What Americans Could Learn from Israel

By Daniel Gordis on September 3, 2010 

In its basic form, the Ground Zero mosque debate boils down to a conflict between two competing values – American freedom of religion versus the sensitivities of the families of the victims of 9/11.

The freedom-of-religion argument suggests that if Jews sought to build a synagogue at Ground Zero (or anywhere else, for that matter), they would be within their rights. That’s the American way. The opposing view suggests that while not every Catholic was guilty in the Holocaust, and not every Muslim perpetrated the crimes of 9/11, sensitivities still matter. Pope John Paul II had the decency to force the Carmelite nuns out of Auschwitz, and Muslim leaders, too, ought to relocate their project.

Similarly, the mutual accusations are parallel: If you are opposed to the mosque, you are an Islamophobic racist. And if you’re in favor of it, you’re simply insensitive to the pain of those who lost loved ones in the attack.

But we Israelis have learned from our experience that matters are more complicated. One need not be racist or Islamophobic to be concerned about the mosque. For life in our region has taught us that the first necessary step to defending yourself is acknowledging that someone else is out to destroy you.

In the suburban, well-educated, politically and Jewishly liberal America in which I grew up, we didn’t use the label “enemy.” “Enemy” was a dirty word, because it implied the immutability of conflict.

Yes, there were people who fought us, but only because we hadn’t yet arrived at a fair resolution of our conflict. We needed to understand them, so we could then resolve the conflicts that divided us.

I still recall being jarred, when we made aliya, by the matter-of-factness with which Israelis use the word “enemy.” But it wasn’t a judgment or an accusation. It was simply a fact: There are people out to destroy our state, who seek to kill us and our children. And as the intifada later amply demonstrated, they did not yearn for our understanding or our friendship. They wanted our demise.

YEARS AGO, we took our then teenage daughter to an evening sponsored by the army, at which religious parents could ask questions about what the army would be like for their daughters. Some of the parents were downright hostile, clearly opposed to the prospect of their daughters joining the IDF. At one point, an obviously angry father stood up, turned to the base commander and asked (or more accurately hissed), “Do you make the girls work on Shabbat?” The room was perfectly silent, for everyone knew the answer. No one moved. Even the base rabbi said nothing. He stood at the podium, leaned into the mike and, lost in thought, played with his beard.

Suddenly, one of the three soldiers who’d been brought to address the parents, a young woman with her uniform shirt buttoned up to her chin, her sleeves extending to her wrists and her armyissued skirt down to her ankles, looked the father right in the eye, and without being called on, said to him, “Of course we work on Shabbat.” And then, after a second’s pause, she added, “Gam ha’oyev oved beshabbat” – the enemy also works on Shabbat.

It was a game changer. “What?” she essentially asked. “You think we do this for fun? There are people out there trying to destroy us. Either we’re as serious about this conflict as they are, or they’re going to win.”

I hadn’t thought of that young woman in years, but ever since the Cordoba Initiative controversy erupted, I’ve remembered her repeatedly. For Israelis do have something to teach Americans, and it’s very similar to what she said to that father.

It goes something like this: It’s fine to say that “America is not at war with Islam,” to point out that most Muslims are not terrorists and that many American Muslims are moderates. That’s true, as far as it goes.

But it only goes so far. Because America is at war and its enemies are Muslims. Politically correct hairsplitting runs the risk of Americans blinding themselves to that simple but critical fact. It makes no difference what percentage of the world’s Muslims wants to destroy America. There are enough of them that US air travel is now abominably unpleasant and, more importantly, enough of them that more strikes on America appear inevitable.

The US got lucky on Christmas Day when the bomber headed to Detroit failed to detonate his explosives, and was lucky again in Times Square in May, but less fortunate at Fort Hood. Yet those may be but the beginning. We could, heaven forbid, come to see 9/11 as child’s play.

THE UNITED States’ future is under attack, but Americans resist admitting it. President Barack Obama has sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, but he has also said that he intends to pull them out by July. Can we imagine FDR declaring war on Germany, but then adding that the war had to be over in a year, or in two? It would have been laughable. And America would have lost. The US has to decide – is it committed to destroying those who wish it ill, or is it willing to be destroyed by them? Those, sadly, are its only two alternatives.

When my parents were teenagers, they watched as evil took hold of Europe. But then they saw America turn itself into an unprecedented, enormous military machine. For America’s leaders understood that if the Nazis won, the world as we knew it would be over; we could either destroy Nazism, or have no reason to go on.

But when my children were teenagers, a different evil took root across their eastern horizon. This time, though, the world has feigned impotence.

Iran is at the nuclear threshold. Iraq was at best a “non-failure.” The battle against the Taliban and al-Qaida may take years, or decades, and may require many lives sacrificed if we are to win. But America has grown war-weary. Obama is already planning to bring the troops home; the word “terrorist” is increasingly off-limits in the US because it is considered “politically loaded.”

Americans simply want the conflict to be over.

Its tendency to gentility is part of what has made America great. But an unwillingness to call an “enemy” an enemy could lead to America’s demise. For Islam’s radical leaders tell us clearly what they seek: a world united under Islam, with America’s sacred freedoms eradicated as a new “morality” replaces them. What is much less clear is whether Americans are willing to fight – to die and to kill – to protect those freedoms.

Whether or not the Ground Zero mosque ultimately gets built may not matter nearly as much as whether or not Americans are willing to gird themselves for the battles that sadly lie ahead. We Israelis understand the fatigue that comes with war. We, like Americans, would much prefer a world in which we did not have mortal enemies.

We, like Americans, would much prefer that our children went to college at 18, and not to years of military service. But we’ve learned that anything short of absolute clear-sightedness and honesty – coupled with extraordinary sacrifice – could destroy us.

The same is true for America. The truly important question that the “Islamophobia” accusation raises is not what will transpire with a proposed building, but what will happen with a worldview.

It still remains to be seen if America will do what it must if it is to guarantee the survival of the very values it is now debating. America can remain the “land of the free,” but only if it is also the “home of the brave.”

The writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He is the author of Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End, which recently received a 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He blogs at http://danielgordis.org.