Why the Left Abandoned Israel
Reclaiming Liberal Support for Israel
Department of Political Science, Boston College
Director, Episcopal-Jewish Alliance for Israel
Speech delivered at Harvard University
for the David Project
March 13, 2003
Let me begin this talk by offering you a few scenes from the past year or so, all illustrative of a profound change in the way that the liberal community, both secular and religious, has come to see the conflict in the Middle East.
- On October 31, 2001, the three leading bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts led a demonstration in front of the Israeli Consulate in New England, proclaiming a "Christian-Muslim alliance" and denouncing "Destruction in Bethlehem".
- In the past year, all over Europe, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have marched in Europe's major cities under the banner of "Liberated Palestine." Among the demonstrators have been many willing to openly proclaim their sympathy and even affiliation with the worst terrorist organizations operating in the world today: Hamas ("Gas the Jews"), the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and others. In Spain, young women in shorts and halter tops wore decorative suicide bomber belts.
- The current month has brought many demonstrations, here and in Europe, against the possibility of a war to remove the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. At these demonstrations there are almost always protestors holding signs calling for an "end to the occupation" and "Freedom for Palestine".
- This past year, South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu - a hero to the liberal and Anglican communities for his work to liberate black South Africans from oppression - announced that Israel is an "apartheid state". This judgment was widely cited in subsequent months by the university divestiture campaigns in the United States, which sought to single out Israel and only Israel as a state unworthy of a relationship with university endowment funds.
No one involved in these demonstrations and pronouncements said anything about the three Arab wars against Israel, which go back to the country's founding, or about the larger Arab war against the Jews, which is even older. At the Bishops' demonstration in Boston, for example, nothing was said about the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which had begun a year earlier, and which had already claimed over 500 dead and more than 4000 seriously wounded in Israel. Nor was anything said about the mission of the Israeli Defense Force in Bethlehem that week, which so disturbed the Episcopal Bishops - namely, to find the terrorists responsible for the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister.
The one-sided character of the Bishops' demonstration was the cause of much comment and concern, especially though not exclusively among Jews. Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, whose idea the protest was, has heard in the ensuing year-and-a-half from many members of his own diocese who were disturbed by the tone and tenor of the protest, especially by its one-sided character. The failure to mention the reasons for the so-called "Israeli incursion into Palestinian territories" had the effect of yanking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of any meaningful historical context, presenting Israeli actions as those of a brutal occupier, rather than the actions of a nation struggling to defend itself against a determined and ruthless enemy - an enemy, moreover, whose publicly announced aim is not the redrawing of this or that boundary, or the satisfaction of this or that grievance - but the extermination of the Jewish State.
It was the Bishops' demonstration that led to my founding of the Episcopal-Jewish Alliance for Israel, an admittedly small organization which counts among its members both Christians and Jews, including several Episcopal priests, and which has now planted colonies in Los Angeles, Washington, Illinois, and even Jerusalem.
But what may have seemed at the time to be the excesses of a few misguided clerics appears now to have been the template for an entire wing of contemporary Christianity, as well as for a large segment of respectable liberal opinion in the West more generally, and for the not very respectable opinion of what might be called the "hard Left". As this audience probably already knows, much of the public discussion of the Middle East conflict in America and in Europe - especially in Europe - ignores history as well as evidence, is quick to believe the worst about Israel and the best about Israel's enemies, and refuses to look without blinders at what Palestinian Arab leaders say and do. And the tendency to think this way about Israel is found most often in precisely those progressive and liberal circles where, a generation ago, Israel's staunchest supporters could be found. It is especially notable in the headquarters of the so-called mainstream Christian denominations: Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Evangelical Lutherans, Methodists, and the United Church of Christ, to name the most prominent.
Here are the things that most liberal Christians, as well as the secular Left, believes about the Arab-Israeli conflict:
- That when Israel sends its security forces into Arab communities on the West Bank and in Gaza, it is "retaliating", thus contributing to a so-called "cycle of violence" for which both sides are equally responsible.
