American Jews and the Conflict in Lebanon The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah challenged some Jewish and Arab Americans to sort through a complicated mix of allegiances. They are torn between conflicting loyalties to nation, faith and even family.
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American Jews and the Conflict in Lebanon

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American Jews and the Conflict in Lebanon

American Jews and the Conflict in Lebanon

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We Americans are a mass of hyphens. We're African-American, Irish-American, Asian-American, making us sometimes a mass of contradictions, often with close ties to the old country and passionate interest in developments there. The month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah deeply affected Jewish and Arab-Americans, and over the next two days we're going to explore how.

Today we'll talk with Jewish-Americans. With a fragile cease-fire in place, many are re-examining their views about the use of force, about Israel's place in the Middle East, and the long-term prospects for peace with its neighbors. Some find themselves challenging long held beliefs, while others have solidified their views.

Tomorrow, we'll talk with Arab-Americans and ask where they find themselves as the dust settles in Beirut. But today, our principal guest is an American Jew who's found his most essential, liberal principals tested and worries that others maybe feeling the same way.

Later in the hour, our Political Junkie focuses on Florida. So if you have questions about next week's elections in Florida, or the other remaining primaries around the country, you can send us e-mail now. The address is

But first, we'd like to hear from Jewish-Americans. Did the conflict in Lebanon cause you to re-examine your position on the Middle East, or re-enforce beliefs you already held. Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is

And our first guest is Thane Rosenbaum. He teaches human rights at the Fordham Law School. He's a novelist and author of The Myth of Moral Justice, and he very graciously joins us from the Melbourne studios of the Australian Broadcasting Company at a decidedly unsociable hour.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. THANE ROSENBAUM (Professor, Fordham Law School): Good morning, Neal.

CONAN: Good morning to you. Good afternoon, where we are. Your liberal credentials are impeccable. You're the former literary editor of Tikkun, the magazine for Jewish progressives. And you wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal that questioned some of your core beliefs about the Middle East. What changed?

Mr. ROSENBAUM: I don't know, Neal. I was quite disheartened and came to this transformation with great personal anguish and conflict. I think that in the aftermath of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, I was personally stunned and feel bitter about this transformation: that immediately rockets were launched, and soldiers were kidnapped, and terrorists were elected as state persons in both Lebanon and Gaza. And I wonder what happened to the moderate voices?

CONAN: And at a time, you point out in your article, when Israel had withdrawn from Gaza and had plans to withdraw from much of the West Bank.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Correct. We always assumed that the moderate voices in Lebanon, and certainly in Palestine, would recognize this as an opportunity for true nation-building. It makes someone like me, with long-held Leftist credentials, wonder whether nation-building is indeed the aspiration of the Palestinian people. Is it merely philosophical or is it real? Are they more interested in the idea of a homeland as opposed to actually having one? Is a homeland really nothing but a dream, or they prepared to undertake the serious gestures to actually be responsible and have their own home?

CONAN: You also questioned the formula of land for peace.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Yes. I mean, you know, for years this became a cliché. Right? Peace in exchange for territories. Well, when the Israeli's withdrew from Lebanon and Palestine, where was the peace? The very first action was to democratically elect terrorists who disavow Israel's legitimacy and nationhood. You would think that this was an opportunity for true nation building.

You know, we always are reminded of what Abba Eban, the former ambassador, American ambassador, to - from Israel, who always said that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. And this is exactly what hardcore Zionists always told us. And for people like me, I always dismissed them as being cynical and being unrealistic, and that the Palestinians, indeed, also wanted their own homeland and also wanted to live in peace with Israel as its neighbor.

CONAN: And now you write that you find yourself wondering if you have just been naïve all these years?

Mr. ROSENBAUM: And torn. I am bitter. I'm angry at the Palestinians. If you're losing me, you're in trouble. If someone like me is moved in this kind of a direction, that feels - because I have written in the past, at - with - at great length and sincerity about Palestinian pain. I was very, very concerned about the continued building of settlements in the West Bank, and the grievances - the legitimate grievances - that the Palestinian people had. And I'd lost a lot of friends over the years, because of this.

And many, many people on the Jewish right always were quite critical of the positions - the public positions that I've taken - the idea that there were reciprocal grievances on both sides. And now I'm left to wonder, are the Palestinians serious? Do they actually want a nation, because this is not the conduct of the people who do?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. What did you feel, as the war in Lebanon - of course, the war was in northern Israel as well - but what did you feel as that war progressed? There were a lot of people said, wait a minute, these are two soldiers who were kidnapped, three others killed, this is disproportional.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: You know, it's real easy to say that, I guess, unless you're -if you're living in Israel. Disproportion in what way? Nations have the right to defend themselves. It wasn't just that the soldiers were kidnapped. My good friend, Daniel Goldhagen wrote an essay recently, about that the Lebanese had the opportunity to return the soldiers and they didn't. They saw what the Israelis were about to do to Beirut and they held on to it. And what does that say? What does that say about the lack of compromise, the lack of concession?

It wasn't just that soldiers were kidnapped. Rockets were launched. It was much more provocative than merely a kidnapping. It was a declaration of war.

CONAN: And what does that tell you, about - what do you now think - about Israel's place in the Middle East? Does it have a place? Can it make peace with - well it's made peace with Jordan and with Egypt.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, you know, Israel's existence is real. It's always real. The question is whether its neighbors are willing, after sixty years, to accept its legitimacy and the reality of its presence. Unfortunately, I think this situation is grim. I think that the politics of Syria and Iran, and the most recent incident with Hezbollah in Lebanon, suggests that there's much more Arab animus out there. And the willingness to compromise, the willingness to negotiate, the willingness to live as peaceful neighbors is losing out to a kind of radical Islam. A kind of reluctance to join the modern world of civilized communities.

CONAN: And if your new vision is accurate, it also paints a different world for the future for Israelis. It's going to have to remain Spartan.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Look, the Israelis were tired. They were faced with an enormous amount of fatigue, you know. Their idea of the endless - the concession that they said, we must live as neighbors with the Palestinians, was not just a moral concession, a sense that this is perhaps the right thing to do, but became practically necessary. This was a society fatigued by war, and fatigued by terrorism, and acrimony. And so, the willingness to return territories, to withdraw from territories…

You know, the Israelis had almost - or nearly unanimous at least, until this most recent incident in Gaza and in Lebanon - about returning territories and undertaking all efforts towards accepting a nation of Palestinians. And so now what are Israelis to think? The situation looks grim for them, and something that I think western democracy should be incredibly sympathetic toward. These are people who have lived their entire history surrounded by warring neighbors - the entire - the very first days of this independence - and here they are still, with very few friends who are neighbors.

CONAN: We're talking today, about the fallout of the war with the Jewish Americans. We'll talk with Arab Americans tomorrow. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And Jesse(ph), we'll begin with. Jesse is calling us from Oakland, California.

JESSE (Caller): Hi. I was calling - I feel like I need to question the paradigm that the speaker is coming from. I'm also a supporter of Tikkun - which you mentioned he was affiliated with - and he seems to have rejected his liberal ideas. But I feel like the only grounds for doing that is if a liberal approach has been attempted. And instead, all we've seen is militaristic approaches and if the withdrawals he's talking about were unilateral. And I think the key here is that there has to be a real peace process and negotiation that's successful. And yes, this has been done time and again without success, but that doesn't mean that you give up, because there are reasons on the Arab side and on the Israeli side why there wasn't success. And clearly, I think what was proven in this last war is that military solutions don't work. Yet again, they only make the situation worse and to strengthen the fundamentalist position in the region.

CONAN: Thane Rosenbaum.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well obviously Jesse's soul brother - I have not renounced my liberal positions. I am liberal. I'm a liberal but I'm realistic. I'm not stupid. I'm able to be liberal and nuanced and recognize what's happening in the world. If Jesse's saying that the Israelis failed in some way to undertake more than a unilateral withdrawal, my response to him is tell the Palestinians to renounce their violence; stop the suicide bombings; curtail these levels of indiscriminate attacks against Israeli civilians.

You want to know why the Israelis unilaterally withdraw? Because there's nobody to negotiate with. If you can, in good faith, come to the negotiating process after having renounced violence, the Israelis I think are more prepared to talk than any nation in the world.

