|Don't expect tsunami relief to wash away hatred |
History teaches us that there is nothing in life that most people resent quite as much as being helped.
by Jonathan S. Tobin
January 24, 2005
In the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated the coasts of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, the response of the civilized world to this heart-rending story has been overwhelming.
While it can be argued that other great tragedies that are not shown on television (i.e., the genocidal civil war in Sudan or last year's earthquake in Iran) are often largely ignored, the truth is, whenever the world's attention is focused on such an event, the response is immediate.
And as is always the case, American Jews and Israelis are responding with contributions out of proportion to their numbers. American Jewish charities stopped what they were doing and started to divert resources to the region.
Israel was quick to offer aid and expertise to the affected countries. Planeloads of supplies were sent out and, despite some initial misunderstandings with some of the recipients, have generally been welcomed.
All of which has led some to wonder whether this heartfelt expression of sympathy from Americans and Israelis will alter the general image of these two countries as the big and little "Satan" of modern times.
The answer is, of course, not very likely.
If there is anything that history teaches us about philanthropic actions on the part of one country toward another, it is that there is nothing in life that most people resent quite as much as being helped.
So why should the Israelis expect anything more than the Americans get? Indeed, the saga of U.S. foreign relations in the post World War II-era is more or less the history of European and Third World ingratitude for the sacrifices made by Americans.
Let's face it, in the last 60 years, American blood and treasure rid the world of the two greatest tyrannies in human history. American aid rebuilt Europe and American power ensured that Stalin's "evil empire" did not prevail in the Cold War.
But as you may have noticed, that has not engendered a great deal of love from those Europeans who are only too happy to enjoy the fruits of life on a continent free of the scourges of Nazism and Communism. Nor did decades of foreign aid to the Third World do much to make Americans liked there either.
Ironically, even tiny Israel had a similar experience. In the first decades of its history, at a time when the Jewish state was itself dirt poor, it still expended a not-inconsiderable portion of its budget on aid to countries in Africa, which became the beneficiaries of Israeli expertise in agriculture.
But when push came to shove in 1967 and 1973, and the Arab world attempted to extinguish Israel, did any of its African friends rush to its aid?
No way. In fact, virtually every African country cut off ties with the Israelis, rather than offend the Arabs who dominated Third World politics and held a near-monopoly on precious oil. Israel's good deeds, like many of those done by the United States did not go unpunished. Are we patsies?
And as indelicate as it might be to mention it, oil-rich Arab regimes are as stingy with aid to their Muslim brothers ravaged by the tsunami now as they were in the past to impoverished Third World nations that suffered more from the rise in oil prices than Americans.
So are Americans dumb for giving to countries like Indonesia that have reacted ungraciously to our help? Are Israelis freiers -- Hebrew for "patsies" -- for sending a planeload of aid to a country like Indonesia that doesn't even recognize the Jewish state?
Some of us are willing to say as much. In particular, those Jews who can remember a world standing by silently as millions of Jews were slaughtered often find it hard to get too worked up about bad things happening to countries where Jews aren't welcome.
Indeed, in the last decade, Israel has made concession after concession to the Palestinian Arabs, even to the point of offering them virtually every thing short of Israel's dissolution. Yet the more Israel has given, the more it has been vilified. No matter what happens in the peace process, Israelis know that any "lack of progress" is always their fault. Ingratitude is irrelevant
But when it comes to helping those in need, my answer, and the answer of most Americans and Israelis, is still an emphatic endorsement of aiding victims, no matter what the believe. While we would be pleased if help for Muslims caused some in that part of the world to rethink their lunatic vision of these two beacons of democracy, I don't think most of us really care whether they like us or not.
That's because, despite the paranoid, neo-Marxist conspiracy theories that see everything both countries do as part of an evil plot, most of us view acts of charity as moral imperatives, not foreign policy.
So forget about the tsunami broadening the coalition against terror or even creating an opening for diplomatic contacts with Israel. A planeload of food and medicine will help the sick and hungry, but it can't overcome decades of hate.
In the Jewish tradition, charitable acts, which we call tzedakah, are not options but religious obligations. We're not supposed to help those in need because we think they'll be grateful. We do it because it's the right thing to do. The same spirit seems to animate the approach of most non-Jewish Americans.
Critic Edward Alexander once quipped that "universalism is the parochialism of the Jews." The same can be said of most Americans. That tendency can be infuriating because some of us forget that we are also supposed to worry about our own needs, as well as those of others.
But part of the greatness of our civilization lies in our willingness to help the stranger. Though there are times when we're asked to pay a high price for our philanthropic instincts, I doubt that many of us would have it any other way.