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Front Page > Columns > An open letter to Ian Buruma, By Bret Stephens

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An open letter to Ian Buruma, By Bret Stephens

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Dear Mr. Buruma:
Are you a Jew?

For reasons somewhat obscure to me, this was the first question that sprang to mind while reading your article in last week's New York Times magazine, "How to Talk About Israel." Buruma is not an obviously Jewish name (neither is Stephens, for that matter), and what little I knew about you is that you'd written a great deal about Asia. I did remember a piece you wrote in The Guardian some time ago, when Tom Paulin accused you of having "Zionist credentials" and your answer was somewhat coy. Rightly so, I suppose. Paulin is an anti-Semite and he was accusing you, in effect, of "thinking like a Jew." Your answer, as I recall, was: Whether or not I'm a Jew, what possible difference does it make?

Still, I want to know: Are you a Jew? A Google search on "Buruma" and "Jew" brings me to an Irish website called "Palestine: Information with Provenance." There's a snapshot of you there, and above it a line that reads: AUTHOR CLASS: BRITISH JEW. The effect is sinister - sinister enough to make me wonder whether I'm badly out of line for asking if you're Jewish. Yet it doesn't really matter to me that some Irish Leftists have classed you in a way that would have done Eichmann proud. What matters to me is that you say, "I am a Jew."

WHY DO I go on about this? Because you have penned an article in the NYT instructing readers How to Talk About Israel, and it is not a matter of indifference who's doing the instructing. I have great respect for Michael Novak, a Catholic intellectual and strong defender of Israel. But I would have no use for him if he'd written the same piece in your place. Then again, I doubt Novak would ever write it, any more than I'd write an article with the title "How to Talk About Race." It isn't my subject and, even if it were, it wouldn't be my place.

The reason for this isn't simply that we must all observe the minute forms of the politically correct. It's that, in matters of moral instruction, authenticity matters. Ben hamishim l'etza - "At age 50, they consult you." One needn't be an old man with a long beard to be deemed a sage, but it helps. One needn't be a Jew to speak with authority on things Jewish, but that also helps. But one must be at least a Jew to tell the goyim how they may or may not talk about Israel. Non-Jews expect this, just as whites in America expect African-American leaders to set the parameters of acceptable racial discourse. Quite properly, too.

This is why it matters that you're a Jew. You have written a long article - not an op-ed - in the most authoritative newspaper in America. You would neither have volunteered to do it, nor would you have been asked, were you not a Jew. Your Jewishness gives you authority, and it gives you license. Things that might not be permissible for others to say (at least not ordinarily) are permitted to you. At the same time, it seems to me that you have some kind of responsibility in not ranging too far from what most Jews think are the limits of anti-Israel discourse.

To judge from your essay, you clearly understood the role you were playing, and in many ways you play it well and honorably. You explode the myth that Anglo-American policy vis-a-vis Iraq was driven by Jews. You correctly understand that what drives the thinking of people like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Weekly Standard publisher William Kristol is principally "a shared vision of American destiny," in which the interests of Israel play an important but basically subsidiary role. You recognize the extent to which anti-Semitic innuendoes have become a commonplace of fashionable European discourse. And you get that this is mostly happening on the Left - your Left.

All of this is important to say. Like you, I have grown so tired of hearing, from the likes of Paulin and Richard Ingrams and Polly Toynbee and Richard Fisk and the crowd at Le Monde Diplomatique, that to be anti-Israel isn't the same as being anti-Semitic. Well, yes, except when the only oppressed people Paulin & Co. wave placards for are the Palestinians, and the only people they'd happily see dead by lethal injection are Jewish settlers, and the only academics they won't allow in their department are Israelis, and the only US undersecretaries and deputy undersecretaries to whom they attribute outsize influence are Jews. All this amounts to anti-Semitism, and I feel I owe you some kind of debt for saying it in the company you seem to keep.

On the other hand, so what? Only in the increasingly anti-Semitic milieu of the British and Continental Left does holding the line against Paulin and Ingrams represent some kind of triumph for reasonableness and moderation. By Israeli standards, your politics are those of the very far Left. But you present yourself as a man of the center. Where does that leave the majority of Israelis - the seventy-odd percent who voted for Ariel Sharon, even if they aren't settlers?

