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The Darkening Light

“Amid a growing unease with the new right-wing Israeli government, forty-nine top U.S. Jewish leaders from across the political spectrum have signed an ad appearing in Israeli newspapers calling for immediate electoral reform in Israel and an end to ‘the embarrassing trade-offs’ required to form a government.”

—David Firestone, in
New York Newsday, June 14

“Mr. Shamir’s aides privately explain that the Prime Minister is caught between the image he would like to project abroad and the constraints he faces in a narrow coalition with what some in his office are calling ‘right-wing crazies.’ ”

—Joel Brinkley, in
The New York Times, June 14

Normal duties prompt the heart to pity persons as unhappy as Shamir’s staff says their prime minister is, or as embarrassed as these forty-nine distinguished Americans less disputably are. But in my own case if in no one else’s the pull of sympathy does not run as it once did. It seems to me that most of these troubled spirits have gotten what they asked for and that essentially they are asking for it still.

Zionism was an idea conceived by Europeans who had despaired of the practices of Western civilization and at the same time put full trust in its ideals. Their model was the democratic socialism whose aspirations were embodied in the Labor party, which held office for a generation until it was left no visibly operative articles of faith except that Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin would always hate each other, that every bureaucrat would sit until the fall of Jehovah’s hand upon him, and that the Ashkenazi was ordained to lord it over the Sephardi because he was there first.

The Labor party got its just desserts in an upending by the Likud’s Menachem Begin. Begin made an uneasy fit for the image of Israel as close cousin to Western democratic tradition; but he had nonetheless a nobility and breadth of spirit rare in any country and undetectable among contenders for the succession since.

To be a Jew meant to Begin that nothing was too good for you; and the Sephardim turned to him in no small part because they recognized that his efforts to lift them from second-class citizenship sprang not from the calculating politician but from the genuine believer. We would be a better nation if every American felt as much responsibility for every other American as Menachem Begin did for every Jew in Israel.

And then, having been wrong about much but never this one great thing, he went to the shadows in self-disgrace; and Israel’s soul has been at hazard ever since. Twenty-five years ago, the Council of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations could not have conceived a prospect less imaginable than an Israel whose prime minister had led the Stern Gang, an army still policing the West Bank, and a Knesset that had descended to debating the question of “Who Is a Jew?” and then coming within a single vote of defining the answer in the narrowest terms of Orthodoxy. And yet what would have been thought foolish to predict is pretty much what has come to pass; and those thought wise have accepted it with hardly a murmur of dissent.

Put up with tragedy long enough and you end with the farce of a now-allied Knesset member who quite recently denounced Shamir as too short to be a prime minister. The forty-nine notables among our Jewish fellow citizens who now strain at the gnat of Israel’s electoral system have in most cases swallowed camel after camel with either vocal satisfaction or silence. Israel has been wounded not by the way it elects its governors but by the inertia that has become their habit.

There are inevitable consequences to maintaining a military occupation through twenty-three years after a victory. One is a system of justice that, as it now prevails, subjects an Israeli Defense Forces soldier to worse punishment for the robbery of an Arab’s store than the unauthorized shooting of his son. Another is the overbearing of subjects by masters made miserable and bitter with the job.

And yet Israel’s governors cannot rid themselves of this shame-making exercise because they are too inert resolve the theological question of whether the Biblical lands on the West Bank are Israel’s by right of the Covenant. They can only go on building the settlements even while they cannot even say for sure whether or not they will be peopled by the Soviet émigrés, most of whom will go to Israel while preferring to come here.

That used to be their option; and in the main they used it to enter the United States. Then, at Prime Minister Shamir’s urging, our government cut its admission quota for Soviet Jews. The argument for the settlements is that it is unthinkable that a Jew cannot live anywhere in Palestine he chooses to.

That proposition’s appeal is scarcely strengthened by a strenuous and successful endeavor to keep Soviet Jews from Choosing to live in the United States. One might have thought that the fruits of this shrewd stroke would have seemed worthier for Americans to reproach than the vagaries of an electoral system.

But then, once the politics of power is substituted for moral force, the end is inevitably an Israel that lobbies against a bill to condemn Turkey’s atrocities upon the Armenians, that was more that content with juntas in Argentina and dictators in Nicaragua and Panama, and is aggrieved by the mild strictures of the Dutch and the Swedes.

Once we could think of Israel as a light unto the Middle East; but what do we see more distressingly now than the shadows of the dark old Middle Eastern doctrine that the enemy of my enemy is my friend?