01 April 2007

01 April 2007 - Enemy of the People

How to make the case for Israel in a hostile environment? I’ve continued to wrestle with this question since I first commented on Hillel Neuer’s speech at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. On the one hand, Neuer’s speech highlighted the hypocrisy of the HRC and generated wide public interest. On the other, his strident approach might have provoked more opposition than necessary.

But hang on a second. Why should Israel’s supporters, or Jews in particular, worry about our tone? Israel’s opponents don’t seem to worry about the tone of their attacks, after all. We are faced with an irrational, but calculated, attack on Israel’s legitimacy and Jewish self-determination. Playing nice might only feed impressions that we are weak, that we lack self-confidence, that hating us is actually all right.

Actually, I don’t think that we need to worry about how we are perceived. We are not responsible, morally or otherwise, for other people’s hatred. And we should be as tough as possible in fighting for our rights. At the same time, we have to remember that we want to build bridges to the world, not burn them. We want to be part of the world—not because we can’t survive on our own, but because that is not who we are.

In thinking about this issue, I was reminded of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece Enemy of the People, which first was published in 1882. The play deals with the problem of public opinion in modern liberal democracy, and asks a similar question to the one Israel’s supporters are confronted with today—namely, how a minority that is in the right faces up to a majority that is in the wrong.

Ibsen’s protagonist, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, discovers that the town baths, the centerpiece of the local economy, are using contaminated water. Encouraged by a local newspaper editor, he decides to publish his conclusions. Right away, he runs into opposition from his brother, Peter Stockmann, who also happens to be the mayor and who tries everything he can to keep the truth about the baths hidden.

Peter warns his brother: “The individual ought undoubtedly to acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community—or, to speak more accurately, to the authorities who have the care of the community’s welfare”, he says. But Dr. Stockmann, refusing to compromise his principles, rejects his brother’s veiled threats, and soon finds himself caught up in the whirlwind of political battle.

He calls a public meeting, only to find his brother has manipulated public opinion against him. Exasperated, and facing the hostility of the crowd he had hoped to win over, he exclaims: “The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! The majority has might on its side—unfortunately; but right it has not. I am in the right—I and a few other scattered individuals. The minority is always in the right.”

And so, for Dr. Stockmann, what begins as a campaign for truth and for the people’s welfare ends as a failed assault on the majority and on the very idea of democracy. By the end of the play, Dr. Stockmann is voted an “enemy of the people” and is abandoned by nearly everyone, except his immediate family. Not only has he failed to save his own reputation, but he has failed to save the town from danger.

I think Israel faces the same danger today in international institutions such as the HRC and in the court of world opinion more generally. The majority is in the wrong, and the minority—Israel—is in the right. But by condemning these institutions, without offering hope of repair, Israel and her defenders run the risk of isolating themselves, to the detriment of Israel and of the broader goals of peace and rights.

Occasionally, Israel’s supporters, both Christian and Jewish, urge the Israeli government to adopt a more aggressive stance towards hostile Arab states. I have sometimes heard Israelis respond by reminding their friends abroad that they still have to live in the Middle East when all is said and done. Israel wants to be part of the region, and part of the world, and must keep an eye on the future.

Dr. Stockmann’s mistake is that when he is silenced by the town authorities, he reacts by trying to impose his own authority on public debate. He forgets the reason he has taken up his cause in the first place—not just to achieve a sense of personal and intellectual vindication, but to protect the health of the people of the town. He forgets, in other words, that he is fighting for the majority instead of against it.

I think there is an important lesson in Ibsen’s play for those of use who believe in Israel and its cause. We have to remember that we are not just defending Israel; we are also defending the right of all people to live in a better world, including Israel’s enemies. We cannot lose faith in the idea that the Jewish fate is connected to that of all people. We can, and should, condemn—but also suggest, and most of all, lead.

Perhaps one issue to begin with is that of Muslim human rights. Earlier this month, Thomas Friedman pointed out that no one is speaking out for victims of terror in Iraq. Last week, Bradely Burston argued that Jews acquiesce in the world’s silence when Palestinians kill each other. Jews did speak out on Bosnia and Kosovo, and many have joined campaigns on Darfur. We could lead in other areas as well.

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