MAXWELL:  On Israel, I’ll call it as I see it

10/10/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


My commentaries about Israel cause much controversy among many American Jews nationwide, especially among groups claiming to promote “responsibility” and “accuracy” in Middle East reporting. Most of my letters and e-mail messages are angry, and my telephone calls often bring recrimination, racist comments and threats of physical attack.

Furthermore, American Jews regularly demand that my newspaper fire me. Other newspapers that run my column nearly every week refuse to publish anything I write about Jews.

I am often asked what makes me, an American black, interested in Israel and Jews. Although I find the question tinged with racism, I try to answer it. I will do so here, along with examining at least one other related issue, that of Jews selectively misreading anything they deem unflattering to Israel _ even if the issue in question is indisputably true.

In college, I discovered an untouched copy of Max I. Dimont’s 1964 book entitled Jews, God and History. The volume, spanning 4,000 years, interested me for several reasons.

First, I was reared in a Bible-reading environment, where my grandfather, a presiding elder in a Pentecostal denomination, preached that the “Children of Israel” were God’s Chosen People and thatthe land of Israel was the “most important place on Earth.” Second, outside of the Bible and Leon Uris’ novel Exodus, which depicts the birth of the state of Israel, I had not read anything about Jews, and Dimont’s work offered a new beginning. Third, I was taking an introductory religion course.

Jews, God and History. The title alone was irresistible.

My lifelong interest in Jewish history began in earnest with the first paragraph of the first chapter of the book: “There are nearly a half-billion people on this earth of whom less then 18-million _ less than one third of one percent _ are classified as Jews. Statistically, they should hardly be heard of, like the Aninu tucked away in a corner of Asia, bystanders of history. But the Jews are heard of totally out of proportion to their small numbers. The Jewish contribution to the world’s list of great names in religion, science, literature, music, finance, and philosophy is staggering.”

Like Dimont, I have always wanted to learn all I can about this extraordinary people, which means reading, listening and traveling to witness things first-hand. I travel to Israel as often as possible. Most recently, I spent six weeks there assessing how well Ethiopian Jews are being “absorbed” into Israeli society.

My conclusion _ from first-hand experience _ is that the gentle and polite Ethiopians have a long way to go before they become sabras, a term that means “prickly pear.” The suggestion is, of course, that Israelis proudly sport a gruff exterior but a warm interior.

In addition to reading books and magazines, I go online each morning and read the Jerusalem Post and Ha’artez because these two Israel-based dailies give me a real sense of the country’s complexity and dynamism. These are tough publications. They render instant history that does not apologize or romanticize.

Soon, I will travel to the Gondar region of Ethiopia, where Ethiopian Jews lived before making aliyah, or immigrating to Israel, to do research for a book I intend to write about Ethiopian Jews in Israel. As I write, Dimont, a self-taught historian, will be my guide.

“Most history books about Jews are written by Jews for Jews, or by scholars for scholars,” he wrote in the preface to Jews, God and History. “But Jewish history is too fascinating, too interesting, too incredible to remain the private property of Jews and scholars. This book is a popular history of this amazing people, written without bowing to orthodoxy or pandering to anti-intellectualism.

“It will furnish the arguments, the data, the ideas, but the reader will have to furnish his intelligent understanding. The author is not seeking to convince anyone or change anyone’s opinion. This book is designed to entertain, to inform, and to stimulate. … Jewish history cannot be the history of Jews only, because they have nearly always lived within the context of other civilizations.”

Dimont’s pronouncement _ that while asking readers to furnish their intelligent understanding, he did not bow to orthodoxy or pander to anti-intellectualism _ points to what I consider a serious problem among many contemporary American Jews, some of whom have not been to Israel.

The problem: While the state of Israel is growing up, too many American Jews see the nation as an infant, innocent land that can do no wrong. The truth is that the Promised Land _ while giving Jews a sacred homeland and while inspiring millions of other people worldwide to wonder and to affirm their religious faith _ has warts just like other nations.

Acknowledging this simple truth does not make a journalist an anti-Semite.

A few days ago, a group in New York telephoned to challenge my comment that, by violently shaking Palestinian prisoners, shackling them in painful positions, keeping them awake for long periods, placing urine-soaked hoods over their heads and sometimes beating them to death, Israel was one of the world’s worst violators of human rights.

I was nonplused when the young woman on the line tried to convince me that, given the tensions in the region, such treatment of Palestinians is acceptable.

Why, then, has Israel’s own Supreme Court outlawed these interrogation methods? Because the justices found them reprehensible violations of basic human rights.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, while safeguarding the nation’s security, understands the importance of acting humanely in the modern world and of halting the official subjugation of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

He wisely is trying to end the unnecessary cycle of hatred.

“I know not only the suffering of my people but also recognize the suffering of the Palestinian people,” he said in an address to the Kenesset. “My desire and aspiration is to put an end to the violence and suffering and to act with the elected Palestinian leadership, headed by Chairman Yasser Arafat, working in cooperation and with respect together to find a fair and agreed on arrangement for a coexistence of freedom, prosperity and good neighborliness in this beloved land in which two peoples will always live.”

To this end, Barak has initiated several policies, including the long-awaited opening of a 28-mile road through Israel that will let many of Gaza’s 1-million residents travel outside of their fenced-in, 40-kilometer-long enclave for the first time ever.

Barak has done a good thing. And my saying so does not make me anti-Semitic. I will continue to praise Israel when appropriate and condemn it when appropriate, as I will any other nation, including the United States where I am a citizen.

Israel is growing up. And I do not write this expression pejoratively. In addition to dealing with the Palestinian question, Israel is, for instance, coming to grips with violence in the schools and on the streets. It has acknowledged and is trying to curb spousal abuse. The military is aware of homosexuality in the ranks. It knows that its highways are killing fields. It is teaching its history in a new way. Many Israelis also acknowledge that the enmity between religious and secular Jews is one of the biggest threats to the nation’s future.

But many American Jews apparently do not want to hear of such things. They want to hang on to Israel the myth _ the Arcadia that never existed.

As for me, the Holy Land is endlessly fascinating, and I shall continue to travel there, study it and write about it.