Wednesday, October 03, 2012

"Jesus Is a Monkey"

That is the graffito spray-painted on a Christian monastery near Jerusalem recently, apparently by Jewish extremists.

A story in The Australian details "a growing series of attacks" on Christian insititutions (and sometimes Christians) in Israel, and notes that despite heavy surveillance around most of the holy sites, no arrests have been forthcoming.  This is on top of the more routine stuff -- a priest told he should expect to be spat upon in public, because "it's normal," and a politician publicly tearing a New Testament apart and throwing it in the garbage.

Now, look. We don't want to make too much of what the crazies do, because every religious community has a few.   So do irreligious communities, for that matter.  Tolerating the occasional cartoon, slur or desecration of one's holy books is part of the price we pay for free speech in pluralistic societies.

But this story does bring into relief some of our own thinking about the puzzling relationship of the United States to Israel.

Several of our friends, including inter alia a comparatively liberal cleric and a decidedly conservative soldier, have said things in conversation which seem to take for granted that the US-Israeli relationship is special and mist be preserved at all costs, and includes a strong American responsibility for the security of Israel.  We're not at all certain this is correct.

There seem to be two secular arguments in favor of this thesis:  (1) that Israel is the only democratic government in the Middle East, and deserves support from everybody who loves democracy*; and (2) that Israel is a sort of protective barrier against its unpredictable neighbors, notably Iran.  The first argument is vitiated by Israel's frequent flirtations with tyranny, especially where Palestinians are concerned.  The second seems frankly spurious; surely, America would have an easier time keeping the peace with those neighbors (Iran perhaps excepted) if its relationship with Israel were not quite so close.

In addition, however, there is a third calculus at work.  American Jews and, in far greater numbers, American fundamentalist Christians, have a devotion to Israel which springs from other sources.  This devotion is not entirely religious, especially in the case of the Jews, for whom Zionism is a complex cultural phenomenon which can be found both among the religious and among the thoroughly secular. In both cases, this devotion is zealous and reflexive.

The result is that politicians, Democrats and especially Republicans, have no choice but to toe the line.  Certainly, no man or woman can hope to be elected president who does not promise to be "a friend to Israel," with everything that suggests.  Indeed, in 2008, Hillary Clinton was pressed into service to assure nervous voters that Barack Obama would be just such a friend -- and in the weeks to come, Mitt Romney will surely make a public case that Obama has not been friendly enough.

For our part, we like Israel; one of our dearest friends lives in Tel Aviv, and we have always wanted to visit. But we aren't certain that the relationship of the US to Israel is as important as our public discourse makes it out to be.  While Fox News seemed shocked that President Obama did not take time to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the UN recently, we were more troubled that he did not meet with the leaders of India and Brazil, economic powerhouses with strong democratic institutions, alliance with whom over the next few years will be a powerful counterbalance to the power of China.

We wonder how the notoriously flammable passions of America's fundie-gelical voters will react to the news that their precious Zion stands among the places in the world where Christians are routinely subjected to public persecution.

* This is how the case is summarized -- but it is a tricky case indeed.  Other states, such as Egypt and Iran, are at least nominally democratic as well.  Of course, we all understand that their "democracies" are limited, whether by the power of the army or that of the religious establishment.  But how great a stretch is it to make the same claim about Israel (or, we suppose, many other democratic nations)?

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