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Jewish World Review April 5, 2002/24 Nisan, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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When words are the weapons | "Our essential human kinship with Israel is something like our kinship with Great Britain, but it is also more particular and less blood-related than that. It is a deep-rooted feeling of linked destinies, a feeling that echoes back to our founding and to the earliest conceptions of the American experiment itself."

- William Bennett, "Why We fight"

The subtitle of Bill Bennett's slender new book, "Why We Fight," is "Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism," and teachers ought to make it required reading.

Bill Bennett writes as a moralist in the big debates over human values, but this volume reminds us that he was once secretary of education.

"Why We Fight" is first about how we learn - and don't learn - the facts of history. Without the facts of history, moral understanding about what's going on in the Middle East is empty, uninformed and incomplete.

Pouring information into that emptiness is not easy. The fight at hand is not only about weapons of steel and explosives, but about words and historical concepts. Young people raised in an intellectual climate governed by politically correct, multicultural, relativistic post-modern opinion suffer from a deficit of arms - the understanding of how we got where we are.

American students are taught to feel rather than think. Palestinian children study maps with Israel rubbed out. Suicide bombers are nurtured on the glory of martyrdom, the religious satisfaction of killing innocent women and children in restaurants, discotheques, pizza parlors and even synagogues and at celebrations of the rituals of faith.

The catalyst for Bill Bennett's book was September 11, which he believes created a "teachable moment." We live in a society where the attention span is a short one, where the common denominator is a dependence on the latest buzz to satisfy and gratify, but now there's a common focus on terrorism, and some of us may be patient enough to stop, look and listen.

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September 11 exposed our woeful inability to anticipate terrorism on our continent. Certain myths blinded us from recognizing the hatred that the Islamists - the extremists for whom religion is not faith but a motivation to do evil - felt for us. It's a hatred independent of our support for Israel.

That support crystallizes Palestinian resentment of the freedom enjoyed by Americans, resentment exploited by terrorist leaders, including Yasser Arafat. What America holds in common with the tiny state of Israel is rooted in what the terrorists resent and hate: the rule of law, justice, tolerance and respect for freedom. Those willing to become human missiles and bombs scorn those values, having been persuaded that tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others is decadent and weak. That's why the Islamists were so disbelieving when September 11 did not shatter and fragment us.

Hatred of Israel offers a convenient cover for hatred of America. But what often gets lost to those who are more concerned in identifying Palestinian "victims" is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. What the suicide bombers provoke are scenes of brutality when Israeli soldiers fight back, footage for the evening news, when the soldiers kill those who shoot at them, demolish houses that shelter terrorists, and isolate the enemy. Israeli soldiers are doing for their country what George Bush sends American soldiers to do for their country.

When Israel came into existence in 1948, the message went out that an attack on Israel would be met with a greater answering force. It was trendy after the ghastly facts of the Holocaust came to light to criticize Jews for having been lambs led to slaughter. Then it became clear how difficult it was for the Jews, many of them old and ill and all of them starving, to resist the Nazis, though many tried. Jews within Israel and without said "Never again."

Bernard Lewis, the Middle East scholar, describes anti-Semitism in the Arab world as peculiarly virulent: "The demonization of Jews," he wrote in 1986, "goes further than it had ever done in Western literature, with the exception of Germany during the period of Nazi rule." In 2002, Arafat refuses to call off the suicide bombers, and Saddam Hussein offers $25,000 to the families of the dead bombers.

Bill Bennett, a Roman Catholic, sees in the founding of the Jewish state the hand of the G-d who guided the founding fathers of our own nation. "Keeping faith with the people of Israel in their unfinished confrontation with evil is a species of keeping faith ourselves," he writes. "Breaking faith, a species of self-negation."

At stake is the fate of freedom and democracy as we know it.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS