Recognizing the Other's Right to Exist -- Willy Gutman on Netanyahu's Israel
[Willy Gutman is a friend of mine. After nearly 50 years in show bizness, I have quite a few Jewish friends, and Willy's one of the best of them. I'm told with that much time down studying under rabbis like Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce and Teddy Adorno, I have earned the right to consider myself an honorary Jew.
But when it comes to criticizing Israeli militarism--and what with the ubiquitous spiritual Gestapo-ing of the Holocaust Industry and it's Stop the Fucking Genocide wing--if I try to weigh in against the latest IDF atrocities in the refugee camps of Gaza or Lebanon, or question the pensée unique on designer genocides like those mawkishly bleated over in Yugoslavia or Rwanda, I immediately get hung with a foul-mouthed anti-Semite jacket.
You know: goys will be goys.
So now seems like a good time to let an authentic defender of Jewish humanism and understanding have a word.
Here are a couple things Willy wrote that reflect on the recent ascension of BiBi Netanyahu to the Israeli Premiership. You can really feel the suffering of this good man's heart that has had to endure the tortures of ethnic prejudice and militaristic (and religious) nationalism in the wasting of an ancient humanist tradition of wisdom and tolerance.
'It is better to endure evil than to inflict it.' I find this a very 'Jewish' precept--and it's one that I've always tried to live by.--mc]
This letter should have been written years ago, when the incident that prompts its belated publication took place.
More than a letter, it's an apology, heartfelt and long overdue. I have been haunted by its urgency for more than three decades.
I cannot wait any longer and hope it is neither too late nor in vain.
Some 30 years ago or so, as I absent-mindedly browsed the merchandise in a Times Square novelty shop in New York, a young man, clean-cut and neatly attired, asked me if I needed help.
I thanked him and said no, not for the moment. I detected a familiar accent and asked him where he was from.
"There is no such a place," I replied. I had uttered these incredibly cruel and humiliating words without a hint of animosity, without the slightest passion, the way one talks about some banal occurrence, like the weather.
I knew better.
I had lived in Israel as a boy, and several of the kids I played with in the Greek Colony in Jerusalem were Palestinians. My first girlfriend - my first young love, Leila - was my age, beautiful, smart, educated and proud.
Her father was a respected local businessman. My parents, who didn't have a prejudiced bone in their bodies, took an instant liking to Leila and neither said nor did anything to discourage what was my first teen romance.
Our neighbors were not quite as fair-minded. Circuitous and irresolute at first, the community's resentment toward my parents, first for sending me to a Catholic French school (going to a Hebrew public school would have set me back to first grade) reached a furious pitch when I befriended Leila.
One day, a delegation of about a dozen persons headed by a rabbi came to our house unannounced and uninvited. The rabbi addressed my father in Yiddish.
He admonished him for keeping me at the College St. Joseph and asked him to discourage me from "fraternizing with the enemy." He meant Leila and the other kids.
My father, a physician and a man of unimpeachable integrity who was never to be trifled with --especially by bigoted busybodies -- stood his ground. He was magnificent.
I don't remember his words and won't attempt to reconstruct them for fear of diluting what must surely have been a knockout riposte. What I vividly recall is that he opened the door and asked the "delegation" to get out of our house.
Predictably, my father's uncompromising stance did not help mend fences in the Greek Colony. Acrimony and ugly rhetoric festered for the duration of our stay in Jerusalem.
Leila ceased to visit. I looked for her. Her father told me she was no longer allowed to see me. "It's best this way," he said. There was sadness in his voice.
I was heartbroken. We soon left Jerusalem for Ramat-Gan, and I later left Israel on my own for good.
It was the same look of mortification and sadness that I saw in the young salesman's eyes more than two decades later in New York, where I lived. It didn't take long to realize the ugliness of my gaffe.
I had not only offended a human being, depersonalizing him, but I had trivialized his national identity and stripped him of the one thing stateless people aspire to most: the hope of nationhood, security and self-determination.
I returned to the store the next day, eager to apologize, in need of the kind of moral cleansing that only sincere expiation of a wrong can provide. The young man had left his employ. His co-workers, also Palestinians, volunteered no information as to his whereabouts.
Time, personal and professional preoccupations dulled the memory of my unforgivable affront. But they did not erase it. It kept surging in my mind like a recurring abscess, and every time it did, fresh pangs of conscience filled me with regret and remorse.
I am now 71 and semi-retired. I will not dwell on the partisan politics that continue to cleave that region. I will not comment on the hegemonic objectives that doggedly retard the prospects for peace in a land bloodied by years of hatred and violence.
I have family in Israel and I wish that nation well. But in the name of decency and justice, as a human being and a journalist, I cannot silently watch the continued dismantlement, expropriation, marginalization and, yes, dehumanization of a people who have just as much right to selfhood and dignity and peace as does the state of Israel.
As for the recent actions by Jewish "settlers" in Hebron, I join those who characterized their obscene behavior as nothing short of a "pogrom," something worthy of Hitler's thugs. As a Jew, I, too, am deeply ashamed that Jews could do such a thing.
