We are told that history never really repeats itself, but have not recent events in America created a sense of deja vu?
Like the Nazis, the Islamic fundamentalists unleashed their attack on civilization by first targeting the Jews. The world ignored Nazi anti-Semitism and was willing to betray Czechoslovakia in order to appease Hitler. Had the Nazis been confronted earlier, millions of lives might have been saved.
The UN, including members actively financing and supporting terrorism, condemned Israel for defending itself. The Europeans employed double standards and intensified their hostility toward Israel, even after Arafat rejected Barak’s offers and reverted to violence. Our only friends – the Americans – continued to maintain an even-handed policy, making mindless statements about ending the cycle of violence without identifying the cause or distinguishing between victims and victimizers.
Then, America itself was targeted by Islamic fundamentalists.
President George W. Bush responded by declaring war against international terrorism and countries harboring terrorists. But it only took a day or two before Israel was again requested to assume a low profile while countries such as Syria and Iran, which are on the American blacklist as havens of terrorism, were invited to join the new coalition. And the Middle East’s most notorious terrorists – Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad – were conspicuously omitted from the new catalogue of international terrorists, which America is compiling.
This bizarre scenario continued, with American Secretary of State Colin Powell once again pressuring Israel to resume negotiations with Arafat or be accused of undermining the campaign against terrorism.
It is understandable that the Bush administration should seek to enroll as many Muslim countries as possible in its coalition against terrorism, or at least soften their opposition. It might even be argued that Israel should comply with American requests to assume a low profile. But it is utterly grotesque for Israel to be asked to assume the role of the sacrificial lamb or compromise its own security requirements for the sake of the wider anti-terrorist coalition. The specter of Czechoslovakia 1938 looms high.
THE ATTEMPT by the State Department to gloss over terrorism directed against Israel has generated spirited protests from congressional leaders, in particular Tom Lantos. However, the Jewish media recently quoted a number of Jewish leaders, warning their fellow Jews against rocking the boat by questioning American policies vis a vis Israel. Amongst them are some with unblemished track records of support and devotion to Israel.
One such prominent leader said: “We have never been aligned with a greater force for good than the United States of America. And if the United States in this crucial moment says to its friend and ally, we need your help, even if Israel doesn’t think it’s a good idea, you do it.”
Another stated: “You don’t want to push the Israel issue Let Israel push the Israel issue while the American Jewish community gets on board behind the president.”
More ominously: “It is not in our interest to go out ahead of a president who has a 90% rating.”
Such remarks are not necessarily representative. Indeed, the Presidents Conference has yet to formulate their position once American policy has been finally clarified. But the quotes have a chilling resonance.
One recalls that when news of the Nazi exterminations became known in the US, various Jewish groups appealed to president Roosevelt to intervene – to bomb the railways, or do anything that might inhibit the terrible slaughter. Historians tell us, however, that the revered leader, Rabbi Stephen Wise, urged restraint. Claiming to be a close friend of the president, he said that Roosevelt was a good man and would do his best to help. But Wise warned American Jews that they should not pressure their popular president to intercede because they would be accused of distracting from the war effort and this would generate an enormous outflow of anti-Semitism.
The situations are not analogous. Today the US is the greatest democracy in the world, the American Jewish community has a proud record of standing by Israel and unlike the Jews of the Holocaust, the Jewish state is capable of defending itself.
But a worst-case scenario is not to be discounted in which the US decides to pressure Israel into compromising its security interests in order to appease anti-Israeli elements.
Under such circumstances there is the danger that some American Jewish leaders could mistakenly confuse patriotism with blind support for a misguided administration. It would be the first time in many years that American and other Diaspora Jewish leaders would be obliged to stand up and be counted in a potentially unsympathetic environment.
The odds are that American Jews are sufficiently self- confident and would rise to the occasion. Indeed, Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the President’s Conference, has already criticized the administration’s endorsement of Palestinian statehood as “the wrong message to send at the wrong time.”
But one should not underestimate the painful choices that may have to be faced, and be conscious of the historic and perhaps even existential consequences for the Jewish state in the event of misplaced or befuddled judgments by fellow American Jews.
The writer is chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress.