Schwalb: Torn between emotion and reason

I find that when Israel goes to war, I stop reading the newspaper. When I open the paper, I get physically sick. As a Jewish American, I feel torn and confused. On one hand, I feel cornered by a war I cannot morally support. On the other hand I have sympathy and passion for the country fighting it. I suspect I am not alone in feeling this way.

It may sound naïve, but I never imagined Judaism and support for Israel as necessarily connected. When I was just reaching political puberty at a Hebrew middle school, religion did not prevent me from supporting the Palestinian people. When I was a burgeoning Zionist at a secular high school, I was convinced I could be Jewish and still support Israel based on objective facts and unbiased judgments. I still desperately want to believe in the possibility of dispassionate evaluation of current events, but I am losing my faith.

Political support is not rational; instead, it is enmeshed in the emotions of personal identity. Untangling the two in this issue will take more defined borders, not only between Israel and her neighbors, but also between dimensions of discussion that are often blurred. It is all too easy to confuse identity with politics, the past with the present, governments with their people and current actions with past transgressions. To properly move forward both politically and intellectually, we need to understand the reasons we allow those dimensions to intersect, and to make sure they are kept distinct.

The blend between identity and politics that I had denied for so long hit me in full last Wednesday. A friend of mine asked me, “You’re Jewish, right?” before starting a light tirade against anti-Israel bias in the press. The question implied an automatic support for policy based only on my identity and revealed a lot about the assumptions of this conflict.

This connection is assumed to go the other way, too. About a week ago, an Israeli family friend said, “One thing you can say for Bush is that he’s always been there for Israel. It’s like he is a closet Jew.” More important than the idea that Jews automatically support Israel is the real feeling that the only people who can be depended on to support Israel are Jews. Israel takes security into its own hands because it does not trust the rest of the world. And for good reason. Talk to any supporter of the recent raids and you will hear, “Everyone is criticizing Israel, but where were they when Hamas was stockpiling weapons and using their own people as human shields. Why should we listen to them now?”

I am intellectually inclined to trust the international press. I am outraged by what I believe to be war crimes in the form of air raids. But yet I feel physically under attack by the rallies and criticism across the world of policies that I myself disapprove of. It is a strange and deeply unpleasant feeling. I would like to think I feel uncomfortable because these sort of rallies and news coverage don’t appear for Russian subjugation of Chechnya or human rights atrocities from the Congo to Myanmar. The horror and the death toll from these abusive regimes rival and often exceed the violence in Gaza. The disproportionate focus on Israel makes me deeply suspicious.

But this logic is imperfect. The countries that are home to the rallies and news coverage are in the Middle East, Europe and North America. They are countries that hold real leverage over Israel through (American) funding, (Middle Eastern) threat of intervention and (European) diplomacy through international institutions such as the ICC. As international efforts have demonstrated, this leverage doesn’t seem to work on criminal regimes in Russia or Zimbabwe. The population that cares for human rights might as well focus its efforts on an area where it can bear fruit.

I think, however, my suspicion comes from a deeper level. If I really wanted to untwist my identity from my politics, I probably could. But the fact is that I don’t want to. No matter how ashamed I am of human rights violations in the Gaza Strip, I cannot help but support Israel in the public forum because I know what is around the corner if I don’t.

Just as I wish my religion were separate from my politics, I wish the issue of Israel’s war were different from the issue of its sovereignty. Unfortunately this is not the case. On the first night back on campus this semester, I agreed that the use of air raids was unjustified when my friend said, “The land was stolen anyway.” Rationally, people can separate support for a war from support for a nation. Yet this conflation is made all the time. It sometimes seems an opinion about a single military situation in Gaza amounts to a vote on Israel’s whole existence.

Too many discussions about the modern Middle East resurrect events as old as 1947, or even from Biblical times. The argument about what should be done now must be separated from what happened in the past. Until then the defense of Israel’s policies and the defense of Israel’s birth will remain too intimately tied. And, more important, the past cannot be solved, while the future almost certainly can. The discussion of statehood, the discussion of current policy and the emotions associated with each are different beasts.

To the best of our ability we need to recognize our tendency to conflate these dimensions and then to cut it out. Peace and prosperity for the living should always trump justice for the past.

Nate Schwalb is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.


  • Hieronymus

    I would not mind a more reflective article: why, Nat, would a Jew falter in the face of a force with a main purpose (among others) to annihilate Israel in particular and Jews generally?

    I, for one, am not ready yet to bow down to my Muslim overlords, nor pay the dhimmi tax, nor even accommodate religiosity in a secular world--and I SURE as heck am not gonna sit by while a number of nations use a variety of channels to attack Israel.

    In the grander scheme, why are you conflicted? Just wondering…

  • ls

    i give you alot of credit for taking this on. l

  • Genocide Witness

    Good article, but the difference between Judaism and Zionism needs to be clarified. Zionism is a political movement that is inherently wound up with imperialist projects by outsiders, first Britain, then the U.S. Criticism of this imperialist project has nothing to do, or should have nothing to do, with the religion of people in Israel.

    It is perhaps easier to see the role of Israel, when you see what it does for its sponsor, the U.S. war machine, outside of the Middle East. When the U.S. could no longer invest in Apartheid South Africa, Israel stepped in to break the world boycott (not because Israel is evil, but because it lives by serving the interest of the U.S.). When Carter and Reagan were prevented from selling more weapons to the genocidal leaders of Guatemala in the 70's and 80's, Israel stepped in to supply those weapons to help its sponsor.

    Criticism of Israel is criticism of the U.S. war machine, which includes Israel, whether what Israel does is for itself in Palestine or for the U.S. The occupation of Palestine would not continue one day without the financial and military support. That is clear. What is sadder is that Israel gets to do what it does in Palestine, only because it does what the U.S. requires it to elsewhere, like training right wing death squads in Colombia today.

    I urge the author to question the relation between the U.S. and Israel. It is the nature of this relation, which is unlike the relation between any other two countries, from which injustice arises-- and this has nothing to do with Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.