How Did Israel Go from Inspiring Underdog to Supposed Oppressor?


orenBy Michael Oren, The Wall Street Journal

So Life magazine described Israel on the occasion of its 25th birthday in May 1973. In a 92-page special issue, “The Spirit of Israel,” the magazine extolled the Jewish state as enlightened, robustly democratic and hip, a land of “astonishing achievement” that dared “to dream the dream and make that dream come alive.”

Life told the story of Israel’s birth from the Bible through the Holocaust and the battle for independence. “The Arabs’ bloodthirsty threats,” the editors wrote, “lend a deadly seriousness to the vow: Never Again.” Four pages documented “Arab terrorist attacks” and the three paragraphs on the West Bank commended Israeli administrators for respecting “Arab community leaders” and hiring “tens of thousands of Arabs.” The word “Palestinian” scarcely appeared.

There was a panoramic portrayal of Jerusalem, described as “the focus of Jewish prayers for 2,000 years” and the nucleus of new Jewish neighborhoods. Life emphasized that in its pre-1967 borders, Israel was “a tiny, parched, scarcely defensible toe-hold.” The edition’s opening photo shows a father embracing his Israeli-born daughter on an early “settlement,” a testament to Israel’s birthright to the land.

Would a mainstream magazine depict the Jewish state like this today, during the week of its 64th birthday?

Unlikely. Rather, readers would learn about Israel’s overwhelming military might, brutal conduct in warfare and eroding democratic values-plus the Palestinians’ plight and Israeli intransigence. The photographs would show not cool students and cutting-edge artists but soldiers at checkpoints and religious radicals.

Why has Israel’s image deteriorated? After all, Israel today is more democratic and-despite all the threats it faces-even more committed to peace.

Some claim that Israel today is a Middle Eastern power that threatens its neighbors, and that conservative immigrants and extremists have pushed Israel rightward. Most damaging, they contend, are Israel’s policies toward the territories it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, toward the peace process and the Palestinians, and toward the construction of settlements.

Israel may seem like Goliath vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but in a regional context it is David. Gaza is host to 10,000 rockets, many of which can hit Tel Aviv, and Hezbollah in Lebanon has 50,000 missiles that place all of Israel within range. Throughout the Middle East, countries with massive arsenals are in upheaval. And Iran, which regularly pledges to wipe Israel off the map, is developing nuclear weapons. Israel remains the world’s only state that is threatened with annihilation.

Whether in Lebanon, the West Bank or Gaza, Israel has acted in self-defense after suffering thousands of rocket and suicide attacks against our civilians. Few countries have fought with clearer justification, fewer still with greater restraint, and none with a lower civilian-to-militant casualty ratio. Israel withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza to advance peace only to receive war in return.

Whereas Israelis in 1973 viewed the creation of a Palestinian state as a mortal threat, it is now the official policy of the Israeli government. Jewish men of European backgrounds once dominated Israel, but today Sephardic Jews, Arabs and women are prominent in every facet of society. This is a country where a Supreme Court panel of two women and an Arab convicted a former president of sexual offenses. It is the sole Middle Eastern country with a growing Christian population. Even in the face of immense security pressures, Israel has never known a second of nondemocratic rule.

In 1967, Israel offered to exchange newly captured territories for peace treaties with Egypt and Syria. The Arab states refused. Israel later evacuated the Sinai, an area 3.5 times its size, for peace with Egypt, and it conceded land and water resources for peace with Jordan.

In 1993, Israel recognized the Palestinian people ignored by Life magazine, along with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the perpetrator of those “Arab terrorist attacks.” Israel facilitated the creation of a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza and armed its security forces. Twice, in 2000 and 2008, Israel offered the Palestinians a state in Gaza, virtually all of the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. In both cases, the Palestinians refused. Astonishingly, in spite of the Palestinian Authority’s praise for terror, a solid majority of Israelis still support the two-state solution.

Israel has built settlements (some before 1973), and it has removed some to promote peace, including 7,000 settlers to fulfill the treaty with Egypt. Palestinians have rebuffed Israel’s peace offers not because of the settlements-most of which would have remained in Israel anyway, and which account for less than 2% of the West Bank-but because they reject the Jewish state. When Israel removed all settlements from Gaza, including their 9,000 residents, the result was a terrorist ministate run by Hamas, an organization dedicated to killing Jews world-wide.

