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Standing with Israel

By William Bennett - May 14, 2002.

Those searching for heroes need look no farther than Israel, a country that has done more, for more people, with fewer resources and under greater threat, than almost any other.

The first piece I ever published in the popular press was a 1977 "My Turn" column in Newsweek. There I lamented the fact that children were no longer identifying with heroes. I pointed out that to find a hero, to see heroism, one had to look no farther than Yonatan Netanyahu who died at Entebbe the previous year. Netanyahu was a hero, to be sure -- but so, too, is the State of Israel a hero to many of us, even if so many others still think it appropriate to condemn, criticize, and investigate it.

One of the premier political philosophers of our age said that Winston Churchill taught us to "see things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness." When one looks at Israel and the Middle East, no task can be more important and, through the lens of moral clarity, no task can be more easily accomplished.

It did not take a great deal to see things as they really were on September 11 nor on the days and weeks that followed.

On September 11, Israelis lowered their flags to half-staff in empathy with the US. By contrast, Palestinians in the West Bank were cheering in the streets.

On September 11, we in the United States were forced to stare into the face, and feel the hand, of evil -- our very existence demanded that we fight back, not only to punish the wrong done to us, not only to protect our citizens and institutions, but to vindicate our democratic virtues.

Just after the slaughter that took place on September 11, many Israelis said, "We are all Americans now." The truth is, after September 11, we all became Israelis. Israel has been fighting a war against terrorism since the day it was founded, and this has been a war for the state's survival. It is not difficult to see that those who want to do Israel in -- from Iran and Iraq to Hamas and the PLO -- want to do the US in as well. And, as is true in the case of Israel, our war on terrorism became, had to become, a war for our survival. Israel's war is our war, just as Israel's cause is our cause.

I am a Catholic, and many have speculated that Christian interpretations of the Torah are the reason many Christians support Israel. There may be something to that. But that is not my reason for standing with Israel, nor is it the reason the US does and should stand with Israel.

We stand with Israel because Israel is a beacon of freedom and hope -- to the world, generally, and, in a more important sense, to the Middle East. In its very Declaration of Independence, Israel proclaimed that it would "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions." Israel has kept faith with the promise of its founding, a founding more similar to America's than perhaps any other nation's.

Israel is the only country in the region that permits citizens of all faiths to worship freely and openly. We need to remember that 20 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jewish. While Jews are not permitted to live in many Arab countries, Arabs are granted full citizenship and have the right to vote in Israel. (Arabs not only comprise a faction within the Knesset, but routinely side with Israel's enemies.) Arabs living in Israel have more rights and are freer than most Arabs living in Arab countries. Israel, in short, has shown the way in the Middle East, it has shown -- the way for freedom, for democracy, and for education.

And Israel has done all this while under continued pressure aimed at undermining and extinguishing its very existence. It was invaded by five armies upon its founding and has been threatened with annihilation ever since. Milan Kundera once wrote that a small nation is "one whose very existence may be put into question at any moment; a small nation can disappear, and knows it." Israel is a small nation.

It should not have been surprising or worthy of condemnation that just after Yasser Arafat attempted to smuggle 50 tons of weapons into his Palestinian Authority, and just as his Fatah-affiliated Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades were perfecting their human-bomb-making capabilities, Israel finally said, "Enough!"

Israel then went into the territories to root out terrorists, to do what Arafat over the years had refused to do. That mission was of a piece with what the US did in Afghanistan in rooting out the Taliban and al-Qaida. The pressure on Israel to cease that operation amounted to perhaps the greatest blurring of our moral clarity since September 11. That pressure was imposed on Israel in order to appease nations like Saudi Arabia, a repressive dictatorship that owes the US a great many explanations, that deserves from the US nothing.

Nor, by contrast, was it surprising that the first sentences uttered by Arafat upon his release from confinement were libels against Israel as a "terrorist, Nazi, and racist" regime. This is what he always said. Lies pervade his speech, and those lies have trickled down and out into the common criticisms of Israel heard elsewhere. One of them is that the Jewish settlements in the disputed territories are the greatest obstacle to peace in the Middle East. When I hear this, I am reminded of a lie from another context and another time: that blacks living as minorities in all-white neighborhoods in the American South were the cause of racial strife. They weren't -- racists were the cause of racial strife.

There is no reason Jews should not be able to live in the West Bank unless there is a reason Arabs should not be able to live in Tel Aviv -- which is to say, there is no reason at all. The freedoms to travel and live are fundamental. To claim that certain lands should be free of Jews is to claim that the Third Reich had a moral point.

While many may prefer to forget their ugly history, I think it critical to remember it, for nowhere more than in the Middle East is history a prelude. Because of their animus against Jews, many leaders of the Palestinian cause have long supported our enemies. The grand mufti of Jerusalem allied himself with Adolf Hitler during World War II. Yasser Arafat has repeatedly targeted and killed Americans.

Arafat was very closely aligned with the Soviet Union and other enemies of ours throughout the Cold War. In 1991, during the Gulf War, Arafat aligned himself with Saddam Hussein, whom he praised as "the defender of the Arab nation, of Muslims, and of free men everywhere." Israel, by contrast, has always been on the side of the US, both as a strategic and as a moral ally. And the civilized world will never be able to pay its debt to Israel for bombing Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.

Today, more than ever, we cannot afford to criticize Israel for its war against terrorism, as we ignominiously did in that episode in 1981. Now more than ever we need to see things for their "excellence and for their vileness."

Those searching for heroes of democracy need look no farther than Israel, a country that has done more, for more people, with fewer resources and under greater threat, than almost any other. We must never ignore the fact that if Israel loses its war against terrorism, it will lose its existence. To vindicate our own virtues and cherished beliefs, we should stand foursquare with Israel and apply pressure to the dictatorships in its neighborhood, not the other way around.

Moral clarity demands standing with Israel in its still unfinished war against terrorism, in its still unfinished work for survival. It is for these reasons and more, far more, that I count myself among the millions of Americans who see America's fate and Israel's fate as one.

Author Biography:
William J. Bennett is a former secretary of education and the author, most recently, of Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism. This op-ed is drawn from Chapter 4, "The Case of Israel."