For generations of Diaspora Jews raised on the idea of an invincible Israel, the last month has been something of a blow.
While historians will probably have better luck sorting out the results of the recent weeks of fighting between Israel and its Hezbollah antagonists than journalists, there is little question that the result was a lot less than most of Israel's fans in this country were expecting.
From the White House on down, most Americans expected that when the Israeli government announced its intent to kick the terrorists out of southern Lebanon and to remove forever the threat of missile fire that hung over northern Israel, that is exactly what would happen.
But when the guns finally stopped firing, while far from unscathed, Hezbollah was still standing. Weeks of fighting and bombing hadn't prevented the Islamo-fascist group from peppering Israeli cities and towns with thousands of Katyusha rockets, and inflicting casualties and sending a large number of Israelis into bomb shelters or fleeing south for safety. And the two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping, along with the murder of nine of their comrades, set the whole mess in motion were still in enemy hands, with little likelihood of rescue or release.
Boasts Won't Make It So
This gave Hezbollah's maniacal leader, Hassan Nasrallah, a reason to emerge from his hiding place to claim victory over the Zionists and the cease-fire was greeted with celebratory fire works in Beirut.
Nasrallah's boasts lacked credibility. But, alas, as the growing chorus of unhappy Israelis contend, so did those of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he, too, claimed some sort of victory last week. While Hezbollah has been pushed back from Israel's northern border, anyone who actually thinks the enlarged U.N. peacekeeping force (if, indeed, such a thing actually comes to pass) will disarm Hezbollah is kidding themselves.
In short, while Israel may not have "lost" this war, it has obviously not "won" it.
What does this mean both for the Jewish state and its supporters abroad?
First, it should be said right away that American Jews have no business joining in the scrum seeking to assign blame for the failures of the last month. Some of us may be wondering about the confusing strategy pursued by Olmert and his government, but if there were ever a moment for non-Israeli Jews to hold their tongues, this is it.
The proper court of public opinion to judge Israel's leaders consists of those whose children fought and died in Lebanon, and those who were forced into bomb shelters or who otherwise had to flee their homes in the face of Hezbollah attacks. Diaspora know-it-alls who've never heard a shot fired in anger have no standing to be piping up. The rising tide of angry Israeli army reservists and displaced northerners will do enough second-guessing for all of us.
That aside, will the idea of a "defeated" Israel diminish support here?
The reaction from the core supporters of the Jewish state — both Jewish and conservative Christian — is an emphatic "no."
The sense of crisis and the notion of a besieged Israel — as opposed to the image of a powerful, prosperous Israel that doesn't need our assistance — is one that sends many of us to the barricades, literally and figuratively, to prove our support.
That should also mean that Jewish federations that have struggled to maintain their standings as the central address for pro-Israel philanthropy in recent years will, no doubt, gain ground, as the public rightly views the United Jewish Communities' Israel Emergency Campaign as a priority appeal.
But what about the large numbers of marginally affiliated Jews, as well as a younger generation, for whom the media-inspired image of Israel as the Goliath oppressing the Arab David is the norm?
This was a point hammered home ceaselessly as Hezbollah's responsibility for starting the war, and Israeli suffering was often slighted in favor of voluminous coverage of the suffering of the Lebanese paid for allowing a terrorist group bent on its neighbor's destruction to dig in around them.
And when the result of such action is, if not defeat, but at least a bloody nose, will that produce more sympathy?
It's true that there's nothing contemporary Americans seem to love more than a victim. And one might reason that if Israel is seen in that light because of the plight of the kidnapped soldiers or the large number of Israelis forced to live in bomb shelters like Londoners during the Nazi blitz of World War II, the result will be more understanding, not less.
That is, one supposes, a possible silver lining to the cloud hanging over Olmert. But there is also another, more negative possibility.
Americans like victims, but they don't tend to have much affection for losers. Even more to the point, as much as it is a truism that Israeli triumphs have boasted the self-esteem of Diaspora Jews, be they Zionist or non-Zionist (think of the impact of the Six-Day War on the birth of the Soviet Jewry movement, both in Russia and the United States), so, too, have public-relations debacles for Israel diminished Jewish support.
While some of us react to the notion of Israel as the bad guy — be it as winner or loser — with anger and resentment, others respond by internalizing the criticism and wrongly turning our anger on the Israelis rather than their critics. If there has been any group in the United States among whom support for Israel has diminished during the course of more than two decades of media Israel-bashing, it is the Jews — not our non-Jewish neighbors.
Seen in this light, defeat is not likely to increase the quotient of Diaspora identification with Israel.
Another troubling question is whether or not the lack of a clear victory over Islamist foes will harm the alliance with the United States as a whole.
After all, America took little interest in Israel as an ally, as opposed to a charity case, until after Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967. If ever Israeli leaders allowed their American counterparts to think that its deterrent had diminished to the point where it ceased to be the strategic asset that it is, then the rhetoric of common values notwithstanding, woe betide the alliance.
All of this is, of course, somewhat theoretical. Israel's military capabilities are still formidable and its political system, albeit flawed as all democracies are, is still capable of rebounding from the current mess it finds itself in.
That said, Israelis would do well never to put themselves in a position where they would have to find out what the foreign reaction to a real defeat at the hands of its enemies would be.
Should Hezbollah — and its Syrian and Iranian sponsors — ever get their way and inflict a genuine defeat on Israel, the answer to that question won't matter much, as this would mean the nation's annihilation.
In that case, increased international sympathy — always available for dead Jews as opposed to live ones — will be of little use.