The following is a speech I delivered at an Israel solidarity gathering sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York on August 14, 2014:
I remember my first Israel Solidarity rally well. It was May, 1967, in my hometown, Harrisburg Pennsylvania. We were driving down Second Street on the way to the JCC, my father, who had flown 50 combat missions over Europe in a B-17 Flying Fortress helping break the Nazi war machine, at the wheel. I still recall the conversation in our car…10,000 coffins already prepared, and speculation that they would not nearly be enough. Another Holocaust…could it be possible?
Sadly, we faced an indifferent world yet again. This time, my parents said from the front seat, the Jewish people would not let it happen. Israel would not be alone. Indeed, Israel was not alone. Jews from around the world contributed funds at unprecedented levels – including, as I recall in some instances, taking out second mortgages on their homes — and they lobbied their governments as never before.
The American Jewish community helped to enlist the support of the Johnson administration and Congress. The United States would emerge as Israel’s chief ally and provider of military hardware…a strategic partnership that continues to flourish almost half a century later. And young American students, in significant numbers, started participating in Israel-based programs, I among them.
What did the Middle East look like on the eve of the Six-Day War? Israel was surrounded by a virtual wall of hostile Arab states with formidable armies… led by the Pan-Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser. The two non-Arab powers in the region, Iran and Turkey, were both secular and staunchly pro-Western.
There was a leader named Yasser Arafat, who just a few years earlier was involved in establishing a little known entity called the PLO whose goal was the elimination of Israel through “armed resistance.” But nobody talked about an Israeli-Palestinian conflict back then. It was uniformly framed by government officials and pundits alike as the Israeli-Arab conflict— but to be more precise, it was the Arab world’s conflict with the existence of a Jewish national homeland in the heart of the Arab Middle East.
And the words Hamas and Hezbollah had not yet entered our lexicon, although the Muslim Brotherhood already existed in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. The two epic struggles of that era, the 67 war and the traumatic Yom Kippur War, were fought with armor and tanks on open battlefields and in the skies with airplanes, largely removed from civilian populations. Israel’s superior military capability enabled it to prevail in both campaigns, albeit at a terrible price, especially in 1973.
Now let’s turn the clock forward some 40 years to the Middle East of 2014 and what do we see? Two of the Arab nations that attacked in 67 have peace treaties with Israel — Egypt and Jordan. Those two non- Arab pro-Western countries, Turkey and Iran, are now ruled by Islamists. Obviously, Iran, with its genocidal, terrorism-supporting and nuclear weapons questing theocracy represents our most serious challenge.
But Turkey, a member of NATO, with great potential to play a constructive role, sadly, has been more of a problem than a help in recent years. The flotilla launched by a Turkish organization — an attempt to break Israel’s legitimate blockade of Gaza to prevent arms smuggling — was only one manifestation of Istanbul’s antipathy to Israel. By the way, I saw that another Turkey-based flotilla may be in the offing.
The rise of extreme and often violent forms of political Islam is the most salient difference in the region from 1967 until today.
Unquestionably, the main struggle taking place in the region reflects a centuries old schism between the two main forms of Islam, the Sunni and Shia. And sometimes the conflict involves subgroups. We see it being played out in the most horrific terms in Syria and Iraq. The Sunni ISIL—Islamic State – is so ruthless and bloodthirsty, even the Sunni Al Qaeda doesn’t want anything to do with them. While not involving Israel directly, it is a struggle that poses serious security risks, and I’m sure it keeps Israeli military leaders up at night. By the way, this internecine Islamic conflict should put to rest once and for all the often-repeated myth that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to achieving overall Middle East peace.
Shifting Arab and Muslim alliances and interests indeed do pose new threats. But they also present new opportunities. This threat-opportunity balance can be seen in Operation Protective Edge, the third war Israel has fought against Hamas in just the last five years. This was—and may continue to be depending on the outcome of the Cairo negotiations—an asymmetric war in which the weaker party militarily, Hamas in this case, engages in non-conventional tactics—firing rockets into the stronger party’s population centers, burrowing under its territory for the purpose of killing or capturing soldiers and civilians, and using their own civilians as human shields. These are all war crimes under international law.
Israel unequivocally had/has the right, in fact the obligation to respond in defense of its citizens. Yet, as Israeli political and military representatives repeatedly have acknowledged, this kind of warfare poses enormous tactical and ethical challenges. I will not stand here and tell you that Israel always gets it right, never makes mistakes. The people who serve in the IDF after all are human beings, just as the people who serve in our U.S. Army. But I would be hard-pressed to come up with another army that does as much as the IDF to prevent civilian casualties on both sides of the border – many times risking the lives of Israeli soldiers in the process.
Despite what one hears and reads in too much of the media, and needless to say in the halls of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be ashamed about with the manner in which Operation Protective Edge has been carried out.
At the same time, it should be said that solidarity with Israel and empathy for the suffering of Gazans are not mutually exclusive responses to the current situation. The Palestinian people are not the enemy. Hamas is. We should not permit Hamas’ lack of humanity to deprive us of our own. I hope that the infrastructure in Gaza can be rebuilt and quality of life there can be raised, so long as this is done consistent with Israel’s security needs.
