Terrorism is stronger than democracy: A warning to Israel

February 02, 2002


[Note by Tom Gross]

Here's the very defeatist and depressing view of someone who believes that democracy is no match for terrorism, and therefore Israel will not be able to survive. I disagree with much of this article's logic, but it makes interesting reading.


Israel's Future: The odds.
By John Derbyshire
National Review
January 31, 2002

In his splendid (translation of the word "splendid": full of things to argue and write web columns about) new book The Death of the West, Pat Buchanan relates a story about his days working with President Nixon – who was, as Pat quotes Golda Meir saying, one of the best friends Israel ever had. In the story, Nixon had just hung up after receiving a phone call from Yitzhak Rabin. Pat's wife Shelley asked the president what he thought of Israel's prospects. "The long run?" Nixon responded. He extended his right fist, thumb up, in the manner of a Roman emperor passing sentence on a gladiator, and slowly turned his thumb over and down.

In this opinion, as in many others, the 37th president was ahead of his time. The question of Israel's long-term survival is now on many minds. Pat's book gives the dismal demographic news: 25 million Palestinian Arabs living alongside 7 million Palestinian Jews by mid-century. Many of us are starting to wonder if Israel has a future.

Back in October, Norman Podhoretz published a piece in the magazine Commentary putting as brave a face on things as can be put. After pooh-poohing the Oslo "peace process," comparing Shimon Peres with Neville Chamberlain and acknowledging that the current leadership of the Palestinian Arabs has no real wish to make peace with Israel, Podhoretz looks to the future. There is, he says, "no glimmer of light at the end of this dark and gloomy tunnel." He counsels Israeli Jews to hunker down and wait for the day when "the Arab world will make its own peace with the existence of a Jewish state."

That article naturally generated a lot of mail to Commentary. Amongst it was a letter from Ron Unz, the west-coast entrepreneur and policy intellectual who campaigned successfully against bilingual education in California. Unz (who, like Podhoretz, is Jewish) puts the pessimistic case with great force:

I expect Israel's trajectory to follow that of the temporary Crusader kingdoms, surviving for seventy or eighty years following its 1948 establishment, then collapsing under continual Muslim pressure and flagging ideological commitment.

So who's right? The Podhoretz party, which believes Israel just has to hold on until the Arabs see sense? Or the Unzes, who believe that Israel is one of those grafts that just won't "take" – like white Rhodesia or the Crusader kingdoms?

The answer probably lies with the Jews of Israel, with whether or not they have the will and nerve to sit things out until the Arab world enters the modern age, assuming it ever does. Here the signs are not good. In a recent poll of Israeli Jews aged 25-34, a third want to leave the country. With suicide bombings now almost a daily occurrence, it's hard to blame them. Jews live free, comfortable, secure lives all over the Western world. So who needs Israel?

A Zionist might point out, quite truthfully, that 100 years ago you could have asked the same question. Anywhere in Europe west of Russia (of which at that time, Poland was a part), Jews were confident that they had gained, or were close to gaining, acceptance, and that the horrors of the Middle Ages were all behind them. Zionists were regarded by most European Jews as crackpots. Theodor Herzl, the prime mover of modern Zionism, himself felt that way until 1894. Then, as a newspaper reporter, he witnessed the dishonoring of the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus on the parade ground of the Ιcole Militaire in Paris, Dreyfus shouting out his innocence while beyond the wall a mob bayed: "Death to the Jews!" We shall never be secure until we have a nation of our own, was the entirely natural conclusion Herzl came to, and set about building the modern Zionist movement.

It took the rise of Hitler to make any large number of Jews agree with him, though. The arc of European-Jewish feeling about Zionism can be traced by imagining the reaction of an "average" west European Jew to the statement that there could be no security for the Jews without a national home.

* In 1892: "Nonsense. We are perfectly secure. It's people like you who make trouble for us."
* In 1952: "Of course! Anyone can see that!"
* In 2002: "Do you think so? I feel a lot more secure in Paris than I do in Tel Aviv!"