- That Jews who live on the West Bank are religious fanatics no different, in principle, from the Taliban who once ruled Afghanistan (and who, according to the poet Tom Paulin, should be shot on sight).
- That Arabs were forced by European powers to "make room" for the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust - thus making innocent Arabs pay for European sins.
- That all of the land in Palestine once belonged exclusively to Arab owners, who were displaced by Zionists from Europe.
- That there was a massacre in Jenin.
- That Jews take water that belongs to Arabs.
- That were it not for Israeli interference with the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat would long ago have been able to curb terrorism.
I will return to some of these claims later, but for now I want simply to pose this question: What has happened? How did Israel, with its durable traditions of liberty under law, and a proven record of protecting the rights of religious minorities, become the bully in the Middle East? How did a democratic socialist state become a villain, while the fascists and fanatics who have waged war for 50 years become the "innocent victims of colonial oppression?"
It is my purpose today to explore this problem as far as I can. There will be no surprises, I think, but there may be hope. I'm not a theologian; I'm a political scientist and an observer of American and of world politics. I know how public opinion is shaped, and I know that it is never static. The liberal view of Israel, in both its religious and secular manifestations, is the result, I am convinced, of a generation of false teachings about many important things. Yet where others have spread confusion, it is possible to spread clarity - if we have the same patience and persistence as the false teachers themselves.
First, however, we need to identify more clearly the shape of the problem. The subject is liberals and Christians, and so we are talking about two of the most powerful strands of modern opinion. We are not talking about conservatives, then, either secular or religious. Conservative and evangelical Christians are pretty solidly behind Israel, as you know, while more secular conservatives look to Israel as an outpost of democracy in a region of tyrants. There are some exceptions to this generalization - Patrick Buchanan, for example, and Robert Novak, both of them consistently anti-Israel - and there are some reasons to wonder if the evangelical Christian community does not harbor views about Israel that might one day prove troubling - its eager embrace of "end times" theology is only one example. But Israel-bashing does not appear to play very well among American conservatives these days. This is a sign, in fact, of the hope I mentioned above. Just as the Left is now reflexively anti-Israel, so too was the American Right not that long ago. Think of the infamous anti-Semitic exchanges between the Rev. Billy Graham and President Richard Nixon, for example. Conservatives have learned better; and if conservatives can learn, so can liberals. That, at least, is a decent working hypothesis.
But if our subject is liberal Christians and the secular Left, which is the decisive element: is it secular liberalism or is it Christianity? And what is the relative contribution of these two sources of opinion to the particular misunderstanding displayed by the Episcopal Bishops, or by the secular liberals who follow them in everything except their theology. I want to consider the Christian contribution first.
One of the more remarkable aspects of this problem is the uniformity of opinion among at least the leaders of what are usually called the "mainstream" denominations, as well as their main organizational vehicles, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. The mainstream position begins by identifying Palestinian Arabs as the "victims" in this long and terrible conflict. As "victims", our "Palestinian brothers and sisters" deserve our (i.e., Christian and American) support - especially since about 30,000 Arab Christians live in West Bank communities, including a large number of Arab Anglicans in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Since the treatment of the Arabs is held to be "unjust," it follows that Christians have a duty to "witness" on their behalf.
Witnessing for the poor and the outcast has a long and honorable tradition in Christian faith, and there is nothing unusual about sending help to the civilian victims of violent conflict. What has been especially noteworthy in the liberal Christian response to the Middle East conflict, however, is the universal assumption that Israel is to blame, not only for particular actions said to be excessive or counter-productive, but for the conflict in its entirety. So while the mainstream Christian statements always denounce "suicide bombings" and other forms of Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians, it is clear that they are convinced that if there had been no "illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and people," there would not now be any suicide bombings for them to denounce. Arab terrorism is a response, then, to Israeli aggression, or simply to the Israeli presence on so-called "Arab lands".
So where does this prior idea come from, that Israel is the aggressor and the Palestinians are the victims? Does this idea have a specifically Christian genesis?
