Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

Israel and the Lessons of History

by Ralph Seliger

I grew up without grandparents. Both of my parents escaped the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth, losing their parents back in the same shtetl in Eastern Galicia; all of my father's siblings and their children were also murdered. Half of my cousins are alive today only because their parents or grandparents (my uncles) made it to pre-state Palestine. This history provided me with a dual political legacy: liberalism and Zionism.

I naturally sympathized with the underdogs of history and society, and I came to realize that the Jews were among these groups. Ironically, this period of my early adulthood in the 1970s was exactly the time when American Jews were advancing beyond their prior discriminated-against status: the restrictive covenants and quota systems that had excluded them from certain schools, career opportunities, places to live, and even many resorts and hotels.

As for most Jews, Israel's exceptional military prowess was a tremendous source of pride for me growing up, partly by way of compensation. But Israel's missed opportunities for peace began to intrude into my consciousness in the early 1970s. I do not question the need for Israeli military power to have forestalled the country's destruction at its birth or to have warded off very real threats from the Arab world in ensuing decades. Still, although at least partially provoked by the other side, the wars in Lebanon and Gaza exemplify the limited utility of Israel's military strength.

The concrete threats and Nazi-like rhetoric emanating from Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah have the understandable effect of making Jews feel frightfully vulnerable again. In fervently advocating a peaceful path for Israel, we must not excuse these Jew-hating adversaries, who make our work as peace activists much more difficult.

Such ongoing fanatical hatred blinds Jews today to the very real power that Israel currently has, to defend Jewish lives, in contrast to the 1930s and '40s. But in the absence of peace, this capacity of a very small country cannot be forever guaranteed.

History teaches us that ongoing conflict and injustice breed passions that often give rise to scapegoating; we know that such circumstances have repeatedly victimized Jews. And to some extent, this dynamic threatens the people of Israel collectively as well.

Yet Jews are no longer an oppressed minority group in the Western world. As a relatively small people, however -- perhaps 17 million in the entire world -- we remain vulnerable.

Peace activists and progressives should appreciate such complexities, paradoxes, and contradictions more than they generally do. We should learn what shapes the attitudes and actions even of people we need to confront. Sometimes, feeling compassion and discovering areas of commonality can lead to cooperation and progress even if not to total agreement and triumph. Perfection is an attribute of the divine, not a state we should expect in the imperfect realm of human beings.

Ralph Seliger writes mostly about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues for Tikkun and other publications. He also blogs for Meretz USA at meretzusa.blogspot.com.

Source Citation: Seliger, Ralph. 2011. Israel and the Lessons of History. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.


tags: Israel/Palestine