Almost exactly on the 44th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Austria, I happened to be having lunch in New York with one of my oldest and dearest friends. He had been an undergraduate with me in the years just before World War II broke out. There is no specific connection between the Anschluss anniversary and our meeting, except that, after he started talking to me about his reactions as a non-Jew to Israel at the present time, and most particularly to Menachem Begin and his policies, I found myself thinking of those long-ago days when the European Jewish community was beginning to disappear, while none who cared was able to do anything about it. I think it is fair to say that, with very few exceptions, the non-Jews at the university we attended had almost no interest in the problems of European Jews, or any other Jews for that matter. While my friend made a serious and sincere effort, I am convinced, to understand the problem, it never seemed as important to him as the possibility of war, which he dreaded. He was bitterly opposed to violence. When war later came, he, after a long internal struggle over whether he should register as a conscientious objector or simply refuse to notice the draft at all and take the consequences, chose to register as an objector.
My friend was obviously a man of deep conviction and the utmost seriousness, and while clearly he and I disagreed on many subjects, I was sure he did not share what I took to be the dominant mood of the university, both undergraduate and faculty, that if the Jews of Germany and Austria were having problems, they probably had done something to provoke them, although, of course, few if any favored the “crudity” of Hitler’s methods. My friend expressed to me on several occasions his feeling that the immense enthusiasm of the Germans for their new government, their solidarity, their willingness to try something totally different from their past experience, awakened in him the sense that theirs was an important historical movement. When I asked him how he, as a pacifist, found it possible to express any sympathy, however limited or qualified, for a government whose intention was clearly that of rearming and preparing to use force to remake the European map, he explained that the Germans were merely trying to protect themselves against the French.
All this came back to me later the same afternoon as I recalled our discussion at lunch. I had thought of him as being greatly sympathetic to Israel; and indeed so he had been some years ago when the subject had last come up between us. He was then closely associated intellectually with Erich Gutkind (the author of Choose Life) and had told me that Israel, which was trying to do something very different from anything that had been tried before (as one can see, the hope for some great renewing experience for mankind was one of the persistent themes in my friend’s thought), was the only place in the world he was interested in visiting.
During our lunch, however, he indicated that he had changed his mind about Israel. Approaching the subject with great diffidence he told me he was appalled by the Israelis’ attack on the Iraqi atomic energy plant; by Israel’s annexation, as he put it, of the Golan Heights; by Begin, the terrorist, as he described him; and by Begin’s insistence on expanding into the West Bank. Why did American Jews remain so silent in the face of these outrages? Did we not know what our fellow, non-Jewish Americans were saying to each other about the nation’s commitment to Israel, the dangers involved, and the undeniable fact that Israel had lost the moral superiority and inspiration that had once made it a special nation among nations?
It is not important to repeat what I said in answer to all of this, none of which made the slightest impression on my friend. He seemed unmoved when I suggested that Israel was the only nation I could think of in all history that, in order to achieve peace with its neighbor, had decided to give up territory at tremendous internal costs. He was equally unmoved when I added that the burden of proof of peaceful intentions in the rest of the region therefore rested not on Israel but on the Arab nations that had refused to recognize or meet with Israel.
The conversation saddened and perplexed me, but I felt considerably more disturbed when I received from my friend a few days later a letter in which he enclosed a copy of a review of three books about the Middle East which had recently appeared in the London Review of Books. The author was Ian Gilmour, a prominent British politician and one-time shadow Foreign Secretary while the opposition Labor party was in power, and my friend asked me for my opinion of the review. Since what he had said to me at lunch was simply a restatement of the arguments set forth by Gilmour, I had nothing more to reply to him.
The first paragraph of Gilmour’s article establishes its tone and point. He charges that Israel controls American policy in the Middle East to a degree humiliating to Americans. As a result, he implies, Palestinians are in exile, Lebanon is wrecked, other Arabs fear Israeli “expansionism,” the Soviet Union’s prestige has climbed, and Americans try to claim, wrongly, that Soviet penetration of the Middle East is more important than the “Palestinian issue.” The paragraph concludes with the statement that “the risk of a conflagration in the area grows.”
It is not my intention to argue in detail with Gilmour’s attack on American policy and Israeli “expansionism,” although I disagree with it. I must, however, register my fascination with his ability to ascribe almost magical and infinite consequences to the doings of Israel; it may be that one should say, rather, to the activities of Jews.
It is certainly true that the Jewish community, much of which is active politically, has an effect on American policy in the Middle East. But cannot the same be said about the oil interests, the economic interests linked with them, the foreign-policy establishment, the Christian churches and church-affiliated schools, and other institutions connected with the Middle East? Why should Israel be singled out as “controlling” American policy? Is it Israel that put the Palestinians in “exile”—itself a word that imputes much greater power to the Israelis than they actually possess, since many Palestinian Arabs still live in Israel despite what Gilmour assumes to be Israel’s effort to make exiles of them all? Is it Israel, is it the Jews, who are responsible for the fact that there is no Palestinian state (assuming, as Gilmour does, that Jordan is not such a state, even though a large majority of its inhabitants are Palestinians)? Why was no new Palestinian state created on the West Bank during the nineteen years of Jordanian rule? As for Lebanon, is it Israel, or the tension between Muslims and Christians, and the interference of other Arab states, that has produced the debacle there? And whence comes the danger of a “conflagration” in the Middle East? From Israel alone? Not from Iraq and Iran? Not from Libya? Not from Syria?
The extraordinary feature of Gilmour’s article, and of my old friend’s attitude toward the current situation, is the immense importance they attach to everything the Jewish state does or does not do, while paying little or no attention to other events that would seem to hold equally or even more sinister portents for world peace. Why does the Iraqi attack on Iran not elicit the same resentment as the attack by Israel on the Iraqi reactor? Why does Gilmour blame the absence of a Palestinian state on the Jews, who accepted the partition of Palestine when it was decreed by the United Nations in 1947, rather than on the refusal of the Palestinians to accept their part? Why does my old friend talk about Jewish expansionism in the Golan Heights and say nothing about the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank at the end of the first Arab-Israel war, when that area was to be the site of that very Palestinian state?
These questions inevitably lead me back to the attitudes toward the threat of a European war in the 1930’s, and the readiness of my old friend to see something inspiring in the enthusiansm of Germans over the new arrangements promised them by Hitler. I wrote, a few paragraphs above, that I thought my non-Jewish college mates assumed that if the Germans mistreated the Jews, then the Jews must have done something to deserve it. The readiness to accept such a shaky and inhumane conclusion puzzled me at the time. I see now that it presaged America’s unreadiness to help European Jews on a scale commensurate with the horrors they faced. But sensing now my friend’s indignation at Israel, and the notes of condemnation arising all over the world for offenses by Israel that, even if they were not justified by the will to survive, are much smaller than offenses by other nations against whom no such voices are raised, I think my formulation was wrong. The conditional mood of my statement was in error. Those who paid no attention to Hitler’s war against the Jews did not believe that if the Jews were punished, it might have been because they had done something wrong. It seems to me now that they were convinced that the Jews had done something very wrong, and therefore they were being justly punished.
Why, my friend wrote in transmitting Gilmour’s article, does not Begin go to the Arab countries and make the same peaceful and generous gestures Sadat made to Israel? He had asked the same question when we were at lunch. Because they won’t let him in, I replied then. And now I would add: by assuming that Israel is to blame, you are helping them believe that they will never have to.