Nevertheless, Israeli governments have transferred large areas to the Palestinian Authority and much security responsibility to Palestinian police. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has removed hundreds of checkpoints, eased the Gaza land blockade and joined President Obama in calling for the resumption of direct peace talks without preconditions. Addressing Congress, Mr. Netanyahu declared that the emergence of a Palestinian state would leave some settlements beyond Israel’s borders and that “with creativity and with good will a solution can be found” for Jerusalem.

Given all this, why have anti-Israel libels once consigned to hate groups become media mainstays? How can we explain the assertion that an insidious “Israel Lobby” purchases votes in Congress, or that Israel oppresses Christians? Why is Israel’s record on gay rights dismissed as camouflage for discrimination against others?

The answer lies in the systematic delegitimization of the Jewish state. Having failed to destroy Israel by conventional arms and terrorism, Israel’s enemies alit on a subtler and more sinister tactic that hampers Israel’s ability to defend itself, even to justify its existence.

It began with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s 1974 speech to the U.N., when he received a standing ovation for equating Zionism with racism-a view the U.N. General Assembly endorsed the following year. It gained credibility on college campuses through anti-Israel courses and “Israel Apartheid Weeks.” It burgeoned through the boycott of Israeli scholars, artists and athletes, and the embargo of Israeli products. It was perpetuated by journalists who published doctored photos and false Palestinian accounts of Israeli massacres.

Israel must confront the acute dangers of delegitimization as it did armies and bombers in the past. Along with celebrating our technology, pioneering science and medicine, we need to stand by the facts of our past. “The Spirit of Israel” has not diminished since 1973-on the contrary, it has flourished. The state that Life once lionized lives even more vibrantly today.

Mr. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

{The Wall Street Journal/ Newscenter}


  1. ‘Who may go up to the Mountain of God?’

    reprinted from The Jerusalem Post
    May 18, 2012 Friday 26 Iyyar 5772

    by Jeremy Sharon

    Religious affairs: Current status of Temple Mount is one of most explosive issues for competing faiths anywhere in world.

    As points of religious contention go, the current status of the Temple Mount is one of the most potentially explosive issues for competing faiths anywhere in the world.

    For Jews, it is the holiest place on Earth, from where the world was created, the site of the Binding of Isaac and the location of the First and Second Temples.

    For Muslims too, al-Haram al-Sharif (noble sanctuary), has become a crucial place of worship and pilgrimage, where there stands a monumental shrine – the Dome of the Rock – and the al-Aqsa Mosque, a site of great importance in Islam.

    This reality, combined with the Temple Mount’s physical location at the heart of contested territory, has given it a unique geopolitical combustibility not to be found anywhere else on the planet.

    Ariel Sharon’s visit to the site in September 2000 prompted large-scale riots that eventually escalated into what became the second Palestinian intifada.

    In 1969, a fire started in the al-Aqsa mosque by a mentally unstable Christian evangelical from Australia caused extensive damage and led to mass demonstrations in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. The event was also one of the motivating factors in the creation in 1969 of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an international body devoted to safeguarding Muslim interests.

    But inter-religious and political concerns aside, there is another, less prominent but nevertheless bitter dispute currently being waged, this one between different Orthodox Jewish groups regarding the permissibility of going up to Judaism’s holiest site.

    The divisions among different rabbinic leaders are sharp; some outlaw ascent to the Temple Mount in absolute terms on pain of spiritual excommunication; others see the refusal to go up and insist on the Jewish right to pray at the site as a deviation from Torah law.

    And although access for Jewish Israelis (and foreign tourists) is currently subject to tightly restricted, time-limited slots, this has not impeded the prosecution of a tough war of words and a struggle over the contested battleground of what is and is not permitted according to Jewish law.

    FOLLOWING Israel’s conquest of east Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli government allowed a Jordanian Islamic Wakf (religious trust), which had traditionally administered the Temple Mount complex, to continue to do so, despite the historical and religious importance of the site in Judaism.

    Additionally, current Israeli law stipulates that Jews and other non-Muslims may not pray on the Temple Mount because of tensions this may cause, and supervisors from the Wakf follow visiting groups to ensure that they do not pray or conduct any visible form of worship But despite these restrictions, there is a small, committed contingent of devout Jews who visit the Temple Mount regularly, deny that doing so is not permissible under Jewish law and campaign actively for Jews to visit in greater numbers.

    It is a widely held belief that Jews today are forbidden from going to the site of the Temple because of ritual impurity caused by contact with the dead.

    Should someone contract this status – and it is hard to avoid – Jewish law prohibits entry to certain parts of the Temple Mount on pain of spiritual excommunication.