What I did nearly a lifetime ago in a Times Square souvenir shop may seem trivial to some. I have been haunted by it ever since. Call it a matter of scruples, of conscience, of principles.
It is with sincere good wishes for a brighter, secure and prosperous future that I offer my most sincere apologies to the people of Palestine, in their homeland and in exile, for the stupidity and cruelty of idle, unreasoned words.
Palestine exists. In body and soul. I hope the young man, and by extension the people I once insulted, read this letter and find it in their hearts to forgive.
Netanyahu Wrong Choice for Mideast Peace and Tranquility
W. E. Gutman
In an editorial published in the Connecticut Post in August 1997 in which I urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign, I wrote that, as a Jew, I opposed the expansion of settlements in Israeli-occupied areas of Palestine. I also called for an immediate and permanent cessation to the expropriation of Arab lands, a practice still regarded by the world community as a blatant provocation and an invitation to unrest and violence.
As an American with relatives living in Israel, and after much soul-wrenching self-inquiry, I also concluded that Mr. Netanyahu’s regime was a calamity and a recipe for disaster. I further argued that dastardly alliances with jingoist generals, unholy covenants with religious zealots who use ideological extortion to force a theocracy on a largely secular society, the inexplicable compulsion to scuttle peace negotiations, a wrathful, neurotic disdain toward international criticism, a savage antipathy toward the Palestinian people -- all hallmarks of an administration wavering between ineptitude and aberration – pose grave dangers to peace in the Middle East and, by extension, to the region.
My views, harshly criticized in the press, would be validated by ensuing events. Mr. Netanyahu’s stern and capricious governance brought not one iota of security -- perceived or actual -- to Israel. Instead, as successive political crises between his government and the Palestinian Authority deepened, Jews and Arabs became mired in frustration and endless conflict.
His combative style and pugnacious rhetoric exhumed and re-ignited old hatreds, reopened unhealed wounds, fomented a new swell of cynicism, misgivings and suspicions. Israelis were demoralized. Israel’s sympathizers abroad were exasperated. Negotiating partners were unnerved. Bitterness and rancor deepened with every stroke of his ministerial pen, with every hostile decree, every calculated vacillation, every broken word, every rubber bullet.
This pernicious alchemy, in the name of national defense, yielded confusion, anxiety, sorrow and, yes, insecurity. Stimulated by the wild possibility of a peaceful settlement of their protracted conflict, Israelis and Palestinians were now bewildered and apprehensive. Neither side could endure the suspense and agony of occupation, piecemeal concessions and fragmentary, snail-paced progress routinely nullified by spasms of retributive violence.
Last, echoing the musings of distinguished Israeli journalist Yosef Lapid, who wrote that the prime minister exhibited a crass disregard for reality and humanism, I described Mr. Netanyahu’s vision of peace and security as “trapped in paranoia and the corruptive forces of chauvinism.”
Twelve bloodstained years later, and after weeks of infighting following the general elections in February, Benjamin Netanyahu is set to become Israel's Prime Minister -- for the second time. In so doing, he will be putting Israel on a potential collision course with its Palestinians partners, its Arab neighbors and perhaps even its long-time American ally. His latest pronouncements, which betray his notorious ultra-nationalism, his intransigence and deep-rooted hostility toward Arabs, rule out any possibility of reaching some modus vivendi by encouraging and participating in an open exchange of grievances.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians are fighting for fragments of their homeland.
President Harry S. Truman, through the United Nations, made it possible for the Jewish people to return to their Biblical homeland. By an act of international law, the Palestinians were moved aside. The Israelis developed the land and opened up Palestine to hundreds of thousands of Diaspora Jews. Over the years more land was needed to absorb waves of newcomers. As a result the Palestinians found themselves outnumbered, marginalized. They became strangers in their own land.
MIT-educated Netanyahu laid waste to the delicate foundations for peace that were being erected. Issued from the sword and resting on the Bible, his policies have daunted and discouraged serious attempts to bring about regional security and stability. His lifelong antagonism toward the Palestinians, whom he considers “a sinister and divisive element,” has palliated the religious Right, whose enormous financial resources helped underwrite his campaign and whose gluttonous territorial expansionist objectives he endorses.
Mr. Netanyahu’s victory does not “prove that there is a God in heaven,” as a euphoric rabbi was heard clamoring. It demonstrates instead that Satan still dwells in the hearts of men who would give up spiritual self-renewal in a world daring to be brave.
Given these sobering realities and the volatile political landscape on which he has cast his shadow, the once-and-yet-again prime minister, his colossal ambitions fulfilled and his hawkish supporters placated, may wish to glance earthward and heed non-partisan wisdom: Hard line begets hard line. Security by intimidation, repression and economic persecution produces animosity and insecurity. He who sows the wind reaps the tempest.
W. E. Gutman is a widely published veteran journalist and author, and a former press officer at Israel’s Consulate General in New York. From 1991 to 2004 he was on assignment in Central America where he covered politics, the military, human rights and other socio-economic issues. He now lives in southern California's High Desert.