The American Civil War began in 1861. By 1858, however, nearly everyone on both sides was resigned to its inevitability. The fundamental issue was never, as so many Southerners liked to argue (and still do), “states rights” or some extra-constitutional “right of secession.” The fundamental issue was a group of human beings, blacks both enslaved and free, whose presence few whites desired. They could be neither exterminated nor expelled nor assimilated. Even among the most ardent abolitionists, practically none dared advocate racial integration and equality.
“Erring brethren, depart in peace” was their message to the slave states. Implicit: Take your blacks with you.
But it was not the fervent abolitionists who forced the crisis. It was the slave-holding states who demanded more than tolerance of slavery, more than an ever-less-feasible balance between free and slave states. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required citizens of the free states, both official and private, to apprehend and return escaped slaves. Failure to do so, let alone aiding and protecting fugitives, could bring severe federal fines, even imprisonment.
The Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857 buttressed the Fugitive Slave Act by holding that blacks could neither be citizens nor possess any rights “that the white man was bound to respect.”
You didn’t have to be a frothing abolitionist to conclude that you could no longer be complicit in this system, no matter what the law said or how many Bible verses and personal insults slavery’s defenders hurled at you.
But Abraham Lincoln could not let the slave states “depart in peace.” He knew that they would inevitably try to spread slavery into Western territories not yet admitted to the Union as states, perhaps entice them to join the Confederacy. And a sovereign Confederacy would doubtless be recognized by European Powers who had their own agendas and would find the South a convenient base.
So Lincoln, the nominee of a Republican Party barely six years old, a man whose entire federal experience consisted of one undistinguished term as a Congressman, in 1860 now a lawyer in private practice . . . proclaimed that his desire was to save the Union, with or without slavery.
No one believed him, or that it could be done. His election triggered the final crisis, but did not cause it.
The cause, to repeat, was the presence of a group of human beings whom the dominant groups could neither exterminate nor expel nor assimilate.
Historical parallels are never exact, and analogy is not analysis. But it grows ever harder to avoid the conclusion that Israel today finds herself in a similar situation.
In the Territories, human beings who can be neither exterminated nor expelled nor assimilated.
Growing numbers of people in Israel and around the world who, despite – or perhaps because of – their acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy, will no longer be complicit, no matter how much Scripture and how many personal vilifications the Greater Israelites throw at them.
An international conflict far more complex and volatile than that faced by Lincoln, with the Territories a significant front.
And, for some Israelis, and no doubt other people, a growing sense of the inevitability of yet another round of Jew-against-Jew violence, leading perhaps to outright civil strife.
A sense of inevitability can make something inevitable, but it is not inevitable that it happen here. Still, inevitability has many aspects. Americans in the 1850s dulled their fear of events by their electoral preference for ineffectual leaders. Americans had little use for their own “political echelon”: men too venal and too weak to either submit to the situation or change it. Americans called for strong leadership but in reality wanted to call for it, not get it. Maybe, they hoped, if no one gets too serious about it all, more time could be purchased or begged.
So how did Abraham Lincoln sneak in? Perhaps because, even though the South threatened secession if he won, nobody really expected very much out of the guy. He would make the right noises, but no more. The South would stay. The impasse would go on.
Lincoln sure fooled ‘em.
So who’s to be the Israeli Lincoln, if such there can be? Or perhaps it’s better to start with a preliminary question.
What the hell do the opposition parties do all day?
They certainly don’t seem interested in opposing, or in offering the makings of an effective, rational opposition. Or in producing a Lincoln. Are they perhaps afraid of what might happen, should they turn into serious people?
In any struggle, the heroes are self-selecting. Israel has known many heroes on the battlefield, not many in public life. Perhaps it’s time for someone to assert the obvious:
That Israel cannot cling to the Territories and take her rightful place among the nations.
That Israel needs to consider the possibility – no more, but also no less – that a non-Islamist Palestine might take its place in a territorial bloc stretching from Egypt to Jordan, de facto allies. If such a bloc could emerge, the hideous politics of the Middle East might sense the makings of an alternative to the present impotence and slaughter.
We’ve had our Begin, our Rabin. Great men both. And other great men and women. Many others.
But perhaps we need a Lincoln now. Politically untainted, personally incorruptible, honest unto himself, and for that reason, salvific.
Anybody know anybody who might fit the job description?