Recently, in Slate, Allison Benedikt, Slate Senior Editor, raised the question “what makes an American kid with shaky Hebrew decide he is ready to die for Israel?” Ms. Benedikt was referring to the recent death in Gaza of Israeli “lone soldier” and native of Los Angeles, Max Steinberg. Ms. Benedikt opined: “[t]here are many people to blame for Steinberg’s death. There is the Hamas fighter behind the weapon that actually killed him. There are the leaders, on both sides, who put him in Gaza, and the leaders behind all of the wars between Israel and the Palestinians. * * * But I have no doubt in my mind that along with all of them, Birthright shares some measure of the blame.” Ms. Benedikt referred to Birthright Israel, an organization whose goal, according to its web site, is “to strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel by providing a 10-day trip to Israel for young Jewish people.” To hear Ms. Benedikt tell the story, Max Steinberg participated in a birthright trip, moved to Israel, joined the Israeli Defense Forces, and died. Ms. Benedikt incongruously concludes that Birthright “spend[s] hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support [and] [t]his is what you get.” (See http://slate.me/1p9phRG for Ms. Benedikt’s entire Slate piece, but please come back).
Of course, Ms. Benedikt’s attempt to place the blame for Max Steinberg’s death in part (aside from the “Hamas fighter behind the weapon that actually killed him”) on an entirely benevolent organization dedicated to fostering ties between young Jewish Americans and Israel is misplaced at best. Her lack of respect for the death of this young man is abhorrent. The piece can be summed up in one familiar word: a shanda.
At first, I was prepared to just let it go, considering all that Ms. Benedikt has suffered as a result of her conversion to an anti-Israeli mindset at the direction of her husband, former Gawker editor-in-chief, John Cook. Ms. Benedikt herself chronicled her journey from Young Judea Zionist pioneer to pro-Palestinian sympathizer under the tutelage of her non-Jewish, adamantly anti-Israel husband in an elaborate tell-all confessional in the Awl in 2011. You can and should read it yourself. (See http://bit.ly/1nhVnyj for Ms. Benedikt’s Awl piece, but, again, please come back).
It is a sad story that calls more for prolonged therapy than a logical response. In her Slate piece, Ms. Benedikt realizes how similar Max Steinberg’s journey was to her own, comparing Birthright to the kind of Jewish summer camp she attended as a child and describes at length in her Awl article. But for her conversion to pro-Palestinian sympathizer at the behest of her husband, she might well have ended up herself as an Israeli, like Max Steinberg did. In fact, Ms. Benedikt’s sister currently lives in Israel with her own family.
However, Ms. Benedikt’s piece was so over the top that it called for some response. It also raised the questions I have often contemplated: why are people like Ms. Benedikt, her husband, and his ilk, including many liberals, “humanist” Christians, news organizations and social media posters, obsessed with Israel and why do they set higher standards for Israel than they do for other countries?
For the third time in six years, the media – – television, newspapers, social media – – is tuned in 24/7 to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. It has been the lead story on the national news for over two weeks. Why the obsession with this conflict? There are certainly other conflicts in the world. Many much more damaging and heart-rendering.
Some 500,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Somalia since the start of the civil war in 1991. A little over 3,000 perished there in 2013. The war in South Sudan only started in 2013, but has already claimed over 10,000 lives. The death toll in Syria recently passed the 150,000 mark. The Mexican drug war alone has led to over 150,000 deaths, 12,000 in 2013. Prior to the present fighting, the conflict in Israel has claimed 22,000 lives on both sides since 1948. Thirty-four Israelis and Palestinians perished in 2013. Why doesn’t Ms. Benedikt fret about these other conflicts? Why doesn’t Ms. Benedikt blame the deaths in Mexico on Birthright Mexico?
