The inimitable Alan Dershowitz could not attend in person due to illness, but he did speak over a video hook-up that frequently broke down. Despite several annoying technical interruptions, Dershowitz got across his view that it’s NOT “1938, again,” because Israel exists as a powerful state today and Jews are influential in a way that they were not in 1938. He also was with the consensus in seeing Israel and Jews as being “dehumanized” by left-wing Israel bashers; still, he insisted that he speaks as a liberal and identifies with Walzer as “being on the left.” He urged that, “We cannot abandon moderate left … opinion.”
Dershowitz holds to what he calls a “90 percent case for Israel,” indicating that nobody is 100 percent in the right, that Israel does make mistakes and does bad things sometimes. The example he gave in this connection was of the militant settlers in Hebron.
But Dershowitz is also not the expert that he thinks he is. He wrongly linked the writings of Jimmy Carter and Professors Mearsheimer and Walt with that of Tony Judt in rejecting a two-state solution. Carter’s book, despite its flaws, is a fervent plea for peace between Israel and a new Palestinian state. And unlike Prof. Judt’s view, there is nothing in Mearsheimer and Walt’s work on the “Israel Lobby,” however scurrilous their accusations, that advocates one state in Israel’s stead. Furthermore, Dershowitz lumps together the Barak proposals at Camp David in August 2000 with the Clinton parameters in Dec. 2000 and the aborted negotiations at Taba in Jan. 2001. While not vastly different, these were not identical positions; we’ll never know what might have happened had Barak been prepared to base the Camp David talks on the principles articulated months later by Clinton and what was placed on the table (too late) at Taba.
Nevertheless, it was clear from some in the audience that they were disappointed that Dershowitz came off as liberal as he did. The audience as a whole seemed about equally divided along liberal and conservative lines.
I wasn’t able to attend the second day of the conference and therefore missed hearing such luminaries as writer Hillel Halkin and Prof. Susannah Heschel. I was privileged, however, to kibbitz with them and others at a reception at the end of the first day’s sessions.
Among those I chatted with was the Israeli philosopher-ethicist Moshe Halbertal, reminding him of Meretz USA’s meeting with him some years back at NYU Law School (where he has a seasonal faculty appointment). Regarding his work formulating the IDF’s code of ethics, he remarked upon confronting a spectrum of views ranging from “just bomb them” to just “don’t shoot,” which he regards as equally untenable extremes.
During his presentation, Prof. Halbertal asked for “humility, not silence” of critics in the Diaspora. He fears, above all, a lack of solidarity; “vicarious embarrassment” for Israel’s deeds is actually positive — a sign of solidarity. But he advocated a number of limits on criticism:
- Be informed: don’t make criticism out of ignorance or superficial knowledge. He mentioned an “asymmetry” in the “war of images”: “Threats to us are invisible [until they materialize in attacks]; our actions are very visible [and broadcast around the world].”
- Engage in empathy: “If you think that Israel shouldn’t make any targeted killings, place yourself in the shoes of someone in Sderot [subject to almost daily rocket attack].” “When someone is in a time of crisis, extend your hand to help.” Don’t simply criticize.
- Name your enemy: call it “radical militant Islam” (for example) but don’t blame the entire Arab or Islamic world. And don’t attempt to change the enemy’s political culture; it endangers Israel to try to instantly democratize the Arab world.
The issue is to isolate the extremists; if you identify the enemy with all Arabs or all Muslims, “you play the enemy’s game.” It’s the terrorists who want to create a “war of all against all.” The issue of militant Islam is also internal to the Islamic world. “The last thing Israel needs is a war of Islam versus Judaism.” Syria, some Palestinians, Egyptians and other Arabs are all potential allies against militant Islam.
Halbertal doubts the usefulness of Podhoretz’s metaphor of a world war, but he agrees that Iran cannot be trusted to go nuclear because “Israel would be in the shadow of destruction.” Podhoretz earlier advocated that the US bomb Iran, quoting Sen. John McCain to the effect that “The only thing worse than bombing Iran is for Iran to get the bomb.” Podhoretz had noted that the US does not have the military capacity to invade Iran but does see the US – and only the US, not Israel – as having the capability to attack effectively from the air (in a sustained campaign), and thereby delay Iran’s nuclear development by a decade or more. And Podhoretz sees the extreme theological agenda of Iran’s Islamist regime as precluding the fear of nuclear retaliation that normally would deter a nuclear power from risking nuclear war against Israel or other countries.
I’m not willing to simply dismiss these concerns about Iran; it should not be a surprise that they come not only from a raving neocon like Podhoretz, or a somewhat more reasonable conservative like McCaine, but also a liberal like Halbertal. It may not be 1938, again, but in 2007, one shutters in puzzlement as to how to deal with Iran. Which is worse: the prospective bloody “cure” of war or the potentially fatal disease of a nuclear-armed regime dominated by antisemitic bigots and fanatical mullahs? One prays for a third way.