrorists who became respected leaders including some of the founders of the State of Israel. A strong leader who focuses on peace maybe difficult to deal with, but it will not be hard as fighting the Hamas Hydra that Israel is currently confronting.