When I debate some of my otherwise liberal or progressive friends, and I put the question bluntly to them, "Should we just let Israel get wiped off the map?", there is often a moment of hesitation, then a sheepish sideways glance, and then the grudging "Of course not." They justify that hesitation by saying Israel is so powerful, such a bully, that it does not need any friends. The truth is sad to face, yet must be faced: Many of these people, for all the rightness of their views on so many other matters, would accept the destruction of Israel. They won't admit it, but it is hard to reach any other conclusion. What do they think would happen to a country of 8 million people, surrounded by oceans of enemies, without the support of the West?
This writer is not blind to Israel's faults. Israel has committed war crimes and lesser misdeeds against some of its neighbors. Its settlement programs are needlessly provocative, especially given that they have a negligible impact on the overall availability of housing in Israel. Many of the settlements solve no housing issue at all, and exist only to stick it to the Palestinians. Israel has periodically elected bullies and thugs to its leadership. In both word and deed, some of those so-called leaders have actively stoked the fires of resentment on both sides of the conflict. Their acts of stupidity are rightly condemned by critics of Israel, as they are by many Israelis themselves.
Those flaws notwithstanding, we have to ask what the alternative is to protecting Israel's right to exist. And let's not get cute. Those who advocate boycotting Israel, claiming that Israel can do just fine without us, are either blind or disingenuous. Without us, Israel's only card is its ability to annihilate its enemies in an orgy of mutual destruction. It does not have the economic clout, as we do, to exert any other form of pressure on its enemies. The problem is that among Israel's enemies there are a sizable contingent who would gladly embrace mutual annihilation.
The establishment of Israel, and much subsequent history, left deep emotional scars on the Arab populations there. The original question of who is entitled to live where is beyond any rational resolution, as are most tribal blood feuds. So there will always be a price to pay for having put Israel where it is. To suggest that the price should be borne by Israel alone is to ignore our nations' roles in that history. Most of the boundaries in the Middle East are the product of European bureaucrats drawing lines as they saw fit, as they prepared to exit their empires. The Americans played a critical role in approving those boundaries, but the groundwork for those decisions originated long before 1948. Unfortunately, we can't undo the screw-ups of long-ago crumbling empires.
It is not the fault of the Jews that they lost any basis for trusting anyone to let them live peacefully in European or Middle-eastern societies. Even in the US, before we entered WWII, there were many who vocally opposed helping the Jews or letting them escape here. How could they not conclude that they needed their own place to live? Yes, it would have been happier for all if they had been given, say, New Mexico--same climate, same lack of water or oil, fewer natives to displace (they were already on reservations), and even a troubled border to police! Alas, it is too late for that.
But there is a deeper reason liberals and progressives should make Israel their cause. By any reasonable standard, Israel is only liberal country in the middle east: the only country with a broad and deep social safety net not funded by oil money; a country which rivals Holland and Scandinavia for gender equality; a country with a freer press than we have here in the US; a country which, unlike its neighbors, has large communities of religious minorities and even grants them the vote (almost one quarter of the paltry 8 million inhabitants are actually Arabs; many others are other minorities; most have representatives in the Knesset); a country whose schools take in children from neighboring countries, even hostile ones; a country which is second only to the US in producing revolutionary medical research (with population and resources equal to about 2% of ours). It is not surprising that many Israeli Arabs prefer life in Israel to life in the neighboring countries, and even serve in the Israeli army. Israel's leadership in sustainable energy research and medical research is fueled in part by a generous immigration policy which has made it a magnet for smart people from less progressive societies. Did you know that two Arab women recently won major sciences prizes for their research conducted at an Israeli institute? Those in the US who want to shut the doors could do with a lesson from Israel.
If you are a western, white liberal, ask yourself where you think you would be more welcome--Israel, or one of its neighbors where most Christians, Jews, Unbelievers, Gays and Liberals were purged or exterminated long ago. Yes, many Arabs reject the politics of tribalism and terror, but unfortunately those voices do not have enough traction in most of the Middle East. It is neither racism nor cultural imperialism to note that life for women, minorities and intellectuals is dangerous in most of the countries in that neighborhood.
Meanwhile, engagement by liberals could go a long way to de-fanging the regressive, militaristic elements that have too much sway in Israel. Right now, it is mainly our right-wing nuts who flock to Israel, to set up the infamous settlements or conduct massacres of worshipping Arabs (http://en.wikipedia.org/...). It is our religious fanatics who egg on the hard-liners in the government--not because they love Jews, but because they want to bring on the Rapture. But there are large numbers of Israelis who are neither religious fanatics nor hard-line hawks, and they need more engagement from outsiders who support the ideals of peace and co-existence. Isolating them does not serve the cause of moderation.
It is perverse indeed that the Western right wing, whose values and methods all too often resemble those of regressive Islamic fundmentalists, has become the defender of Israel, while the Western left has lined up against Israel, the only truly liberal country in the Middle East (if you don't accept that, go visit the place, as this writer has at least a dozen times). In taking a zero-tolerance view of Israel, liberals are doing something very dangerous. This would have parallels in the liberal take-down of LBJ, who was the most important progressive President of our lifetimes, despite the horror of Vietnam. The American left aided and abetted his destruction, and in doing so opened the door to far worse.
We have to do better than stamping in self-righteous indignation or calling for a boycott at every transgression by the Israelis. We need to do a better job of supporting their progressive elements, and of conveying a sufficient sense of solidarity that they can at least dream of living without the constant hair-trigger. They live every day with the reality that it could be their last, and manage despite that to be a land of incredible warmth, vitality, and yes, humor. To wish them gone (yes, even secretly) is to wish away the only light that is consistently on in that part of the world. With the growing uncertainty over the outcome of the Arab Spring, we should do all we can to keep that light on, and help make it even brighter.