Let’s look at opportunity. That same Arab world, fully unified against Israel in 1967, is not supporting Hamas. Most importantly, Egypt, led by al-Sisi and the military, is fighting its own battle against the Muslim brotherhood, Hamas’ parent body. Jordan clearly sees itself threatened by radical Islamism. And even Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, with the exception of Qattar, are not in Hamas’ corner.
In my opinion, this shifting regional reality explains why throughout the last six weeks there has not been one emergency meeting on Gaza convened by the UN Security Council. As a consequence, the United States was not called upon to exercise its veto power against any unfair and one-sided resolutions.
Then there is the matter of the West Bank under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. PA representatives have taken to the media to denounce Israel’s “aggression” against the Palestinian people in Gaza. Given the humanitarian dimension of the situation, this is to be expected. But make no mistake about it, the recent attempt to form a so-called unity government notwithstanding, there is no love lost in this rivalry between terrorist Hamas, still committed to Israel’s destruction and the use of violence, and Abbas’ Fatah, the dominant Palestinian Authority group.
There is a convergence of interest here– Israel, the PA, and those Arab states I mentioned before all want to see Hamas emerge from this war in a weakened, not strengthened position. It is vital that the U.S. and the rest of the international community stay firmly on this page.
About the peace process between Israel and Abbas: Yes, sadly, it did not come to a successful conclusion. But, I have — we should all have — strong praise for Secretary Kerry and his team for making the effort. I don’t know, no one knows, whether, when and how negotiations might be restarted. I do know that the two-state formula — embraced by the Israeli government, by the PA, by the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, and by the entire international community — is the one that makes the most sense, both for the Palestinian people seeking independence and dignity, and Israel seeking to remain a secure, democratic and Jewish state. And again, opportunity…a weakened Hamas and strengthened Palestinian Authority won’t guarantee a successful peace process outcome, but it certainly would enhance the environment for future efforts.
Another worrisome development is the dramatic spike in global anti-Semitism associated with recent events. This was confirmed in a report by the ADL I read yesterday. Mostly in Europe, Latin America and South Africa—but there have been some manifestations here as well. This issue bears close scrutiny and demands a swift and strong response from both government officials and civil society leaders.
While our attention has been riveted on Gaza, quiet negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 have been taking place. Hamas has the capability to send rockets into a wide swath of Israel — almost always ineffectively– thank G-d to the Iron Dome (with deep appreciation to our administration and Congress), to cause a temporary shutdown of many flights to Ben-Gurion airport, and to bring grief to the families of Israeli soldiers and civilians, not to mention enormous suffering caused to their own Palestinian people. But they are not an existential threat to Israel.
An Iran possessing nuclear weapons, or the capability to quickly and easily produce them, is an existential threat. It is also a menace, not just to Israel, but to other allies in the region, as well as a grave security concern to Europe and to us. As the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles expands, nobody is safe. That is why the international community, with American leadership, absolutely has to get this issue right. Getting the Iran issue right? It means maintaining strong economic and diplomatic pressures — unless and until Teheran agrees to the basic dismantlement of its missile program and its means of producing enriched uranium and plutonium. Israel cannot live comfortably; the world cannot live comfortably, with tens of thousands of sophisticated centrifuges continuing to spin.
This issue leads me to say something about American leadership in the world. Yes, we are a nation tired of two very lengthy, bloody and costly wars halfway around the world. Yes, it is not our responsibility, but the responsibility of political and religious leaders in those affected societies to struggle against extremism. Yes, we have an array of domestic challenges here at home that cry out for focused and concerted attention. But the United States does not have the option, the luxury, to take a time out from its global leadership role. An engaged America, fully utilizing its diplomatic, economic, and its military power, when necessary, is good for America; it is also good for Israel, for the Jewish people and for the rest of the world. We, the Jewish community, have a special responsibility to stand unequivocally against the voices of isolationism creeping into our nation’s discourse.
We American Jews, blessed to live in this great country, the most powerful on earth, also cannot take a time out. Confronting isolationism, as I have indicated, absolutely! But, in addition, we also have a sacred duty to nurture the long-standing U.S. government and public understanding of and support for our beloved Israel. This is not a given, an entitlement. It requires ongoing effort.
The Pew polling firm recently studied attitudes associated with the war in Gaza. It found, perhaps not surprisingly, the older the interviewee, the greater the support for Israel. The only age group whose sympathies were more on the Palestinian side was the under age 30 group. I say not surprisingly, because these young people are the furthest away age-wise from the Holocaust, from the founding of Israel in 1948, and from those epic battles of 1967 and 73. They have little if any understanding of the basics, including how the West Bank, Gaza and the old city of Jerusalem came to be in control of Israel in the first place. We have a serious understanding gap on our hands that must be bridged. By the way, that goes for young people in our own community as well. Parenthetically, I worry about what students coming to campus this fall will find, and we are working hard with Hillel and other organizations to prevent a hostile environment.
So, here I am — attending another Israel Solidarity rally 47 years later; first time, as a teenager, just beginning an incredible Jewish journey. And now, much to my shock, here I stand a “senior citizen.” As I’ve tried to elucidate tonight, a lot has changed, and yet some things don’t change. One thing that doesn’t change is our responsibility to stand by our Israeli brothers and sisters as they grapple with unbelievably complex challenges in the most volatile and violent region of the world.
We will not let them down. This community will not let them down. Am Yisrael Chai.