For generations of Diaspora Jews raised on the idea of an invincible Israel,
the last month has been something of a blow.
While historians will probably have better luck sorting out the results of
the recent weeks of fighting between Israel and its Hezbollah antagonists than
journalists, there is little question that the result was a lot less than most
of Israel's fans in this country were expecting.
From the White House on down, most Americans expected that when the Israeli
government announced its intent to kick the terrorists out of southern Lebanon
and to remove forever the threat of missile fire that hung over northern
Israel, that is exactly what would happen.
But when the guns finally stopped firing, while far from unscathed, Hezbollah
was still standing. In short, while Israel may not have "lost" this war, it
has obviously not "won" it.
What does this mean both for the Jewish state and its supporters abroad?
First, it should be said right away that American Jews have no business
joining in the scrum seeking to assign blame for the failures of the last month.
Some of us may be wondering about the confusing strategy pursued by Olmert and
his government, but if there were ever a moment for non-Israeli Jews to hold
their tongues, this is it.
The proper court of public opinion to judge Israel's leaders consists of
those whose children fought and died in Lebanon, and those who were forced into
bomb shelters or who otherwise had to flee their homes in the face of Hezbollah
attacks. Diaspora know-it-alls who've never heard a shot fired in anger have
no standing to be piping up. The rising tide of angry Israeli army reservists
and displaced northerners will do enough second-guessing for all of us.
That aside, will the idea of a "defeated" Israel diminish support here?
The reaction from the core supporters of the Jewish state both Jewish and
conservative Christian is an emphatic "no."
The sense of crisis and the notion of a besieged Israel as opposed to the
image of a powerful, prosperous Israel that doesn't need our assistance is
one that sends many of us to the barricades, literally and figuratively, to
prove our support.
That should also mean that Jewish federations that have struggled to maintain
their standing as the central address for pro-Israel philanthropy in recent
years will, no doubt, gain ground, as the public rightly views the United
Jewish Communities' Israel Emergency Campaign as a priority appeal.
But what about the large numbers of marginally affiliated Jews, as well as a
younger generation, for whom the media-inspired image of Israel as the Goliath
oppressing the Arab David is the norm?
This was a point hammered home ceaselessly as Hezbollah's responsibility for
starting the war, and Israeli suffering was often slighted in favor of
voluminous coverage of the suffering of the Lebanese paid for allowing a terrorist
group bent on its neighbor's destruction to dig in around them.
And when the result of such action is, if not defeat, but at least a bloody
nose, will that produce more sympathy?
It's true that there's nothing contemporary Americans seem to love more than
a victim. And one might reason that if Israel is seen in that light because
of the plight of the kidnapped soldiers or the large number of Israelis forced
to live in bomb shelters like Londoners during the Nazi blitz of World War II,
the result will be more understanding, not less.
That is, one supposes, a possible silver lining to the cloud hanging over
Olmert. But there is also another, more negative possibility.
Americans like victims, but they don't tend to have much affection for
losers. Even more to the point, as much as it is a truism that Israeli triumphs have
boasted the self-esteem of Diaspora Jews, be they Zionist or non-Zionist
(think of the impact of the Six-Day War on the birth of the Soviet Jewry movement,
both in Russia and the United States), so, too, have public-relations
debacles for Israel diminished Jewish support.
While some of us react to the notion of Israel as the bad guy be it as
winner or loser with anger and resentment, others respond by internalizing the
criticism and wrongly turning our anger on the Israelis rather than their
critics. If there has been any group in the United States among whom support for
Israel has diminished during the course of more than two decades of media
Israel-bashing, it is the Jews not our non-Jewish neighbors.
Seen in this light, defeat is not likely to increase the quotient of Diaspora
identification with Israel.
Another troubling question is whether or not the lack of a clear victory over
Islamist foes will harm the alliance with the United States as a whole.
After all, America took little interest in Israel as an ally, as opposed to a
charity case, until after Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967. If ever Israeli
leaders allowed their American counterparts to think that its deterrent had
diminished to the point where it ceased to be the strategic asset that it is,
then the rhetoric of common values notwithstanding, woe betide the alliance.
All of this is, of course, somewhat theoretical. Israel's military
capabilities are still formidable and its political system, albeit flawed as all
democracies are, is still capable of rebounding from the current mess it finds itself
That said, Israelis would do well never to put themselves in a position where
they would have to find out what the foreign reaction to a real defeat at the
hands of its enemies would be.
Should Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian sponsors ever get their way
and inflict a genuine defeat on Israel, the answer to that question won't
matter much, as this would mean the nation's annihilation.
In that case, increased international sympathy always available for dead
Jews as opposed to live ones will be of little use.