JESSE: I agree with that, but I think that you can take that exact same set of conditions, flip the names around, and Palestinians and their supporters will say the same thing. They'll say that settlement has continued, militarism has continued, checkpoints, enclosures in the West Bank have continued, so who do they have to negotiate with? Who on the Israeli side is really concerned with peace? And I think both sides would be right in those criticisms, which means that we need real leadership from the Palestinians and from the Israelis with a genuine interest in negotiating peace.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well I'll tell you one thing, Jesse. When it's time for the Palestinians to speak, at least on the other side of the negotiating table, there won't be people who behead other people, celebrate the death of children, and blow themselves up.

JESSE: That's true, but there will be people who send thousands of bombs into dense civilian areas. You know, the militarism is rampant on both sides and (unintelligible) that type of killing doesn't mean that the side you're supporting isn't doing something just as bad. My point, and the point that I think the Tikkun community is concerned with, is nonviolence. And until the Israelis adopt a nonviolent, negotiated approach, then they have no more moral standing than the Arabs.

CONAN: We'll get a response from Thane Rosenbaum, but we have to wait for the other side of the break. Jesse, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

JESSE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Jewish Americans today, about the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and whether it changed their opinions about Middle East politics. Arab Americans tomorrow. If you'd like to join the conversation today, 800-989-8255. E-mail is I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In the wake of Israel's war this summer with Hezbollah we're talking today with American Jews about their attitudes towards Israel, the Middle East, and U.S. Policy following the war. Did the conflict challenge old beliefs or bolster them? Tomorrow at this time we'll ask the same question of Arab Americans, but today we're focusing on Jews.

Still with us is novelist, and essayist, and human rights professor, Thane Rosenbaum. If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And let's talk with Rona(ph). Rona calling us from Columbia in Maryland.

RONA (Caller): Yes, hi. I really applaud your guest, because - sounds somewhat egotistical - but he's echoing a lot of my sentiments and my somewhat evolving in my present thoughts. I get angry when they talk about the Lebanese because the U.N. 1559 had been in place for over six years and the Lebanese did not make any attempts to bring their troops down to Southern Lebanon. And as a result, this has happened. And now all of a sudden it's a matter of oh well, poor us. And I do feel for the Lebanese and I do feel for the Palestinians, but as an American Jew, I take it personally when, you know, people talk about wiping Israel off the face of the earth, because to me that's wiping the Jews off the face of the earth, and that seems like familiar rhetoric to me.

And I also am disappointed in our Congress, because it seems like the only Jewish member of Congress that has really spoken out is Congressman Tom Lantos, you know, talking about sanctions against Lebanon if they do not proceed with bringing their, you know, troops down to Southern Lebanon and then, you know, Israel to withdraw their forces. So I think there's some anti-Semitism involved, and I think that on the part of Congress, I think that no one really has stepped up to the plate. This has nothing to do with separation of church and state. It's a matter of if your Jewish then this has got to affect you when you're hearing parts of the world saying that you should just be abolished. And I'll a… Thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay Rona. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Thane Rosenbaum, obviously Iran is allied to Hezbollah and it's not unconnected to the events of this past summer. And of course, the Iranian president's remarks about doubting the Holocaust for one thing, and then to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, and another thing. Is there a sense that there's a greater existential threat to Israel in your mind now?

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Without question. I mean, I'm not sure what part of this world isn't watching and isn't able to observe on its own. I mean, you know, the -Iran is really where the threat is. I just actually published an op-ed a few weeks ago in the LA Times about Iran and its president, and its response to the Danish cartoon controversy. And you know, the rhetoric from Iran is not just words, it's real. And the threats are real. The Israeli's always recognize this and acknowledge this. And now that you've seen what's possible in Lebanon, and with Syria and Iran's assistance, I think the United States should be concerned about the events in the Middle East, more so than ever.

CONAN: We're joined now by Aron Raskus, a Baltimore attorney. He found many of his views reinforced during this conflict. His article, What U.S. Jews Now Expect of Israel, appeared in Haaretz this week, and he joins us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Good to have you on the program today.

Mr. ARON RASKUS (Attorney; Baltimore, Maryland): Thank you, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And how did the events of this summer affect your views on Israel and on the conflict?

