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The Danger of the Dangers

December 9, 2011

Seventy years ago this week, Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor “a day which will live in infamy.” He was right. The attack has remained, in the memories of Americans and of much of the West, synonymous with unprovoked violence, gross American unpreparedness, and ultimately, a devastating Japanese strategic mistake.

To a battered Jewish world, though, that “day of infamy” may have been a blessing in a horrific disguise.  For matters could have been much worse had the Japanese not attacked. Absent that Japanese provocation, how much longer would it have taken for the United States to enter the war? How much more of Europe might Hitler have conquered had Japan not awakened the hibernating American giant-to-be? How much stronger would his grip on North Africa have become? How many more Jews would have been lost? Had he seized the Yishuv, could a Jewish state ever have arisen?

What was a “day of infamy” to many was a day of salvation for others. The Japanese attack was both a horror and a relief. It caused untold suffering, but may have saved the free world. There’s a lesson to be learned from that – dangers come in many different forms – and so does salvation.

It’s become popular, these days, to warn that 2011 is looking ever more like 1938. And to an extent, that’s true. There are, indeed, dangers, and the similarities are eerie. Once again, the Jews – and this time, their state – are singled out for opprobrium, and once again, the West pretends not to notice. Israel is the only country on the planet about which there’s a debate regarding its right to exist. The United States and Europe know what Iran is up to and what its intentions are, but for years did virtually nothing. Neville Chamberlain would have been proud.

Once again, fear and hatred of the Jews comes from the most bizarre quarters. Even as Israel was battling the second intifada, Europeans ranked North Korea and Israel as the two greatest threats to world peace. Hamas runs one of the most misogynous regimes on the planet, doing nothing, for example, to stop honor killings in which fathers execute their adult daughters for alleged sexual improprieties – yet American college students (including women, of course) urge international support for Hamas – because the Jewish state simply must be stopped.

And as was the case in the 1930s, resurgent nationalism fuels itself by lashing out at the Jew. Iran shares no border with Israel, but urges its destruction. Even before the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis fared so well in Egypt’s recent elections, the secular government rattled its sabers and hinted at the possibility of terminating its peace with Israel.

Rebuffed by the EU, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made exacerbating tensions with Israel a cornerstone of his foreign policy. With Syria’s Bashar Assad ever more likely to fall, when will conflict with Israel be his most logical next step, since hatred of the Jew is one of the few things that can still unite Syrians?

Yes, there are discomfiting parallels. Close to home and far away, real dangers lurk. But there is also danger to the danger. Utterly convinced that the world is aligned against us, it’s too easy to conclude that we have no choice but to man the barricades and to fire away until we’re out of ammo. Then, we imagine, we’ll deal with whatever’s left after the dust settles.

But while that sort of Armageddon thinking may make for gripping Hollywood scenes, it does nothing to promote wisdom. When Michele Bachmann  addresses an American Jewish conference proclaiming “not one inch” and thousands of Jews leap to their feet with calls of “Bachmann for President,” we’re in hysteria-land.

Ariel Sharon did not say “not one inch.” Binyamin Netanyahu does not say “not one inch.” Even Avigdor Lieberman, toiling tirelessly to create a state in which few of us would want to live, does not say “not one inch.” But people love a rallying cry, especially in the face of danger. Bumper stickers, after all, are so much more appealing than thinking.

Michele Bachmann knows better than all of Israel’s leaders? So, too, do the wildly cheering crowds at New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel? Of course there’s no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the present moment. But “not one inch” as a policy means “war forever.” Yet that’s OK, isn’t it? It’s fun to cheer Michele Bachmann in a New York hotel. So what if it means that Israelis will continue to die, year after year, endlessly? What are we going to cheer instead? Moderation? Thought?

That’s where 1938 will get you.

Once you know the world is one big danger, you just batten down the hatches and toss thinking to the wind. European governments fund left-leaning organizations that rightly worry us? Let’s create convoluted laws to tax the funding into insignificance.

Let’s tamper with the Supreme Court (one of Israel’s few well-functioning governmental bodies, whatever one might think of some of its rulings) while we’re at it. It doesn’t matter that the government’s recent slew of legislative innovations has horrified both centrist Israelis and Zionist American Jews, or that it has elicited warnings from world leaders. After all, these are dire times.

Who can afford the luxury of worrying about Israel’s fragile democracy (how many Israeli immigrants came from countries where democracy was well-established? – very few, of course) and how easily the enterprise could topple. No – those are the concerns of yefei nefesh – naïve “liberals” who care about silly things like values.

After all, there are enemies out there… we have to get them before they get us.

Or do we? Despite all the similarities to 1938, let’s not lose sight of the overwhelming differences. American Jews of 2011 are nothing like the timid, intentionally invisible Jews of 1938. Millions of American Christians are passionate, politically powerful supporters of Israel. Congressional support is solid. The Jews are no longer landless and homeless, but sovereign. Much of the West is even awakening (though admittedly too slowly) to the dangers of Iran and radical Islam.

To be sure, we have enemies. And too many of our friends are complacent, naïve and ignorant. But we’re not the forgotten, powerless, ignored masses that we were 70 years ago.

Is this the moment to abandon any semblance of moderation, to risk becoming our own worst enemies by destroying from within what our foes would destroy from without? Last time around, our enemies made terrible strategic mistakes that ultimately led to their downfall. What if they do not do that this time? Are we determined to make the mistakes for them?

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