The governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, said something that caught my attention the other night at an event sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group.
He paraphrased a quotation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s: “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made,” and then said: “In that same spirit, I would like to say to all of you tonight: I admire Israel for the enemies it has made.”
It was an acute observation, and one made not quite often enough. It is sometimes difficult, given Israel’s missteps, to remember that it is a democracy whose enemies are among the world’s most dangerous people.
For American Jews, particularly the many who think of themselves as centrist or as somewhat to the left of center, the subject of Israel today provokes a contradictory and anxiety-producing mass of feelings: pride, discomfort, bewilderment, vexation, frustration, love. The precise mix often depends on the day of the week and on the news of the day. It has become a bit exhausting, thinking about Israel. (You can only imagine, then, what it is like to actually live there.)
Gone are the uncomplicated, Leon Uris-scripted days of one-eyed war heroes and Yoni Netanyahu’s martyrdom on the tarmac during the raid on Entebbe. Benjamin Netanyahu stirs up knottier and more ambivalent feelings than his late brother ever did. This prime minister, unlike several previous prime ministers, seems not quite so interested in trying to reach an amicable divorce with the Palestinians. So the continued occupation (and, more to the point, settlement) of the West Bank, which offends the sensibilities of many American Jews (and most other people), is becoming Israel’s defining characteristic.
How sad it is that a flourishing democracy with a contentious press and an independent judiciary, a haven for inventors and scientists, the only Middle Eastern country where it’s safe to be gay (and Christian, for that matter) is coming to be known mainly for its retrograde occupation of the West Bank.
It is distressing for so many reasons: moral, political, theological and reputational. And it obscures the underlying cause of the conflict: The inability of many Arab Muslims, and their supporters, to reconcile themselves to the unalterable truth that the Jews are from the place that, before it was called Palestine, was called Judea and Israel.
It is also distressing because it muddies what should be clear: Israel’s sins are quite often exaggerated, while the sins of its enemies — and here we return to Gov. Christie’s point — could not be more heinous.
Let us consider Israel’s four principal adversaries of the moment: the Islamic Republic of Iran, Bashar Assad’s Syria, and the fundamentalist terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas. Few would argue that the Israeli government has not behaved in counterproductive and sometimes-brutal ways. But anyone who possesses the basic powers of reason and observation understands that Iran and Syria on their best days don’t match Israel on its worst.
Iran is run by a regime whose first, defining act was of mass hostage-taking. It is a country that has used its children to clear minefields with their feet and that guns down others when they protest repression. It is a country that uses rape as a weapon against dissidents. It is a country that, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, funds al-Qaida.
Hamas is an organization that boasts of killing innocent children and regularly kills Palestinians with whom it disagrees, sometimes by throwing them from buildings. Hezbollah, of course, is a proxy of Iran’s regime, its external terror apparatus. Hezbollah has killed Americans, and its members have been indicted in the assassination a Lebanese prime minister. It seeks to impose an Islamist regime on Lebanon, and it functions as an arms supplier to Assad, who is Saddam Hussein’s successor as the world’s leading butcher.
I am not arguing that Israel should be held to the debauched standard of behavior set by Iran or Syria. (Israel should be held to the standards of a Western democracy, albeit one under threat of missile attack and other, similar unpleasantness.) I’m actually arguing something different: That Israel, like the Jewish people for whom it is a refuge, attracts the hatred of terrible people, p eople whose terribleness would still be profusely evident even if the Jews or Israel never entered the frame. (Hitler and Stalin — and Saddam — come to mind, of course, as well as the Crusaders, t he inquisitors, the pogromists, and I could go on).
The hatred of Jews and the Jewish national home by men whom history has adjudged to be comprehensively evil should suggest a couple of lessons. The possible theological and cosmological lessons I will leave for another day, but the political lessons are more obvious: Good people should take the hatred directed at Israel by evil people as a sign that, just maybe, Israel’s basic cause is just. Israel and its supporters should understand that the enmity reflects well on their cause, and they should do whatever they can to guarantee that their behavior could never possibly be seen as analogous to the behavior of their enemies.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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