Liberal Christians often point out that, when God promised Israel to the Hebrews, the land was already occupied, inconveniently, by somebody else. The Jewish presence in the land of Israel therefore began, in this view, as something like an unjust occupation. And of course, the Books of Moses confirm that before the Israelites took possession of the Promised Land, they had to fight many battles with the Cannanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, slaying many kings and warriors and pulling down mighty city walls. What all of this has to do with Arabs, however - who arrived in the 7th Century of the Christian Era, conquering all the peoples, Jews included, from Iraq to Tunisia before moving on to southern Europe - is anyone's guess. My suspicion is that it really has nothing to do with Arabs at all, and everything to do with the unmistakable message of both Hebrew scripture and the Christian New Testament, namely, that the Israelites were a "stiff-necked people" who sinned repeatedly, repeatedly promised to repent, and then fell back into sin once again.
In Christian doctrine this story is supposed to be the human story. All men, like the ancient Hebrews, "rebel against God and fall into sin and death" - as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer has it. All men are therefore candidates for repentance and in need of salvation. But here we come to a peculiar Christian ambivalence: what doctrine tells us is a human story is nevertheless presented in the form of a story that is, inevitably, about Jews. As the chosen people of the Christian Old Testament, Jews appear to occupy a special place in the Christian story: uniquely chosen, but uniquely rebellious, and uniquely judged - emblematic of the human condition, but never ordinary. It is almost as if that first possession of the land of Israel is the original sin for which the Jewish people can never repent enough.
After defining Arabs as the victims of an "unjust and illegal occupation", the liberal Protestant argument invariably turns to a discussion of the "Jewish settlements" as an "obstacle to peace". In this view, the 300,000 Jews living on the West Bank and in Gaza - in the midst of over 2 million Arabs - stand in the way of a peaceful resolution of the dispute over the occupied territories. Why?
Some part of the answer to this question has to do with the security measures taken by the Israeli Defense Force to protect Jewish residents of the disputed territories from terrorists. Roadblocks, fences, security checkpoints: it is obvious that all of these measures make life difficult for Arabs. But it is no less obvious that these measures would be unnecessary were it not for the repeated vows by Hamas and other groups that they will kill the Jews in the West Bank and Gaza.
But it is not really these temporary security measures that underpin the liberal case against the settlements. That case rests rather on ideology: the very presence of Jews on "Arab land" is an intolerable offense against Arab national aspirations. "The crime against the Palestinians," Bishop Shaw said last year, "is a hundred years old."
"A hundred years" takes us far back to a time before security checkpoints, before the establishment of the state of Israel, before the 1917 Balfour Declaration, to a time when modern Zionism as an organizational force had just been born. That is, the crime for which Israel needs to do penance does not, actually, have anything directly to do with Israel itself, which has existed for only half a century, and nothing directly to do even with Britain's famous promise. The crime is a crime that could only have been committed by "Jews" in general. What is that crime? Clearly, it must be the mere assertion that Jews have a right to live in Palestine, where they had been living since long before the arrival of the Arabs.
We know where this idea comes from. It is the standard assertion of Arab propaganda that Jews are "interlopers," that the claim to a historic Jewish connection to the land of Palestine is a "Zionist lie" - as the Palestinian National Covenant still proclaims. In its more moderate form, this argument asserts that Zionists always had a plan - sometimes secret, sometimes not - to "displace" the "indigenous Arab population of Palestine" - which they proceeded to implement during the years before and after the British Mandate, culminating in the final catastrophe of the establishment of the State of Israel.
This is one of the bolder claims made by the critics of Israel, because it flies directly in the face of the quite obvious demographic evidence of the substantial increase in the Arab population of the land that would become Israel and the West Bank between the 1880s and the Second World War. In that period the Arab population grew from approximately 200,000 to just under one million, during exactly the time that the Zionists were supposed to be pushing the Arabs off of their native lands. And since such dramatic population growth could not possibly be the result of natural increase, it can only have come from the migration of Arabs into Western Palestine from other parts of the Middle East - including the 75% of Palestine that became the Kingdom of Jordan in 1922.