    The religious establishment, principally the Chief Rabbinate, is keen to reinforce this notion. In April, for the second time in two months, the Chief Rabbinate issued a notice reiterating the stance of chief rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger, as well as numerous other senior rabbinical figures such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that it is completely forbidden according to Jewish law to visit the Temple Mount.

    But for many others, the ban is an affront to their religious sensibilities. Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute is one such person who fervently and passionately believes not only in the permissibility of ascending to the Temple Mount but that there is an obligation to do so, and to pray there.

    “This is the holiest place in the world and the only true holy site in Judaism,” Richman told The Jerusalem Post. “We have a natural, healthy desire to be seen by God on the Temple Mount, and there is something very, very, wrong with rabbis who want to cauterize the natural well-spring of feeling and dedication Jews have for this place.”

    Politicians from the Israeli Right are also eager to assert Jewish rights to and sovereignty over the Temple Mount. National Union MKs Arye Eldad and Uri Ariel visited the Temple Mount in December and Likud MK Danny Danon, who has also visited in recent times, is another advocate of Jewish rights at the site.

    “The time has come for the government to exercise its sovereignty over the holiest spot in the Jewish religion,” Ariel said after his recent visit.

    According to Richman and other notable rabbis, both past and present, concerns about stepping in the wrong place on the Temple Mount are unfounded.

    Maimonides, for example, is known to have gone up to the Temple Mount in 1166 during a pilgrimage he made from Egypt to Israel. He wrote a brief letter about his experience, vowing to commemorate the date, the sixth of the Jewish month of Cheshvan, as a special holiday.

    Richman cites David Ben-Zimra, a 15th-century rabbi from Spain who lived intermittently in Safed, Jerusalem, Fez and Cairo, and who wrote a responsa detailing the site of the Holy of Holies, which is strictly off-limits halachically, as well as areas where he said that it is permissible to visit. Moshe Feinstein as well, one of the most respected arbiters of Jewish law in the last 60 years, wrote of an “established tradition from the earliest sages, that it is permitted to visit [the site].”

    There are also various historical sources that illustrate how Jews were accustomed to go up to the Temple Mount following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. One of the most famous such sources is a recounting in the Talmud of a story that occurred after the destruction, when several of the most prominent sages of the time, including Rabbi Akiva, went up to the Temple Mount. All of them began to cry over the ruins, the Talmud relates, when they saw a fox running over the Holy of Holies, but Rabbi Akiva laughed, seeing in the experience the fulfillment of one prophecy and thereby expecting the future of fulfillment of the Temple’s restoration.

    Other historical accounts also testify to Jews visiting the site, and even the presence of a synagogue in the early Muslim era until the 11th century.

    SO IF the historic evidence is so compelling why is the rabbinate so adamant that Jews must not visit the Temple Mount? The rabbi of the Western Wall complex, Shmuel Rabinovitch, who has endorsed the ban on visiting the site, says that despite the opinions and historical evidence cited by those in favor, many of today’s leading and most authoritative Torah scholars nevertheless continue to prohibit such activity.

    He told the Post that Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most respected authority on Jewish law today, personally spoke with him about the importance of doing everything possible to prevent Jews from setting foot on the site.

    “Does Rabbi Elyashiv not know the [opinions of] Rambam [Maimonides], the Radbaz [David Ben Zimra] and these other arguments?” he asked rhetorically.

    “Did [the late] Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, who also prohibited it, not know them?” Rabinovitch continued, proceeding to reel off a long list of other prominent scholars all banning Jews from visiting the Temple Mount.

    Rabinovtich himself is reluctant to enter into the specific laws, details and debates surrounding the issue, sufficing to rely on the rulings of the abovementioned rabbis instead of listening to what he would consider less authoritative opinions.

    But Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, municipal rabbi of Kiryat Ono and member of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, expounds to a slightly greater extent. Yes, he acknowledges, Maimonides did ascend to the Temple Mount, as did others. The reason behind the rabbinate’s ban he says, is because, despite the fact that there are some areas of the Temple Mount where we know it is possible to visit, issuing a blanket permit for Jews to ascend would be very problematic.

    As even Rabbi Richman and others concede, it requires a great deal of knowledge and expertise to know where one halachically may and may not go on the Temple Mount. Coupled with this are numerous other restrictions and requirements, including the necessity of immersing in a mikve [ritual bath], not wearing leather shoes and other conditions.

    Most people, Arusi says, are not familiar with these issues, and may anyway disregard them. The consequences in Jewish law for stepping in the wrong spot, spiritual excommunication – one of the gravest punishments applicable to transgressions such as failing to be circumcised – is too great to risk, he argues.

