By Dominique Paul Noth
I was born the same year as Joe Biden (how nice to have a hero old enough for the World War II generation) but I suspect my awareness of the demand for a Jewish state was even earlier than his.
My parents, after all, were known anti-Hitler activists who had to flee from Germany to France in 1933 and then to the United States in 1941. She was a secular Jew who converted to Catholicism in France, partly through the influence of such intelligentsia as Darius Milhaud, Paul Claudel and Gabriel Marcel (she was a successful opera singer influenced by their work). He was even better known as an anti-Nazi editorialist and language scholar whose lack of religious leanings was pronounced, as was his love of alcohol, poetic excess and self-pity as the self-proclaimed forgotten John the Baptist of Germany’s descent into Hitler.Gregory Peck and Anne Revere as his mother in "Genlemen's Agreement" (1947), a powerful expose of anti-Semitism, slightly romanticized in its lighter US form than Jews had seen practiced against them in Europe.
Out of that mix, as the first US born of their children, ferocity for a Jewish homeland was inevitable -- as was facing the genteeler form of anti-Semitism in the America of “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), genteel compared to the open hatred so many Jews had experienced in Europe and still conveyed in America by Middle Eastern college students my parents encountered.
My earliest memories (I must have been 4 or 5) were of the refugees from the war flooding into our home apartment on Manhattan’s 89th St., wanderers with broken limbs, scarred faces and gaunt skin seeking a friendly greeting, many of whom found US refuge teaching around the country. In a strange echo of today’s Dreamers, many found homes through an underground network of sympathetic Americans who pretended to be relatives and knew how to maneuver around the US brand of anti-Semitism.
From such an upbringing, even a child who didn’t comprehend or care about politics was moved, as so much of America was in 1948, by the creation of Israel, the so-called Palestinian Mandate immediately supported by President Truman.
My, how those childhood beliefs have soured.
Recent polls confirm the drop in allegiance, even among American Jews, where two-thirds of those over 65 still admit an emotional attachment to Israel while it drops to under 50% for younger generations of American Jews.
Israeli’s early success in armed conflict was easily transformed in the minds of children to brave righteousness over population might. The world may seem different today but for decades after 1948, there was swelling pride as Israel beat off wave after wave of Arab attacks, mightier forces that in our minds were routed by heroic determination to never again succumb to the Holocaust mentality.
I suspect that same sense of loyalty to the Israeli cause explained the hefty military buildup supported by US policy. The belief in Israel ruled Biden’s early years in the Senate in the 1970s. He said then, I have read, that if Israel hadn’t been created by the United Nations, the US should have done it. That sense that Jews needed protection from their zealot Arab neighbors dominated US thinking.
The thinking continued even when Arab nations subdued their attacks. It was pushed to the front of American headlines by how cowed and fearful the region was when Hamas used rockets and terrorist methods against nearby domestic Israeli citizens. It was a scenario viewed by many, somewhat uncomfortably, as more unconscionable on the Palestine side than the Jewish right-wing settlers side, seizing Arab land in Jerusalem and other locales despite generations of legal claims and actual occupation by Palestinians.
The history is complicated. Israel’s claims to this land are not anywhere near as pure as its American allies have suggested. Nor can anyone clearly explain to me what belief in the Rapture or the Messiah’s second coming has to do with Christian support for Israel against its enemies. This sidelight of selling Christianity on the basis of keeping the Jewish state is one of the craziest dogmas out there, but it sure has been exploited by pastors and politicians raising money.
The once enthusiastic support of earlier generations has clearly faded, mainly thanks to Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and Israel’s move to the hard right (while understandable given the dangers they live under). Many people I know question the simplified vision they long maintained. They are asking serious questions.
Much of the change of heart is the tragic circumstances of the Palestinian people – poverty, always present occupation, fear of movement, instant death from the skies whether you fight or not, ineffective foreign pressure. The same violation of basic human rights that brought so much empathy to Jews after WWII has now been transferred to unsettling visions of the Jews as the new blitzkrieg.
Americas are now going through this uncertainty. The strongest argument for Israel is the right to protect their families from enemy hatred. The current reality is that Bibi, not able to form a new government on his own and remain as prime minister, has some unnatural incentives to make war with the Palestinians.
When Trump was president and so clearly in Bibi’s pocket, Hamas leaders knew that violent reaction was not going to help them one bit, so they held off. With Trump gone, Bibi knows that pushing Hamas to its extremist tendencies would draw in the Biden administration and put the US lifelong support of Israel to a new test. That new test is now underway.
Israel has something else going for it – the blind hatred against it. More than seven decades after its creation, the Arab rhetorical virulence toward Jews seems to have inflated, not diminished. No imam worth his salt from Saudi Arabia to Syria, from Iran to the Emirates, can raise money or followers without vindictive quotes against Israel. Amazingly they are even more virulent than Israeli quotes against Iran, which are plenty bad on their own.
Ehud Barak, the famous former Israeli prime minister born in 1942, the same year as Biden, once remarked rather sadly that if he were a Palestinian of a certain young age he would probably join a militant group. But Barak also said rather more famously: “The Middle East is a region where predictions go to die.”