In the 1940s the claim of Zionist displacement was taken up by the Arab League, which identified the struggle against European colonialism with the war against the Jews - even though it involved an odious alliance with what was then the most powerful European state, Nazi Germany. It comes to the Anglican and Episcopal churches through the efforts of Naim Ateek at an Arab Anglican theological institute in Jerusalem known as Sabeel; it comes also from the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Riah Abu Al-Assal, who has warmly embraced the leadership of Yasser Arafat. Sabeel had the wit to call what they do "liberation theology," a term liberal Christians find irresistibly seductive. And it comes from individual Arab Anglicans, in Israel and abroad, who have found sympathetic audiences among the Episcopal and Anglican hierarchy.
But to say where it comes from does not explain why it works. Why are liberals, especially mainstream Christian leaders, so willing to accept the argument that Jews have no right to live now where they have obviously lived for so many generations? Why are they so willing to ignore the evidence that the Jewish presence in Palestine actually attracted Arabs rather than displaced them?
To deny the Jewish connection to Palestine is to deny history, not only the history of the Jews, but also the true history of the Arabs, and thus to distort our understanding of the Middle East more generally. But it is also a way of asserting that Jews are somehow different from all of the other peoples in the world who are presently living on land that they came to in the very distant past, or on land that has been claimed by others (the English, the French, the Irish, to name a few) - or on land that was once upon a time occupied by somebody else. This latter category would include nearly every human community, given the continuous movement of peoples from place to place from pre-historic times to the present. It would certainly include the Arabs, who came to Palestine from Arabia three millennia after the Hebrews arrived, and six centuries after the Romans gave the name "Palestine" to the place that had previously been called, variously, Israel, or Judah, or Judea and Samaria. But most obviously and most importantly, of course, this latter category would include all of the non-indiginous citizens of the United States of America.
And now we are getting a little bit closer to the bone.
For Jews, you see, are not the only chosen people; Americans are a chosen people also. When John Winthrop referred to Boston as " a City upon a Hill," he meant to liken it to Jerusalem, and Americans too are frequently judged to have been, or to be, a stiff-necked people in rebellion against the Lord. Like the ancient Hebrews, like contemporary Jews, Americans are to be judged by different standards. Having been uniquely chosen, we are to be uniquely judged. We have sinned, and what we possess so confidently as our own promised land is held by a title whose defects are measured by our own imperfections.
Here is where I think a certain understanding of Christian doctrine fatally intersects the doctrines of contemporary liberalism, resulting in the otherwise inexplicable distortions we find in the mainstream Christian account of the conflict in the Middle East, as well as the puzzling alliance between mainstream Christians and the wretched remnants of Europe's disgraced Communist parties - not to mention the curious willingness of mainstream Christians to treat Yasser Arafat with a respect they are unwilling to show to Israeli leaders, or even to the current President of the United States. When liberals look at Israelis, they see (or think they see) themselves: surrogate Americans acting out an American arrogance, taking what belongs by right to others, living in comfort while the others live in squalor. Thus the familiar but false accusations: Israelis steal Arab land and Arab water; they trash the Arab economy just for spite, and bulldoze Arab homes, just as Americans stole the continent from its original inhabitants, just as we now despoil the planet, taking an enormous portion of resources for the use of a tiny fraction of the world's population. The world is poor, according to this view, because we are rich. This is our original sin.
There are many versions of this argument, some more extreme than others. Lately, college campuses have taken up the theme that "global justice" requires not only that America keep its hands off of Saddam Hussein, but that America should stop opposing the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. Many church leaders have adopted a version of the "just war" doctrine that ignores self-defense, in favor of vaguely defined "international tribunals" or "international peace-keepers."
Meanwhile, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, the Rev. Frank Griswold, pronounces himself "ashamed to be an American." Earlier this year, Bishop Griswold said, "We [meaning Americans, of course, not Episcopalians] are loathed, and I think the world has every right to loathe us because they see us as greedy, self-interested and almost totally unconcerned about poverty, disease and suffering." Note the revealing syntax: the world has a "right" to hate us because "they see us as" greedy, etc. The Presiding Bishop is not quite willing to come out and say that we are greedy, self-interested, and unconcerned about poverty, disease and suffering - because this would fly in the face of 50 years of post-war foreign aid. He prefers to rest his moral judgment on what other people "think" - whether they are right to think this way or not appears to be immaterial.
