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Missing the war

Author Samuel Freedman probes the split in Israeli-American Jewish perspective

Issue: "Exit strategies," Aug. 5, 2006

In 1967 when Israel fought Arab forces, Jews across America emptied their bank accounts to support the Israeli cause. Some made aliya, or pilgrimage to Israel, as a show of solidarity. In what Samuel G. Freedman calls the Iran-Israel war, a Jewish outpouring in America is, by contrast, muted-a reflection of increasingly fractured Jewish belief, culture, and community explored in the Columbia University journalism professor's fourth book, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.

WORLD: In The Jerusalem Post you recently wrote, "No aspect of daily experience more separates American and Israeli Jews than the role of military service and the broader sense of physical power and a classless society that it has come to represent." How does our relative ignorance of soldiering-for American Jews but also Americans in general-affect our view of the present conflict?

FREEDMAN: I think it cuts two ways. When you have an army of conscripts, a people's army, you as a nation are more cautious about decisions of going to war. In the U.S., the fighting and dying are done by volunteers and that leads to a disconnect with the rest of society. The burden is unequally borne. And the elite part of society tends to be the most detached from the experience of military service.

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WORLD: Is this a change from American Jewish perspective on the Arab-Israeli War (Six Day War) in 1967?

FREEDMAN: It's a change, in that the majority of American Jews as of 1967 had grown up during a period of both wartime and peacetime conscription. There was a firsthand experience of the necessity of force of arms, or at least of armed deterrence.

WORLD: Do American Jews, distanced too from persecution these days, have a sense of what it means to live alongside enemies who want to wipe them out?

FREEDMAN: I think that those American Jews who don't have family or friends in Israel or have not spent a substantial amount of time there cannot adequately conceive of what the threat is like. Instead, too many American Jews get all exercised out of proportion to supposed enemies here, whether they are the religious right or pro-Palestinian professors and speakers on some campuses. It's a luxury to consider those people "threats."

WORLD: What else are we missing about the Israeli perspective that may help explain what UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls Israel's "excessive use of force"?

FREEDMAN: That Israel has at least attempted to warn civilians with leaflets, phone calls, etc. That Hezbollah uses a tactic of embedding its fighters and arms among civilians. That a ceasefire that gives Hezbollah the sense of having fought Israel to a standoff will only embolden it for future attacks-and will embolden jihadist Islam against the West. WORLD: Do Israel's actions against Lebanon bother you?

FREEDMAN: Of course, it's heartrending to see death, injury, and displacement among civilians. I have Lebanese-American friends and students with relatives in Lebanon who have been scared witless. No rational human being could be inured to that.

WORLD: On the other side it seems that time and time again we see weak Arab governments unwilling or unable to curb armed militant factions. Yet Lebanon at one time was tough on Yasser Arafat and has made strides toward building democracy and economic opportunity. Why does it tolerate Hezbollah?

FREEDMAN: Lebanon didn't oust Arafat. The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] forced him and the PLO out after a 10-week siege. I think the Lebanese government hoped, as did many Westerners and even some Israelis, that with Israeli withdrawal in 2000, Hezbollah would revert more into a political party. And, in part, the Lebanese government knows its own army is outgunned by Hezbollah and can't possibly win in a military confrontation.

WORLD: American evangelical Christians often side with Israel and see its success and survival in apocalyptic terms, perhaps even to a greater degree than many American Jews. How does that affect a political solution for Israelis and Palestinians?

FREEDMAN: Israel is glad to have friends and everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but personally, I find it deeply unsettling to think of the current fighting as a necessary part of a divine plan.


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