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Tuesday, December 02, 2003
I have blogged before about the deep respect I have for Israel, as a democracy among dictatorships in the Middle East, and as a successful country among failed states. I have also talked about the fact that Israel was born in a state of original sin, because it was formed by international powers who dispossessed Palestinian Arabs of their land without concern for the consequences. And that original sin has defined the state of war that Israel has found itself in ever since.

That original sin, however, can never be mended. Obviously, there has to be a refuge for Jews, who are, even now, repeatedly persecuted and attacked all over the world. And Israelis have a right to a safe, secure state, and further have the right to strike back against terrorists who bomb innocent people on the streets of Israel's cities. Indeed, the stubborn insistence of Israelis not to be beaten by the terrorists-- to continue to live their lives and engage in everyday activities despite the threat of additional suicide attacks-- is deeply admirable.

In my mind, the real threat to Israel-- because the terrorists will never be allowed to win-- comes from its friends and supporters, not the terrorists. And that threat is the insistence on intertwining the question of Israel's existence with the religious claims of the Jewish people to the Holy Land. The reason is that although these arguments may play well and may raise money from the believers, no non-Jew is ever going to feel obligated, or should feel obligated, to accept them, any more than Jews feel that they should give up sovereignty over the Temple Mount because Islamic tradition states that the Prophet ascended to heaven there.

Here is a nice example of this genre of argument. Charles Krauthammer is a war hawk and a strong supporter of Israel. Those are respectable positions, and I certainly don't condemn anyone for arguing that Israel should not agree to a Palestinian state if the peace plan would empower terrorists. He makes legitimate, if debatable, points against how the latest plan, concocted by liberal Israeli politicians in unofficial shadow negotiations with Palestinians, would compromise Israel's security.

But then he lands with this: "[Israeli negotiator Yossi] Beilin gives up the ultimate symbol of the Jewish connection and claim to the land, the center of the Jewish state for 1,000 years before the Roman destruction, the subject of Jewish longing in poetry and prayer for the 2,000 years since-- the Temple Mount. And Beilin doesn't just give it up to, say, some neutral international authority. He gives it to sovereign Palestine. Jews will visit at Arab sufferance."

Now wait just a second, Charles. I thought this was about Israel's security. I am not convinced that it would do this, but if giving up the Temple Mount would lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians and an end to all the needless death, destruction, and misery in the region, isn't that reason enough to give it up? Is it more important to maintain symbolic control over a strip of land that is mentioned in holiday prayers than it is to save lives on the ground? As Krauthammer himself characterizes it, the Temple Mount is a symbol. The "ultimate symbol", yes, but a symbol nonetheless. Seriously, if I lived in Israel, I'd be much more concerned about the government giving up the Jordan Valley than the Temple Mount. But then, I am not a religious Jew-- and that is exactly the point.

If Israel is to ever settle its differences with the Palestinians, it will need to give Palestinians the land necessary to create a viable state. Everyone knows this. And creating a viable state means encompassing most of the Arabs in the Holy Land-- the last thing Israel wants is a demographic nightmare where Arabs live in Israel and eventually outnumber Jews, forcing Israel either to give up on being democratic or to give up on being Jewish. Further, no Arab wants to hear about how their new state cannot acquire particular lands because God gave them to the Jews, or because Jews lived there several millenia ago. Such arguments are not persuasive to Arabs-- nor should they be-- who have a different belief about what God wants and doesn't want, and who have their own historical attachments to land that they cannot reasonably be allowed to possess. Nor are they persuasive to non-Jews in the international community.

The paradox for Israel is that in order to maintain its Jewish character among so many Arab states, Israel must justify its actions based entirely on secular principles. People like Krauthammer may mean well, but they threten Israel's existence by situating the justification of Israel's actions in religion and religious history. This, in turn, feeds the notion in the Arab world that the Arab relationship with Israel is a religious war rather than an problem of providing two peoples with political rights and land. The best road to true security-- and religious freedom-- for the Jewish people is by pursuing a secular standard of justice, even if it means making painful compromises on heartfelt religious issues.

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