On Saturday in Jerusalem, I participated in a moving religious service to honor one of Israel’s most celebrated heroes from last summer’s war against the Hezbollah terrorists.
Lieutenant Eli Kahn, 23, led a unit of elite Paratrooper Commandos advancing against heavily defended Hezbollah positions in the Southern Lebanon town of Maroun al-Ras in the early days of the fighting. The Israelis, hoping to knock out Katyusha rockets that had already taken a bloody toll on civilian targets, drew unexpectedly intense fire from the enemy and sustained heavy casualties.
While tending to one of his wounded paratroopers, Lt. Kahn saw a terrorist run toward them and throw a grenade that landed at their feet. Rather than jumping out of the way and abandoning his comrade to certain death, Lt. Kahn immediately picked up the grenade and threw it directly back at the Hezbollah fighter --- killing the terrorist and turning the tide of battle. For his leadership and quick thinking, he received the Medal of Valor – Israel’s equivalent of America’s Medal of Honor. The young hero’s father, Howie Kahn, remembered that his boy played Little League before the family immigrated to Israel from the United States and suggested that his skills as a slick-fielding shortstop paid off with that one fateful and well-aimed toss on the field of battle.
Hearing the story of Eli Kahn, most Americans would feel gratified and inspired but the service I attended at the lieutenant’s Orthodox synagogue nonetheless serves to highlight the deeper, unspoken reasons that Israel provokes such visceral hostility from the international left.
The Middle East’s only democracy has recently enjoyed spectacular economic progress and unprecedented success in blocking and deterring terror attacks from its many Islamo-Nazi adversaries. Why, then, the increasingly shrill demands from politically correct activists throughout Western Europe and from college campuses in the United States for boycotts, UN condemnation, sanctions and diplomatic isolation aimed at punishing the Jewish state?
Why does the death of a few dozen Palestinians (mostly gunmen or racketeers from Hamas and Islamic Jihad) provoke more international indignation than the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents in Darfur, or the butchery of additional thousands by Muslim terrorists in Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Algeria, Yemen, the Philippines and even Thailand?
The common explanations for singling out Israel for international denunciation make no sense when placed in any reasonably well-informed historical context.
For instance, leftist critics like to suggest that Israel deserves the world’s hostility because of its long-term “occupation” of lands captured in defensive wars. But the Jewish state has already withdrawn from the overwhelming majority of the disputed territory it ever controlled, hoping to demonstrate its eagerness to trade land for peace—abandoning the vast area of the Sinai Peninsula in 1978, its South Lebanon “Security Zone” in 2000, and all the Gaza Strip in 2005. Moreover, in the remaining zone of “occupation” in the West Bank, the results of Israeli rule can hardly count as brutal: according to UN figures, by all measures of economic prosperity, public health, and standards of living before the Second Intifada broke out in the Fall of 2000, West Bankers did better than their fellow Arabs in neighboring countries like Syria, Egypt and Jordan.
The historical record makes clear that Arab fury against Jews in the Middle East bears no connection to any occupation policy or to the plight of refugees, since this murderous rage claimed countless victims long before Israel occupied a single square inch or territory and before a single Palestinian had fled his home.
A brief history of the early conflict (published by the indispensable Israel Pocket Library) offers a necessary reminder of Palestinian terrorism as long ago as 1929. In that year, the bitterly anti-Semitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (who later traveled to Berlin and spent most of the war years at Hitler’s side) claimed that the largely unarmed and loosely organized Jewish community harbored secret “designs” on Muslim holy places, and launched bloody attacks on the Jews of Jerusalem. As the grim story unfolded, “The violence spread to other parts of the country. On Sabbath, August 24, the Arabs of Hebron fell upon the small, defenseless Jewish community in the town and slaughtered some 70 men and women. Old people and infants were butchered; the survivors, numbering several hundred, being evacuated to Jerusalem.
Attacks on Tel Aviv and the Jewish quarter in Haifa were repulsed, but on the fifth day of the riots an Arab mob killed 18 Jews and wounded many more before the Jews could take refuge in the police headquarters while the mob ransacked and burned the historic Jewish quarter. In Be’er Toviyah all the settlers held out in a cowshed while the mob plundered and destroyed the village. Huldah, too, was destroyed after the Jewish defenders held out for many hours against thousands of Arabs and were evacuated by a British army patrol.”
