Thursday, June 3, 2010

Israel and the Flotilla

Can you stand getting even one more piece of e-mail about the flotilla incident that occurred earlier this week in international waters just off the coast of Gaza? I can guess how many you’re received and how hard it's been to keep it all straight and not become bored by the repetition of the same details over and over. I myself have lost count of how much mail I’ve received in the course of these last three or four days. E-mails encouraging me to vote in a dozen different internet polls. E-mails encouraging me to watch this or that clip on youtube that will “prove” who is right and who is lying about what really happened. E-mails purporting to have the “true” story about the whole incident…and the videotape to prove it. E-mails from at least a dozen and a half different organizations, only one or two of which I actually belong to, encouraging me to understand how serious the situation has become for Israel both from a security and a public relations point of view. And also a sprinkling of hate-filled e-mails filled with the kind of vile anti-Israel rhetoric that equates Zionism with Nazism and other kinds of vituperative, sickening language. (Where do these people get my e-mail address? Maybe I don’t want to know.)

The short version of the story is actually rather simple. A non-governmental organization bearing the innocuous sounding name of “Turkish Humanitarian Relief Organization” organized a flotilla of boats with the intention of breaking Israel’s blockade of the Gaza coast. (You will also see the organization referred to by the acronym IHH, derived from the group’s official name in the Turkish language.) Israel agreed that the humanitarian supplies could be delivered to Gazans in need, but that the ships would have to be unloaded and inspected in Ashdod. Then, once it was certain that there were no arms or illegal materials aboard, the supplies would be delivered. Of the six ships involved, five complied. One however, a ship called the Mavi Marmara, declined to go along with Israel’s instructions, as a result of which Israeli naval commandos boarded the vessel to force compliance. What happened next is the specific part of the story being debated endlessly both on the ground and in the ether. The most likely scenario is that the people on the boat reacted violently to the presence of Israeli personnel and the Israelis responded in kind. Once gun shots were fired at the Israelis, the fire was returned and when it was all over nine people were dead, four of them said to be Turkish citizens. (There were, according to yesterday’s Yediot Acharonot, about six hundred people on the boat representing thirty-eight different nationalities.) The boats are now in Ashdod, where what is happening is precisely what ought to have happened in the first place: the boats are being inspected and the goods they were carrying slowly cleared for transport into Gaza.

For those of us who finish our prayers daily by asking that God bring peace to Israel, it is beyond sickening to watch so many world leaders tripping over their own feet to condemn Israel even more sharply or even more aggressively for…for what? For attempting to prevent people from possibly smuggling rockets or weapons into an adjacent territory governed by people who self-define as terrorists and who have already fired something like 10,000 rockets and mortars into Israel, almost all of them aimed at civilian targets, over the last few years? You would think that it wouldn’t matter, that we for whom Israel’s security is of paramount importance would have learned long ago not to care or even to listen while the world fulminates about this or that effort by the IDF to make safe the people of Israel. But somehow it continues to make me crazy, this spectacle of one-sided criticism intended not seriously to take issue with this or that Israeli policy but merely to legitimize the effort to de-legitimize Israel by decrying its policies as misguided, its leadership as morally bankrupt, and its right to defend its own interests—and, for some reason, especially to protect its citizenry against real and constant threats—as somehow bogus. From the United Nations, of course, we have long since learned to expect nothing at all, not even empty rhetoric formally intended at least to sound even-handed. But even so it was intensely distressing to watch the Security Council race to judgment. That that same council seems to have no interest whatsoever in condemning or even discussing human rights abuses in Muslim lands or acts of terrorism specifically intended to murder innocents—I’m thinking of the suicide bombing of a mosque of a minority Muslim sect in Lahore, Pakistan, earlier this week that intentionally took the lives of somewhere between eighty and one hundred innocent worshipers and which seems to have elicited no response at all from the Security Council at all—should be such old news to all of us that it actually amazes me that I still find it upsetting. But I do. And I’m getting worse, not better.

In my professional life as teacher and preacher, I have always tried to avoid an “us vs. them” approach to the world. I have never wanted to think that the world consists only of Jews and non-Jews, and neither have I ever wanted to embrace the corollary of that principle according to which that the distinctions between different groups of non-Jews are real but essentially trivial, something akin to the way lepidopterists distinguish between thousands of different species of moths in technical ways that seem unimportant for the rest of us to master or even really to understand. But the older I get and the more I see of the kind of knee-jerk response to any vigorous effort of the IDF to do work that has its precise parallel in the work undertaken by the armed forces of every single member country of the United Nations to safeguard its citizens and to make them secure, the more distressing the whole picture and its larger implications are to me.

