Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. It began officially on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo when a Serbian nationalist murdered the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife. It ended four years later with the world a different place than it had been. There have been many commemorations of the war in the media, yet for all the words written and spoken about it, relatively few have focused on what for many Jews was its most significant result — the creation of the State of Israel.
Bear with me for just a bit of history: With the end of World War I, the once sprawling Ottoman Empire, already cracking, was dissolved and its Arab provinces split into nation states. In a secret agreement, called Sykes-Picot, England and France divided up those provinces into their own spheres of influence. France got the region that became modern-day Syria and Lebanon. England controlled Iraq and Palestine, part of which it turned into Transjordan. In 1917, the British Balfour Declaration promised Jews a national homeland in Palestine. As everybody knows, that led eventually to the Jewish state of Israel.
Now, fast-forward from the early-20th century to the early-21st century of today. Of the new Middle Eastern states formed in the wake of World War I and older ones that changed because of it, the word that most comes to mind is chaos. In Iraq and Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of people have been slaughtered, either by their own rulers or by opposing religious sects. Economies are in shambles, civil rights nonexistent, and hordes of refugees are fleeing their homes, many to Jordan, threatening to cause havoc in that relatively stable land. Only one modern country among those that came into existence after the “Great War” is a democracy, enjoys freedom of speech and press, and has a thriving economy with citizens from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who live together in peace. That country, of course, is Israel.
Yet that country is constantly criticized more than any other. Certainly Israel has its own slew of problems. I disagree with its settlement-building policies and I wholeheartedly support a two-state solution as the only viable way for it to maintain its democratic nature. But the Middle East is in flames, Islamists are committing wholesale murder, and, for example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) can think of nothing more pressing in the world to protest than Israel’s presence in the West Bank. A few weeks ago the church voted to divest from three companies that supply Israel with equipment it uses in the West Bank. It argued afterward that its decision does not place it in the same category as the more destructive BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement because, among other things, it affirms Israel’s “right to exist.” Well, that’s nice. But does it really balance the church’s divestment vote?
Israel is a sovereign state, legitimately established 66 years ago. Is it still necessary to assert its right to exist? Does anybody affirm France’s right to exist? Or, for that matter, Jordan’s or Iraq’s? Ironically, the only group questioning the existence of those Arab countries is the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which wants to undo Sykes-Picot borders, turn back to pre-First World War times, and establish an Islamic caliphate over the entire region, from Syria to Iraq. But that’s another matter.
A few days after the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers, Desmond Tutu branded Israel an apartheid state and urged the Presbyterian Church to pass harsh measures against it — harsher than it did, in fact. If that South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate had sympathetic words for Israel about the murder of those boys or condemnation for its perpetrators, I heard nothing of them.
The kidnapping and murder of the boys broke the country’s heart. Yet, while world leaders condemned them, they were quick to criticize Israel’s response to the tragedy as excessive. And, predictably, The New York Times showed a grieving Palestinian mother whose son had been killed while throwing stones at Israeli soldiers alongside the grieving Israeli mother of one of the teens, as if any sign of Israeli suffering needed to be countered by Palestinian victimhood. Later, when it appeared that Israeli right-wing extremists might have murdered a Palestinian teenager in revenge, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instantly denounced the crime and ordered the police to investigate it. In contrast, although Hamas leaders did not take responsibility for the Israeli horror, they gleefully applauded the men who caused it. No one condemned them for that.
It’s easy enough to find fault with Israel, as with any country, and we Jews are good at doing that. But sometimes we need to let the world know how extraordinary the state is and how grateful everyone can be for it.
Francine Klagsbrun’s “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day” is now an E-book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.