July 18, 2006 - Richard Cohen's latest column "Hunker Down with History" expresses a sentiment I have heard so often that I feel it deserves a response. I will quote the article in full, interspersed with my comments.
The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Israel fights Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, but its most formidable enemy is history itself.
Let me begin with a story.
In a very exclusive neighborhood one day a new kid came to school. He was different from the others. He looked different, he dressed different, his customs were different, and his religion was different. The other kids did not like him and felt he didn't belong. They threatened terrible things if he walked in the door. But he came anyway.
They attacked the new kid, they beat him up, and tried to shove him off the playground. But he still came to school, saying he had just as much right to exist there as anyone.
Soon the violence got out of hand. So many fights broke out that classes could not continue, and nobody learned anything. The teacher declared the situation intolerable, and said it could not continue. The solution was simple: all this commotion started when the new kid came to town, so clearly he was the cause of all the friction and he had to go. So the teacher expelled him. And the class praised the teacher for his fairness.
I wonder how Richard Cohen would have reacted to the violence that erupted when our schools were first integrated. Sending black kids into white schools led to years of strife and violence. So was that a "mistake"? The people of Little Rock, Birmingham, and Philadelphia, Mississippi would no doubt have remained more placid had it not been for the interference of all those civil rights interlopers with the strange notion that people who are different ought to coexist.
To all those who keep saying the creation of Israel was a mistake, I would like to ask: Where else would you put those several millions of Jews? Europe threw out its Jewish population during the last World War. Arab countries either expelled their Jews or made life unlivable for them. So where are they supposed to go? Are they to accept persecuted minority status in yet another Arab country? That is what many of them came to Israel to escape.
This brings us to another misconception in Cohen's first paragraph. He calls Israel "a nation of European Jews." First, excusing Arab hatred of Israel because Israel is populated by "European Jews" who don't belong there is racist. Second, the premise isn't even true. At least half of the Jews in Israel come from Arab lands. Many Israeli Jews were indigenous to the area and had been living there for years before Israel became a state.
As if Cohen's first short paragraph did not contain enough errors, here is another. To say that Israel's "most formidable enemy is history itself" is meaningless. It is not "history" that is shooting rockets at Israeli civilians. It is not "history" that is threatening Israel with nuclear annihilation. It is not "history" that is threatening to destroy Israel at any cost. Personifying history in this way is rhetorical excess. Israel's enemies are real flesh-and-blood terrorists and the governments that support them.
This is why the Israeli-Arab war, now transformed into the Israeli-Muslim war (Iran is not an Arab state), persists and widens. It is why the conflict mutates and festers. It is why Israel is now fighting an organization, Hezbollah, that did not exist 30 years ago and why Hezbollah is being supported by a nation, Iran, that was once a tacit ally of Israel's. The underlying, subterranean hatred of the Jewish state in the Islamic world just keeps bubbling to the surface. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and some other Arab countries may condemn Hezbollah, but I doubt the proverbial man in their street shares that view.
The obvious error in logic is this: There is a war, the war would not persist if one side didn't exist, therefore one side shouldn't exist, or at least should never have existed. If there were no Arabs, there also wouldn't be a war. Too bad for Israel that there are so many more Arabs. One side should never have existed, and that side has got to be Israel.
Cohen's reading of history is simplistic. Is it Israel's fault that relations with Iran have worsened? The time when Iran was a "tacit ally of Israel's" was when it was under the Shah. Then came the Islamic Revolution. Cohen unfortunately leaves that detail out.
There is no point in condemning Hezbollah. Zealots are not amenable to reason. And there's not much point, either, in condemning Hamas. It is a fetid, anti-Semitic outfit whose organizing principle is hatred of Israel. There is, though, a point in cautioning Israel to exercise restraint -- not for the sake of its enemies but for itself. Whatever happens, Israel must not use its military might to win back what it has already chosen to lose: the buffer zone in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip itself.
This is like saying there was no point in condemning Hitler because he wasn't amenable to reason. Whether or not a destructive force is "amenable to reason," the time comes when people must unite and stand up to it or its destruction will continue. By not condemning Hezbollah and Hamas, the world is enabling their terrorism. The words of Pastor Niemoller come to mind: "Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me."
As for the proper use of "Israel's military might," one thing Israel must do is neutralize Hezbollah as a fighting force in southern Lebanon. If for any reason (the most likely being international pressure) Israel fails to do this, Hezbollah will return, undoubtedly with even more powerful missiles than it had before. It will be just like failing to finish a course of antibiotics: the disease will come back, more intractable than ever.
Hard-line critics of Ariel Sharon, the now-comatose Israeli leader who initiated the pullout from Gaza, always said this would happen: Gaza would become a terrorist haven. They said that the moderate Palestinian Authority would not be able to control the militants and that Gaza would be used to fire rockets into Israel and to launch terrorist raids. This is precisely what has happened.
It is also true, as some critics warned, that Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon was seen by its enemies -- and claimed by Hezbollah -- as a defeat for the mighty Jewish state. Hezbollah took credit for this, as well it should. Its persistent attacks bled Israel. In the end, Israel got out and the United Nations promised it a secure border. The Lebanese army would see to that. (And the check is in the mail.)