The Presiding Bishop's statement earned him a well-deserved rebuke from former President Bush, who pointed out that American foreign aid has helped to lift out of poverty nations that are now productive and self-supporting, such as India, Japan, and (dare we remind them?) Europe.
That these complaints about America are liberal and not specifically Christian in their origin is suggested by two significant facts: these arguments are made by roughly the same people who said, after the butchery of September 11, 2001, that Americans need to think about "why we are so hated around so much around the world", a group that includes mainstream Christians like Bishop Griswold, liberal Jews, the heroes of the secular Left like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky, and the leaders of our earstwhile allies Canada and Mexico. This way of thinking has become, in fact, the conventional wisdom of modern liberalism, in all of its forms, secular and Christian, far left and moderate left, in America, in Europe, and elsewhere. It has infected much of the mainstream media, and is the official doctrine of National Public Radio; it is the only opinion tolerated among America's pop stars and Hollywood celebrities (is it really true that every celebrity has mobilized against the war?), and it is the official doctrine at most of America's leading (and not-so-leading) colleges and universities.
Nor is it difficult to see where such doctrines came from. I was a college student in the 1960s; I was therefore present at the creation of this particular mythology. As a member of the Students for a Democratic Society and the editor of a left-wing student magazine called The Activist (I even shared a cover with Noam Chomsky) I may even have played some small role in promoting it, though that is certainly not what I thought I was doing at the time. But beginning in the 1960s, the very real failings of American democracy led, by a process of ideological distortion that has been noted by scholars on the left and the right - from my colleague Alan Wolfe to the conservative historian Roger Kimball - to the teaching that the United States was and is a uniquely bad place, a false democracy, an imperialist aggressor - not, as Abraham Lincoln said, "the last best hope of mankind," but the center of an international alliance of tyrants and corporate criminals.
The generation that carried this message on banners has been teaching it in thousands of high school and college classrooms for 30 years. The Left's understanding of American history has become the dominant paradigm in the academic world, so much so that to teach respect for the American Founding, or for its constitutional traditions, or even for the idea of constitutional democracy itself, is to risk the accusation of irrelevance (at best). Those who do so are more often said to be secretly anti-democratic, friends of elitism, and enemies of the people - just like those Republican Supreme Court justices who are said to have stolen the election for George W. Bush, just as our wicked Founding Fathers would have wanted them to do.
When Israel fought its Arab invaders in 1967 and 1973 the American Left was not yet fully under the spell of this worldview, and the nation's campuses were not yet firmly under the spell of the Left. I can remember that the general view on campus in 1967 was that Israel was a democratic and socialist state under attack by fascist dictators and religious fanatics. In any case, the deceptively quick Israeli victory in that war, and the overwhelming presence of the war in Vietnam as a campus political issue, made the Israeli-Arab conflict a matter of relatively small concern, even to many Jewish students.
By 1973, however, things were already beginning to change, and Europe was taking the lead - with France, as usual, at the head of the class. Motivated in part by the open threat of an Arab oil boycott, the European Community agreed to endorse the Arab League's view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. No more Mirage fighter jets for Israel - the beginning of Israel's close reliance on American arms sales for its own survival. And during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the EC insisted that no European state should allow American supply planes bound for Israel to refuel at a European airport - a policy that Portugal was induced to ignore only after a very sharp diplomatic rebuke from President Nixon.
By the 1980s the situation had changed remarkably. Israel's campaigns against the terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon provoked a very different reaction on campus, though it was in principle the same war against the same enemy, only on different geographic terrain. Now, however, the message from the Left was that Israel was an invader, an occupier, a brutal colonial oppressor picking on the weak and defenseless. In other words, it was just like America.
