Back in the days when people imagined Israelis looked like Paul Newman in the movie "Exodus," it seemed Israel could do no wrong. If there was an American perception of that country it was of a happy band of dedicated people wearing khaki shorts, fighting the (feh!) Arabs, being entertained by Danny Kaye and stopping whatever they were doing (like making the desert bloom) to break into a dance called the hora. The country was one vast folksong.
No one mentioned the Arabs. They were fought periodically, but other than that, they were not paid much attention. Little was known of their side of the story. They were thought to have no folk dances of their own, did not smile, were sneaky, shifty and had no appreciation either for Paul Newman or Danny Kaye. A stranger people you are not likely to meet.
Now, though, all that has changed. A face has been put on the Arabs, and it is an appealing one. They now have their American sympathizers, indeed their champions, and hardly anyone who knows more about Middle East history than could be communicated by the movie "Exodus" would not acknowledge that the Arabs, too, have a cause.
But the thing has gone further than that. One cliche has been replaced with another. Now, it seems, it is the Israelis who can do no right. One does not have to employ Menachem Begin's use of the term "blood libel" to characterize what has happened, but it has become clear that both here and abroad Israel has been getting something of a bum rap.
Take, for instance, the shooting at the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem. The culprit appears to be an American-Israeli, a soldier and something of a zealot--a follower of the founder of the Jewish Defense League, the rabbi-cum-thug, Meyer Kahane. The soldier was arrested, apologies were made all around, but that did not do. The Arab world, already incensed that Israel controls the area, promptly went bananas.
It cried foul. Without evidence, it accused the Israeli government of complicity in the shooting. There were riots in Israel. Large parts of the Arab world, especially around the Persian Gulf, went on a one-day strike. The usual resolution was introduced in the United Nations with the usual result: Israel stood condemned.
Yet there was no resolution when the holier mosque at Mecca was seized and shot up by a group of fanatics. There was no strike in the Arab world, no accusations of government implication. The thing was recognized for what it was--an aberrant act by some bizarre people. If it was more than that, we still don't know. The Saudi Arabians feel very strongly that what happens within their country is no one's business but their own.
There are similar examples of random acts of violence--the shooting of the Pope for instance--and even not-so-random acts, like repeated massacres of dissidents in Syria, to which the world either responds with a deaf ear or a note of sympathy. Only, it seems, when it comes to Israel is everything a federal case.
It seems that for a lot of people, once one cliche had evaporated, another had to take its place. Good Jews became bad Jews. A noble experiment in nation-building became racism. Arabs who once could do no right, now can do no wrong.
To be sure, a lot has changed since the days when Paul Newman represented Israel to the world. The situation in the Middle East has gotten, if possible, even more muddled. Israel has become an occupying power, somewhat paranoid, certainly fearful, sometimes arrogant, sometimes aggressive, sometimes just plain wrong. You could argue that it has become a success. You could argue also that it is a failure.
But it is not one thing or another. It is, like any nation, a combination of things. It is sometimes wrong, sometimes right--the ratio changing from time to time. Only bigots think a nation is always one thing or another.
So today, when the Sinai goes back to Egypt, it is good to remember that. Returning the Sinai has cost Israel plenty--in money, in land, in strategic position, in oil and in internal dissent. Anyone with a television set knows that. The whole thing is a gamble, and maybe there is another country that has given up both oil and territory recently, but its name does not come to mind.
It would be right for critics of Israel to acknowledge that something special has been done. It has been some sacrifice. Israel has given up the Sinai: the world should give it its due.