In the U.S.A. the matter is more complicated. There have been very few full-blown anti-Semitic pogroms in this country: The one in New York City in August 1991 is the only one I know of. Because of the peculiar circumstances in that case – it occurred in just about the only neighborhood anywhere in the U.S.A. that Jews share with blacks – most American Jews were not much bothered by it. They feel quite secure; and I think, with some slight qualifications, they are right to feel that way. At the same time, the Jews of America include many thousands of Holocaust survivors, who are naturally wary of slipping back into the complacency of their own parents 70 years ago. It has often been said that black Americans and white Americans will never be at ease with each other until the generation that remembers Jim Crow has died out. It may similarly be true that Jews will never feel truly secure, even in the U.S.A., until the Holocaust generation has passed on. But when that happens – and the very youngest Holocaust survivors are now in their sixties – the question will be asked with even more force: Who needs Israel?

I had better step out front and center here and admit that I am a pessimist, of the Unz party. I think Israel will go down. The reason I think this is that I am British, and have been watching all my life, occasionally at very close quarters, the long struggle between the two constitutional nations of the British Isles and the terrorists of Sin Fιin/IRA. I do not see how anyone who has followed that conflict can come to any conclusion other than the one I have come to, which is, that democracy is no match for terrorism.

This may be a universal truth, I don't know. At any rate, it is certainly true of the modern Anglo-Saxon style democracies (among which I would include the Republic of Ireland).

Dedicated irredentist terrorists with a single clear goal – Unite Ireland! Destroy Israel! – will get what they want in the end. They have too many things going for them that their opponents, the modern constitutional democracies, do not have. They have stamina – the iron determination to press on for decades, for generations, brushing aside all reverses, weathering all storms, expelling all doubters, holding steadfast to the golden vision. They have the luxury of perfect ruthlessness as regards method. I have been told many times by supporters of Irish terrorism – I was told it once in the "letters" column of the Wall Street Journal – that anything, anything at all, is justified in the name of "the cause." While their enemies debate the morality of this weapon or that, and the best way to avoid "collateral" casualties, and whether their terrorist prisoners should have air conditioning, the terrorists themselves are planting bombs in busy shopping streets, shooting up 12-year-old girls at a bat mitzvah, or leading away the single mother of ten children to be executed for the "crime" of comforting a dying enemy soldier.

And the terrorists have the moral condition of the modern democracies working for them, too. We are open societies, in which all voices can be heard. The terrorists can make their case in public; and of course they have a case. Sinn Fιin has a case; the PLO has a case; as George Orwell pointed out in the middle of WWII, even Hitler had a case – one to which, until he started invading other people's countries, the world was much more receptive than we now care to remember. The intellectual, litigational, over-educated elites who run modern democracies are much more interested in hearing a case argued than in organizing the grueling, deadly, morally ambiguous work of counterterrorism. And the loathing that so many of our elites nurse in their innermost hearts for the culture into which they were born, naturally helps the enemies of that culture

Indeed, if you pursue the Irish parallel, the prospects are even more depressing than Ron Unz tells us. Taken to its full length, that parallel would suggest that even if democracy comes to the Palestinians, and even if they get a viable state, and even if the great majority of the Palestinian people are content with that state and give up, or postpone indefinitely, the old dream of driving the Jews into the sea: even if all that, there would still be tiny groups of fanatics who would reject the whole deal and continue their war "by all means necessary"... and that the people whose duty it was to fight those fanatics would eventually tire of the task, and give in to everything the terrorists were demanding. Even more than they were demanding, perhaps: The IRA now has offices in the House of Commons!

So my answer to the title question is a glum: "No, probably not." Sick of terror, longing for a normal bourgeois life, those who can – those who have education, talents, marketable skills – will slip away. The dumbed-down remainder, outnumbered and outwitted, will sink into a defeatist lassitude punctuated by crude, insensate acts of rearguard violence. The only great nation at all inclined to act as protector will tire of doing so, making all sorts of excuses as she backs away from her obligations: "Oh, you know, they're not exactly model constitutionalists are they? Look how they treat their minorities! Because of them, all our foreign policy is bent out of shape! Bombs are going off in our own cities! And the expense! I'm sorry, but I've seen it all, in another place. The result is too predictable. This is how civilization yields ground to barbarism.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.