Perhaps it is the particular poignancy of the Palestinian refuge problem that draws so much attention. But again, there are many other places in the world where people have been displaced through war and the refugees and the world have just moved on. World War II created 40 million refugees who were eventually absorbed into lands other than their own. The war in Darfur resulted in 2.5 million refugees. More than one million Salvadorans were forced to flee their country during the Salvadoran War from 1975-82. The partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 resulted in the largest human movement in history. Approximately 7 million Hindus and Sikhs moved from Pakistan to India, while approximately 7 million Muslims moved from India to Pakistan.
In a similar population exchange, during the 1948 Israeli war for independence, approximately 800,000 Jews were forced to flee their ancestral homes in Arab nations and were quickly absorbed into Israel. Approximately the same number of Palestinians fled their homes in Israel, but were kept in refugee camps by their Arab neighbors and not permitted to resettle in Arab lands. What about the flood of refugees from conflicts in Tibet, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Cyprus? What about the Kurds? The United Nations says there are currently forty-five million refugees displaced by conflict, including over 1.6 million in the current Syrian war. When was the last time Ms. Benedikt spent time worrying about the plight of the Sikhs?
Perhaps it is the unique claim of the Palestinian people to statehood that is so absorbing. But what about the equally-worthy claims to independent statehood of the Basques, the Kurds, the Turkish Cypriots, Sardinians, Flemish, Tibetans, Catalonians, South Ossetians, and Uyghurs? When was the last time Ms. Benedikt took a stand on the legitimate rights of the Nagorno-Karabakh people?
No, there is more that draws Ms. Benedikt and her demanding husband to the Israeli-Palestinian issue than that it is an armed conflict with refugees claiming statehood. There are plenty of those to draw the attention of the Benedikts of the world.
It is because Israel is a Jewish state. There are 49 Muslim majority countries in the world and 15 countries in which Christianity is the official religion. There is only one Jewish state. And the Jewish people, as is well-known, are the “chosen people.” What’s more, Jesus, whom over two billion Christians worship as the Messiah and the “son of God,” was born a Jew. And, of course, Ms. Benedikt was born Jewish and purports to be raising her children Jewish. Because of its unique and personal status, the world, and Ms. Benedikt, seem to have set the bar just a bit higher for the Jewish State of Israel.
I think that is largely why the world, including Slate’s senior editor, is so obsessed with Israel. Expectations are raised for the Jewish state. What might be accepted as a matter of course from any other state, is obsessively scrutinized and condemned in the strongest possible terms in the case of Israel. In the present conflict in Gaza, well-intentioned Jewish people around the world agonize over and profusely apologize for the deaths of innocent civilians (tragic though they certainly are) as though that is something that Jews in particular should not ever be associated with – – even in self-defense. Israel itself seems to have set itself a high bar for civilized behavior in wartime, warning its enemies of pending attacks so as to minimize civilian casualties. What would be considered normal if committed by England or France or the United States during the course of war (i.e., unfortunate, tragic “collateral damage”) is considered unconscionable if committed by Israel. After all, these are the “chosen people,” the people of the Lord, and, in the case of Ms. Benedikt, “my people,” and so much more is expected of them.
As a Jewish blogger recently put it in the Jewish newspaper “The Forward,” if Israel does not act as the “chosen people,” then it is no different than any other country, capable of making terrible mistakes. But this touches on the very reason that the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, dreamed of a Jewish state. He wanted the Jewish people to be able to have a “normal life.” No longer to be unduly demonized or sanctified. He dreamed of the “normalization” of the Jewish people. And that is what Israel is.
Israel is a place where Jews are ordinary people, policemen, plumbers, sanitation workers, bus drivers, and soldiers. A place where there are saints as well as sinners. Where Jews do not have to be saints in order to justify their existence. Where they can fight back just like normal people do. That’s what you would do if your land and family were threatened. That’s what Ms. Benedikt and her husband would do. That’s what her sister is doing. That’s what Israelis do. This is not perfect. This is normal.
For well over 2,000 years, the Jews have been the “chosen people” and, as a result, have suffered the fate of other people’s exaggerated expectations. Now they are a normal people. It is time for the world, including Ms. Benedikt, to choose someone else.