    OUTSIDE of a religious desire to visit and pray on the Temple Mount is another driving factor for those who are so insistent on Jewish access to the site.

    MK Arye Eldad of the National Union sees not only religious significance in the Temple Mount, but cultural and political importance as well. The failure of Jews to maintain their connection with the place, he says, undermines Israel’s political claim to it as well. In addition, he continues, it bolsters Muslim and Arab claims to the site, and denials that any Jewish Temple ever stood there.

    “There is most definitely a political struggle going on here,” says Eldad. “The Arabs think that if they can succeed in prizing away this piece of property from the Jews, then they will be able to seize every other Jewish property here, whether it’s territorial, historical, cultural or religious.”

    Richman concurs.

    “Efforts are being waged by the forces of Islam to delegitimize the Jewish connection to Israel and Jerusalem. And on the Temple Mount in particular, they are trying to remove all vestiges of Jewish history,” he says. “We need to go to show we’re still connected and that it’s still ours. Unfortunately, the Diaspora experience has lobotomized the ‘body of Israel’ and has created an idiosyncratic self-defense mechanism which has denuded Judaism of its true spiritual essence.”

    There is also something Messianic in the efforts of those who ardently seek to restore a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. The Temple Institute has devoted huge sums of money into constructing and producing the vessels, implements and garments required for the Temple, using the exact instructions set out in the Torah. Among the vessels constructed is a fully working golden menorah, which cost $2 million and is ready for use in the Temple.

    Yisrael Ariel, the founder and director of the Temple Institute, who was among the soldiers who conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, certainly felt at the time that the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount was a harbinger of the very imminent arrival of the Messiah.

    Dr. Motti Inbari, an expert in Jewish fundamentalism at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, cites an interview with Ariel in his book, Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount. In the interview, conducted in the Or Hozer journal of yeshiva high schools, Ariel vividly describes his emotions and experiences upon the capture of the Temple Mount and states that he thought that “these are the days of the Messiah.”

    Rabbi Richman and the institute insist that the Temple will not “descend from the heavens,” as some believe, but will have to be constructed by men here on earth, as evidenced by their efforts to reconstruct the Temple vessels.

    Asked if it is time to re-build the Temple, he responds “We’re 2,000 years late in doing so.”

    To those who say that now is not the right time, or that the Jewish people must work on themselves spiritually and socially before even beginning to think about such an endeavor, Richman retorts, “maybe it’s not the right time to put on tefillin? Who says there is a time limitation for the mitzva of building the Temple? It is our job to do all the mitzvot.” He insists, however, that it is not the intention of the institute to start rolling out the tape measure on the Temple Mount and start building.

    Other groups, such as the Temple Mount Faithful, led by Gershon Salomon, are clearer about their ultimate goals. This organization says unabashedly that its goals include “the building of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in our lifetime in accordance with the Word of God and all the Hebrew prophets” as well as “the liberation of the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation.”

    The homepage of the Temple Institute website currently bears a line from the well-known movie Field of Dreams: “if you build it, he will come.” The longterm goal, as stated on the website, is to do “all in our limited power to bring about the building of the Holy Temple in our time.”

    Journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg, who wrote The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, sees a strong nexus between Jewish messianism and aspirations for the Temple Mount.

    “The place has always elicited strong messianic symbolism and exerted a magnetic attraction for anyone awaiting the Messiah,” he told the Post. “For those who find it unbearable that we haven’t rebuilt the temple, there is an urge to bring about a redemption by human means, forcing God’s hand, as it were.”

    For those opposed to increased Jewish activity at the Temple Mount, Gorenberg continues, although it’s generally wrapped in technical objections of a political or halachic nature, the subtext is that rebuilding the Temple is beyond the ability of human hands and effort and must await the arrival of the Messiah.

    “In Jewish history, people who were certain they knew how to bring the Messiah ended up being disastrous for the Jewish people,” he concludes.

    Regardless of the longer-term aspirations of the various groups, the current debate surrounding whether or not Jews can and should visit and pray at the Temple Mount will continue because of the activities of organizations like the Temple Institute.

    According to the Chief Rabbinate, the reason they have recently re-iterated their ban on Jews going to the site is because of increased organized visitations, a growing phenomenon that it would like to stamp out.

    But the political and spiritual desire among some who want to insist on their right to pray at Judaism’s holiest site is still very much alive. The nature of that desire highlights both the very deep-seated Jewish attachment to this revered place and the huge potential it has to spark intra-religious dispute along with political conflict.

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