In The Republic, Socrates observes that the institutions of even the best city will be undermined when its ruling class ceases to believe in the regime's governing principles, and especially in its understanding of justice. American progressives - most of them members of the American Establishment - lost faith in the idea of constitutional democracy because of its apparent inability to respond to the challenges of modern industrialism. But what was a principled concern for men like John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1920s and 1930s had become, by the 1980s, a formulaic rejection by the Left of the very principle of constitutional democracy itself, and from more temperate liberals, a kind of weary and grudging acceptance. This explains, I think, a phenomenon that others have noticed and found disconcerting: namely, the reluctance of many liberals - otherwise decent and thoughtful people - to defend America in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Aside from the lives of the innocent, what is there about America that is worth defending? they seem to be asking. Capitalism? The Electoral College? Corrupt political campaigns? Enron? They cannot believe that America would be attacked precisely because it is a successful, modern liberal state, or because it is (with well-known exceptions) tolerant, democratic, and benign - or that America's wealth and power are the products of those very qualities, and of that very political system, for which progressives have been taught to have such contempt, and for which others, less ideological, have such ambivalent feelings. How could America's wealth and power be a sign of its virtue when we know, or at least have been taught, that America's wealth was stolen from others, and that its power is a threat to world peace?
How could America possibly be a victim?
How could Israel, so like America, be a victim?
For that matter, how could Christians be victims - as they are in fact in all of the lands where radical Islam has triumphed - as in the Sudan, for example, where nearly 2 million black African Christians have been murdered over the past two decades - though the mainstream churches are deaf and blind to the tragedy? Or as they have been in the areas under the control of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, where the Arab Christian population has declined by two-thirds in the past decade?
In other words, for the generation that learned the distorted lessons of the Sixties and Seventies, the events that have occurred in the past decade, and especially in the past few years, do not make any sense, and for that reason can not have happened. From the collapse of the Soviet Union to the rise of radical Islam, the whole decade has been a frontal assault on the core assumptions of contemporary progressives. Leon Weiseltier noted in The New Republic last year that in the obscenely inappropriate response of the "cultural left" to the destruction of the World Trade Center - for example, the infamous remark that Ground Zero was "the greatest work of art in the world today" - you could "hear the sound of frameworks exploding". The conventional frames of reference by which we all interpret the world had, for most liberals, become so divorced from reality that the only way to respond to the destruction of the World Trade Center was to pretend that something else entirely had taken place there.
Unfortunately, this is not just a habit of the hard Left. Mainstream Christian leaders are extremely reluctant to say, for example, that the World Trade Center towers were "destroyed". This would naturally raise the question of who destroyed them, which would lead to the even more difficult question of how to defend ourselves. This is why so many sincere and decent liberals, and not just Christians, will unconsciously prefer the passive tense when talking about what happened on September 11, 2001. What happened on that day will be described as a "tragedy". The towers "came down", or they "collapsed". When decent and intelligent people will not see what is happening right before their eyes, on live television, it must be because they are trying very hard not to think. And we can easily guess what it is they are trying very hard not to think about.
They are trying very hard not to think that this time America might be right, that their own country might be the victim rather than the aggressor, that our own civilization might actually be better than the one that has vowed to destroy it, above all that we might have the right to defend ourselves, even with force -- even if, tragically, our doing so will put the lives of innocent people at risk. Because if they were to concede that even for a moment, much of what they believe about the political world would unravel, and they would find themselves alone in cosmos, staring into the face of chaos. How much easier to see what happened on 9/11 as one more occasion to demand that Americans repent the sins of power and prosperity. Instead of engaging in difficult mental labor, progressives can reclaim the moral high ground from the blue-collar cops, firefighters, and soldiers who have held it ever since -by playing the familiar role of expiator.
So liberals, led by mainstream Christians, have redoubled their effort to portray modern terrorism as something other than what it is. In this effort, Israel becomes a necessary surrogate for America. Liberals will say that Muslims are understandably angry at America's "unbalanced" policy in the Middle East - as if the same Arab street whose denizens believe that "the Jews" blew up the World Trade Center could be expected to have a comprehensive knowledge of American foreign policy over the past 40 years. Do Arabs know, for example, who helped Egypt hang onto the Suez Canal in 1956? Or who persuaded Israel not to seize Arafat in Beirut in 1981, but let him go into exile in Tunisia? Do Arabs know that the United States has been the single largest contributor to the UN relief agency that cares for Palestinian refugees, and that until 1973 the second largest contributor was the State of Israel?
