Of Slogans and Substance (Ideas #68)

In this forum, I try to present clear thinking about issues confronting Jews and Judaism today. Although my articles rarely touch on politics, with all the discussion about Gush Katif, I feel obligated to express my thoughts on the current political situation in Israel.

At face value, Prime Minister Sharon is doing exactly the opposite of why thousands of moderate voters like myself voted for him in the first place. For most readers who are not familiar with my politics, I have on more than one occasion advocated the land-for-peace approach represented by Oslo and am still prepared to defend such a formula if ever it becomes relevant. The retreat from Gush Katif (I used the word retreat and not ?disengagement? because it should be known for what it is), however, is much more similar to the retreat from Lebanon than it is to the policies of Oslo. Since the prime minister promised to put up a stone wall of not negotiating until there was a complete cessation of Arab violence against Israel, it appeared that Sharon was promising us to never repeat the mistakes of Lebanon. Yet the disgrace and blunders of Lebanon are exactly what he is repeating.

The difference between Oslo and Lebanon was succinctly epitomized in comments made, but apparently forgotten, by one of Israel's most insightful politicians, Yossi Beilin. He originally opposed Sharon's plan, pointing out that withdrawal from Gaza should only take place as a result of negotiations. The idea was that a strong state only makes concessions in return for something agreed upon by the two parties attempting to resolve their conflict. The withdrawal in Lebanon, however, was not the result of any true negotiations or formal quid-pro-quo. Rather, Israel basically put up the white flag and agreed to all the terms of our enemies in Lebanon and just got out without eliciting any concessions from the other side. In other words, whereas the strategy of Oslo was meant to be land-for-peace, the strategy of Sharon seems to land-for-nothing.

The rationale behind the withdrawal from Lebanon was that it was the most effective way to reduce Israeli casualties and defense costs. No doubt this has been accomplished in Lebanon and on the northern border itself, causing the politically nearsighted to applaud the withdrawal from Lebanon as actually farsighted. What they are missing is the direct linkage between that withdrawal and the current intifida. What the Palestinians learned from Lebanon is that if you keep inflicting casualties on Israelis, it will cause them to retreat. So now the death toll and expense caused by the intifida is much higher than anything ever witnessed during the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. In case they didn't completely learn this lesson in Lebanon, it appears that the government wants to reiterate that lesson by giving back Gush Katif. Can we then wonder that the group most committed to inflicting these casualties ? Hamas ? is doing so well in the polls?

Of course, there are other sound reasons that could be put forward to convince others that the withdrawal is misguided. In the meantime, however, the forces opposed to the withdrawal seem to have lost sight of the fact that their case actually makes sense and, properly argued, should win the respect of most Israelis. Instead, these highly committed people are confusing the nation and themselves with slogans that really miss the point. Perhaps being so committed for so many reasons has made them lose sight of why the Israeli government had planted these settlements in the first place. It was and remains a question of security. Instead of arguing about the security issue at the center of the debate, the pro-Gush Katif forces have chosen to appeal primarily to emotions. Their central slogan has become ?Jews Don't Expel Jews?. This may indeed pull on the heartstrings of many Israelis, where the Holocaust still plays a very important role in the national consciousness. Still, not only is this missing the point, it is wrong. Would anyone argue that if a Jew decided to come and squat in someone else's home in Israel that they should not be removed simply because ?Jews Don't Expel Jews?. If the settlers in Gaza or anywhere else were acting against the national interest, then they should be removed. Having a Jewish state means that Jewish police need to enforce the nation's laws against other Jews. In a Jewish state then, when necessary, Jews do and should expel other Jews.

There is another problem with the slogan ? it is aimed against the soldiers who need to follow the Jewish government's orders. The slogan tells the soldiers that by following the orders of their officers, they are acting in an un-Jewish fashion. Yes, there are times when soldiers must resist orders, such as if orders violate the ethics of the halacha. Though some important rabbis obviously disagree, I find it difficult to see this as such a case.  Agree or disagree, however, the campaign is aimed at soldiers of all types, not just the followers of the rabbis who believe that the halacha oligates them to refuse their orders. For most of the nation, the issue is political and not moral. Making it into a moral one reflects a partisan position that ignores the national consensus. Since for most Israelis, both religious and not, the withdrawal is a political issue, putting blame on the soldiers is irresponsible. When dealing with bad political decisions, blame must be put on those formulating policy, not those implementing it.

By its silliness, the slogan that was probably created by some P. R. firm in Tel Aviv or New York will end up doing us more harm than good. Granted there is only so much wisdom that can be placed on a bumper sticker, but this does not excuse us from saying things that are inappropriate. All the more so if it is to become the central slogan of the campaign.

Some may get upset and say that with Gush Katif at stake, it is no time to worry about the niceties of slogans. I beg to differ. It is not for nothing that much of the Torah deals with the proper use of words. For Jews, words are precious commodities and not to be misused. Henry Kissinger once identified the different way that Arabs and Jews use words as a major cultural source of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. He explained that Arabs use poetic license in what they say where as Jews are very legal and exact in their use of words. Accordingly, the Torah's prohibition against falsehood is phrased in such a way as to extol us to stay far away from falsehood. It behooves us to remember this formulation and be careful not to say things that are not completely true. It is not a mere ?nicety? for us to remain true to the wisdom of our tradition.

Within the context of national security, it is legitimate to present all sorts of incentives to the other side, so long as these incentives meet a national consensus of our basic needs. This, in order to show the other side the seriousness of our desire to make peace. One-sided giveaways, however, are not helpful. They do not show the seriousness of our good-will; rather, they show that our opponents are more likely to accomplish their goals by violence than by negotiation. It is ultimately for this and other related reasons that we must proclaim to the nation that Sharon's policies are ill-advised. If we convince the nation now, so much the better. If not, assuming our position is true, this will eventually come out, as is always the case with the truth. By the same token, trying to accomplish our aims with untrue slogans may be helpful in the short term, but is a sure way to assure the marginalization of our position in the long run. In this context, a much better slogan ? not quite as popular but much more real ? is: ?The Eternal People Doesn't Fear a Long Journey.? Indeed, the Jewish strategy has historically been to focus on the long-term victory assured us by always siding with the truth. This eternal strategy has brought us this far; it is no time to change now.