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A Drastic Departure from the Jewish Ethic

Dennis Fox

MSU State News
September 24, 1982

Since the news of the massacre in the Beirut refugee camps, I have not been able to put it out of my mind. For the past three days it has always been there, a lurking heaviness surrounding me as I've tried to go on with my life. I've registered for the new term and talked to friends and cooked dinner, and occasionally I've even thought about other things, but before long my mind returns to Beirut, and I immerse myself in the Times or listen for the latest news on the radio instead of trying to get some work done.

I focus mostly on two images.

The first is the image of children being shot in the back of the head. I think of my own two children -- and I feel outraged -- and I want to strike out through the tears. The anger is overwhelming.

The second is the image of Israeli soldiers -- Jews, like me -- letting it happen. And I feel empty inside, numb, and I want to crawl into a corner and not come out until the nightmare ends.

There was a time in my life I thought I would live in Israel. As a young Zionist in the mid-60s, I identified with a progressive socialist-Zionist outlook that drew its inspiration from the best in humanism and the prophetic Jewish tradition. I had grown up "knowing" that Jews were almost always liberals and radicals, that Jews supported the rights of all, that Jews insisted on a society built on the social justice that had so often been denied them in the past. Jews like my grandfather fought the Czar at the beginning of this century and then came to America where they fought for the victories of the labor movement.

The early Zionists who went to Palestine to create a Jewish homeland were largely from this progressive tradition. The collective agricultural settlements they devised and the other social institutions they established could have become the basis for Jewish-Arab cooperation. But for a variety of reasons that did not happen, and decades of hostility resulted. Many of the Zionists I knew in the '60s were Israelis who felt the anguish of having displaced Palestinians in order to further Jewish liberation. They tried to remedy that, to bridge the gap between Jews and Arabs. That they were not successful was not for lack of trying.

There has always been another side of Zionism, however, a side I found offensive even at the height of my identification with Israel. There were the Zionists who wore buttons proclaiming "both sides of the Jordan River" to be the true Land of Israel; these Zionists were affiliated with Menachem Begin's right-wing political party. There were Zionists who minimized the dislocations caused the Palestinian people by the establishment of Israel, who were blatantly racist in their defense of "Western democratic values" at the expense of "dirty Arabs," who justified an unyielding "Israel First" attitude by reference to religious dogma. It is this side of Zionism that is primarily responsible for the mass murder in Beiruit.

American Jewish leaders have already begun to talk about the need to stand by Israel in the face of heavy international criticism. Israel is not guilty, most of them say. Israel did not know. Jews couldn't do such a thing. We must stand together in the face of anti-Semitic attacks.

This time, however, the critics are right. Israeli policy and actions have departed drastically from the Jewish ethical tradition that serves as a source of pride. And it is in keeping with that tradition that Jews should stand in the forefront of the criticism of Israel. Just as Israeli Jews have already begun to demonstrate against the horrors allowed by their government, so Jews in America must make our disgust public. Israeli officials should not be able to take support for granted.

I hope there are more demonstrations in Israel. I hope the government falls. I hope, even more, that Israel reverses many of its policies, that it takes the first step to recognizing that the Palestinians have the same rights to peoplehood as do the Jews. I hope the Israeli establishment begins to question the assumptions it operates under, that it tries to understand the reasons it is forced to be on the side of evil. From the Christian Phalangists in Lebanon to the regime in South Africa, Israel at this point in history is allied with the most repressive forces imaginable. That is not the Jewish tradition.

It is time to reclaim that tradition. Perhaps the events in Beirut will lead to real change. Perhaps not. In the meantime, I will go about my business, and I will continue to grieve.


Subsequent column responding to criticism for writing this one.

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