The Arab street knows none of this, and neither, for the most part, does the Arab intelligentsia. Nor do Arabs know very much about the Oslo peace process, or about the Clinton Administration's pressuring of Israel to make even more concessions than Oslo required.
It is easy to explain why Arabs in the Middle East have such a distorted view of American foreign policy. They live in nations where there is no freedom of speech, no free press, no free universities, no freedom of inquiry - and where governments seek to blame others for their own failures. What is harder to explain is why mainstream Christians and their secular counterparts know scarcely more than the Arab street. Isn't it all about oil anyway? Or Jewish settlements on "Palestinian land"?
So liberals simply drop the Oslo Accords into the memory hole, along with the three Arab wars and the 50 years of terrorism against civilians. Liberals talk as if none of these things ever happened . And since most people in the pews and in the classrooms don't already know what happened, the liberal argument is easier to sell in the mainstream churches and on college campuses than one might have supposed.
The problem presented by mainstream Christians and their views on Israel is therefore both more important and more complicated than it might have appeared at the beginning. We know it is important because of the danger it presents to Israel. If I am right, however, the liberal view is a danger to the very survival of liberal democracy, wherever it currently exists. This might seem a hysterical fantasy were it not for the events taking place in what the historian Bat Ye'or has rightly labeled "Eurabia." On the European continent there is now a clear and powerful alliance among forces that might otherwise appear to be unrelated: the Old Left, the Old Right, and a substantial portion of Europe's 32 million Muslim immigrants - poor, unemployed, unassimilated, deeply anti-Semitic and alienated from the institutions of liberal democracy. There are attacks on Jews and Jewish property - schools, temples, cultural centers - every day in France, for example, while the French government continues to deny the revival of antisemitism in their own backyard.
And it is easy to see why the situation is so much worse in Europe than it is in America: in Europe, support for the principles of constitutional democracy is even weaker than it is in America, because the Left is so much more powerful, and has been for many decades. Partly this is a consequence of the terrible failures of liberal democracy in the 1930s. With the exception of Britain, Europe's parliamentary regimes disgraced themselves when faced with the greatest moral peril of the century. Having succumbed to fascism and communism, free institutions were painstakingly rebuilt over a period of two generations, mostly by the United States. Some democratic governments are only a decade old. Some, like Russia's, may never take root. But none of them, as Pierre Manent has argued, has received the principled loyalty of Europe's elites, who display no taste for, or understanding of, the requirements of the modern democratic state, embracing an entirely fanciful vision of internationalism - globaloney on a continental scale, backed by the power of German banks. Can it be that they are really ashamed that America had to save them, first from the Nazis and then from the Soviets? Do they secretly think (like the novelist John Le Carre, who first taught us that there is no principled difference between the KGB and the CIA) that they are really not worth saving at all?
When Europe's elites lost the ability to make a moral distinction between Israel and its enemies, they lost the ability to defend themselves and their own institutions. And what is true of secular leaders is true also of Europe's Christians, who display a more advanced version of the moral confusion found among mainstream churches in America. The future of Christianity is not therefore in Europe, but in the Americas (maybe), in Africa (definitely) and in Asia.
That is why the liberal and mainstream Christian view has a wider significance than the Israeli-Arab conflict. Why is it more complicated? If I am right in this analysis, then dispelling liberalism's moral confusion about modern terrorism, in the Middle East and around the world, is the only way to prevent modern liberalism from committing suicide. Everything that Christian and secular liberals claim to cherish is anathema to the Islamist enemies of Israel and America: civil liberties, multiculturalism and tolerance, religious freedom and the separation of church and state, the equality of women, civil rights for gays, collective bargaining, conservation of natural resources - everything liberalism has fought for since the turn of the 20th century is slated for extermination in the world-wide Islamic state that is the demented fantasy of Al-Queda, Hamas, and all their wretched kin. But having lost the will to defend Israel (the only country in the Middle East where these goals are a reality), or to defend Christianity (whose vision of the equal dignity of all men is the forgotten first principle of modern liberalism), or to defend America (the nation that brought the light of liberty into the modern world) - could it be that liberals have even lost the will to defend liberalism itself?
