Legitimate Debate on Israel


To the Editors of The Crimson:

John Larew's article, "Israel's Worst Best Friends" (Nov. 29), attacks pro-Israel zealots as so firm in their attachment to Israel that they deny facts, rationalize all violations of morality and gratuitously accuse critics of Israel of being anti-Semitic. As simply as that, Larew has delegitimized all defenders of Israel and has cut short any debate about the realities in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, Larew starts with the assumption that Israel's democracy should imitate America's and any deviation from "the political liberties that we embrace" should lead to an automatic diminishing of American support for Israel. But Israel exists in a completely different geopolitical arena, both internally and externally. How many times in the last 40 years has the United States had to defend itself from an annihilation as Israel has done three times? Does America have a mandatory three-year military draft and military reserves for all men from the age of 21 to 45? Does the United States have specially-made public trash cans designed to withstand a bomb explosion? When was the last time you saw a sign on a bus warning you about suspicious packages? Would America want Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt as neighbors instead of Canada and Mexico? Clearly, there are major differences in the immediate security needs of Israel and America, and these differences necessarily have an effect on the political liberties of those living inside Israel. For example, Israeli Arabs do not serve in the Israeli army. If such a policy were enacted in America, it would constitute an egregious violation of civil rights, yet in Israel this policy is acknowledged as crucial for security, a claim which is easy to defend.

Similarly, human rights violations must be taken in context. A soldier in any country who is being attacked by stones from three different directions is not expected to stand still and take the punishment. Unlike in China and in Algeria, where in the past year peaceful demonstrations were broken up by a hail of gunfire and murder, the Israelis are reacting to the violent protests with considerable restraint. Dealing with such protests is a very difficult, but necessary, task that can never be done "peacefully." That is not to say that no abuses have occurred, but what can one really expect when every day for a period of two years 20,000 soldiers have battled violent demonstrators. Anytime that that many people are in a combat situation for such a long time, abuses will occur. The Israeli government would like nothing better than to end the abuses, but, unfortunately, ending the intifada is not solely the decision of the Israeli government.

When Professor of Law Alan Dershowitz attacks public nativity scenes and defends trials without due process, he is not being hypocritical, as Larew suggests, but is recognizing the vast differences between the reality in constitutional America and the reality in embattled Israel. This recognition seems to elude all those who mindlessly swallow all criticism of Israel as obviously correct. A good example of this simplistic belief in the immorality of Israel appears in Larew's article itself. Larew accuses the "Zealot" who tore down an anti-Israel poster of "denial" of the facts determined by the "indisputable photographic record." There is no defending the student who tore down the poster, but pardon my naivete if I ask what fact is conveyed by a photograph devoid of any context? How do I know that the woman threatened in the poster has not tried to grab the soldier's rifle, as has happened many times during the course of the intifada? And am I just supposed to assume that this one photograph represents a daily occurrence in Israel? Larew's enthusiastic psychoanalysis of the Zealot seems to have dimmed his willingness to judge the situation objectively.


Finally, Larew's assumption that Israeli democracy is eroding has no support. If he wants to say that the treatment of West Bank Palestinians is "undemocratic," then I think he would get little argument from any side; the West Bank is under military occupation--a consequence of Jordan's unsuccessful surprise attack during the Six Day War--and as a result does not even pretend to live under the same rules as the Israeli democracy. Many right-wing Israelis would indeed like to rectify this situation by annexing the territories and including the Palestinians in the state, a solution I assume is unpalatable to most of us at Harvard. Within Israel, democracy itself, as a form of government with which America idenitifies, is alive and well.

I admit that Israel has done some wrong in the last two years. Yet to accept every accusation of civil and human rights abuses as if they were indisputable facts and to assume that Israel's great security risk need not have widespread implications is grossly unfair and intellectually dishonest. I do not desire to deny any and all wrongdoing by Israel--I only want intelligent people at Harvard to look up from their textbooks and see the real context in which things occur. That way maybe people will see the situation in the Middle East in its full moral and political complexity. Joshua Levinsohn '90-91