At the beginning of the Lebanon War in June 1982, my Jerusalem roommate was packing to leave for grad school in America. Each day's
newspapers had pictures of men who'd died at Beaufort, Damour, Sidon.
The supposedly limited operation in Lebanon had morphed into a full-scale invasion that belonged in an updated edition of "March of Folly." Dedicated as I was to living in Israel, I felt a touch of envy for my roommate, soon to be at a quiet campus far away.
"You're lucky," I told him.
"No, you're lucky," he said. "I'll have to defend the war."
In those nine words, he defined a key difference between living in Israel and living in the Diaspora. For reasons ranging from sensible to indefensible, Diaspora discussion of Israeli policy tends to sound more like cheering than debate. Critics who think Israel should hit harder, stand tougher and concede nothing don't have to worry that their legitimacy as Jews will be questioned.
It's more difficult to urge Israel to adopt moderate policies or the U.S. administration to push peace efforts. Inside Israel, on the other hand, debate is a democratic right and urging restraint can be the sign of responsible patriotism.
One reason for the difference is that criticism voiced abroad can be exploited by those who have no concern for Israel's welfare. My roommate knew that the Lebanon invasion was a rash misadventure that would hurt Israel itself. He also knew that on an American campus, the war would be under attack from people whose real complaint was the Jewish state's existence. Hence, he'd avoid subtleties and defend Israel and even the war.
Unfortunately, that sensible concern is not the whole story. Diasporas have a tendency to promote passion over good sense and not just among Jews. The late Edward Said's fulminations against compromise with Israel represented the Palestinian mirror image of the armchair extremism of some American Jews. A Boston Irish friend once told me, "In my family, we named our dogs after the British royal family" -- or rather, that's the printable version of what he said. His family, at least, did not contribute to Irish terror groups.
Part of this is guilt at work: Some Diaspora activists feel a contradiction between their commitment to the homeland and their comfortable absence from it and compensate by shouting louder. Besides that, distance turns a reality into an abstract cause. A cause is something you defend with unyielding argument: Prove that the Palestinians are wrong or that coverage of Israel in your local newspaper is slanted and Israel wins -- so some people believe.
In the earthly Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Ashdod, the conflict is a messy practical matter. No argument will make Palestinians or Palestinian nationalism disappear. Jews have a right to their homeland -- but today there are nearly as many Arabs living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan as there are Jews. So keeping the whole homeland under Israeli rule means either ending Israeli democracy or turning Israel into a binational state.
That's why a list of erstwhile believers in the Whole Land have accepted the need to give up much or all of the West Bank. Ehud Olmert is one of them. Ariel Sharon was another. Sadly, it may take some of their former cheerleaders in the Diaspora a while to catch up.
For one more part of the gap between Israel and American Jewry is a time lag. Reading about a place is not the same as living there.
It works both ways: American social advances -- recycling, for instance, or distaste for smoking -- arrived late in Israel. In the United States, meanwhile, Jews are still honoring Golda Meir as a hero. Every Israeli schoolkid knows that she was the prime minister of the Debacle, the disastrous failure to see war coming in 1973, and she left office in disgrace.
Likewise, some of the of Israel's defenders abroad use arguments long abandoned in Israel. On visits to the United States, I've heard well-meaning friends argue that there is no Palestinian nation or that Jordan is the Palestinian state. I wonder where I left my time machine, so I can get back to the future.
The time lag matters more now because of the recent political shift in Israel. Sharon and Olmert acknowledged that the dream of the Whole Land would bring the end of a Jewish state. The Gaza settlements were evacuated; the Likud split. The mainstream political debate in Israel is not over whether to pull back, but over how to do it and how many settlements must be dismantled.
In that difficult process, Israel needs support. It needs a Jewish community whose political agenda is pushing for American involvement in the delicate business of diplomacy. It needs pro-Israel activists ready to defend moderation -- a Diaspora a bit closer to Israel.
Gershom Gorenberg will speak about his new book, "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977," at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on March 29 from 7:30-9 p.m. $10. To R.S.V.P., call (323) 761-8648.
He will speak on March 31 at 8 p.m. and April 1 at 12:30 p.m. on "Israel's Moment of Truth" at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, call (818) 788-6000.