Sunday, May 17, 2015

American Foreign Policy Interests: the Hobbesian Side of my Zionism

A couple year back I caught a television documentary in Israel that told the story of a group of Israeli air force pilots ceremonially flying over Auschwitz.  One of the big subplots of the film was that the United States (as well as British) governments during World War II knew for years of the atrocities being committed against the Jews in Europe and did nothing to stop them.  The connector was that even though U.S. pilots flew literally several kilometers and sometimes even directly over concentration camps, the pilots never destroyed any of the camps or railways.  The Zionist takeaway of the film was simple and predictable: now, with a strong and powerful Israeli air force, the Jews would never have to wait for another country to come to its rescue again.  None of these were new story lines.  The documentary prominently featured interview segments with former Amherst College Professor David S. Wyman, author of the important book, The Abandonment of the Jews. Wyman, himself a Presbyterian, spoke of President Roosevelt's hesitance to enter the war, even though he knew of the horrors very early in the war, because he knew it would be electoral suicide.  None of his voters were interested in saving a homeless people, no less a homeless Jewish people.  Wyman then showed U.S. intelligence aerial maps with locations and coordinates for allied bombers to destroy.  Some of these locations were within five miles of camps, yet nothing was touched because it would have 'taken away valuable firepower from the war effort.'  I write about this now because it hits on a small aspect of my personal Zionism, one that does not often surface because thankfully it does not usually have to surface.  It is a side of my Zionism that is both 'political' and 'revisionist' -- that simultaneously justified my reasoning for serving in the military and keeps me suspicious of all foreign powers. 
             At my core, and though it scares me to write this, I do not have faith in a United States of
America that will not stop genocide unless it is in America’s foreign policy interest. The apathy if
not antipathy of the vast majority of 1930’s America toward Jews was one thing.  But it was the U.S.
government’s staunch maintenance of its isolationist policies that started to chip away at my faith in
American ideals several years ago. That President Roosevelt did nothing after Evian, that he did
nothing for several years in fact, always tore at my confidence. My grandpa Norman, may he rest in
peace, was a huge FDR fan.  My grandma and father both tell me that grandpa never spoke a harsh
word of 'one of the greatest presidents ever.'  I remember him telling me as a youngster of his
experiences as a liberator in the American army in 1944-45, that even while patriotically serving his
country, he was reminded of his ‘Jewishness’ (read: inferiority) by the antisemitic gunner who
shared the reconnaissance jeep with him.  I'm not sure if Grandpa ever realized that this sort of
domestic antisemitism was widespread enough to sway such a disastrous foreign policy, and I am not
sure how I would approach the topic with him were he still with us today, but for me it is devastating
to cogitate on the millions who were not saved because of voter interest and (lack of) foreign policy
 That the world did nothing during WWII and that Rwanda and Darfur happened in the past twenty years continually remind me that nothing much has changed. Just like it was not relevant for U.S. foreign policy to help a distressed people across an ocean until its home soil was physically attacked, so too is it not relevant enough for the U.S. today to take a strong stand against crimes against humanity unless its own interests are directly affected.  Hence, if Tutsis are slaughtered en masse by Hutus in Rwanda, it is deemed unfortunate, mandated that the (toothless) U.N. should be held responsible to protect unarmed civilians, and nothing is actually done. More recently, consider that the United States intervened in Libya during the Arab Spring, yet continues to do nothing in Syria, whose regime kills scores of people by the day.  Why?  Libya has one of the top ten largest oil reserves in the world and lacks allies; Syria will most likely soon be a net importer of oil and is hugely invested in by both Iran and Russia.  Or consider that the United States for the most part allows Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, the world’s second and fifth largest exporters of oil to the U.S., to get away with their repressive governments’ actions. But if, for example, those governments fell or underwent serious changes of attitude regarding their economic relationships with the U.S., one had better believe that the administration would demonstrate a serious interest in either propping up a new government/monarchy/dictatorship that would continue its oil exportation, or ensure via covert or overt force that U.S. access to oil would remain unhindered. This is not rocket science; it is the ugly side of hegemonic politics and foreign policy. Tragically, it almost never bodes well for the persecuted minorities who are always in the direst need of aid.
I am not saying that I moved to Israel because I believe that the goldineh medineh of our great grandparents' generation has not been good enough to the Jewish people or won’t be in the future; that would simply be a foolish claim to make.  On a personal level, the United States of America has granted my family four generations of upward mobility through hard work and access to education and jobs, and remains an incredible beacon of hope and democracy in a big, bad world.  And nationally, the ties between Israel and the United States are undeniably strong, variegated, and not going anywhere anytime soon.  What I can say is that there is a Hobbesian side to my Zionism, that though it is a small one, it is an important one that keeps my dominantly humanistic side in check.  No matter how strong the ties between the States and Israel are, those ties end at foreign policy interests and domestic polling trends.  President Obama understands very well that his voters are set against another foreign war (look no further than August 2013-- when he could not even shore up domestic support for a limited attack on Assad's regime), and seemed more than willing to make any deal with Iran this Spring, just to prove he could do diplomacy.     
 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his 1967 book Israel: an Echo of Eternity: “Auschwitz is in our veins. It abides in the throbbing of our hearts. It burns in our imagination. It trembles in our conscience. We, the generation that witnessed the holocaust, should stand by calmly while rulers proclaim their intention to bring about a new holocaust?”  The context is simple: in the weeks preceding the Six Day War of June 1967, Egypt amassed troops along Israeli borders, warned of an incumbent war all over its media outlets, closed the Straits of Tehran, and coordinated plans with Syria (eventually dragging Jordan in as well).  While troop movements could theoretically be justified during peacetime, the closing of the straits was itself casus belli.  This, coupled with Egyptian refusal to negotiate or even meet with Israeli officials, signaled that a fresh war of extermination against the 19 year old state was imminent. With the memory of WWII still searing the Jewish collective memory, the preemptive defensive war fought by Israel was thus justified by Heschel, a known left wing political activist and civil rights leader (alongside his scholarly accolades).  Heschel continued, ‘Never again shall we wait for the world to come our savior and support us in the face of evil.’  Today, this could sound quite bellicose for the average individual, almost too eager to justify war.   But the opposite was true then…And so today, without any mass destruction seared into our generation's minds, what makes us withhold from preemptively striking an Iranian regime who denies the holocaust and publicly wishes to erase Israel off the map?  Would Heschel let it get to the feverish pitch level of May 1967 before morally accepting a strike?  It is true that today there are sanctions, and viruses, and now maybe even negotiations.  And that every option must be quite literally exhausted before resulting to force.  And I, like everyone else, hope that some combination will work.  But what history has taught me is that if the hegemony doesn't have a personal stake, it won't help you out.  At the end of the day, then, as a Jew I know that Israel will have my back when no one else does.  That those fighter jets will fly proudly overhead and defend me, because it will always be in Israel's interests to protect me. 

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