Jewish World Review May 13, 2002 / 2 Sivan, 5762

David Gelernter

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A Nation Like Ours

Why Americans stand with Israel

By David Gelernter | A philosopher's job is to show you what you would otherwise miss because it is right in front of your nose, too close to focus on. In one of Mel Brooks' worst, funniest movies, he played a "stand-up philosopher," and we could use some stand-up philosophy right now.

Have you ever wondered (a stand-up philosopher might ask) why so many Americans feel an instinctive sympathy for Israel that Europeans can't understand? According to such noted experts on U.S. culture as Bishop Desmond Tutu and certain leading French statesmen, this sympathy merely goes to show the power of American Jews in U.S. politics. It's hard to tell whether the bishop and the French elite are against Jews, or merely against Jews' having opinions. In any case, a stand-up philosopher would suggest that they drop it and look at a history book instead. Find out where the United States came from; then look up Israel. It's never too late for world leaders to learn the facts of life. Jews are powerful and influential in this country. But if no Jew had ever set foot in America, the United States and Israel would tend to understand each other nonetheless--because they are two of a kind.

Both are pick-up nations created out of ideas, with populations drawn from all over the globe; they are self-made nations in a world where most nations had nationhood handed to them on a silver platter. A Frenchman or Japanese is so far removed from nation-building that he no longer has any moral stake in it; the energy and struggle that created France or Japan are none of his business. He washes his hands of them. Americans and Israelis still remember that nations do not create themselves.

Proto-Americans arrived here and proto-Israelis over there uninvited, from Europe, and set about making homes for themselves in the large empty spaces between indigenous settlements. They were small minorities at first, far from home and (in many cases) in strikingly unworldly frames of mind. Europeans can't conceive of creating a nation in such a manner.

The indigenous Indians and Palestinians confronted America and Israel with roughly similar moral problems from the start. But American and Israeli settlers had to leave Europe; they felt the pressure at their backs. And once they arrived in their new lands, everywhere they looked they saw empty space, and so they naively assumed that there would be room for everybody. In the years immediately after the First World War, Martin Gilbert writes, "less than 10 percent of the land area of Palestine was under cultivation. The rest, whether stony or fertile, was uncultivated. No Arab cultivator need be dispossessed for the Zionists to make substantial land purchases. The potential of the land, on which fewer than a million people were living on both sides of the Jordan, was regarded as enormous."

WHY DOES THE United States belong to Americans? Because we built it. We conceived the idea and put it into practice bit by bit. Why does Israel belong to Israelis? True, Jews have lived there in unbroken succession since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70. True, Jews were hounded out of their homes in Europe and the Arab Middle East, had nowhere else to go, and demanded the right to live. But ultimately, the land of Israel belongs to Israelis for the same reason America belongs to Americans: Because Israelis conceived and built it--and what you create is yours.

If you want a homeland, you must create one. You drain swamps, lay out farms, build houses, schools, roads, hospitals, playgrounds, movie theaters, office parks (and don't forget the discount souvenir shops). That's how America got its homeland, and that is why Israel belongs to the Israelis.

American settlers (the tragic fact is) committed gross crimes against American Indians. We don't lessen the significance of those crimes by noting that Indians committed crimes against the settlers too, and crimes against other Indians. The United States has long since acknowledged and deeply (even bitterly) regretted its own crimes. No killing or exiling of Indians would have been necessary for the settlers to realize their goal, as they laid it out in a ballad in colonial Virginia: "We hope to plant a nation, where none before hath stood."

Israeli settlers had similar goals. In 1937, a British government commission called on Winston Churchill to address the future of Palestine; would it not be "harsh injustice" to the Arabs, he was asked, if Jews were allowed to enter Palestine at will, become a majority and eventually set up a Jewish state? "Why is there harsh injustice done," Churchill answered, "if people come in and make a livelihood for more, and make the desert into palm groves and orange groves? Why is it injustice because there is more work and wealth for everybody? There is no injustice. The injustice is when those who live in the country leave it to be desert for thousands of years."

NO ANALOGY BETWEEN Palestinians and American Indians will fly. The differences are too deep. But in other ways there are remarkable similarities between proto-Israeli and proto-American settlers, especially New Englanders.

In pre-1917 Ottoman-ruled Palestine, as in colonial New England, settlers from Europe built villages in a harsh, beautiful countryside where they had come to be free. Both communities were saturated with Scripture. Both had faith in the redemptive sanctity of labor on the land--the Jews (if anything) even more than the New Englanders, although the New Englanders were probably greater believers in Israel's G-d. Both communities relied on universal military training for self-defense. Both were dedicated to education, and determined to found universities. The same Hebrew names rushed like brook-water through both societies. Both had a moral seriousness that was fundamentally alien to modern Europe.

