Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

09 January 2009

“I Don’t Want to Think About It!”


At one time or another, almost every Jewish kid has heard those words from an adult relative. They usually come after the age of reason, when Jewish kids—who learn to argue well and early—catch their elders in logical contradiction from which there is no escape. Often what triggers the explosion are simple questions: “What next? What now?”

I wonder how Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni or either of the two Ehuds (Barak and Olmert, Defense and Prime Minister, respectively), would answer those questions. After you’ve destroyed the weapons smugglers’ tunnels, collapsed another hundred or so buildings in Gaza, made another thousand widows and orphans, and “earned” a few weeks of peace from rocket attacks, what then?

Do you wait another few weeks or months for the Gazans to restock their supplies and nurse their hatred and do it all again? How long do you keep 1.5 million people confined under increasingly dire conditions in what a neutral American journalist describes as the biggest prison on Earth? How long do you continue to pour new settlers into the West Bank, making a two-state solution impossible?

Livni and the two Ehuds are all skilled politicians. So of course they would never cry “I don’t want to think about it!” But do they have an answer to Israel’s current predicament? Does anyone?

You’d have to be brain dead not to understand that Israel’s position becomes more precarious with every passing day. Its army is strong enough; every able-bodied person must serve. Its technology is second to none. It is presumed to have nuclear weapons. But its Jews are vastly outnumbered in an increasingly hostile Arab and Muslim world. It enemies’ demographics are producing millions of angry youth on a trajectory far steeper than Israel’s.

Worst of all, what’s happening in Gaza is turning global public opinion against Israel. And what about America, Israel’s champion and protector? As its demographics change and non-white ethnic groups claim their rightful place in politics and power, what will they think? Will they continue to identify with the Jews of the Holocaust, which is now over sixty years old? Or will they sympathize with the suffering of Gazans that their TV screens show today?

It wasn’t always so. A mostly assimilated American Jew, I can remember reading Leon Uris’ Exodus as a kid. “What an inspiring story!,” I thought.

A close-knit, highly educated and deeply religious people, dispersed for 2,000 years, rediscovers their ancestral home. They return after two millennia and a Holocaust that nearly wipes them out. They build a strong, noisy, disputatious democracy on the foundation of free markets, rampant capitalism, innovation, and some of the world’s best technology.

A tiny nation of only a few million people, they become an object of mostly sympathetic global attention and a world leader of sorts, despite a minuscule population and unusual customs. Their creativity and resilience evoke begrudging admiration even from enemies.

Now look at them today. I do, and sometimes I feel disgust. If you could resurrect the Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto and bring them back to look at Gaza today, they would stare in stunned amazement and ask, “Jews are doing this?”

I know, I know. I’m fortunate to live in a peaceful American city. I don’t have to contend with Palestinian rockets falling though my roof, bringing death and destruction. It’s easy for me to be disgusted when I don’t have to make hard choices, when my life and my loved ones are not on the line.

But is there any logical or rational exit strategy? Is there any escape from this endless cycle of violence? I don’t want to think about it.

I’m not the only one. Bob Simon, an austere, steely-eyed CBS reporter who has spent more than ten years in the region, now believes the “two-state solution” is dead. He thinks massive Jewish settlements in the West Bank killed it, leaving little room for a Palestinian state with contiguous territory, decent roads, and no checkpoints.

History, Bob Simon says, has passed the two-state solution by, because too many Jewish Israeli settlers have made it unviable politically and militarily. And he’s one of the best and most experienced reporters on the region.

So what next? What now? A one-state solution doesn’t sound very happy. An Israel that absorbs the Palestinian masses would become majority Muslim in a generation, something the Jews—let alone the many Jewish extremists—would never accept. Possible alternatives are Palestinian annihilation of the Jews or vice versa. I don’t want to think about that.

I’m an optimist. It’s in my genes. But even through my lens of cockeyed optimism, I can see only one way out. As I argued two posts ago, think people, not ideas.

Where would South Africa be without Nelson Mandela? The black majority could have risen up and created the bloodbath that everyone feared. The result might look something like Zimbabwe. The white masters of Apartheid could have tightened the screws in an increasingly draconian police state, creating a caricature of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany bent on racial oppression. The black political rebellion could have burst into open warfare, challenging the white minority’s better weapons and technology and making most of the country look like Gaza right now, but for generations to come.

We owe the difference between these nightmare scenarios and the peaceful, democratic, and productive South Africa of today to one man: Nelson Mandela.

Will there ever be a Palestinian Mandela? As a youth, Mandela assiduously prepared for the violent revolution that everyone thought inevitable. After 27 years in prison, he mellowed and found a peaceful way to achieve majority rule. What a price to pay, but what a glorious result! Mandela is an incomparable hero, a living martyr, a man who spent the best years of his life in a miserable prison cell so that millions of others—black and white—could live in peace, prosperity and freedom.

Can those unique conditions ever be duplicated in Palestine? First of all, you’d need someone wise enough to realize that another three generations of grinding, degrading violence are not the answer. To earn Palestinian credibility, he would have to come from the Intifada. He would have to work for violence for years and then renounce it, without renouncing the cause of freedom. Like Mandela’s, his epiphany would come with age and wisdom, maybe in prison or exile. Finally, Israel would have to have a counterpart, like South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk, smart enough to realize that the Palestinian Mandela was its last chance and to grab the brass ring of peace before it lurched out of grasp.

The chances of all this happening in Gaza are about as great as those of drawing to an inside straight flush. Not even a skilled bluffer would bet on such an outcome.

But what other chance is there for peace in the region? What next? What now? What can we do but sit and wait for a Palestinian Mandela? I don’t want to think about it.

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