Mr. RASKUS: Well as you said, they've essentially enforced them. As you and Mr. Rosenbaum - Dr. Rosenbaum - articulated so eloquently. You know, Israel withdrew from the entire Gaza strip. Israel withdrew from Lebanon. It sat back. It expected Palestinian leadership to arise responsibly and to govern. It expected to be welcomed. It expected to see attributes of peace break out. And instead, you know, we focused only on Lebanon. But first we had hundreds, if not thousands, of Kassam rockets raining on towns in Israel proper, from the Gaza strip, which Israel had vacated. And then a soldier of the Israeli Defense Forces, sitting on patrol on the Israeli side of the fence near the Gaza strip, was kidnapped. That was round one. And then, just a week after that, we had the kidnapping and the cross border - rocket attacks from the north.

So, you know, I said at the outset in 1993, you know, I hope I was wrong. I did not believe that this process was really going to work. But it has not. And I appreciate the candor of people like Mr. Rosenbaum. I think people really are seeing what the Israeli people - not just the Israeli people but the American people - are dealing with on the other side of the fence in the Middle East. It's a different culture of people who - not all of them, but a large, radical element - who hate the values that we stand for - both Jews and American - the Western values that we stand for, the freedom that we represent, and will spare no life even to make their point in some strange macabre and horrific way.

CONAN: I wonder - at the end of his article in the Wall Street Journal - I don't know if you had a chance to read it, but Thane Rosenbaum says that the recent disastrous events in Lebanon and Gaza that inadvertently created a newly-united Jewish consciousness, bringing right and left together in one deeply cynical red state. Is that the way you've been seeing it?

Mr. RASKUS: I saw that coalescing even before that. It began to gather steam in 2000, when Yasir Arafat famously walked away from Camp David when the most generous offer that was ever made to the Palestinian people was on the table. It may not have well even been the final offer, and rather than to counteroffer, the response was, you know, suicide bombings. You know, as they grew more horrific, I think that unity begin to coalesce further. I think it gained even further momentum following the withdrawal from Gaza last year and the continuing raining of Kassam rockets on Israeli towns. I mean, there's only a miracle - miracles - that men, women and children weren't killed. There were some fatalities, but that there weren't more. And this latest episode I think fully reinforced it.

CONAN: Thane Rosenbaum, obviously one of the things that happened as a result of your change of heart, is that you suddenly find yourself allied with people like Mr. Raskus, who you may have opposed quite vociferously in years past.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, I hope he - Yeah, I think at a minimum it's strange that - you know, I've been embraced by the right, although many people on the right have said: what took you so long?

CONAN: And I wonder, though, he made a remark about the way people see the situation with the United States and in Iraq. Would you go that far? Would you now view that conflict differently?

Mr. ROSENBAUM: About the conflict in Iraq?

CONAN: About the conflict in Iraq. As a result of looking at Israel and seeing how things - how your thinking has changed there. Has your thinking changed on Iraq?

Mr. ROSENBAUM: No, my position has always been more nuanced. You know, I think of myself as a leftist and have always been liberal in these positions, but I have, you know, neoconservative concerns. I mean, again, I live in the world and I see the world. And I - although I am a human rights law professor - I actually was won on human rights grounds, not on because of weapons of mass destruction, but simply because of the instability of the world and this whole reach of radical Islam and the post-9/11 atmosphere, I was in favor of the war in Iraq.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Gary(ph). Gary's calling us from Ames, Iowa.

GARY (Caller): Hi. Gary Tardacoff(ph).


GARY: I feel that to keep talking as we do about Israel being in danger of being wiped off the map, or anti-Semitism being the issue, are both demagogic - neither one faces the truth. Israel has nuclear weapons. None of those countries, not Iran or any other ones, dare attack Israel. Israel is fighting, the government there is fighting, the war party there is fighting to keep those illegal settlements on the West Bank. They're not in danger from Lebanon. Certainly those rockets can kill some people, and that's a terrible thing. But they kill more people with horrible driving on the freeways. Except when Israel has invaded Lebanon and caused the death of hundreds of Israeli soldiers and thousands and thousands of Lebanese, the Israelis have lost very few people to those criminals that are showering them with rockets. Israel needs to take a chance and keep negotiating and definitely negotiate away those illegal West Bank settlements.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Negotiate with who? Who are you negotiating with?

GARY: You just keep talking to whoever is there. If I don't know a name and you don't know a name…

Mr. ROSENBAUM: What are you talking about? You just talk to the wall? Who are you talking about? Tell me who you're negotiating - who isn't prepared to blow himself up tomorrow.