"The harshness of Israel's confrontation with the Palestinians has coarsened Israel," you wrote late last year in the New York Review of Books. Liberal Israelis are "stuck between fanatical settlers, Palestinian suicide bombers, and a right-wing government supported by poor Oriental Jews and hard-nosed Russians." In your Times piece, you add that Israel has turned "the occupied territories into a kind of Wild East of gunslinging settlers and hounded natives."

This is a piece of rank snobbery, and factually mistaken in most respects. Your "poor Oriental Jews" are predominantly represented by the Shas party, which Sharon dismissed from his first government and excluded from his second. I have no idea what causes you to characterize Russians as "hard-nosed," except perhaps that as recent immigrants they are more accustomed to hardship.

As for the settlers, in my experience the ones who fit to type are relatively few in number. But however you feel about the propriety of Jews living in the hills overlooking Hebron or Nablus - and I have my doubts about them being there - the fact is these settlers and their children and their sometimes pregnant wives have been wantonly murdered in their homes and cars and streets by the hundreds. Does it occur to you to denounce this? Or do you take the Fatah/Paulin view that as "occupiers" they are fair game? From what you write, you seem not to have a clue as to the general direction of fire. I find this bothersome coming from the author of "How to Talk About Israel."

More bothersome, however, is that your limited and somewhat caricatured understanding of Israeli politics leads you to a lame effort at personal and political psychology. "The roots of neoconservative disillusion with liberalism and the almost obsessive promotion of American power go deeper than Vietnam," you write. "In [Norman] Podhoretz's case, it goes back to his childhood experiences on a school playground in Brooklyn, where he was bullied by his black schoolmates.... [hardline policies] enabled bookish men to feel tough, beautifully, enviably tough."

Uh-huh. Alternatively, Podhoretz's memories of being bullied may have given him a greater appreciation for underdogs, which in turn could explain his support for a state that many Jews, myself among them, even now believe is the underdog. But this explanation must be bizarre to you, as you seem to think that Israel, with all its military and economic dominance, is in the grip of a paranoia which leads it to see itself constantly on the verge of extinction.

"The Israeli bomb attack on an Iraqi nuclear installation in 1981 might have been justified in many legitimate ways," you allow, toward the conclusion of your essay. "But to say, as Prime Minister Menachem Begin did, that it was to protect 'the children of Israel' asking foreign reporters, 'Haven't you heard of one and a half million little children who were thrown into gas chambers?' is to dangerously confuse the issue."

Confuse how, exactly? I agree that Holocaust rhetoric can easily be abused - by hyperventilating Israelis no less than by Israel's more brazen critics - and that its abuse is dangerous. Yet it is a fact that the rhetoric that prevails among Israel's neighbors is openly annihilationist; see the memri.org web site for translated specimens of Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian and Saudi daily fare. Are Israelis supposed to treat this as just so much Arab verbal excess, particularly in the post-Oslo, post-September 11 world? Being paranoid and being deluded are not necessarily the same thing, and if Israelis are the one, perhaps it's only because they are not the other.

"THE POLITICS of the Middle East may be murderous," you write, "but it is not helpful to see them as an existential battle between good and evil. As long as such a view persists, among zealots in Washington, Jerusalem and Nablus, the struggle between Jews and Arabs would be forever obscured by a fog of noxious myths and fantasies."

Ian - if I may - what are you talking about? The sins of Israel - the commission of which you feel repeatedly obliged to confirm, as if to signal to the people who matter to you that you haven't become some sort of Likudnik - may be grievous indeed. But if you really think that what Palestinians have allowed their cause to become in the past three years isn't in some basic sense evil, and if you can speak of the "zealots" in Washington, Jerusalem and Nablus as if they belonged in the same clause - then you have no more business than Paulin in telling the rest of us How to Talk About Israel.

Finally: I am a "Likudnik" of the sort you seem to recoil from. Were it up to me, I'd give away 90% of the territories if I could be certain to obtain the kind of peace we have with Jordan, and 100% if we could obtain the kind of peace the US has with Canada. Don't be so hasty in emphasizing your disgust with the likes of me. Ultimately, we're the guys who are going to cut the deals, if and when the Palestinian people are ready to accept them.

bret@jpost.co.il
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