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Charles Krauthammer, Israel, and Jewish History

Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who died last week at 68, was remembered for his kindness and generosity, as well as for the sophisticated analyses he brought to the political issues of the day.

For me, Krauthammer was influential in the development of my political views. His columns were also frequently a relief, as he was one of the most articulate and skilled defenders of Israel in the news media.

Krauthammer was one of the few columnists at a major U.S. newspaper who was not just pro-Israel, but an unabashed Zionist.

It would be impossible to cover the full range of Krauthammer’s work, who wrote 1,600 columns and numerous longer articles over a 34-year career. I would like to focus on just his defenses of Israel through the lens of history, and specifically Jewish history.

In January 1988, a month after the organized Palestinian riots that became known as the first intifida began, he wrote a column criticizing those who offered advice to Israel on  how to handle the riots. But those who offered that advice — some of it well-meaning, some of it not — failed to account for the source of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

As Krauthammer observed, the Palestinian refugee population were kept as refugees by the Arab world “as a means to discomfit Israel,” instead of absorbing them. In the 1970s the Arab world went so far as to organize a United Nations General Assembly condemnation of Israel for building permanent housing for Palestinians living in Gaza.

Resolution 32/90, Krauthammer wrote, condemned the relocation of the Gaza refugees and demanded their return “to the camps from which they were removed.” The United Nations, by blocking a humane effort by Israel to address the Palestinian problem, “has a large stake in Palestinian misery.”

But it wasn’t just the failure of the Arab world (and the world more generally) to allow the settlement of Palestinian refugees in 1948 that perpetuated the conflict with Israel. In that column Krauthammer observed, “One of the tensest days of this round of violence occurred on Jan. 1, which Palestinians celebrate as the anniversary of the first attack on Israel by Fatah, Arafat’s leading faction of the PLO. It was 23 years ago that Fatah sent men to blow up the water works of Bet Shean.”

But subtract 23 from 1988, and you get 1965, meaning that the PLO’s grievance began at least two and a half years before Israel captured the Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. This suggests that the core of the conflict “was not Israel‘s occupation but Israel‘s existence.”

In a 2006 column, Why They Fight, Krauthammer fleshed out this basic idea. He noted that at the time, nearly 40 years after Israel’s birth, Israel’s enemies were still unreconciled to its existence. But one did not have to go back to 1948 to see that this was true, he wrote, “You only have to read today’s newspapers.”

Krauthammer pointed out that a year earlier Israel had completely withdrawn from Gaza and even left behind greenhouses to give the Palestinians an opportunity to build an industry in the area it had given up. But Hamas “turned Gaza into a base for launching rocket attacks against Israel and for digging tunnels under the border to conduct attacks such as the one that killed two Israeli soldiers on June 25 and yielded a wounded hostage brought back to Gaza.”

In the north, Israel had withdrawn from southern Lebanon, had its withdrawal certified as complete by the UN Security Council but still found that “Hezbollah has done to South Lebanon exactly what Hamas has done to Gaza: turned it into a military base and terrorist operations center from which to continue the war against Israel.”

He noted that a few days earlier, then Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (now the leader of Hamas) wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians isn’t about the West Bank and Gaza, but “about ‘a wider national conflict’ that requires the vindication of ‘Palestinian national rights.'”

“That, of course,” Krauthammer observed, “means the right to all of Palestine, with no Jewish state.”

If Krauthammer was effective in exposing the false modern history underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he didn’t ignore the longer term historical fictions either.

In the fall of 1996, Israel opened up an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Palestinians started rioting claiming that Israel was endangering the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount. But as Krauthammer wrote in a column for Time Magazine, “It took nearly a week and fully 70 dead before the truth began to trickle out: the charge was a lie.”

The truth was that  “the only religious site it does touch is Judaism’s holiest shrine, the Western Wall,” and that all Israel had done was open a new entrance to accommodate more visitors.

But the problem wasn’t just the international outrage heaped upon Israel for the false claims made by the Palestinians, Krauthammer wrote, the real desecrations were attacks on Jewish holy sites: the sacking of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, an area under Palestinian Authority control, and an attempt to firebomb Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. The former “if reported at all, merited at most a few sentences, “and the latter “received in the major American press no mention at all, save one in the New York Times–in a picture caption on page 12!”

The contrast between the treatment of the phony claims of the Palestinians and the very real desecrations of Jewish holy places showed, that “one cannot get the facts straight because of the double standard in Middle East coverage that impugns Israel’s every move and patronizes Palestinians with endless free passes.”

The historical importance Krauthammer attached to Israel wasn’t just about the past, but also about the future, and where Jewish history was headed.

To Krauthammer, Israel was central to Judaism, a point he made forcefully in an essay published in The Weekly Standard in 1998, At Last Zion.

In the course of the essay, Krauthammer noted that all over the diaspora, Jews are becoming more scarce. With low fertility rates and increasing intermarriage, he predicted that just in the U.S. “in just two generations, 7 out of every 10 Jews will vanish.”

Outside of the U.S., he wrote, there was no indication Jewish populations anywhere else in the world would grow. This meant in 1998 that, “Within a decade Israel will pass the United States as the most populous Jewish community on the globe. Within our lifetime a majority of the world’s Jews will be living in Israel. That has not happened since well before Christ.”

(According to the World Jewish Congress, Israel surpassed the U.S. in 2006.)

With the centrality of Israel to Judaism, from a numbers perspective, comes a risk too, “the Jews have necessarily put all their eggs in one basket, a small basket hard by the waters of the Mediterranean.”

One need not agree with Krauthammer’s conclusion that the existence of Israel is essential to the continued existence of the Jewish people, to understand that as time goes on Israel’s importance to Jews increases.

Throughout his columns, Charles Krauthammer often made the case that history vindicates Jewish claims to Israel. He also believed that Israel was essential to the continuation of Judaism.

The cases he made for Israel’s legitimacy and necessity will be missed.
[Photo: CBS This Morning / YouTube ]