In 1980, an Israeli diplomat met with Ronald Reagan as he was running for president. Reagan was furious over the hostages being held in the U.S. Embassy in Iran and told the diplomat he could not understand why Washington didn’t do what Israel would have done: land troops on the embassy roof and take the Americans out. The dismayed diplomat nodded disingenuously. Yes, that’s exactly what Israel would do.
Reagan’s wholly unrealistic idea of Israeli capabilities still haunts the Jewish state. It helps account for why the bombings of schools, hospitals and homes in Gaza are almost instantaneously denounced as war crimes — a purposeful atrocity and not, as sometimes happens in war, a mistake. Israel, some feel, is too good to be so bad.
There is, of course, reason for such admiration. Israel was created by defeating five Arab nations and won three subsequent wars. Soon, extraordinary feats seemed ordinary.
In 1960, Israeli agents seized Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to Israel to stand trial. As a Nazi SS officer, he had been instrumental in the murder of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews.
In 1976, Israeli commandos flew 2,500 miles to Uganda to rescue 102 Israelis and other Jews taken off a hijacked airplane. Five Israeli commandos were wounded and the unit’s commander, Lt. Col. Jonathan Netanyahu, was killed. He was the current prime minister’s older brother.
Israel developed a nuclear weapon in the 1960s. It has a formidable air force and a legendary intelligence service that is capable of monitoring just about every phone conversation in Gaza. Years ago, when Israel was fighting in Lebanon, I was shown aerial photos of a Beirut street that were so clear the license plates of parked cars could be read and matched with motor vehicle records. Israel knew who lived where.
All these impressive technological feats, all this bravery and derring-do, suggest a kind of perfection. They suggest, further, that what seems like war crimes must indeed be war crimes because Israel does not make mistakes. Not only is this hardly true — a list of operations botched by the Mossad could fill the rest of this column — but it also veers into a kind of anti-Semitism. If the bombing of a school or hospital is not a mistake, then it must have been on purpose: Israel is the cold-hearted killer of children.
This is the gravamen of a column in the Independent, a British newspaper. The author is Mark Steel and, in a Swiftian sort of way, he calls Israel “the child murdering community.” Steel has a good time with the occasionally idiotic statements of Israeli officials who blame civilian deaths on the civilians themselves — they should not have been where they were — even though that happens to be the case. Civilians are often warned by phone call or text message of a pending attack but either refuse to flee or are constrained from doing so. Either way, they die — deaths that Israel, with its unparalleled expertise, purportedly could have avoided.
I am not sure if Steel’s column is an example of philo-Semitism — excessive admiration of Jews — or anti-Semitism, whose excesses run the other way. I see it as the latter. It assumes a maniacal willingness to kill children either on purpose or because they are in the way — collateral damage, as it is sometimes called. It gives mocking recognition to all the precautions Israel takes to avoid such casualties.
Americans massacred as many as 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968. In wartime, Americans have killed other Americans either by accident or otherwise — and sometimes covered up what had happened. Americans have killed children while attempting to kill their fathers and made all sorts of mistakes in wartime, but none of this changed the nature of the society. We ought to be measured by our intent, not by what went astray.
The same holds for Israel. It is not a child-murdering community, although Syria, next door, most certainly is. I await Steel’s clever column on the Bashar al-Assad regime’s purposeful gassing of civilians, including children.
Israelis make mistakes. For instance, the number and extent of Hamas’s tunnels into Israel were apparently a surprise to Israeli intelligence. Israel also seemed unprepared for Hamas’s offensive battlefield tactics, and almost certainly the occasional soldier lost his head and committed what might be a war crime. But the truth — the prosaic truth — is that Israel is neither as good as Ronald Reagan once believed nor as bad as its critics insist. Israelis are only human. If you prick them, they will bleed.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.