Thursday, January 24, 2019

Defending Dr. King's Legacy

It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing with the notion that freedom of the press will always be among the most basic features of life in any democratic state. And, indeed, ever since December 15, 1791, when the first ten amendments to the Constitution were formally adopted, this has been true with respect to our American republic not merely philosophically but legally as well. That, surely, is as it should be. But, just as freedom of the press exists specifically to permit the publication of even the least popular ideas, so do citizens have the parallel right—perhaps even the obligation—to respond vigorously to published essays rooted in ignorance, fantasy, and a prejudicial worldview. And it is with that thought in mind that I wish to respond to a truly outrageous op-end piece about Israel—and, more precisely, American support for Israel—published in the New York Times last Sunday in which the author appears to have no understanding of ancient or modern history, no sympathy for any of Israel’s security needs, no ability critically to evaluate even the most baseless Palestinian claims about the history of the land, and no interest even in getting the facts straight.  
The author, Michelle Alexander, is formally employed as an opinion columnist at the Times. And her essay, published on Martin Luther King weekend, presented itself as the result of the author’s brave decision finally “to break the silence” regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It’s hard to imagine what silence the author imagines she has boldly broken by daring to criticize Israel viciously and in print—just lately the number of opinion pieces hostile to Israel published by her own newspaper gives lie to that notion easily. Nor was there anything at all new or groundbreaking in her essay, which mostly just parroted the same propagandistic claptrap the enemies of Israel cite regularly to justify their anti-Israel stance. But most outrageous of all was the suggestion that she was somehow keeping faith with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by finding the courage to speak out against Israel. That last point, then, is the first I will address.

I am personally too young to have been present in 1968 when, just a week before his horrific death, Dr. King came to the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, my own professional organization, and spoke these words: 
  • Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity and the right to use whatever sea lanes it needs. I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.
Those were his final remarks about Israel, never revised or updated. How could he have? He was dead a week later! And, with his horrific end, his unqualified support for the right of Israel to defend itself against its enemies entered history as part of his formidable legacy, a legacy that touched on many areas of American domestic and foreign policy and not solely on the questions related to civil rights, non-violent protest, and race relations for which he is justifiably the most famous.

In her essay, Alexander broke no new ground. She seemed ignorant about Israel—about its history, its foreign policy, its long history of one-sided overtures to the Palestinians, its withdrawal from Gaza, and the restrained way it has responded not to dozens or hundreds but thousands of separate acts of terror aimed specifically at the civilian population over these last years alone—and neither did she seem to know, or care, how it was that Israel came to control the West Bank in the first place. But when boiled down to its basics, she seemed unable to move past her sense that the Jews who founded the State of Israel were colonialist interlopers from Europe who were intent on doing to the indigenous Arab population what the Belgians in that same era were attempting to do to the Congolese, the British to the Indians, and the French to the Algerians: seize other people’s land and then ignore the presence of those people other than when it came to subduing them and forcing them to serve their new masters. As I read it, that was the core of her argument.
The fact that the Palestinians have refused offer after offer to negotiate a fair, just peace seems to be unknown to her. Perhaps more to the point, the fact that there is nothing at all preventing the Palestinian leadership from doing what they should have done in 1947 and finally declaring a Palestinian State, then negotiating its borders with the neighbors and getting down to the business of nation building—this too seems not to have occurred to Alexander, who finds it courageous to support the notion of boycotting Israel (and who is paradoxically appalled by the publication of the names of individuals who support the BDS movement, although you would think she would be proud for their names—and her own name—to be known widely in that context). And she certainly has no interest in responding thoughtfully (or at all) to the inconvenient fact that the Arabs, hardly the indigenes, came to the Land of Israel in a series of invasions in the seventh century CE in the course of which they successfully wrested control of the land from its then Byzantine masters. (Nor was the Land of Israel the sole target of the Caliph Umar and his hordes back in the day: the Arab armies, true colonialists precisely in the style of the age of imperialism, also overran modern-day Turkey, Cyprus, Armenia, and most of Northern Africa.) On the other hand, there is every imaginable kind of evidence—literary, archeological, genetic, epigraphical, and numismatic—to support the argument that the ancestors of today’s Jewish people were present in the land in hoariest antiquity and have remained present, one way or the other, ever since. But of that truth, Alexander has nothing at all to say.

It’s true that there have been Arabs living in the Land of Israel for many centuries. But the detail Alexander passes quickly by is precisely that there is nothing at all preventing the outcome she clearly dreams to see: the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Middle East. If they will it to happen, then it will surely be no dream! (I’ve lost track of how many nations already recognize the non-existent State of Palestine as though it were an actual political entity.) Yet all the misery of the Palestinians, so Michelle Alexander, is exclusively the fault of Israel. The Jordanians, who ruled over the West Bank for nineteen years and kept the Palestinians interned in refugee camps, are not mentioned. The extraordinary acts of violence directed against Israel—the tens of thousands of missiles fired at civilian towns and villages within Israel from Gaza, for example—these too are left unreferenced. Perhaps the author considers each of those missiles to constitute a valid expression of political rage. But I would only begrudgingly respect her right to such an opinion if she were to write similarly about the people who brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11—that they weren’t terrorists or violent miscreants, just brave martyrs making a searing political statement.  
Alexander makes much of the fact that Martin Luther King apparently cancelled plans to travel to Israel after the Six Day War in 1967. She cites a phone call—but without saying to whom it was made or where recorded—according to which King based his decision on the fear that the Arab world would surely interpret his visit as an indication that he supported everything Israel did to win the war. That King had misgivings about this or that aspect of Israeli military or foreign policy is hardly a strong point—I myself  harbor grave misgivings about many Israeli policies, including both domestic and non-domestic ones—but infinitely more worth citing are Reverend King’s remarks the following fall at Harvard. Some of the students with whom he was dining began to criticize Zionism itself as a political philosophy, to which criticism King responded by asserting that to repudiate the value or validity of Zionism as a valid political movement is, almost by definition, to embrace anti-Semitism: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” And King’s final statement about Israel, cited above, certainly reads clearly enough for me!

To take advantage of the freedom of the press guaranteed by the Constitution implies a certain level of responsibility to the facts. To be unaware that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 is possibly merely to be uninformed and lazy in one’s research. To write about the West Bank as though it were the site of a formerly independent Palestinian state now occupied by Israeli aggressors is either to be willfully biased or abysmally ill informed. But to write about Israeli checkpoints designed to keep terrorists from entering Israel without as much as nodding to the reason Israelis might reasonably and fully rationally fear a resurgence of violence directed specifically against the civilian population—that crosses the line from ignorance and poor preparation into the terrain of anti-Semitic rhetoric that finds the notion of Jewish people doing what it takes to defend themselves against their would-be murderers repulsive…or, at the very least, morally suspect. 
I have been a subscriber to the New York Times forever. My parents were also subscribers. In my boyhood home, the phrase “the paper” invariably referenced The Times. (If my father meant The Daily Mirror or The Post, he said so. But “the” paper without further qualification was The Times.) Much of what I grew up knowing about the world and thinking about the world came directly from its editorial and, eventually, its op-ed pages; that the writing in “the” paper was presumed unbiased, informed, and honest went without saying. That, however, was then. And this is now. I haven’t cancelled my subscription. Not yet, at any rate. And I really do believe that people should be free to express even the least popular views in print without fear of reprisal. But when someone crosses the line from harsh criticism of Israel to propose that there is something reprehensible about Israel defending itself vigorously against its enemies—that is where I stop reading and try to calm down by looking at the obituaries or the crossword puzzle instead.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.