GARY: …a lot further than previous discussions. We're able to find people when we're willing to talk to them.

Mr. RASKAS: You know, Israel has made countless attempts to negotiate to withdraw from the West Bank. The difference between Israel…

GARY: (Unintelligible) withdrawing from the West Bank. They're considering withdrawing from the places they wanted, taking what they wanted of Jerusalem.

Mr. RASKAS: Okay. There wasn't, first of all, there's great debate about whether the settlements are illegal. There's no pronunciation that they are legal. It's a whole separate discussion…

GARY: According to everyone in the…

Mr. RASKAS: I understand what you're saying. Israel has made countless attempts to negotiate. The whole premise of the Oslo Accords was to return large parts of those areas to Palestinian authority, and that Palestinian authority walked away from it and started suicide bombings.

So like Thane Rosenbaum said, there's nobody to speak with.

GARY: There are people to negotiate. You just have to keep looking for those people.

Mr. RASKAS: We will sit back and wait. That's what's going to happen right now. Israel is building a fence and it's going to sit back and wait until responsible leadership arises on the other side. The type of leadership that wants to raise - to build institutions, wants to build universities and hospitals and raise doctors rather than suicide bombers. And when that arises, Israel might consider that it has a partner to speak with.

CONAN: Gary, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Let's see if we could get one more caller in, and this is Michael. Michael calling from Hartford, Connecticut.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi.


MICHAEL: I just want to comment. There was this, a comment on your first caller about the bombing of civilian areas, and I'm presume he was talking about Lebanon and the Gaza Strip areas. The one fact that was left out of that is that the Katyusha and the rockets, the Kassam rockets, are being launched from civilian areas.

It pains me to see civilians on both sides being killed. But let's have the facts laid out as they are. That…

CONAN: Has this conflict changed your views, Michael?

MICHAEL: Well, yes it has. I'm not sure if it's Dr. Rosenbaum or Mr. Rosenbaum. He has fallen out of the liberal camp just recently. I fell out of the liberal camp back after the first intifada. I had great hopes for peace process progressing. And when the second intifada started, I fell off the wagon.

And then I still had a glimmer of, well, let's wait - peace - or land for peace. This last conflict has made me change my views even more so. I think that the notion of land for peace is a sham. I believe that the Palestinians and the radical Islamism has no interest in the state of Israel, no interest in peace. All they're interested in is destruction of Israel and the enslavement and killing of Jews.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much. He seems to echo something that your wrote, Thane Rosenbaum: Many Jews in my position, the children and grandchildren of labor leaders, socialists, pacifists, humanitarians, anti-war protestors -instinctively leaning left, rejecting war, unwilling to demonize and insisting that violence only breeds more violence - yet finding themselves, well, with their world view shaken.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Neal, you know, it's not Jewish to be in this position, to kill. To be in this position of having what Israel faces. The Israelis would prefer it otherwise. The question is do the Palestinians prefer another reality?

Israelis suffer from enormous anguish with the loss of one Palestinian life, and we don't see this on the other side. And I've been watching this for years. I've been waiting to see the Palestinians suffer, in the same way the Israelis suffer, from the killing of Palestinians.

And, yes, this is a transformation that Jews have been forced to undertake. They are now just - they are no longer just poets and philosophers and rabbis. They're also men and women of war. And this is - as much as the promise of Zionism and Israel has been one of the glories of the last century and this new century, the consequences of this - that the Israelis have been forced into a position of not only nation-building but nation defending has been really one of the horrible footnotes to this drama.

CONAN: Thane Rosenbaum, thanks very much for time. And, again, I appreciate very much your joining us from that ridiculous hour of the morning there in Australia.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Thank you, Neal. Very grateful.

CONAN: Thane Rosenbaum teaches human rights at the Fordham Law School. His op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal. He's a novelist and author of The Myth of Moral Justice, and he joined us from the Melbourne studios of the Australian Broadcasting Company.

And Aron Raskus, thank you for your time, even though you were just on Eastern time in Baltimore.

Mr. RASKUS: Thank you.

CONAN: Aron Raskus is an attorney in Baltimore. His article What U.S. Jews Now Expect of Israel appeared in Haaretz this week, and he was with us from the studios of member station WYPR in Baltimore.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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