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Time for U.S. to examine friendship with Israel


Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” That message has recast a previously laissez faire approach to friendship. It seems particularly apropos right now in light of America’s historic friendship with Israel, a country whose leadership has been on a dangerously intoxicated drive for many months.

It’s a drive that is stretching democracy to breakdown, and it’s long past time for a true friend to intervene.

To criticize Israel’s current policies opens Jews to charges of being traitors and non-Jews to charges of anti-Semitism. All the more admirable then is the courage of those Israeli soldiers who do speak out against the policies of their own government by refusing to serve in the occupied territories. With the Holocaust forever imprinted in their history, Jews know better than most the terrible cost of collective silence in the face of injustice.

For 17 months now the killing in Israel has escalated. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who provoked the early violence, has positioned his enemies as terrorists and brashly invaded Palestinian territory to assassinate, bomb and bulldoze in reprisal for suicide bombings. More than 1,000 Palestinians and almost 350 Israelis have been killed in the current uprising, with an ample number of women, children and innocent noncombatants on both sides.

There would be a clearer definition of the causes and effects of injustice if the Palestinian side were not hell-bent on sending violent messages to protest their living conditions and the theft of their territory. One can only wish the Palestinians were led by a Martin Luther King, dedicated to nonviolent protests. Then it would be clearer that Ariel Sharon is a Sheriff Bull Connor, one backed with nuclear weapons and American aircraft to boot.

In addition to being ruthless, Sharon is also an opportunist who rushed to Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to declare that now Americans would understand what terrorism was and realize that Israel, too, was fighting terrorism. What he didn’t acknowledge, however, was that his policies were also provoking terrorism. The Palestinians may be considered terrorists in the same way that the Native American Dakota were considered terrorists in 1862. And the reasons that some Palestinians resort to terror evoke the reasons some Dakota terrorized settlers in western Minnesota: injustice and despair. Now we recall with sadness that Americans repaid Dakota terror with the largest mass execution in American history and the forced removal of most of the remaining Dakota from their lands.

Today it is again settlers who are helping to deepen Palestinian despair. Not only are the Jewish settlements in Arab territories illegal, but the settlers’ powerful sense of entitlement and preeminence seems to be infecting ordinary Israeli citizens as well. A new poll by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University found that 46 percent of Israel’s Jewish citizens said they supported the “transfer” of Palestinians out of the Arab territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

This is where friends should intervene. Is it Israel’s right to exist or Israel’s right to expand that Americans have been asked to support? If we are not supporting Israel’s expansion through colonization of Arab lands, then why are we not urging Israel to end its 35-year illegal occupation of Arab lands?

As we question our friend Israel, we should also ask ourselves a few questions about the quality of our friendship. How, for example, do we serve the cause of human rights and democracy with unequivocal support of an Israel that treats its Arab citizens as second-class? An Israel whose occupying army has recently been criticized for putting identification numbers on Arab detainees’ limbs, as Nazis once did to Jews? An Israel that sometimes seems to be more a real estate venture than a repository of democracy?

It is time to be a true friend to Israel by speaking the truth: In order for Americans to live by democratic principles, we must insist on justice for Arabs as well as for Jews. Our friendship and support for Israel was based on giving the displaced Jews a homeland, not displacing Arabs from their homeland. It was based on assuring Jews of their dignity, not robbing Arabs of theirs. It is never easy to speak a painful truth to a friend, but true friends don’t let pain stand in their way.

Mary Bader is a writer living in Minnesota.

National Catholic Reporter, March 29, 2002