The crisis in Lebanon -- A little background here: I'm an American Jew. As a kid, I was sent to Sunday school and afternoon Hebrew school. I got just enough education (call it indoctrination, if you want to be cynical) in my Jewish pedigree, culture, language, religion and history, to self-identify as an ethnic and cultural Jew. Of course, it's more complicated than that, but this simplification will have to do, for the moment. My family belonged to a temple that was part of the American Jewish Conservative movement. That means we are more progressive than Orthodox Jewry, but still observant enough to pray in Hebrew, unlike our more liberal Reformed and Reconstructionist Jewish brethren.
In this circumstance, "Conservative" is not a political designation -- it is the name of a religious affiliation -- a separate denomination within Judaism, in the way that Methodists are not the same as Lutherans or Episcopalians. Conservative Judaism adopted a more flexible perspective on Jewish practice and customs than that accepted by Orthodox Jews. The founding of the American Conservative Jewish movement was an unprecendented and revolutionary act, breaking from the historic, orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. In the years since, however, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have ventured still further from religious orthodoxy.
Anyway -- most of us children of Conservative Jewry were sent to school to learn what it means to be Jewish -- primarily so that we would end up marrying within the faith. Our parents would be horrified if any of us became deeply religious and observant. OK -- I exaggerate. Some of us did grow up to be more observant than our parents. Their parents may not have been horrified, but I bet they were taken by surprise.
The other major tenet of Conservative Jewry has been a deep and abiding support for the State of Israel. This has manifested itself in both political and financial support for the Jewish State. Some Orthodox groups are conflicted by the existence of a Jewish state without the coming of a Messiah. For their part, Reform Jews tend to be far more assimilationist, tending to identify less with other Jews and be less concerned with Israel. This might sound to be a sweeping generalization. Still, I believe that, while individuals may be more or less supportive of Israel, as a general rule, Reform Jews do not identify nearly as strongly with Israel. The real base of Israel's support among American Jews is with Conservative Jews.
There are a variety of theories attempting to explain the tradition of support for Israel among Conservative American Jews, including the supposition that the movement is still trying to atone for its relative silence during the years of the Nazi persecution and holocaust. I refuse to overanalyze it. I think it can be understood by observing that Conservatives have chosen to define their Jewishness more as a vibrant cultural and ethnic identity than as a religion that dominates almost every aspect of their lives. That ethnic identification also embues American Conservative Jews with a keen sense of the fragility of their position as a tiny minority in a country that has only recently become accepting of Jews, moving beyond an historic tradition of open anti-Semitism -- which probably is factor in their support for Israel.
In this respect, I am a product of my environment, as much as anyone. My politics may be generally liberal, but I don't let liberal political orthodoxy dictate my views on Israel. Sure, I have always been opposed to the settlement movement, and I believe that Israel has missed opportunities to make decent, fair peace deals because of the political dominance of Israeli conservatives (here I refer to political conservatives -- the Likud party in Israel) in the years before and after Yitzhak Rabin's tragically shortened tenure as Prime Minister.
On the other hand, I understand from whence where Israel's insecurity springs. Moreover, I cannot say that any peace deals would have lasted. There is no trust there -- no faith that Arabs are prepared to live with Israel...with Jews. I know how Israel became the refuge for Jews that had to flee Arab countries where their families had lived for centuries. In the last year, the world has seen how the Arab street turns to fundamentalist movements, if given the chance to freely cast their ballots. As Tom Forman noted, in a CNN report on Hezbollah, "they fight for an idea that is very popular among Arabs: the destruction of Israel." There is no balance in the public discourse, nor in the education given children in Arab countries. Israel correctly sees enemies all around it, and fears showing any weakness. In 1982, I predicted the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, even though I could not have been more opposed to it. I understand Israel, even if I do not always approve of the government's actions.
With that in mind, I am flabbergasted to hear today that Hezbollah did not anticipate the Israeli reaction to their reckless and provocative incursion into Israel two weeks ago. Of course, the actions of Hezbollah do not make any sense unless you believe they failed to forecast the Israeli response. But, it still makes no sense. The week before, the world watched Israeli forces re-enter the Gaza Strip after a similar raid was launched from Gaza. It is stupefying to me that Hezbollah could not predict a comparable response in the North to their killing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. This is the frustrating part of Mideast politics. Don't these people have even the most basic understanding of their Israeli neighbors? Or, are they just impossibly deluded by their own hysterical propaganda and religious zealotry -- unable to see the world for what it is, and unable to conform their behavior to modes that we in the West can comprehend as rational?
Their relative powerlessness may lead frustrated Arabs to take matters into their own hands with assymetrical warfare -- what we in the West label as terrorism. Having an understanding of what motivates such actions, however, does not make those actions rational or truly understandable.
Understanding Israel means understanding that Israel responds to what it perceives as barbarians at the gates -- surrounded by neighbors who know mostly hate, who want to destroy what Israelis have built in the desert, to kill Israelis and take their land. Does that sound overly-simplistic? The Mideast crisis is a Gordian knot because that sort of over-simplification perfectly describes the situation that Israel finds itself in. Nuance and rationality seem like alien constructs that are rarely found in the region. The actions of terrorists may be broken down so as to delineate the political and psychological dynamics that motivate the terrorists. You can describe their actions as if they were rational. Yet they are not. They are insane acts that can never be truly understood in the modern sense of the rational world. These are the enemies that confront Israel today.
Understanding Israel means understanding the country's unique predicament. Sure, Israel is blowing up too much stuff. Frankly, the war is a poor calculation in every respect. Hezbollah killed a few Israeli soldiers and kidnapped 2 others. Was it worth all the additional casualties on the Israeli side to respond as Israel did, by engaging Hezbollah in total war? How about the crushing impact the war is having on Israel's economy? How much business is being conducted in the bomb shelters? The North of Israel is also the agricultural heart of Israel, but who dares to harvest the crops on the trees now? This war has not been good for Israelis, but what are their options? Who will step up to protect Israel, if not Israelis?
Despite the heavy media coverage of the destruction being wreaked by Israelis, it is striking to note there were more casualties caused by the warfare/terrorism in Iraq during the same period. Noting this curious statistic does not mean that I am defending all of the targeting decisions made by Israel. I am appalled by the wanton damage to the Lebanese infrastructure, the loss of hundreds of innocent lives, and the maiming of so many others. In the ideal world, Lebanese government authorities would have acted in tandem with or decisively enough to assure Israelis that Hezbollah would not be allowed to continue to provoke Israel. Six years ago, Israel finally decided it couldn't pacify the border region with its own troops. Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon was a gamble. The hope was that without Israeli troops in Lebanon, Hezbollah would decide to let Israel be. Unfortunately, Hezbollah just could not be satisfied with that situation.
The next move is up to the Lebanese now. Israel will insist on concrete guarantees this time. If the Lebanese are truly unable to provide such guarantees, they must agree to international forces that are prepared to do what is necessary. Will Israel make concessions in exchange for such guarantees? Probably. I'd expect that a prisoner exchange is a realistic prospect. Shebaa Farms is certainly negotiable too. Israel just wants to know who is supposed to be its negotiating partner. That's all that's ever been missing -- a willing and serious negotiating partner for Israel -- ready to accept not just the fact of Israel's existence, but prepared to welcome Israel to the neighborhood.