November 25, 2001

Learning From Israel and Its Mistakes


When I accepted a one-semester teaching position at Rutgers University's Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, I hoped to get away for a while from the tense atmosphere in Israel; I was looking forward to a quiet academic fall. The fall has been magnificent indeed, but I arrived in New York on Sept. 10. Instead of finding relief, I've been much reminded of life back home.

The first responses to the attacks sounded quite familiar to me. America, it was said, was attacked not as a result of anything it had done but simply because of what it is. Globalization, cultural domination and support for oppressive regimes were not immediately considered plausible causes for the attacks. In the same way, many Israelis ignore the causes that lead Palestinians to wage a war of terror against them, choosing instead to argue that they have been attacked not for anything they have done but simply for who they are.

The attacks on targets in New York and Washington were perceived as attacks on every individual American; a huge wave of patriotic togetherness gripped the country. Nowhere except in Israel have I ever seen so many flags displayed. (In Israel people sometimes put up American flags in addition to our own flag.) Nowhere except in Israel have I seen a similarly enthusiastic wave of voluntarism and donations. Israelis often say that war brings out the best in us; something similar seems to be true in this country.

Other reactions also sounded familiar. Americans say, "We have survived Pearl Harbor; we will survive bin Laden." In Israel people often say, "We have survived the Holocaust; we shall survive Yasir Arafat." Then there is the worry that "the world" (meaning some United States allies in the Middle East) is not supportive enough of America's fight. Israelis, too, often contend that the whole world is against them.

Even our heroes seem alike now: the American firefighter appears a copy of the mythological Israeli elite fighter, both simple men who are noble symbols of courage and determination.

Since I have long admired America's separation of religion and state, I was amazed by the dominant role religious expression played in the speeches of President Bush and other American officials. Some of these speeches could have been written in Israel, where religion still plays an important role in government.

Likewise, "united we stand" is an ideal familiar to many Israelis; it was the present wave of Palestinian terror that led to the formation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's national unity coalition. In recent weeks the political system in America has also been working with no opposition. Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, American news outlets have proved to be largely supportive of the administration, often exceeding the Israeli press's inclination to restrain itself in times of war. The Israeli press often cites the press in this country as a model for professionalism and free speech.

The war itself calls to mind the Israeli experience in Lebanon. Although the Israeli-Arab conflict is very different from the military action in Afghanistan, we have learned two lessons that are applicable here: Terrorism cannot be permanently bombed away, and what the Americans now call "nation building" did not work for us in Lebanon.

In recent days, I've been in some conversations that carried curious echoes. A student of mine informed me that he would not be able to attend a number of classes because he had been called for duty with the National Guard. Israeli students frequently miss classes because of their service in the reserves. I asked the student what he is doing in the National Guard. He said he is not allowed to tell me, which made me feel very much at home.

But the most striking resemblance between the United States and Israel these days lies in the need to live with terrorism as a permanent part of the everyday routine. Getting used to that reality is a painful process. Living with terrorism means paying the price for what you can't or don't want to give up, which, in the case of America, is its global position as the sole superpower. Life with terrorism is the price Israelis pay for their unwillingness or inability to give up their fundamental claim to be a Jewish and Zionist state.

Israeli experience shows that life with terrorism is not impossible, just as it is possible to live with car accidents, crime, disease and natural disasters. In fact it's not terribly difficult to get used to inconveniences like increased security at airports. (I was amazed to see express check-in machines here that asked passengers to touch "yes" on the screen to indicate that their bags had never left their sight. That machine could issue a boarding card to Osama bin Laden himself.) Such problems will inevitably be resolved, if not necessarily with a system the same as Israeli airport security procedures, which are based primarily on racial profiling.

Permanent terrorism also brings with it permanent struggle. Terrorism is the main enemy of democratic values and civil liberties. In Israel people suspected of terrorist activities are often subjected to various forms of mistreatment and torture, some of which have been legalized. Many of those suspects are put in administrative detention without trial. Some are taken before military tribunals, where often neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see the evidence against them; some of the accused are Israeli citizens. Yet most Israelis support these measures, and at times so has their Supreme Court.

Human rights organizations advocating greater civil liberties in Israel frequently cite American principles of freedom, and indeed some civil liberties have been introduced in Israel as part of the country's gradual but steady process of Americanization. So it was disturbing to hear the recent debate in this country over the idea of using torture on terrorism suspects. The Israeli experience clearly shows that torture and other limitations on civil liberties have not made the country safer; they have made it more oppressive. We Israelis have also learned that curbs on civil liberties rarely turn out to be temporary, even if intended to be: they are all too easily introduced but very difficult to get rid of.

Tom Segev is a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz and the author of ``One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate.''

Copyright © 2001 New York Times