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Some Unwanted History Lessons

September 15, 2005 By:
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A Palestinian policeman holds a Palestinian flag as he walks to the roof of a synagogue in the former Gaza Strip settlement of Neve Dekalim.
Several years ago before I came to Philadelphia, I accompanied the former governor of Connecticut on his first trip to Israel.

In my journalistic capacity, I tagged along as John Rowland, then considered an up-and-coming star of the Republican Party, was schlepped around Jerusalem on a whirlwind tour conducted by guides from Israel's foreign ministry.

But as we were winding our way around the Old City, I began to chafe a bit. The visit to the sites of several ruined synagogues in the Jewish Quarter did not elicit even a mention from the guide over the fact that they'd been blown up by the Jordanian Arab Legion after they took the place from its outnumbered Jewish defenders.

Nor did a view of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives prompt the guide to mention that the cemetery had been desecrated by the Jordanians during their occupation of part of the city before the unification of Jerusalem by Israel in June 1967.

Frustrated that an opportunity to educate an American leader about the history of the city was being missed, I doffed my journalist's cap and intervened in the conversation.

The result was an angry riposte from the guide, who told me to let him do his job and not add to the confusion on the part of the governor.

Bad Memories

In the long run, the mixed messages Rowland got that day will have no effect on American-Israeli relations since rather than ascend to the high national office he once aspired to, he has taken his confusion to federal prison, where he's currently serving a term for fraud and malfeasance. As they say in Rome, sic transit gloria.

But the memory of that out-of-tune tour guide came back to me as I read the reactions of many Israelis to recent events in Gaza. The destruction of the synagogues left behind in the Jewish settlements in Gaza by Palestinian mobs on Monday was a grim reminder of other Arab mobs that destroyed Jewish sites in the past.

It brought to mind the bloody mob in Nablus that tore down the shrine of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus at the start of the intifada in October 2000.

Then, just as now, as the shocking events unfolded, there was a strong current of Jewish opinion that counseled us to not take it so seriously. The excuse for the sack of Joseph's Tomb was that the yeshiva there was an irritant to the Arab population of the city.

So, too, we are now told that the results of the Palestinian Mardi Gras in Gaza this week shouldn't upset us. It was Israel's fault for not destroying the synagogues themselves before leaving since the sites were symbols of the hated Jewish presence.

The priority, the editorialists at Ha'aretz, which styles itself the "New York Times of Israel," is to "douse the flames," and not to criticize the Palestinians for what Silvan Shalom, Israel's current foreign minister, rightly termed "barbarism."

Going one better than the real New York Times, which wrote of the burnings only in passing, The Philadelphia Inquirer's Israel correspondent Michael Matza omitted it entirely from his dispatch. Readers of that newspaper were only informed of the vandalism in a caption to a picture of a Palestinian mob making merry atop a demolished synagogue in Netzarim.

But as Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Shalem Center, said in an e-mail to me about the subject, "We can't expect the rest of the world to feel greater rage than Ha'aretz feels."

It is true that the Torahs and other sacred objects in these shuls were gone before the buildings were torched. And you can argue if the communities they served were being demolished, what's the big deal about knocking down the synagogues, too?

After all, haven't scores of synagogues in American cities been torn down or, more commonly, sold to churches? We feel a twinge of regret, but no outrage about the fact that beloved shuls now serve people of other faiths. Why care about the fate of empty buildings that no longer have any Jews to pray in them?

The answer is that the motive for demographic shifts in American cities isn't about extinguishing Jewish history. But the Gaza burnings are yet another example of the Palestinian Arabs' quaint custom of attempting to erase any evidence of Jewish life in the country whenever they can.

This is not an argument that the Gaza withdrawal was wrong. But the fact that the triumphant Palestinians could not bring themselves to let even one former synagogue stand on this land is a frightening reminder that the two sides still don't view the conflict in the same way.

To the Palestinians, this is not a tragic misunderstanding between two peoples, but rather a zero-sum game in which there are only winners and losers.

You needn't ask what the reaction would have been had Jewish mobs torn down or burned a Muslim mosque this week in some part of Israel.

Don't Even Ask!
But why even pose such an unlikely hypothetical when the mere threat that Jews might utter prayers on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is enough to send international Islam into a tizzy?

The fact that 1,300 years ago, triumphant Muslims chose to pave over the holiest site in Judaism and plant mosques there is considered an inviolate judgment of history. The Muslim Wakf, which Israel allows to autonomously govern the place, has spent the last several years trashing Jewish antiquities at the site without so much as a peep of protest from the government.

The mere mention of these facts is considered not only bad taste, but tantamount to an invitation to a world war.

How is it, we must ask ourselves, that Jewish sensibilities can be bruised with impunity while Muslim feelings must be not merely respected (as they should), but catered to, so as not to "provoke" more terrorism?

Indeed, the U.S. State Department now has a section devoted to soothing bruised Muslim sensibilities headed by President Bush's former communications guru Karen Hughes. Jews who feel bad about the Gaza shuls must content themselves with sternly-worded letters-to-the-editor of the Times or the Inquirer.

Who can we blame for this? Nobody but ourselves. Afflicted as we are with an indefatigable desire to rise above the conflict, we inevitably wind up conceding the argument before it even starts. And then we wonder why so many people don't understand our side of the story.

It shouldn't take a riot or arson, but until Jews start speaking up for ourselves, our history and our rights, there's no reason for anyone else to care about them.

Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: [email protected].

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