This Monday, after a Palestinian bomb killed two Jewish settlers and dismembered several children on a school bus, the Israeli military responded ferociously. Helicopter gunships rained fire onto the Gaza Strip, plunging it into darkness and chaos.
The resulting news coverage focused mainly on the Palestinian victims. Arab nations, the European Union and even the United States--Israel's most stalwart ally--responded with outrage.
Such events have put many North American Jews--historically one of the most progressive demographics--in an exquisitely awkward position. What are we to say when a country with which we have a primal connection, a nation founded in our name by the historically oppressed members of our religion, acts in such a problematic fashion? Liberal ideology pulls us in one direction; tribalism in the other.
Since the conflict began, many pundits have pilloried Israel as the new South Africa, a colonial power oppressing a helpless subject people. Less frequently do they comment on Yasser Arafat's corrupt and ineffective leadership, or his refusal to stop terrorism.
Still, despite the sometimes one-sided coverage, much of the criticism of Israel strikes a chord. The condemnations, though extreme, resonate and cannot be disregarded.
This makes things extremely uncomfortable for Jewish liberals. How can we, who spent so long protesting apartheid-era South Africa, simply ignore the parallels to the current situation? Like it or not, there are striking similarities between the plight of the Palestinians--crammed into miserable refugee camps--and those of black South Africans in the days of the Bantustans.
Of course, a direct comparison between the two countries is inappropriate. Israel is a democratic and enlightened nation, profoundly unlike the old South African regime. Still, the dirty truth is that similarities exist.
Moreover, the basic Palestinian demand for self-determination is one that liberals like myself support as a matter of course. As good lefties, we're used to sticking up for the little guy. How can we simply abandon him when we happen to identify with the more powerful side?
The answer, I think, is to somehow reconcile principle with blood loyalty. This isn't easy, or very satisfying, but it's an exercise North American Jews have practice with. Ever since 1967, when Israel went from being a perennial victim to the dominant power in the Middle East and the occupier of the West Bank and Gaza, liberal Jews have had to perform a delicate dance, explaining to erstwhile allies on the left why, when it comes to this one issue, we must part company.
By the same token, Western Jews can now retain their principles while continuing to support Israel. The way to do it is by being a critical friend, not a blind supporter, of the Jewish state.
There is an old tradition inside Israel that when the country is threatened, internal divisions are forgotten and the population unites to ward off the enemy. This is an understandable, indeed an important, defense mechanism. But it need not be adopted by Jews in the Diaspora. While deploring the many missteps of the Palestinian leadership, we must also deplore Israel's disproportionate responses (when they are in fact disproportionate) and the foolishness of its keeping belligerent settlers in the territories. We need not, and should not, side with those who whitewash the Palestinians, as though the oppressed become morally pure due to the mere fact of their oppression. But neither should we endorse all of Israel's actions simply because we are Jews.
During the U.S. civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War, many Americans felt obligated to protest their government's policies. These individuals were attacked as disloyal for daring to criticize their country. What they recognized, however, is that true patriotism sometimes means criticizing one's own country, not blindly supporting it.
In this spirit, we should remember that, just as Judaism is more than simply a bloodline or a religion, Israel, unlike other ethnically based nations, was founded on an ideology--not just a language or a common genetic stamp. The country was and is inextricable from the liberal, enlightened notions that it was created to represent and preserve. As such, the best way to support Israel is by supporting those liberal ideals, unflinchingly. That means that when Israel seems to forget them, we must point that out. This is not disloyalty. It is the highest form of loyalty.
If this stance feels awkward, so be it. The situation in the Middle East is tragic and extremely complex. So too must be the response of Israel's friends in North America, as we anxiously await a resolution of the crisis.