The Philadelphia Jewish Voice

September 2006

Special Dossier: Echoes of War
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Philadelphia's Love Park
Special Dossier: Echoes of War


Five factors that spoil Israel's image.

-- Bruce Ticker

One does not need to be a brain surgeon to predict how this message might play in Peoria. Some defenders of Israel declare that the state's military planes usually drop leaflets on Lebanese towns to warn civilians of impending bombing attacks. I heard this very argument at a pro-Israel rally in Philadelphia's Love Park. Such a line of reasoning was mocked by a colleague who was within earshot at the office. He laughed and said, "They are dropping these leaflets to tell people that they are going to bomb their homes."

Many letter-writers continue to assail Israel over the civilian deaths, such as Jeffrey Hotz of Arlington (Washington Post): "Hundreds of civilians have been killed, with no end in sight. The United States must demand that Israel halt the violence. Only when this happens will a cease-fire be possible." 

Writes Catherine Cook of Manhattan in The New York Daily News: "Too many people are afraid to speak against Israel - but there are many of us who are disgusted by Israel's outrageous massacre of innocents. I'm ashamed of our Middle Eastern policies." 

Israel is engaged in a war of survival, not for any ambition for power, and it is getting pulverized in the court of public opinion. I was initially surprised that Israel was losing the image war, but I should not have been. For the past quarter-century or more, Israel has been regularly vilified for questionable actions. I can recall when Israel was the good guy, but somehow it has evolved into the role of anti-hero or villain. 

There are five reasons for Israel's current public relations debacle: 

  • legitimate concerns about Israeli tactics;
  • the command structure of the Israel Defense Forces; 
  • the Jewish state's recent history;
  • the Bush administration's reputation in the world; and 
  • the approach of some advocates for Israel.

The hostage crisis at Entebbe occurred almost exactly 30 years before Cpl. Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists at the Gaza/Israel border on June 25; Hezbollah then seized two soldiers at the Lebanon border on July 12. The Entebbe raid, when commandos rescued 100 Israelis, was the last time I can recall when Israel was undisputedly a boy scout confronting a horde of brutal thugs, and it is now assuming this role again.

Israel pulled all forces out of Gaza a year ago and from southern Lebanon in 2000, and planned the withdrawal from isolated settlements in the West Bank. Any accusations of "occupation" are absurd and some new issues they are raising are just as preposterous when fully examined. Do you think Israel should release a prisoner who shot a father and his small daughter to death at point-blank range? That's one of Hezbollah's demands, according to a New York Times piece. 

Of course, Israel had to respond to Hezbollah's kidnapping of two soldiers and its rocket launchings into northern Israel, but one must wonder if Israel responded appropriately. Even a more limited response would have killed Lebanese civilians and damaged the infrastructure because Hezbollah operated among civilians and transported rockets and other weapons through the airport in Beirut and roads leading to Syria. The deaths of 600 or more Lebanese have left people furious with Israel. Did Israel need to go as far it did for self-protection? 

Consider that the present Israeli leaders are new and untested, and were moving in a sensible direction prior to this conflict. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert campaigned on a platform of setting permanent borders for Israel partly to avoid further bloodshed. But Olmert's standing reflects a two-edged sword. It is impossible to determine if the IDF under Olmert's leadership has been competent or blundering. On the surface, it appears that the military repeatedly blundered, but who can be sure in the heat of a crisis? 

However, the Israeli-Palestinian history of conflict presented a context for the outrage produced by the civilian deaths.  The right wing — in and out of control in Israel — infuriated and confused the public with some of its policies and their consequences: the catastrophic first invasion of Lebanon; the construction of settlements; accusations of abuse of the Palestinians; difficulties caused by roadblocks and road closings; and the Sharon administration's heavy-handed response to the uprising that began in 2000. 

Supporters of Israel are accused of dictating Israeli policy in America, although they deny it. They contribute large sums to political campaigns, and the president and most members of Congress back the bulk of pro-Israel initiatives. They should help Israel when it is in the right, but even the appearance of ordering our government around is counter-productive for Israel. 

Bush's policies have also been linked to Israel's tactics in Lebanon. Letter-writers to newspapers have compared civilian deaths in Lebanon to those in Iraq. They do not bother to distinguish between the Lebanon crisis as a defensive confrontation and the Iraq invasion as a war of choice. Even more, the White House has spent most of the last six years antagonizing international leaders, and now these same world leaders do not trust Bush with diplomatic issues. That makes it all the more difficult for Bush to help Israel. 

To be fair, Bush has stood by Israel and advocated for its needs. The administration rates appreciation from Israel's supporters. However, America's occupation of Iraq probably allowed Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah golden opportunities to attack Israel while U.S. interests and resources were focused on Iraq.

We must stand with Israel now, but rationalizing serious transgressions only compounds the problem. Israel's cause could not be more righteous, yet advocates who automatically justify the extent of civilian deaths as self-defense are blighting Israel's credibility. The plain fact is that nobody knows for certain if Israel went too far in responding to the attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah, and that is what I tell critics. 

I go a step further: Israel should have never been forced into a position where it needed to defend itself, no matter what it did in return. It was Hezbollah that attacked, it was Lebanon that harbored them and it was the United Nations that must have known about Hezbollah's six-year build-up. Their blame of Israel's actions conveniently diverts attention from their transgressions. 

Supporters of Israel have no need to play the blame game. Just tell the truth? unvarnished.