The Expats

The President meets with Sharon and Abbas. He counsels restraint. Everyone expresses hope that the peace process is back on track. Hamas blows somebody up and Sharon replies with several attacks with helicopter gunships aimed at a certain Hamas leader, an explicit, acknowledged attempt at political assassination. Everyone says the road map has been thrown off track. Bush mildly rebukes Sharon for overreacting. Powell drops by and chats with Israeli leaders, drawing theological distinctions between different levels of political assassination. He reports that the Israelis now appreciate the distinction.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that the friends of Israel right or wrong have descended on Bush like an angry posse, outraged that he should have lost his cool, and his sense of political realism, long enough to rebuke Sharon, however lightly, for launching his air force against an unarmed urban community, causing many casualties, in a failed attempt to assassinate a leader of the opposition. Bush gets the message, and falls back into his usual posture of putting the entire blame for the crisis on the Palestinian terrorists. Powell shuffles offstage.

A decade ago I was driving through the southern highlands of Sri Lanka when I struck up a conversation with a wealthy British businessman, by origin a Sri Lankan Tamil expatriate. He was rational on most subjects but when it came to the civil war on the island, he became rabid. The Singhalese majority were monsters, brutes, cannibals. The Tamil tigers were saints, and had his total, fervent support.

It’s a matter of record that a lot of the problems the Brits have had in Northern Ireland trace back to the very extensive financial and moral support that Irish Americans have been providing to their Irish adversaries. I have seen, over the years, how the Greek American community has tweaked national legislation to impede the conduct of our bilateral relations with their enemies, the Turks. Poor Turks, the evil their ancestors did lives after them. The Armenians in America are still out to get them, too.

It is understandable that Americans of Greek or Armenian ancestry should be cool to things Turkish, but carrying a grudge from one generation after another, to the extent of trying to bollox up our national foreign policy, strikes me as too much. Likewise with the Irish Americans, who have about as much reason, ancestrally speaking, to dislike the British as the others have for the Turks. But the Irish Americans, for the most part, have settled down, and so have many of my fellow citizens that have Greek or Armenian forebears. None of these groups exerts intolerable pressure on our national ability to pursue foreign policies that are based foursquare on the national interest.

Not so with those of our fellow citizens who remain totally dedicated to the single-minded pursuit of Israel’s narrow, nationalist concerns. Many but by no means all of these “Israel right or wrong” types are Jewish, and of course there are many other Jewish Americans who disagree with them. But this so-called Israeli lobby has bought and controls the US Congress as far as our Middle East policy is concerned. (I am prepared to defend that statement in some detail if challenged, but it is common knowledge). And the lobby exerts influence that is almost tantamount to control in the White House, as demonstrated by the events I described above.

It is ironic that the Israeli lobby in Washington doesn’t even represent mainstream opinion in Israel; it only supports the views of the right wing. There have always been a lot of sensible people in Israel, in both the center and on the left, who are willing to give up dreams of greater Israel for a genuine peace. But the cycle of terrorist attacks countered with brutal force, breeding further attacks, has left them politically neutralized and for the most part mute.

Sharon wouldn’t last a month without the fanatical support of the Israel lobby in the United States. Or at least he would quickly lose interest in following his present hard-nosed policies, if American support began to ease off. The Israeli right wing can only continue in control and continue to pursue its present policies as long as it has Washington in its pocket. The road to peace in the Middle East, therefore, lies in Washington, not in Tel Aviv or Cairo. The critical battles are not being fought in Gaza and the West Bank, but in the hearts and minds of a very solid and well organized minority of American citizens who are supporting Israel to the hilt. If they change, the war will end, peace will ensue. But there is no sign that this will happen.

I believe it is in the nature of the expat condition to start with guilt and translate it into a kind of rage at the traditional enemies of the old country. You’re sitting in America, rich and comfortable, while your cousins are duking it out with their foes, struggling for survival. Selfish instincts prevent you from going back and fighting with them, but a residual sense of tribal solidarity, reflected in sympathy for those embattled cousins, makes you want to do whatever you can to help. Money is no object, and you contribute as much as you can, but it isn’t enough, you also want to get big brother, the powerful new nation of which you are a part, to weigh in and support you.

In the USA we are all expats, except for a few native Americans. Almost all of us have gotten over the residual tribal and cultural loyalties our forebears brought with them when they first reached our shores. We can retain a certain nostalgic sympathy for the old country but when push comes to shove, we are all Americans. There is only one major exception, and that involves an exceptional situation: a brand new nation representing the aspirations of an ancient tribe. But the psychology is similar to that for other expatriate Americans.

It is time for Americans who are presently committed to support for Israel and its expansion to wake up and look at where their high-minded dedication is leading the people of the Middle East and the USA. It won’t do, friends, it’s time to loosen up. It’s up to you, and you alone, to say enough, the war between Israel and the Palestinians must cease. You have the key. Use it.

Carl Coon 6/21/03

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