Jews and the Embarrassment of Excessive Force

Kofi Annan, among others, has criticized Israel for its excessive use of force. Hey, that's nothing new. Anyone who lives or works in Manhattan has seen Jews employ excessive force all the time, whether they're flooding the zone to get their kid into Dalton, to colonize a table at Nobu, or to snare a next-day appointment with a gastroenterologist on New York magazine's list of the best doctors.

And you haven't seen a ground invasion till you've witnessed seat-seeking Jews during the High Holy Days.

I'm Jewish myself (gotta love that great immunity-granting phrase) so don't go emailing Abe Foxman about me. And I'm not in the business of grotesque cultural stereotyping without a reason. The point is that the current display of military force in Lebanon is shaking up the still-fragile ecosystem in which Jews and non-Jews find themselves.

If the truth be told, Jews are the teacher's pets of assimilation. We cling to enough of our traditions to be quaint (Manhattan gentiles love to fling around a few Yiddishisms to show how cool they are), while we're careful to never embarrass ourselves by letting our tfillin show. (The exception, of course, is the ultra-orthodox, from whom most secular Jews recoil, viewing them as Hassido-fascists.)

This anxiety isn't new. It's the warp and woof of the Jewish post-war experience as detailed by Bellow in The Victim and Bruce Jay Friedman in his scandalously overlooked, ferociously wicked Stern. We manage this tension well. But the uneasiness mounts, the squirm factor intensifies, whenever Israel military muscle is applied. American Jews - particularly the NYC phylum - don't like to be seen as aggressors.

What's different about this moment for the self-perception of American Jews? There's not the swell of pride that lofted the community after the Six Day War. There's not the knot of anxiety that defined the Yom Kippur War. Nor is there the sustained resignation, punctuated by episodes of anger and sadness that marked the Intifada.

I'm sensing that many elite Jews are vaguely ill-at-ease at the violence because Israel's clear military superiority superficially mitigates the threat. And because revealing--yet again -- the implacable, opinion-defying nature of their increasingly Sephardic cousins destabilizes the carefully constructed place they've arranged for themselves in the American culture. It's anti-assimilationist.

Some of it is also political; reflexively democratic, Jews are uncomfortable being on the side of Bush, and the implicit linkage of support for Israel and the war in Iraq. A CNN poll which reported that only 31% of Americans found Israel's response to be excessive, also noted that there is a lot of partisanship in the public's mood. They commented: "The split has a lot to do with party. Most Republicans say Israel should continue to attack until the threat is eliminated; most Democrats prefer a cease fire."

Ironically, though, this anxiety emerges when politicians have lined up behind Israel like they haven't for a long while. The New York Observer is running a piece about Israel's supporters re-emerging. The G8 was moderate in its response. And the House passed a strong resolution defending Israel. Pace Tom Wolfe, Hassan Nazarallah (rhymes with challah) isn't the chic side of radicalism that Che or Yasir were.

Nonetheless, I'm feeling a queasiness among those who feel more comfortable throwing their weight around in Sotheby's than the Sinai. Even if they support Israel's aggressive tone, it doesn't fit with the Jewish brand they've carefully constructed for themselves. It's complex enough to be at the epicenter of New York's culture and money. It's really messy to be linked to bombing, to civilian casualties, to rooting out terrorists in allegedly sovereign countries.

Being a bold and vocal supporter was worth the social exposure when Israel's existence was questioned. But now, when Israel doesn't even need an EZ Pass to cross the Lebanese border, it's a different story. It's the old pushiness problem, writ large.

I could be wrong, but I don't think so. Too many Jews are secretly uptight about Israel's brazenness. They shouldn't be. They should be less tolerant of their own aggressive behavior when it means nothing, and have more solidarity with Israel's behavior when it means everything.