I said at the beginning of this talk that there would be no surprises, but some reason to hope. Here it is. What liberals believe today they did not believe thirty and forty years ago. What some of them believed a few years ago, they no longer believe - such as Christopher Hitchens, who said goodbye to The Nation magazine after their anti-Americanism became too much even for an irascible expatriate Brit, or Oriana Fallaci, who revealed the moral emptiness of the modern left and paid the price of exile. The moral confusion of liberalism is the result of a long period of exposure to false teachings, but no state of opinion is static, and everyone can see clearly where they once saw only fog.
How? There is a simple but not very inspiring answer to this question. The antidote to moral confusion is patient and persistent conversation, in churches and temples, in schools, in letters to the editor, in a thousand back-fence and kitchen table conversations - in all those places where opinion is shaped in a free country. Liberals say they believe in many good things, such as peace, justice, and human rights, and we can take them at their word. What they need to learn is that the protection of peace and justice requires the thoughtful and principled defense of America and Israel -two nations whose peoples are locked in a battle with the worst threat to liberty since the days of Hitler and Stalin.
But what would we teach our bishops and deacons and our national councils, if we had the chance, about the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict? And what constructive role can Christians play in helping to resolve this terrible conflict that has caused so much suffering?
We should teach the importance of the moral choice that this conflict presents, not just to Christians, but to all people of good will who seek a lasting peace in the Middle East. The war against Israel is not motivated by a conflict over land, but over the hatred of Jews, and a desire to see them once again second-class citizens in a Muslim empire. The continuation of this conflict is fueled by cynicism on the part of Arab governments, who have no desire to see a PLO-dominated state anywhere in the Middle East, but who are eager to feed the anti-Semitic and anti-American delusions of their own oppressed peoples. As long as they can blame everything on the Jews, they don't have to explain to their own subjcts why there are no jobs, no clean water, no housing, and no hope.
Until they can no longer do these things, life cannot improve for the Arab masses who have been so poorly served by their own leaders for so many generations. And until our own Christian leaders are willing to see clearly the true nature of this conflict, their words of encouragement for those same Arab masses can only empower the most self-destructive conduct imaginable.
As Christians we have a special responsibility to both Jews and Arabs.
To the Jews, we owe our best efforts to combat the spread of anti-Semitism, whose main source in these times is the Arab Middle East. Not only is this a clear moral duty, it would be folly to do anything else, given what anti-Semitism has done to the civilized world wherever and whenever it has appeared.
To the Arabs, we owe the duty of candor. We must say to them something like this:
Yes, you are suffering; but no, you cannot blame it on the Jews. As long as you do, you will continue to suffer. You are not the only victims, and you are not the most pitiable people in the world - there are people suffering far worse torments than you do, who are far less responsible for their own condition. (Think of Rwanda or South Sudan.) Reject the terrorist leadership - and more importantly, reject their terrorist worldview that underpins their power. Reject the anti-Semitic libels and the hateful nonsense that goes with them: people who believe that Jews drink the blood of Muslim children will believe absolutely anything. Reject Arafat and the PLO. Admit your own responsibility for the continuation of this conflict, and you, and we, will have taken the first step toward a generation of peace.
Emir Faisal [one of the leaders of the Arab revolt against the Turks] also saw the Zionist movement as a companion to the Arab nationalist movement, fighting against imperialism, as he explained in a letter to Harvard law professor and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter on March 3, 1919, one day after Chaim Weizmann presented the Zionist case to the Paris conference. Faisal wrote:
"The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement....We will wish the Jews a hearty welcome home....We are working together for a reformed and revised Near East and our two movements complete one another. The Jewish movement is nationalist and not imperialist. And there is room in Syria for us both. Indeed, I think that neither can be a real success without the other (emphasis added)."