It's painful to watch someone you care about commit suicide. Imagine the horror of watching someone drowning before your eyes. Now imagine watching it in slow motion. Repeatedly. For years I have been watching Israel's suicidal spiral with that kind of despair.
I used to explain Israel's current situation by comparing the occupation of the West Bank to the period in American history when Andrew Jackson was president. He was willing to violate the law of the land and there was no political will to stop him. His famous contempt for "John Marshall's decision" paved the way for the Trail of Tears and all the genocide that followed.
Now we learn even this fig leaf of judicial restraint is gone. The Israeli Supreme Court in a unanimous decision has ruled extra-judicial executions are now legal.
The first time I ever heard my grandfather curse, I didn't understand why he was so angry. We were sitting down to breakfast. Grandpa took one look at the New York Times and started yelling, "THAT DIRTY RAT BASTARD!" Grandma looked over and said, "Oh, so after all these years, now there's a problem?" "This is different!" Grandpa shouted. "He's always been a criminal," Grandma said with disdain. "This is different," Grandpa insisted, "That was his business, this affects all of us!" He was really furious.
Looking at the picture, I still couldn't figure out how this old man could be such a big deal. I had no idea who he was, so I asked. It turned out Grandpa grew up with the guy. What Grandma said was true. The guy was a serious criminal, even as a kid when everyone called him "Spider" for reasons Grandpa couldn't remember. That's why Meyer Lansky was in the paper. The reason Grandpa was so angry was Lansky was invoking the Jewish Right of Return as a last ditch effort to avoid going to jail.
Grandpa and Lansky were Polish immigrants who grew up on the Lower East Side of New York. Grandpa took us to see the old neighborhood once. It was a slum, but he had fond memories about it. He could afford to be nostalgic about the neighborhood. He got out, just like Lansky. The difference being that Lansky followed the road of crime, Grandpa went into entertainment. College wasn't even on the map for these guys. The truth is they didn't even have a map. They were just doing their best to survive, and Grandpa did better than most.
In spite of that, the only gold in my grandparent's house was their wedding bands and maybe a couple of Grandma's earrings. It wasn't like they couldn't afford nice stuff. What happened was Grandma pawned all the good stuff and sent the money to the UJA (United Jewish Appeal) when Hitler offered to ransom the Jews. Even after the war was over she kept finding ways to send money. I don't know if they supported everything that was done in Israel, but doing anything was better than nothing. As far as they were concerned, disagreement was a luxury they couldn't afford. This was not about religion, they were secular Jews. This was about survival.
It wasn't until many years later, April of 1984 to be exact, that I finally understood Grandpa's rage. This time, the picture was in Newsweek. It was a black and white shot of a stunned guy being led somewhere by two Israeli soldiers. The problem was after the picture was taken of this terrorist in Israeli custody, he turned up with a crushed skull. It was the first time I had ever seen documented proof of Israelis committing extra-judicial executions. Don't get me wrong, everyone knew about the Mossad hit squads hunting down the Black September terrorists after Munich, but somehow that was different. Maybe it wasn't, but we just liked to think it was. I guess people viewed it as professionals fighting professionals or something.
What became known as the Bus 300 Affair had nothing to do with professionals, defense, or justice. It was cold-blooded murder. Ehud Yatom, acting with knowledge of his superiors, crushed the skulls of not one, but two captives while their hands were bound behind their backs. Today, he is a member of the Knesset. A government that would seat a confessed murderer like Yatom is worthy of people like Lansky. That's a broad stroke, but that's the problem. Once you go down that path, everyone gets tarred with that crap. It's malignant. It spreads like rust.
Here's a clear example of how perverse things have become. In 2000, Dennis Ross and Eric Yoffie were guest speakers at a synagogue in suburban Maryland as part of an ongoing discussion about the Middle East. (For those who don't recognize the names, Dennis Ross is a former ambassador, and Eric Yoffie is President of the Union of Reform Judaism.) Each of the distinguished panel members talked about their many decades of service in the region. Opening comments lasted for about an hour, with each panelist talking about how much Israel wanted a partner for peace, how Arafat would never make a choice until he had no choice, etc., etc. There was a lot of handwringing and lamentation. Then they opened up the floor for questions. So I got up.
"Listening to all of you today, I am struck by how blessed we are to have almost a century's worth of expertise to draw on. So I would like you each to answer a question that has troubled me for some time. What is your position on extra-judicial executions? Do you support them or not? If you do, how do you reconcile that with everything you have been saying for the last hour?"
Have you ever been stuck in a crowded elevator when someone lets loose a real loud fart? That was more or less how they reacted to my question. They were stunned for several seconds. No one wanted to touch this. But the longer they sat there looking at each other, the more the congregation started mumbling and chattering. Eventually, Ross took a stab at it. He hemmed, he hawwed, he meandered about and eventually got his bearings only to end up with this surprising justification: "It's politically stupid, but morally defensible." I thought he had said it backwards, but then Eric Yoffie chimed in with gusto saying, "Besides, there is Talmudic justification!" Things descended into chaos at that point and the moderator had to take control of the room.
It is important to understand Eric Yoffie is basically a liberal. He is opposed to the death penalty. He supports gun control. He was a featured speaker at the Million Mom March. He is constantly battling with the ultra-orthodox crazies, like Yishai of the Shas Party, who don't think converts to Reform Judaism count as real Jews. Oh and another thing, according to Israeli government official estimates, about 40% of the casualties in targetted killings are innocent bystanders. Oh... and another thing... about that "Talmudic justification," that was Yigal Amir's defense for shooting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. So I honestly don't know where they draw the line anymore. I can't help but think there is no moral center and we're just circling the drain when someone who is generally considered as decent and thoughtful as Yoffie starts carrying water for people who make Ariel Sharon seem moderate.
The saddest part of all this is I know most Israelis, and even most Palestinians, would have been happy to reach an accomodation. The problem is extremists on all sides have betrayed the aspirations of the people they claim to lead.
I hate to say it, but the last time Zealots controlled Jerusalem, things ended badly. Really Badly. I'm just glad my grandparents aren't around to see this.
"What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor.
That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary."