By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, Professor of History
At approximately 8:50 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, the first of two planes slammed into the World Trade Center. The Age of Terrorism had arrived on our shores. On April 15, we were once again reminded that despite our best efforts to insulate ourselves from terrorism, we live in an age where our safety is conditional.
The perpetrators of the Boston attack, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were born in Chechnya, which is located in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation. Exactly when and why the older brother, Tamerlan, became a terrorist is a key element in the investigation. What we do know is Chechnya and Dagestan are the epicenters of Islamic Jihadism in the region. Their geography places them closer to Tehran than Moscow to the far north. During the Second World War, when the fate of Russia was conditional and the Battle of Stalingrad was raging in the winter of 1942-43, Moscow alleged that some in Chechnya were on the wrong side. Their punishment was collective. Stalin uprooted them and shipped them to Siberia only to return in the 1950s. Decades later, when the USSR imploded, Chechnya attempted to leave the Russian Federation and an insurrection was put down with the full might of the Russian military. Chechnya terrorists responded by blowing up a subway train in Moscow while the so-called Black Widows seized a theater with 800 people in it and threatened to blow it up.
Meanwhile, in the years that followed, some of the people of Chechnya and Dagestan have turned to Islamic extremism. Perhaps Tamerlan was predisposed to the Jihadist mindset before he arrived on our shores, concluding that however different Russia and the United States are, they share a common hatred of Muslims. Others suspect he was in contact with the Islamic extremists and was, in the words of the FBI, radicalized during a six- or seven-month stay in the region not long ago. We also know that his computer is filled with materials downloaded from radical Islamic sites, so perhaps he and his brother were radicalized on the web. Whatever the case, one does not become a terrorist overnight.
By the same token, terrorist acts are not spur-of-the-moment decisions. In the case of the Boston bombers, they bought fireworks, dismantled them and used the black powder to build bombs. They also planned to use pipe bombs in Times Square. For seasoned terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda with its numerous so-called franchises, leaders place a high value on bleeding their victims in the financial sense. For bin Laden and his cohorts, Sept. 11 was a nickel-and-dime operation. What we have spent repairing the damage and trying to protect ourselves for future attacks is beyond comprehension. The Tsarnaev brothers spent perhaps $200 building the bombs. When the cost of finding them, the commerce lost in Boston for several days, and the hospital bills are finally added, the total will be staggering. Given the cost of health care, the $20 million fund that has been established to help cover hospital expenses for those injured may be peanuts, barely making a dent in the final tally. For many of the survivors, the costs of restoring their health over a lifetime will also be staggering. As for the coming trial of the younger brother, the cost will be in the millions.
What appears to link all terrorists is a deep hatred of their perceived enemies and what they represent. For them, killing is a perfectly rational act in keeping with their religious or ideological beliefs. Their victims, not them, are the incarnation of evil.
By Sander A. Diamond, Professor of History
In the 1960s, British comic Peter Sellers starred in a farcical film, “The Mouse That Roared,” a comedy about a mini-nation that somehow acquired an atomic bomb.
Fifty years later, we have a case of life imitating art. North Korea is a roaring mouse. Labeled “The Hermit Kingdom,” a description that conforms to its isolation from the main current of world events, it is a totalitarian regime led by Kim Jong-un, the proverbial loose cannon.
The entire North Korean economy supports the military establishment, a serf-like labor force confined to collective farms and factories. Here, weapons are produced and exported overseas. While other communist states such as Vietnam and China have enjoyed prosperity, North Korea remains poor. Just across the 38th parallel is South Korea, where a population of 49 million enjoys a high standard of living, the average per capital income being $28,000.
Though smaller than Mississippi, North Korea is armed to the teeth with an unknown number of atomic bombs and the ability to deliver them. The image it projects in countless propaganda clips seen on TV in recent days is a leaf out of another age. In the old Soviet Union and Mao’s China in the 1950s, we saw generals, chests filled with medals in off-green uniforms, clapping and shouting in unison when their venerated leader appeared. Today, we see Kim Jong-un looking down in a Red Square-type setting on his troops, 1.1 million in all, as they parade past followed by Soviet-style missile carriers and heavy guns, the types the Russians used in the siege of Berlin in April-May 1945. Even the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang, has the stamp of the old USSR: high-rise buildings the Russians used to call Stalinist Modern.
Although North Korea is modeled after the world of Stalin and Mao, it differs from its ideological mentors in one very significant way. In the USSR and China, leaders began their careers in the nascent years of the revolutionary movement and those who followed worked their way through the ranks of the party bureaucracy. North Korea is ruled by a dynasty established by the current leader’s grandfather, who began his career as a revolutionary and came to power in 1945. When he died, his son assumed the leadership of the state and the party and recently, the torch was passed to his son.
The entire world is trying to divine the intentions of the new 28-year-old leader who talks about war as it if was a parlor or video game. Whether all of the blustering and military action is being used to consolidate his grip on the military power or pry economic concessions from the United States, no one can say with certainty since few people outside “The Hermit Kingdom” know exactly what is going on behind the drawn curtain. Here, the ghost of Stalin is alive and well.
Short of a highly unlikely military coup, we have to take Kim Jong-un at his word. And if and when this crisis passes, we can expect Kim Jong-un to repeat his antics again. At 28, he has a lifetime ahead of him to threaten the world.
By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
In the coming weeks and months, much will be expected of the new pontiff, not only as the faith’s religious leader but also as the Church’s CEO. There is no question that he will quickly start to address most, if not all, of the church’s most public problems and by doing so be seen as a reformer.
While he will address the internal and external problems in the church with grace and speed, other issues presented by the modern world will challenge core teachings. In Europe and the United States, a significant number of Catholics have pulled away from the Church or have abandoned it altogether. In France and Germany, attendance is at all time lows. Each person has his or her own reasons but a large number disagree with the Church’s positions on the ordination of women, gay marriage and the call for the marriage of priests. Still others believe that Rome is a relic of the past, and Papal authority on social issues is as outdated as the power of the divine right of kings and queens. These are core issues, but Rome has never been swayed by democratic voting, so-to-speak.
In keeping with the tradition of his namesake, Francis will continue to wash the feet of the poor and the sick, but on core issues he will not wash away the core teachings in favor of modernity. Many will be disappointed by his decisions, others will applaud them, and still others will point to the Vatican as a dated relic from the past. And others could care less.
But a distinction has to be made between Catholic doctrine and our interest in it as evidenced by the number of people who watched the election of the new pope. No different than the monarchy of the United Kingdom during the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary on the throne and the interest in the sex of Kate’s forthcoming first child, the Vatican knows how to put on a great performance and herein is to be found the interest for many people. Both institutions take the long view. They know that whatever is commanding our attention in the political and economic world will pass. They will continue long into the future.
In the tradition of St. Francis, we may see Pope Francis appeal to his flock and billions of others to arrest the further destruction of the environment, which has accelerated on his continent, leaving its rain forests and indigenous peoples under threat. There is no question that if his good health continues, he will be a world traveler in the tradition of John Paul II. Perhaps using the prologue of St. Francis and his Order, he may well capitalize on this tradition and conjoin it with a heightened emphasis on the poor in a world now looking at 8 billion people and perhaps leveling off at 10 billion. A trip to Brazil had already been announced. We may also see him in Africa, where the Catholic population is growing with great speed and in some regions under threat.
Reaching out to other faiths may also be on his emerging agenda. A trip to Israel is a certainty, no different than his two predecessors. Whether he will visit the Islamic world in this time of rapid change and turbulence is hard to predict. Many Christians have left Iraq while 2.2 million remain in war torn Syria and more than 8 million still live in Egypt. Here he will need his diplomat hat, which appears to be in keeping with his personality.
All of this is a tall order for a man of 76. Even popes have their limitations as we saw with his predecessor. Seventy-six is not the new 42.
By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
This year marks the milestone anniversaries of seven events that changed our nation and the world, altering the lives of the witnesses and all that followed.
The Battle of Gettysburg (150 years), Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg (150 years), the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president (80 years), Dr. Martin Luther King’s defining oration in Washington, D.C. (50 years), and the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas (50 years) helped define the American journey and continue to impact our lives. Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power (80 years) and the Battle of Stalingrad (70 years) altered the course of world history in ways that were unimaginable at the time.
On Jan. 31, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Within a year, he consolidated his power, the Third Reich was born, and the course of world history was soon to take a different course.
Three months later, FDR stood on the steps of the Capitol and was sworn in as president in the midst of the Great Depression. Unlike Hitler, who told the German people that the depression was caused by a great conspiracy, FDR told our nation that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” FDR led the the nation through the darkest days of the Great Depression and World War II. Rarely has there been a sharper contrast between good and evil, between all that was embodied in FDR and what Der Führer represented.
In the annals of military history, there are battles that turn the tide of warfare. In World War II there were two: D-Day, June 6, 1944 and the Battle of Stalingrad, which came to an end Jan. 31, 1943 with victory by the Red Army. It was after Stalingrad when Hitler acknowledged to his close associates that the war might not end as he imagined.
In World War II, it was Stalingrad and D-Day June 6, 1944. This year we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of a battle that took place in Gettysburg, from July 1-3, 1863. The hilly landscape, with outcroppings of rock and names like Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge, became a killing field. When it ended, 56,000 were dead or wounded, and Lee’s shattered forces retreated to Virginia. The tide of war had turned and when it ended in April 1865, more than 750,000 men had died, according to recent estimates.
The battlefield was dedicated Nov. 19, 1863, with the grave sites still fresh and much of it still littered with pieces of weapons of war. The words delivered by President Lincoln that day transcend what occurred on that blood-soaked battlefield, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
One hundred years later, on Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of youth and vigor, was shot and a few minutes after 1 p.m. the nation and the world were in a state of shock as they listened to the report from Parkland Hospital. After JFK’s death, American politics and foreign policy moved in a different direction. We are left to only speculate what would have happened had he been elected for a second term.
Four months earlier, on Aug. 28, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the mall and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In the shadow of Lincoln, he called upon the nation to complete its work, the promise of equality for all 100 years after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. The Civil Rights Movement had moved to the top of the nation’s agenda.
We can never forget the evilness of Hitler, but as we stop and commemorate so many defining events this year, we should be thankful that each generation brought forth people like Lincoln, FDR, JFK and King who in word and deed gave us a better world. Their monuments are less in stone than in ourselves.
An opinion piece by Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
It has been 80 years since Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of the ill-fated Weimar Republic by its aging president, Paul von Hindenburg, a much venerated general who stopped the Russian advance into Germany in the fall of 1914. The old gentleman thought little of the man the papers once dubbed “The Bavarian Corporal,” whose face was known to millions through countless public speeches and National Socialist of Nazi campaign posters that dotted the very troubled German landscape. When asked what he thought of Hitler who was a message carrier or runner in the trenches of France during the Great War, Hindenburg responded, “Under the Empire, I would not have appointed him a mailman.”
Hitler’s appointment set into motion a train of events that changed the world in ways unimaginable on Jan. 30, 1933: the creation of the most brutal dictatorships in history; the Third Reich; the mass extermination of two-thirds of European Jewry; a war that cost the lives of an estimated 56 million people, including more than 30 million in Soviet Russia and at least 20 percent of the population of Poland; the United States emerging as a superpower after 1945; the Cold War; atomic bomb; radar; and near total destruction of Germany, both its physical and moral ruination. Eighty years later, the system he created, Hitlerism, is a synonym for evil, while Auschwitz, not the Reich, is his monument.
In the eight decades since Hitler came to power, he and the Germans have been put under a microscope in an effort to understand how a nation descended into such darkness. Most agree that Hitler seized upon the major currents of his era, when the Germans believed they had been cheated out of victory in the Great War. He used traditional German idealism, and its militarist and authoritarian traditions, to achieve his ends. This being said, his most recent biographer, Ian Kershaw, whose massive two volume work is the gold standard, believes a question still remains: How could a self-styled messiah, an ill-educated beerhall demagogue who was initially dismissed as an oddity come to exercise unlimited power over a well-educated nation known for its poets, thinkers, and scientists in the middle of the 20th century? Some scholars argue that he expressed the deepest desires of his people who were willing to look away when the terrible secrets were revealed. Others maintain he was an aberration. The answer is found somewhere in the middle.
Today, Germany is open and democratic, its rebuilt parliament’s glass dome symbolizing its openness and transparency. Germany is the economic engine of the European Union and led by its first female chancellor, Dr. Merkel. But Hitler and Hitlerism will always be with the Germans and the world and fortunately, we have not tried to bury the past. Instead we have derived lessons from it. The Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Washington is far more than what its name implies. In central Berlin, the recently opened Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe and other memorials are daily reminders of what was set in motion Jan. 30, 1933, the extant concentration camps sitting silently as reminders of what humankind is capable of doing.
For many people, Jan. 30 will just be another day, marked by a small article in the media. But some—the Germans, Israelis and World Jewry—will look at it differently. Old black and white images from a film taken Jan. 30, 1933 revealed the future. In one window, a joyful Hitler can be seen looking down on a Nazi-organized, torch-lit parade. In the other window, Hindenburg, his face frozen. Perhaps Paul von Hindenburg saw the future and had to know there was no turning back. A year later he died of old age and shortly thereafter, his beloved army took a personal oath of loyalty to the Bavarian Corporal, now Der Führer.
By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
By the time the Civil War ended in April 1865, the North and the South lost more than 750,000 men, according to a recent study. In the North, the first national cemeteries were carefully laid out to contain the fallen; Gettysburg the most visited nearly a century-and-a-half later. Here and in other cemeteries, each state has its own monuments.
But in small towns and cities, citizens wanted to memorialize the war in their town squares. One of the first catalogues made this possible; it featured a full host of memorials. Some had a single soldier with rifle in hand, others were more complex and expensive with statues of soldiers, sailors and marines. On the stone pedestals, one can read the raw statistics of the number of townspeople who served and the number who did not come home. It is in these numbers that the full scope of the Civil War is revealed—a battlefield roughly the size of Western Europe. Once delivered, the monuments faced south.
While some of the metal statues were made in other states, most came from foundries located in Connecticut. By 1900, nearly all were in place in little towns like Newtown that dot the northern landscape.
It was in Newtown where a 20-year-old local resident broke into the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 and slaughtered 26 people, including 20 children, and then took his own life.
While the nation will move on, we know that the families, their friends, neighbors, and relatives will always have a hole in their hearts that will never heal. In time, perhaps, the people will find a fitting way to memorialize what happened, but it is too soon to think about. If and when this time arrives, just as the State of Connecticut’s foundries turned out memorials that captured the essence of the Civil War, someone will come up with a design in metal or in stone that will appropriately memorialize this profound tragedy.
In a state that has been the home and birthplace of so many people who have captured the high and low points of the American journey—what writer Arthur Miller did for the theater, what painter John Trumbull did to capture on canvas the American Revolution and the faces of the Founders, and what Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote before the Civil War— someone will emerge with the imagination to capture this heart-wrenching event. Perhaps a harbinger of this is to be found in the Hebrew chant of mourning sung by a local Rabbi and the profound grief expressed by President Obama, lost for words with tears in his eyes. Time and distance are needed.
A more immediate monument on the national level should not be made from stone and metal. We are in need of new laws and the enforcement of older ones that control and regulate easy access to weapons used for the domestic mass destruction. Congress has to balance the rights of gun owners with the inherent right of the American people itemized in the Constitution to expect far more than conditional safety in our malls, shopping centers, streets, movie theaters and, as we learned Dec. 14, our schools. The response is not to be found in the use of armed guards in the schools, let alone arming the teachers. The time has come for soul-searching and action to arrest this senseless pandemic of gun-related violence by rampage killers. The nation is in need of a restoration of civility in the political arena to accomplish this goal. This will hopefully create a common good; doing away with the belief held by some that they need weapons used by armies to protect themselves.
President Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera was one of more than 300 college CEOs to sign an open letter to President Obama and other policy leaders calling for tougher gun control laws and declaring their opposition to laws that would allow guns on campus.
The campaign was started by presidents Lawrence M. Schall of Oglethorpe University and Elizabeth Kiss of Agnes Scott College, both located in Atlanta, Ga. Presidents from mostly private, non-profit colleges have signed the letter, which was written in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and 6 adults.
Since the on-campus shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, several states have sought to allow guns on campus even in opposition from college officials and faculty. After the Newtown massacre, some lawmakers called for teachers to have access to firearms in their classrooms.
But Díaz-Herrera and the other College Presidents for Gun Safety are demanding a crackdown on access to guns.
“Just 10 days after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., gun violence claimed the lives of two first responders here in our own backyard in Webster—not far from our campus,” said Dr. Díaz-Herrera. “Clearly, something has to be done, as our letter states, ‘to ensure that current and future generations may live and learn in a country free from the threat of gun violence.’”
Here is a segment of the letter:
“We are college and university presidents. We are parents. We are Republicans, Democrats and Independents. We urge both our President and Congress to take action on gun control now. As a group, we do not oppose gun ownership. But, in many of our states, legislation has been introduced or passed that would allow gun possession on college campuses. We oppose such laws. We fully understand that reasonable gun safety legislation will not prevent every future murder. Identification and treatment of the mental health issues that lie beneath so many of the mass murders to which we increasingly bear witness must also be addressed.
“As educators and parents, we come together to ask our elected representatives to act collectively on behalf of our children by enacting rational gun safety measures, including:
• ensuring the safety of our communities by opposing legislation allowing guns on our campuses and in our classrooms;
• ending the gun show loophole, which allows for the purchase of guns from unlicensed sellers without a criminal background check;
• reinstating the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons along with high-capacity ammunition magazines; and
• requiring consumer safety standards for all guns, such as safety locks, access prevention laws, and regulations to identify, prevent and correct manufacturing defects.
“The time has long since passed for silence and inaction on the issue of reasonable and rational gun safety legislation. We hereby request that our nation’s policy leaders take thoughtful and urgent action to ensure that current and future generations may live and learn in a country free from the threat of gun violence.”
By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
In the first century of the Common Era (CE), the Romans were masters of the known world and would continue to be for the next 350 years. At the heart of the Empire was the City of Rome and at the core of the city was the Forum, the administrative center of the Empire. Overlooking it was the palace complex where the Emperors lived, their names still well-remembered: Augustus, who was the first to use the name of the fabled Julius Caesar to mean emperor; Tiberius; Caligula; Claudius; Nero; Vespasian; Titus; Trajan; and Hadrian, who built a wall to indicate where the Empire ended.
The year after Vespasian died in 80 CE, his pet project was opened not far from the Forum: the Coliseum, where 55,000 people watched the games nearly every day for the next three centuries. Not far away and at the head of the Forum, his son Titus (who ruled from 79 – 81) erected an arch that commemorated Rome’s destruction of the Jewish State of Judea in the Jewish War which began in 66 and ended on August 29, 70 with the total destruction of the city of Jerusalem and with it the Second Temple built by King Herod.
The story of the Jewish War was written by Titus Flavius Josephus in about 75 CE and 2,000 years later, Bellium Judaicum stands alone as one of the great classics of the ancient world. It was written by a man who stood next to the general who destroyed the City of Jerusalem, Titus, the son of Vespasian.
The world of ancient Rome is in the distant past but much of it is still part of our world: the “ia” at the end of the name of nations indicating in Europe and the Middle East that the Romans were there; the coins we use every day with ridges on the sides to prevent debasing; the Church of Rome, which inherited a broken empire; less the year, the calendar we use with the days of the weeks and months given to us by Caesar and his successors; and so much more.
Two thousand years after the Destruction of the Second Temple and the Jewish State, one has to wonder what Vespasian, Titus and above all Josephus, the son of Matthias from the Tribe of Levi who took the name of Titus’ clan, would think if they returned to modern Israel. They could never have imagined that the Jews would return and that the Second Temple’s foundation would become Judaisms most sacred place, the Western or Wailing Wall, which the Israelis reclaimed from Jordan in the 1967 war. Surely, they would be very surprised to find a modern Jewish State with more than 7 million people speaking Hebrew, a first-rate army and Jews praying at the foundation of the complex they destroyed. They would be very impressed by how “The People of the Book” remained intact and had the will to survive, successfully fending off all efforts since 1948 to drive them into the sea. They would leave Israel knowing that what they did between 66 and 73 CE was temporary and over time translated into a belief among the Jews that no matter what, they will “Never Again” be dislodged.
It is a message that the new Zealots— the Islamists, secular terrorists, Hamas, Hezbollah and above all Iran—should take very seriously as they dream of someday evicting the Israelis. But in a rapidly changing geopolitical region since the Arab Spring, the Israelis should also take away from Josephus some lessons as its ultimate protector, the United States, tries to bring some stability to the region. Like ancient Rome, the Jewish War is still with us.
By Dr. Sander L. Diamond, professor of history
We have come a long way since the kid next door delivered the morning paper on his bike and men with cigars in their mouths stood on the street corners of large cities yelling “Extra, Extra… read all about it!”
In the 1920s, we got our news from several newspapers each day, morning and evening editions. In the 1930s, radio was king with hourly news reports and bulletins, but newspapers were still the way most of us got the so-called “Big Picture.”
The arrival of the Television Age changed our news habits, and TV news came of age in the 1960s. Nearly every American over 65 can remember where they were when they heard “We interrupt this program to bring you a report from Dallas… President Kennedy has been shot.” Six years later, we watched Neil Armstrong put his foot on the moon, with Walter Cronkite standing in as the nation’s teacher. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War ground on and it was TV images that turned the tide of public opinion. Not only were we getting more and more of our news from TV, it was also in real time. The names of newscasters were pushing aside the names of newspaper editors in our daily conversations.
With the advent of cable television and CNN in the 1990s, TV news expanded and today we are a nation of news junkies, hard-wired to our PCs, a dazzling array of hand-held devices, our over-sized TVs, and stations beamed into our cars from orbs above the Earth. Unless we disconnect, it is hard to escape the 24/7 news cycle and the numerous talking heads.
The print media is in sharp decline and many people fear that it will go the way of the typewriter, a fear which is exaggerated. One way or the other, the major papers, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, will survive and hold on to a dedicated readership. What’s more, highly specialized papers are doing quite well. The influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants and millions of others has been a boon to the foreign-language press.
But the truth is, challenges from our electronic world do not bode well for the print media. In the first half of 2009, sales of daily papers fell 10 percent and over the next two years the decline has accelerated. Total newspaper circulation has been falling for a decade. In 2009, 44 million papers were sold each day, fewer than at any time since the 1940s. Many papers have reduced their dailies from five to three days.
However, we do not need statistics to understand what is happening. If you sit in an airport, ride a bus, visit a coffee shop, or travel on a train or subway, you can’t help but notice that the younger generation is glued to a hand-held device while the older generation is reading the paper. But even among this latter group, many have made the transition to the world of cyberspace.
And while our top papers will be in print for years to come, second and third tier papers are in deep trouble. Just as Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type press marked the beginning of the end for legions of scribes, the arrival of the Cyber Age is a harbinger of the gradual decline of the print media, both newspapers and news magazines.
In years to come, we may lament the decline of having an old-fashioned newspaper delivered to our doorstep and picking up another paper on the way to work. When you read a printed paper, you focus on it, relax and reflect. There is no temptation to turn to email, Facebook or visit the endless sites at our disposal. The crossword puzzle and word games are always fun, and when you read the top story, you make the call, not a talking head.
By Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
When Israelis visit Poland and other European nations that once were home to many Jews, they come away with an affirmation of what one historian wrote: “Everything survived except the [Jewish] people.”
It adds to their insecurity, brought on by wars for survival, the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, domestic terror attacks, and above all, the Holocaust.
A deep sense of insecurity gradually ebbed after they defeated Arab armies in 1948, 1967, and 1973. However, as we approach the 39th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, millions of Israelis are on edge as a result of the Arab Spring and an Iran bent on making atomic weapons. The changes in the region have elevated Israel’s worst fears that go to the core of its national DNA. As the Israelis and Jews worldwide approach the coming of the High Holy Days and the Day of Atonement, they fear that the New Year, 5773, will rock the very foundations of Israel.
Throughout the unfolding of the Arab Spring, Tel-Aviv watched in silence as the West applauded what appeared to be a transition to democracy. However, it came as no surprise to Israeli Prime Minister Binjamin (“Bibi’) Netanyahu when the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt won the election, and in time the army made concessions to him. The Brotherhood has been hostile to Israel for seven decades. Tel-Aviv fears that once the Brotherhood consolidates its power and puts the economy in order, it will turn its attention to Israel, perhaps revisiting or ending the peace treaty signed by Sadat at Camp David. The recent attacks on United States embassies in Cairo and Libya only affirm their concerns.
Iran, which has emerged as the key player in the region, is on the cusp of building atomic weapons, and promises to use them against the “Zionist enclave,” a phrase it always uses rather than calling Israel “Israel.” The language of its leader is pure Hitlerian, referring to the Jews as “a cancer” in the region.
The Jewish State is divided about what to do. Bibi, and those on the right, believe that a pre-emptive strike against Iran is the only way to slow down the development of a bomb. They are tired of talk about sanctions and do not believe the Obama Administration has drawn a red line in the sands of the region. What’s more, they believe that Obama is the first president since Harry Truman who is not solidly behind the Jewish State. Despite assurances from Obama and the top people in his Administration that Iran will not have atomic weapons and the United States will support Israel, they remain unconvinced in Tel-Aviv.
However, not all Israelis agree that a strike is necessary. Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and former generals and politicians believe a strike would be folly, setting into motion a regional war. The last thing President Obama wants to see is an Israeli pre-emptive strike, all the more so now that the Middle East is being destabilized by rioters after a short film appeared on the Web defaming the founder of Islam.
It is time for Israel to take stock of its assets rather than future liabilities. It has an inventory of atomic bombs, first-class missiles, the Iron Doom Anti-Missile System, submarines armed with cruise missiles, a first-class military, powerful air force, and above-all the backing of the USA. They might have to live with an Iran with atomic weapons, each side concluding that using theirs would mean mutually assured destruction.
Bibi and President Obama should reach out to each other, not in public but in private. There is a mutuality of interests and concerns. Bibi, in particular, should pull back from his sharp language and the president should assure him that he and his nation understand the Israeli psyche, its sense of insecurity, and their heightened feelings of isolation in a raging Islamic sea. Now is not the time to push the panic button.