Editorial: Taking the Blinders Off

Two comments made decades apart, one made public only recently and the other only recently made, one made in this country and the other in Israel, speak volumes about the perils of moral self-importance and delusion.

The statement emanating from the United States is that of Henry Kissinger, serving at the time in the administration of President Richard Nixon. Newly released tapes find Kissinger uttering these words in regard to the plight of Soviet Jews:

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger is heard saying in a March 1, 1973, conversation. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

The Israeli comment came in the context of a demonstration in a Tel Aviv suburb, protesting the “defiling” of Jewish young ladies by Arab men. National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari said he had come “to see the Jews who are standing up for themselves. We are standing before a disaster, and our politicians are more concerned with ideas like democracy, ideas that our enemies exploit in order to attack the State of Israel.”


It may not at first be self-evident that these two quotes have a commonality, but they do, and one that is painful and damning.  They point to what happens when those in power are willing to overlook suffering in the name of the so-called “greater good.”

In Kissinger’s case, he was trying to stave off a modification to his and Nixon’s Cold War negotiation efforts.  They were seeking Most Favored Nation trading status for the Soviet Union, but  Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.) and others insisted on the USSR allowing emigration rights prior to finalizing a deal. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment paved the way for the Jewish flight from the Soviet Union, but at the time, Kissinger deemed the strong American Jewish support of the effort “traitorous,” in its insistence on championing human rights as a condition of détente.

Ben-Ari’s statement comes amidst a rising tide of racial division in Israel.  A large group of municipal rabbis recently issued a letter stating that Jews should not rent or sell property to non-Jews (see related article, p.s.).  The vitriol on the street is evident, as this newspaper excerpt reflects: “Moshe Ben-Zikri, a community administrator from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, who recently waged a campaign against the quarter’s Arab residents, told The Jerusalem Post, ‘Today, the Arab enemy is taking over all over Israel. They act innocent, they say we’re only here to rent an apartment, and then they take over house by house.'”

The Kissinger and Ben-Ari statements together paint a picture of how intolerance can ignite when fear and hatred predominate over civility and calm.  The purported aims of both Kissinger and Ben-Ari seem reasonable at first. Kissinger and Nixon were seeking to protect American interests vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Ben-Ari is seeking to preserve Jewish identity in Israel.

But zealotry so often springs from unrestrained passion.  The ambitious forays by Nixon and Kissinger into diplomacy with the USSR and China were paired with excesses such as Watergate and animus toward those who disagreed with their aims for noble purposes. And the legitimate concerns in Israel about safety, security and the character of the Jewish people in Israel are becoming jumbled with xenophobic, incendiary and ultimately, inexcusable language and acts.  Just look at Ben-Ari’s comments – the people are “more concerned with ideas like democracy”? As though democracy is something to fear?

Myopia is dangerous in its ability to hide the slippery slope of one’s moral character. A cause, no matter how righteous, does not bestow the right to wear blinders as to the plight of those in suffering.  Those of us who support Israel’s right to exist, to defend itself and to thrive do not take pleasure in the harm to even one human life, whether Jew, Arab, Palestinian or otherwise. To lose sight of this imperative soon allows us to justify callous indifference, which can rise to the level of racial or ethnic hatred in the blink of an eye.

This is a lesson that in the midst of incivility and social angst we can hardly afford to forget.