A mere eight years later, in 1937, unprovoked Palestinian violence broke out once again with even bloodier results: “415 Jews were killed by the terrorists in the period 1937-39, over half of them between July and October 1938.”
The most striking revelation in these all-but-forgotten chapters of Middle East history involves the brutal, determined, vicious nature of Palestinian terrorism before Israel occupied any territory whatever, or caused the departure of any refugees (the Palestinian population went up sharply – never declining for even a single year – as Jewish return to the ancient homeland intensified). As a matter of fact, the devastating riots of 1929 and 1937-39 (not to mention other deadly attacks in 1921, 1926 and 1936) occurred long before the state of Israel even existed—making clear that Palestinian violence against their Jewish neighbors arose from fanatical Jew-hatred, not any objection to the specific policies of a non-existent state.
Clearly, the same deep-seated anti-Semitic instincts help to explain some of the hostility to the Jewish state today, especially among purportedly enlightened Europeans.
There’s also the undeniable factor of worldwide anti-Americanism – Israel earns contempt as one of the closest, most reliable allies of the Superpower labeled by many leftists (including Michael Moore in his previous America-bashing film, “The Big One”) as “the real Evil Empire.” But other nations (like Britain, Canada and Australia, most obviously) align themselves equally closely with the United States and even more enthusiastically embrace America’s reviled culture, without provoking the animus that faces Israel in many corners of the globe.
One of the secrets of the world-wide suspicion and resentment toward the Jewish state involves the unmistakably prominent, even dominant, Israeli role for two institutions loathed by leftists everywhere: religion and the military.
While two-thirds of Israelis describe themselves as secular, the increasing popularity and influence of Orthodox religiosity remains an undeniable factor in Israeli society. Meanwhile, even the state’s famously agnostic and atheist founders made regular reference to Bible in urging their compatriots to return to Zion. The fact that Israel counts as the “Holy Land” to the world’s more than two billion Christians also provides a religious flavor and perspective to the nation’s existence that makes secular purists distinctly uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, the military continues to play a huge and necessary part in the life of the perpetually embattled nation. Some 75% of young people still do three full years of military service after their high school graduation, and continue with yearly reserve duty for 25 years after that. Even the leader of Israel’s leading party on the left (former Prime Minister Ehud Barak) is a one-time war hero and the most decorated soldier in the country’s history.
In other words, for trendy liberals who feel profound, instinctive distaste for the influence of armies and organized faith in human life, it’s only natural to feel somewhat uncomfortable with Israel.
The same attitudes, by the way, help to explain some of the fashionable anti-Americanism that’s taken hold among European and other international elites. Religion remains a vastly more potent force in the US than in any other Western nation, and our military remains far larger, more potent and more revered than the armies of other major nations. Those who love to denounce the impact of militarism and organized faith will inevitably find much to dislike about America – and about our close ally in the Middle East.
This US and Israeli devotion to both armed forces and religious institutions brings me back to the synagogue celebration I witnessed for Lt. Eli Kahn. Called to the Torah before a clapping, singing, admiring congregation, the young war hero chanted the weekly “Haftorah” (a passage from Isaiah) and received a good-natured pelting of candy tossed at him from all directions by his friends and neighbors. This treatment had little to do with his battlefield exploits of exactly one year earlier, but actually reflected his status as the community’s next bridegroom: in Jewish tradition, all young men receive similar honor on the Sabbath before their weddings. (Lt. Kahn stands under the wedding canopy with his bride tomorrow night, Thursday).
In Israeli eyes, there’s no contradiction between love of God and admiration of the military – between celebrating the beginning of a loving new family along with the courage and dedication of a battle-hardened soldier. Both religious and military institutions exist to promote life, not death; to facilitate peaceful communities and growing families, not bloodshed and martyrdom.
Americans and Israelis understand the connection between our soldiers and our survival, between faith in a compassionate God and the maintenance of military strength that allows decency and kindness to flourish. And of course, much of the rest of the world that believes that they’ve already moved on beyond such outmoded relics as organized religion and mighty armies, hates us for our decidedly different perspective.