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Jewish World Review April 14, 2000 / 9 Nissan, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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When the Diaspora Must Speak Up

Criticizing Israel is painful, but China deal shows it is occasionally necessary -- IS THERE ANYTHING MORE REPULSIVE than a self-serving diatribe of Diaspora Jewish guilt about the State of Israel? In my opinion, the sound of self-righteous American Jews mewing out their horror at the actions of a sovereign Jewish state is among the most disheartening noises one can encounter in modern Jewish life.

The question is, are there times when it is necessary?

We have been subjected to a great deal of this sort of thing for the past 20 years as an Israel that longed for peace coped with the problems of fending off Arab propaganda offensives.

The truth is, there are some Jews who just seem to have a problem with Jewish power. For them, the traditional, and entirely justified, Jewish identification with the underdog, somehow was morphed into guilt about Jewish survival.

This trend came into its own in the 1980s, with Israel’s unfortunate war in Lebanon. By the time of the anti-Israel riots known as the intifada, it had become the fashion in some Jewish circles to identify with the Palestinian-Arab “victims” and bash the Israeli “oppressors.” While there were legitimate arguments to be made against some of Israel’s policies, a lot of the stuff put out by some on the left seemed to be more about a Jewish distaste for Jewish triumph than about morality.

In recent years, with the Oslo process and an Israeli consensus forming behind a policy of concessions, the “Israel as Goliath” talk has lessened, if not completely died down. But the spirit of Jewish identification with Israel’s enemies still pops up every now and then.

An example is the inclusion of a Palestinian-Arab rant against Israel in A Night of Questions, the new Passover Haggadah published by the Reconstructionist movement — though I’m sorry to have to criticize this useful Haggadah that I would otherwise recommend.

The offending passage is a long quote from a book by Raymonda Tawil that speak s of her purported discovery that a family of Jewish refugees from Poland are living in the house that her aunt abandoned during Israel’s War of Independence.

The small story Tawil tells of Jewish guilt and Arab victimhood smacks of fraud. We’re asked to believe that the Jews not only stole the house but kept her aunt’s favorite pictures on the wall and Tawil's favorite doll! It reminds me of Palestinian-Arab intellectual Edward Said’s myths about his family’s “beautiful old house” in Jerusalem that were recently debunked in Commentary magazine.

Raymonda Tawil just happens to be Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law. Which makes her the mother of the same Suha Arafat who last fall told an audience that included Hillary Rodham Clinton that the Jews were poisoning Arab children.

Which goes to show that the poisoned apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

We needn’t embrace those who hate the Jewish people and Israel, in order to prove to an indifferent world or ourselves how good we are. I cringe at the thought of Jewish families reciting this propaganda on the night we celebrate Jewish freedom.

But, as much as it goes against my Zionist instincts to admit it, there are times when we have no alternative but to tell the government of the State of Israel that it is in the wrong.

A classic example of such an instance arose this month with the Israeli government’s decision to ignore protests by the U.S. government and to go ahead and sell an AWACS radar system to China. The Israeli-Chinese love affair was further advanced this week by the state visit of Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

As first reported in this column on Dec. 2, 1999, this issue has been brewing for several years, as Israel grew to be the second leading arms exporter to Beijing. But this is the first time that the United States, in the person of Defense Secretary William Cohen, directly and publicly asked Israel to back off on the sale, only to be refused.

Israel, which still depends heavily on its strategic alliance with the United States, is selling an advanced avionics system to a country that has just threatened another democratic ally of the United States — Taiwan — with invasion. Should China ever make good on those threats, the Israeli-made AWACS would be used to target not just planes from Taiwan, but the inevitable American reinforcements.

Did Ehud Barak, or his predecessors who initiated this deal, consider the reaction to this terrible decision from the millions of non-Jewish Americans from across the political spectrum who support Israel as the United States’ only reliable and democratic ally in the Middle East? Is he so divorced from political reality that he thinks that flirting with Beijing will make Washington jealous and increase U.S. support for Israel?

The Israelis have no good answers to these questions. Talk of using the Israeli relationship with China to wean it away from Iran or the Arab countries is pure bunk. Nobody who knows anything about the region buys that one for a minute.

American Jews — including those who have been most fervent in their defense of the Jewish state — need to tell Israel to knock it off. Saying that they are endangering the American alliance is not a case of disloyal Diaspora preening. It is, instead, a Zionist cry for common sense and a defense of Israel's interests.

In case our Israeli cousins have completely blocked out memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre, we need to point out there is also a moral dimension to this issue. During its period of almost total diplomatic isolation, Israel could be excused for not questioning the human-rights records of its trading partners. But an Israel that is so cocky about its security that it is prepared to give up the Golan Heights and the hills of Judea and Samaria can no longer make a case for an ammoral foreign policy.

The U.S. Congress and American Jews will themselves be tested on the issue of China later this spring. An upcoming trade bill may remove the only leverage Congress and the human-rights community currently have in dealing with China.

But now, it is Israel that is on the spot. American Jews cannot stand by and let this astoundingly stupid decision go forward without telling Israel how we feel. We needn’t do it while posing for the cameras, but it is time to speak up. The days before Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom, are as good a time as any to tell Israel that its affair with the butchers of Beijing must end now.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin