published Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

Balázs: Choosing the right side in the Mideast conflict

By Thomas P. Balázs

Last of three parts.

“There’s no safer place in the world for a Jew than Israel,” a neighbor told my wife last week. At the time, they were standing in a bomb shelter outside of Tel Aviv after being alerted to rocket fire.

The recent outbreak of anti-Semitic demonstrations around the world in the wake of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the violent attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses in Europe, the accusations in the media that Jews are out for blood, only reinforce the belief among Israelis that they must protect the one country that exists to protect Jews.

It is a sentiment with which I am predisposed to sympathize.

In my previous columns (July 23 and 29) on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, I suggested that writers on the subject should identify personal interests and ideological commitments rather than pretending to be objective and that everyone should exercise humility when addressing a topic that raises questions about the very nature of truth.

Let me give it a go.

I am an American Jew, married to an Israeli, and am the son of Holocaust survivors. Three of my grandparents and my uncle were killed in the final months of World War II for no other reason than that they were Jewish. Because their parents were murdered for being Jewish, my parents raised me and my brothers as Christians and taught us to hide our Jewish heritage, so as to protect us from anti-Semitism. We kept the secret for most of our lives, though some 10 years ago, I re-embraced Judaism, and one of my brothers married a Jew.

In 1977, when I turned 13, my father told me the family story and swore me to secrecy. I thought my parents’ fears were paranoid and irrational. The world had changed, I figured, and, anyway, we live in America where there is no real anti-Semitism.

I didn’t know that later that same year, a white racist would firebomb Beth Shalom, the synagogue I would attend some three decades later. I didn’t know I would one day move to a neighborhood — Shepherd Hills — that used to exclude Jews. I didn’t know that one day American Nazis would rally at the Hamilton County Courthouse one mile from where my kid goes to pre-school.

I don’t think my parents were so crazy anymore, and this shapes my understanding of the conflict in Israel.

Over the years, I’ve learned that anti-Semitism didn’t start or end with World War II. For almost two millennia Jews in Europe (and in the Middle East, by the way) were targets of savage hatred expressed in outrageous libels, mob violence, state-sponsored and religiously-endorsed discrimination, confiscation of property, torture and death.

With such understanding, I can’t ignore the genocidal language in the Hamas charter calling for the death of Jews no matter how many pundits suggest it’s just a historical artifact that doesn’t reflect the organization’s current political goals.

Like the neighbor in the bomb shelter, my experience has convinced me that Jews need a strong nation of their own, and that if anyone wants to make peace with Israel, they must first demonstrate — in deeds as well as words — that they pose no threat, whatsoever, to its people or its existence.

That is my narrative.

I understand most Palestinians have a different one, one that is equally compelling to them, one that may demand radically different outcomes than does my narrative.

I don’t know what the solution is. I fear the only remedy may simply be to fight it out, both rhetorically and militarily, until the winner’s narrative prevails. That won’t make either side’s story go away or render either less true, but one, inevitably, will have to take a backseat to the other. One can only tolerate ambiguity for so long.

I could muster plenty of arguments for why Americans and Europeans should adopt the Israeli narrative, not because it is “right,” but because the pragmatic results of doing so are ultimately in the interests of those who support democracy, freedom of speech and religion, women’s equality, gay rights, economic prosperity, and, ultimately, peace. But I’ve run out of space, and you can get those arguments — and counterarguments to them — elsewhere.

I will simply conclude by asserting that ultimately, you may have to take a side, even as you acknowledge that your understanding is not “right” in any permanent, universal, or transcendent sense.

Thomas P. Balázs teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is currently in Israel visiting family and working on a novel set in Tel Aviv.

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