All that the critics warned has come true. But worse than what is happening now would be a retaking of those territories. That would put Israel smack back to where it was, subjugating a restless, angry population and having the world look on as it committed the inevitable sins of an occupying power. The smart choice is to pull back to defensible -- but hardly impervious -- borders. That includes getting out of most of the West Bank -- and waiting (and hoping) that history will get distracted and move on to something else. This will take some time, and in the meantime terrorism and rocket attacks will continue.
Once again Cohen's conclusion does not follow from his premises. He grants that Israel's withdrawals from Lebanon and from Gaza have led to disaster, as critics of those policies have warned. So what's the "smart choice"? Further withdrawal - this time from the West Bank - and further disaster! Why should Haifa be the only major city within easy range of hostile missiles, when we can also easily get to Tel Aviv, by withdrawing from the West Bank?
I did support Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. I felt, and still feel, that Israel had no choice. But I grant that critics were right in predicting it would lead to further Palestinian aggression. In principle I also support Israeli Prime Minister Olmert's vision of withdrawing from areas in the West Bank to create a logical and defensible border - but it is not feasible at this time. We know what the Palestinians would do. And that is the greater threat right now.
Ísrael does not want to occupy southern Lebanon. But neither can it allow Hezbollah to operate freely there. Retreating and hoping the problem will go away is simply not an option.
Once again Cohen personifies "history": "waiting (and hoping) that history will get distracted and move on to something else." Well "history" can move on to whatever it likes, but while Israel is waiting and hoping, new supplies of longer-range missiles will be flowing in from Iran and Syria, and one day those missiles will be used.
In his forthcoming book, "The War of the World," the admirably readable British historian Niall Ferguson devotes considerable space to the horrific history of the Jews in 19th- and 20th-century Europe. Never mind the Holocaust. In 1905 there were pogroms in 660 different places in Russia, and more than 800 Jews were killed -- all this in a period of less than two weeks. This was the reality of life for many of Europe's Jews.
Little wonder so many of them emigrated to the United States, Canada, Argentina or South Africa. Little wonder others embraced the dream of Zionism and went to Palestine, first a colony of Turkey and later of Britain. They were in effect running for their lives. Most of those who remained -- 97.5 percent of Poland's Jews, for instance -- were murdered in the Holocaust.
And yet Cohen calls Israel's creation a "mistake." The countries Cohen mentions were not about to take in all of Israel's Jews.
Another gifted British historian, Tony Judt, wraps up his recent book "Postwar" with an epilogue on how the sine qua non of the modern civilized state is recognition of the Holocaust. Much of the Islamic world, notably Iran under its Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stands outside that circle, refusing to make even a little space for the Jews of Europe and, later, those from the Islamic world. They see Israel not as a mistake but as a crime. Until they change their view, the longest war of the 20th century will persist deep into the 21st. It is best for Israel to hunker down.
Iran admittedly does not even meet the criterion of a modern civilized state. The Arab confrontation states are hardly any better. Yet because of their intolerance and their racism, Israel should be considered a "mistake." I can see only two reasons for denying the legitimacy of Israel's creation: either one believes that Jews have less right than Arabs to determine their own fate, or (particularly if one is Jewish) one is embarrassed and intimidated by Muslim hatred of Israel. Believing that Israel should admit to being a "mistake," Cohen would have Israel remain passive no matter how its neighbors react. Israel can always hope that if it keeps a low profile, its enemies will lose interest and move on to something else. And the check is in the mail.
Israel's enemies won't lose interest, and they're not interested only in Israel. Iran and Syria are testing the world. They are trying to expand their power, and are watching how we respond and whether we will stand up to them. They know our sensibilities - our aversion to war, especially killing civilians - and they are using that against us. Iran is also known to be instigating much of the violence in Iraq. It is flexing its muscles, using Israel, which it knows won't get much sympathy from the world, as a test. Iran is becoming a major power in the region, and once it goes nuclear it will become even more adventurous, knowing it can act with impunity. Iranian Hezbollah is already threatening to unleash its killers all over the world. If left unchecked, more than Israel will be at stake.
Returning for one last moment to the schoolyard, what Cohen counsels is the mentality of the bully's victim, hoping against hope that if he remains unassertive then maybe the bully will be nice. That is no strategy for survival. It is encouragement of the bully. It is giving in to fear.
When Israel is facing a stepped-up terror campaign with no end in sight, calling Israel a "mistake" plays into the hands of Iran and the other Islamic extremists whose goal is to take down the West. Instead of calling their aggression what it is, we come dangerously close to justifying it - after all, they are trying to correct this "mistake." They are also waiting to find out how easy we will make it for them.
We will be sending them a powerful message if our first response is to tell Israel to "hunker down" and let the missiles fly.
Cohen, Richard. "Hunker Down With History." Washington Post, July 18, 2006.
Dan, Uri. "Hezbollah Is Targeting U.S.: 'We Welcome World War 3'." New York Post, July 19, 2006.
Peace with Realism