They started out with roughly the same peaceful intentions towards the indigenous inhabitants. (Of course in Palestine, some of the indigenous inhabitants were Jews.) In the mid-1600s, William Bradford described the Pilgrims' treaty with the Indians, "which has now continued this twenty-four years." It was based on scrupulous reciprocity and mutual friendship. In the years before the First World War, A.D. Gordon wrote that Jewish settlers must have the "moral courage" to approach the Arabs humanely, "even if the other side is not all that is desired. Indeed, their hostility is all the more reason for our humanity."

In settling America, proto-Americans were venturing forth; proto-Israelis were returning home. Yet the Bible insists that Jews were not the aboriginal inhabitants of the land of Israel. (The Hebrew Bible, with its guileless, tactless, relentless honesty, is the same sort of PR disaster that modern Israel has become.) "G-d said to Abraham: Venture forth from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). New England settlers took this commandment personally. Before the Puritans departed Southampton for America in 1630, the Reverend John Cotton preached them a sermon on II Samuel 7:10--"Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and I will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own and move no more."

OF COURSE, the Jews had to buy the land on which they settled. The Arabs and Turks were hardly likely to give it away, to Jews least of all. At times, the Turks were hard put to see the point of Jews altogether; at Passover 1917, all Jews were expelled from Jaffa and Jerusalem. The Jewish National Fund was established to collect money for land purchases in Palestine. The Rothschilds were definitely a help, but Jews all over the world chipped in. The JNF's sky-blue collection-boxes became fixtures wherever Jews lived. They still are.

As the Jewish settlement grew, Jews repeatedly made clear their willingness to share the land with Arabs. After the First World War, Turkish Palestine became the British Mandate. In 1947, the U.N. proposed to partition British Palestine into a Jewish state plus a new Arab state--an Arab Palestine. The U.N.'s finicky, snaking-around partition line created an Israel within which Jews were the majority, but left more than 100,000 Jews out in the cold--Jews who lived in Jerusalem, which was supposed to be internationalized, or in lands assigned to the Arabs. For the Jews this wasn't much of a state, and its borders were laughably indefensible. But they accepted the plan, joyfully. They danced in the streets. Thus Israel's founders and the Israeli people publicly and explicitly endorsed the idea of Jewish and Arab Palestines side by side.

The Arab response had the virtue of simplicity. No one has ever had any trouble understanding "Kill the Jews." Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia attacked the Jewish State at birth. "Pretty soon," the Syrian prime minister is said to have notified a British diplomat, "the Arab armies will teach the Jews a lesson they will never forget." This they did. The Jews never have forgotten, and never will. The Arabs fought savagely--if you were wounded, better die than fall into their hands--and when the war was over, some one percent of the Jewish population was dead. But the Jews had not been thrown into the sea. They had fought their way outward to the "1967 borders."

In 2000 Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed, once again: two states, side by side. The Arab response was a fresh wave of murder and mayhem.

AMERICA PUSHED its borders out deliberately. Israel won new territory in wars provoked by its enemies. In both cases, newly accessible lands were irresistible to a certain segment of the population.

Israeli settlers are not all alike. Some set out for the territories because of patriotism--to strengthen Israeli security (which, L-rd knows, needed strengthening). Some set out to find cheaper, wider-open living spaces. Some set out in obedience to G-d's will--or, as Americans used to call it, "manifest destiny." Nowadays, enlightened people find the very idea of America's "manifest destiny" too ludicrous even to sneer at. But a stand-up philosopher might ask: What would a nation have to do to prove this absurd thesis, that its emergence represented "G-d's will"? Perhaps save the world from Nazi and Japanese tyranny, defeat Soviet communism, and serve as an inspiration to freedom-loving peoples everywhere? Would that be a start? Reasonable people will differ about what it all means--but if there were more philosophers on the scene, we would be less apt to reject ideas without thinking about them.

TODAY it is no accident that America and Israel tend to understand each other--even to empathize with one another--not invariably, but on the whole. To see why, you don't have to be Bishop Tutu or some eminent Frenchman resurrecting tired but ever-popular Nazi theories about the satanically persuasive Jew. There is an easier explanation. The founding settlers of America and of modern Israel were offered victimhood on easy terms, and turned it down cold. They chose to create new nations out of nothing instead.

When Menachem Ussishkin addressed the Paris Peace Conference as a Zionist delegate in 1919, Jews had ample grounds for self-pity. They were more than entitled to all they wanted. The Russian civil war was under way, and "Russian Jewry," Ussishkin noted, "is undergoing fresh torrents of murder and rioting." But he rejected victimhood. He did not want to be rescued; he only wanted Jews to be allowed to rescue themselves.

What we want, he said, is to "renew our own lives and revive the national and cultural tradition which has come down to us from ancient times." David Ben-Gurion, later Israel's first prime minister, welcomed British support for Jewish settlement in Palestine--but the Jewish people themselves, he said, "only they, with body and soul, with their strength and capital, must build their National Home and bring about their national redemption." To Bishop Tutu and the French establishment, such sentiments are no doubt mysterious. But Americans understand them. They share them. They have lived them, as Israel is living them today.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.

Beyond barbarism in the Middle East

© 2002, by and reprinted from The Weekly Standard