Over the past several weeks the world has watched as Israel has taken action in Gaza. From the intense bombing raids that marked the beginning of the war on Dec. 27 to the current images of Israeli troops in the suburbs of Gaza City, the media accounts of the impact of the war on the residents of Gaza have been omnipresent. Pictures of bodies and physical destruction have been replayed on every news network in a seemingly endless loop.
Not too many years ago, pictures, stories and claims such as we have seen would have provoked massive demonstrations in Washington, D.C., New York and other large urban centers around the country — to say nothing of the nation’s campuses. The predictable coalition of “Third World” activist organizations would have had little difficulty in mobilizing their constituents and countless others in marches, teach-ins and “mobilizations” to display their solidarity with Hamas and the people of Gaza. Inveighing against “Western and Zionist imperialism” is a time-tested clarion call that drew demonstrators like magnets draw iron. Whether it was the Lebanese war of 1982, the several intifadas, or various Israeli-Arab confrontations over the past three decades, the responses were predictable and sizeable.
The 2006 Lebanese war drew a more muted reaction than those of prior years. The demonstrations seemed animated and driven by Arab-American groups and the hard left (e.g. groups like the ANSWER Coalition), which transparently had Lebanon and Palestinians on their agenda because of the left’s own anti-American bent, not because of a history of activism or deep concern for Palestinian causes. The protracted war of that year didn’t generate the groundswell of support that had been the hallmark of anti-Israel activism in prior decades.
The response over the past few weeks to Israel’s Gaza incursion shows an even further erosion of support for radical Islamist groups and their domestic allies, no matter the catalyzing event. The most recent Rasmussen Poll, while evidencing some ambivalence about whether Israel should have taken military action, shows no ambivalence in who Americans think is to blame for the current situation — 55 percent of adults hold the Palestinians to account, 13 percent blame Israel. Even more striking is the fact that 67 percent of those who say they are “following the news out of Gaza very closely” support Israel’s military action.
This should come as no surprise in a post-Sept. 11 America. After seeing Islamic fundamentalists steer airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field, Americans have come to understand the challenges faced by Israel and its leaders. In the years since Sept. 11, we have also witnessed the carnage of internecine Sunni-Shia enmity in Iraq, the brutality visited on co-religionists by Muslims in Afghanistan to say nothing of the indiscriminate, multiethnic brutality two months ago in Mumbai. Americans understand the dread with which Israelis view the potential disaster should the fundamentalists on their doorstep ever gain the upper hand; Israel is not blessed with a nation like Canada as their neighbor.
Most Americans view Israel and its efforts to deal with terror with understanding and sympathy because we also have come to fathom the alternate universe in which many Muslim extremists live. In a universe in which death is a coveted reward, the purposeful targeting and killing of innocent civilians is justified and both facts and reality are immaterial. It is a world that is totally alien to us and to the values that guide our lives. Americans have compassion for Israelis who confront these dangerous zealots as neighbors rather than from a safe remove across two oceans.
It comes as no surprise, then, that over the past week, demonstrations in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona garnered less than 20,000 total attendees. In the old days, one “mobilization” in San Francisco or a United Nations demonstration would have eclipsed that number without even breaking a sweat, while campuses from Berkeley to Columbia would have been in uproar.
Ironically, the rhetoric of today’s demonstrations has been more virulent than in the past, occasionally devolving into anti-Semitism and Holocaust imagery. Sponsors apparently no longer feel any need to worry about turning off moderates (who would be repelled by such hate) — they aren’t co-sponsoring and they aren’t attending. The true believers are free to go as far as they wish.
Parenthetically, in Europe, where nothing on the scale of Sept. 11 has taken place and where large Muslim minorities are active and vocal, the demonstrations of the past few weeks have been sizeable, incendiary in rhetoric and violent — vastly different than America.
As Islamic fundamentalism has morphed from an abstract concept with spokesmen who appealed to “underdog” status and sought to garner our sympathy to a suspect and all too familiar theology of death and hate, our country’s tolerance for it has diminished, if not nearly evaporated.
The extremists and diehard true believers will continue to demonstrate and scream, but increasingly they will be talking to and yelling at no one but themselves.