Columnist: Thought of the Day — Israel needs friends to speak out

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 22, 2015

By Sydney M. Williams

Contributing columnist

For 44 seconds Benjamin Netanyahu interrupted his Sept. 29 speech at the United Nations, and stared out at the members. His purpose was to make them feel uncomfortable, to squirm at the silence.

His silence was symbolic of that which Jews have endured for centuries. It was the silence of the allies before and after World War II. And it is the silence Israel is now abiding from their partners and friends.

Silence is discriminatory when heads turn in avoidance of unpleasant truths, when evasion substitutes for aid.

Israel is a small, but politically and economically successful, nation. It is a secular democracy amid theocratic, despotic neighbors.

Mahmoud Al-Zahha, co-founder of Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas’ coalition partner in the Palestinian Authority, once said “Jews have no future among the nations of the world,” adding: “They are headed to annihilation.” Iran has promised to “eradicate Israel.”

The desire of Islamic jihadists is to intimidate the West into subservience and to destroy the state of Israel and the Jewish people. Robert Frost once wrote that good fences make good neighbors. That aphorism may apply in New England, but it does not in the Middle East.

There are an estimated 16.5 million Jews in the world today, roughly the same number as before the Holocaust. A little over 6 million live in Israel, about 1/50th the number of Muslims in the Middle East.

Around the world, there are a hundred more Muslims than Jews. Israel is the only nation where Jews represent the dominant population. They make up about 76 percent of the population. Most of the others are Muslims who live peacefully within her borders.

In contrast, there are 49 countries — and all members of the United Nations — where Muslims are more than 50 percent of the population. With anti-Semitism on the rise in Western Europe, and waning support from the United States, is it a surprise that Israel feels isolated? Is it any wonder that the Iranian nuclear deal, which was negotiated without Israel, is of concern?

When the New York Times brushes lightly over the Palestinian murders of Israelis in the West Bank, but elaborates on Israel’s military response, is it any wonder that the Jewish people feel alone?

During the second World War, approximately 40 percent of the world’s Jews were killed by Hitler’s Nazis and their partners. About two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe were gassed, shot, beaten to death or stabbed.

It was an experience we were told we should never forget. That was the message my father brought to me when he returned home from combat in Italy’s Apennines. Time heals wounds, but it also numbs the vividness of memories that should not be forgotten.

On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner Saint Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. Aboard were 937 passengers, almost all Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. Most were German citizens. Kristallnacht had occurred seven months earlier. The die had been cast.

The Saint Louis reached Havana Harbor on the 27th. Twenty-eight passengers were admitted by the Cuban government. A few days later, after futile haggling, the ship continued on toward Miami. By the 3rd the lights of Miami could be seen. Several passengers cabled President Roosevelt seeking refuge. Mr. Roosevelt never responded.

On June 6 the Saint Louis sailed back to Europe. Two hundred and fifty-four of the passengers died in the Holocaust. The lucky ones, 288, were admitted to Great Britain. The rest had to take their chances on the continent.

Silence persisted. Pope Pius XII did intervene in unsuccessful attempts to block the deportation of Jews to death camps, but to preserve the church he insisted the Vatican remain neutral — and silent.

Ten years ago Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addressed the gathering at the Holocaust memorial site at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex, “Remember how millions of Jews were led to their deaths and the world remained silent,” he said.

Today’s tensions in Palestine arise from the Temple Mount, the Jerusalem hill where the first and second temples of ancient Israel once stood. It is now home to the al-Aqsa Mosque. It is still a place of great meaning for devout Jews, but ecumenicism has no place in Jerusalem.

Because of previous terrorist acts, the Israeli government forbids Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. But the mere possibility of such prayer is enough to cause violence on the part of Palestinian Arabs and condemnation from their leaders.

We like to think of ourselves as more civilized than our ancestors. But are we?

Free market capitalism and democracy have eradicated much of the extreme poverty that existed in the world 50 years ago. Technology allows us to live longer, more enjoyable lives. But is man more tolerant?

In general, those of us fortunate to live in free societies are more willing to be tolerant of others. Unfortunately, most of mankind still lives within authoritarian regimes, without the right to speak, write and assemble freely, without rules of law or the protection of property rights. Most of mankind lives in places where tolerance is a concept, not a practice.

A century ago the sense in Europe was that globalized, economically advanced, culturally strong and civilized societies precluded war. Europe had not had large armies criss-crossing her borders since the Napoleonic era a 100 years earlier.

However, the existence of a royalty-led, stratified society provided not only gaps in wealth and income, but in the social arena as well. In many countries, democracy was nascent. Europe looked civilized until the counterpane was pulled back, revealing the poverty and injustice that lay beneath. When social disruptions appeared, the evil that lurked in bad men rose to the surface.

The first World War gave rise to Communism in Russia and China, and National Socialism in Germany and Italy. Four men — Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Mussolini — symbolized, in the West, man’s inhumanity to man. The 20th Century became Europe’s bloodiest. The lesson: evil must be confronted in its cradle.

Today, evil is personified in Islamic jihadism. We are all at risk – peaceful Muslims and Western democracies, but it is Israel that stands at the vanguard, like the boy on the bridge “whence all but him had fled.”

Last Saturday (Oct. 3), Jon Bon Jovi played Tel Aviv. He did so against the wishes of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. He dedicated his new song “We Don’t Run” to the largely Jewish audience: “We don’t run / I’m standing my ground / We don’t run / And we don’t back down.”

More than ever, Israel needs her friends, those who prefer comity to hostility; she needs them to speak out.

Sydney Williams, a retired stock broker, writes about politics, the economy, global affairs, education and climate, among other topics. He describes his political leanings as being based in the rapidly disappearing ideology of common sense.