About a year ago, I wrote here expressing my reservations about the efforts undertaken by some specific evangelical organizations in our country to support Israel. I actually wrote about this theme several times, mostly in pieces focused on the work of the Reverend John Hagee of San Antonio, Texas, and the organization he founded called the Christians United for Israel. I found fault with the some of the reverend’s statements about the Shoah and the biblical precedents he saw at work both in the Holocaust and its aftermath, but also in the historical relationship between the Shoah and the founding of Israel. Since then, not much has changed. The reverend, I’m sure, continues to hold his views and I continue to hold mine. But I find that I have abandoned whatever uncertainty I once harbored about his efforts on Israel’s behalf, and particularly about his effort to create pro-Israel Christian groups on the campuses of American universities. (You can visit his organization’s website at to see what I mean.) Regardless of what else he stands for, this is someone prepared to stand up in public and defend Israel and the IDF. And, because more than a quarter of American citizens are affiliated in some way with different sorts of evangelical churches, the Reverend Hagee is also someone whom American politicians are loath to be seen treating dismissively, let alone whose views they can safely ignore. Watching the brouhaha surrounding the Gaza flotilla incident has inspired me to abandon my hesitancy and welcome his support and the support of evangelical America in general.

In the end, maybe I was both right and wrong about how the world works. Maybe it really is an “us vs. them” world after all…only not precisely in the way I earlier thought. The world in which Israel struggles to survive does not divide down easily into Jews and Gentiles. But it does divide down almost neatly into people whose implacable hatred for Israel cannot be countered by balanced, thoughtful argumentation—the people who find Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez to be inspiring leaders—and the rest of the world, which includes people who find the right of Jewish people to live securely and peacefully in a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland as self-evident and reasonable as the right of the Irish to live in Ireland or the right of the Japanese to live in Japan. I used to decry efforts to simplify the situation by establishing categories of people with respect to their attitudes towards Israel and then assigning people to those categories based on their actions or their words, but now I find myself far less willing to declare such efforts simplistic or misleading. What if the world really does divide down into people for whom the existence of Israel itself is anathema and people prepared to accept the reasonableness of the Jewish people charting its own course, thus also its own destiny, as a nation among nations and a people secure in its rights among the peoples of the world? Could it really be that simple?

After reading endlessly about the flotilla incident in the course of these last days, including especially Ambassador Oren’s essay on the op-ed page of the Times Wednesday, I find in myself a new willingness to accept the support of the world from wherever it comes, even from people who clearly view the situation from a perspective I do not and cannot ever share. Support is support regardless of whence it comes, and support—in the international arena, in the Congress of the United States, even in that vipers’ den in Turtle Bay—is what Israel needs as it charts its course through waters that are in some ways more dangerous than any straits through which it has previously passed.

All my readers know how deeply I fear the world becoming inured to the supposed inevitability of a nuclear Iran. To me, this whole incident surrounding the Gaza flotilla is highly suggestive of the direction the world could well end up taking with respect to Iran as well, one that pivots on the assumption that Israel’s right to live in peace without being threatened by Kassam rockets from Gaza or, God forbid a million times over, nuclear missiles from Iran is somehow negotiable or, worse, an internal matter for Jewish people to fret over but for the world at large mostly to ignore. I find myself dispirited and discouraged not by the actions of the IDF—because, in the end, for all the loss of life is to be regretted, those boats did not end up bringing any rockets or missiles into Gaza—but by the reaction of an unfeeling, uncaring world working on the assumption, all too familiar to those of us steeped in Jewish history, that the very right of Israel to defend itself (or, for that matter, of Jews anywhere at all to defend themselves and insist on safeguarding their own security) is somehow by its very nature suspect.

I don’t share the reverend Hagee’s views on many topics and least of all do I share his evangelical worldview. But I welcome his support and the support of others from his world. I think the time has come for all of us to feel that way. And to urge our own leaders within the Jewish community not merely to accept the support that comes even from the most unlikely quarters, but actively to solicit support from whatever source it might eventually come.

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