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Six days until Independence Day, the first one in which the 1996 Will Smith alien-attack film will have a resonance beyond its cheesy one-liners and blockbuster special effects. The cinematic destruction of the White House was far quicker and less painful than the agonizingly slow fall of the World Trade Center, but the targeting of major American cities and symbols and the single-minded fanaticism of the aliens find eerie parallels in the attacks of Sept. 11.
When we took my World War II vet grandfather to see the flick six summers ago, he said half-jokingly that he was so moved by Bill Pullman’s speech to the troops at dawn before the aerial battle with the aliens that he wanted to join the army all over again. “The Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday,” Pullman intones in a raspy voice, “but as the day when the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!” Camera pans to cheering, saluting fighter pilots—a foolproof formula for getting even my grandfather, who claims he would have killed himself if he knew the war would last so long, to feel patriotic goosebumps on his wrinkled arms.
The magic of the movies makes people react in strange ways. But truth is stranger than fiction, and the real-life terrorist attacks on the United States and the latest intifada launched against Israel have made a lot of people—particularly American Jews—react in even stranger ways.
After voting overwhelmingly for Al Gore ’69 and his Jewish running mate, then noisily questioning Bush’s legitimacy, we have fallen into line as the administration’s loyal chorus, unthinkingly accepting every antiterrorism measure and muting our criticism of the administration’s atrocious record on other issues in the hope that Bush will link security at home to support for Israeli security. American Jews, historically at the forefront of every fight for minority rights and expansive civil liberties, have thus freely surrendered to Bush any political leverage they might have had by maintaining a critical perspective.
For example, those concerned about “American Jihad,” the almost-title of the Commencement address delivered earlier this month by Zayed Yasin ’02, decided to make their point in a Crimson advertisement by juxtaposing statements made by Yasin with those made by President Bush—implying that Yasin cannot be an appropriate speaker (or a good American) if he disagrees with W. My mom—whom I have finally convinced to take down the paper American flag adorned with Bush quotes that we received from our local Republican Party—reports that Jews have found a new cable news hero in Alan Keyes, whose homophobic, xenophobic, anti-abortion, Christian chauvinist rants have apparently been overlooked due to the pro-Israel bent of his MSNBC show, “Making Sense.” The Anti-Defamation League’s usually honorable Abraham H. Foxman is the latest Bush apologist, airily dismissing concerns about Bush’s security plans earlier this month in an article entitled “Just Counter-terrorism.”
The Jews are running with a bad crowd. When Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, who once brilliantly debated Keyes on the issue of church-state separation, is perceived as embracing the former presidential candidate on national security issues, Jews lose credibility with their traditional allies—gays, abortion rights supporters, the left. When they kowtow to Bush, they weaken attempts to reach out to unions, to black and Hispanic voters, to university professors who must be persuaded that Israel is not the South Africa of the new millenium. Why do we always fall back on the line that Israel is the one democracy in the Middle East? It’s true—but have black Americans historically had much luck with democracy at home? Why not point out that unlike America, Israel has no racist death penalty, that Israeli society is based not on dog-eat-dog capitalism but on humane social democratic ideals of economic cooperation?
The right wing in America has no love for us—Bush even less than his father, who would never be so openly sectarian as to name Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher. The Bush administration’s only concerns in the Middle East are security (for America) and cheap oil (for America), and Bush and Cheney would sell out Middle East peace in a second if it meant removing Saddam Hussein from power.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the right wing knows that whether Bush panders to the Jews or not, when push comes to shove, they will vote Democratic anyway. American Jews are not the one-issue Florida Cubans; they are Democrats and always have been. So Bush has nothing to lose if he disappoints Harvard Hillel or the those upset about “American Jihad.” They are not swing voters.
I certainly don’t know what the answer is in Israel. I know there must be a Palestinian state and a comprehensive peace in the region, but I don’t know on what terms. Most of the time it seems like all we can do is pray that the great masses of intrinsically reasonable people on both sides come to their senses and realize, as Pullman says in Independence Day, that we must not be “consumed by our petty differences anymore,” but rather “united in our common interests.” Next Thursday, and until that day of understanding comes, let us as American Jews remain faithful to the Magen David by renewing our allegiance to the true principles symbolized by the Stars and Stripes—let us advocate for peace and security in Israel without abandoning the cause of justice in America.
David C. Newman ’03, a Crimson executive, is a government concentrator in Quincy House. He is a Harvard Summer School proctor. Hopefully his mom will stop asking why he never writes anything about Israel.
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