A Family Matter
     by Gene Lyons     April 17, 2002

 As the crisis in the Middle East deepens, I have found myself recalling a
harrowing family quarrel my wife and I witnessed many years ago which
neither of us will ever forget. Our hosts were a South African Jewish couple
with whom we'd struck up a warm friendship. We'd been invited to their
home to meet his parents, then visiting the United States for the first time
to meet their newborn grandaughter.

        A brilliant scholar, our friend and his wife considered themselves
political exiles from South Africa's apartheid regime. Our invitation came
with a warning and a plea. Father and son had political differences they
could not discuss peaceably. Our job was to prevent the conversation from
veering that way. The sheer impossiblity of doing so soon became clear.
Joined by the most desperate kind of love, each man was feverish with
conviction and determined to have his say.

        Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe, both my friend's parents
had faint blue death camp ID numbers tatooed on their forearms. They'd
met in a slave labor camp liberated by the Allies, and emigrated to South
Africa soon after the war. Now they felt their lives again threatened by
Nazi-like barbarism in the form of Nelson Mandela's African National
Congress. ANC terrorists, his father argued, were nothing but storm
troopers in rags. They represented pure tribal savagery, the antithesis
of civilized values.

        This enraged my friend. He responded that if anybody was like the
Nazis it was the Afrikaaner supporters of apartheid. It was they, not black
Africans, who advanced theories of racial "purity," and created a network
of detention camps, secret police, torturers and assassins. His father's blindness
filled him with sorrow and despair. Had Jews like his parents survived the horrors
of the Holocaust only to become apologists for Hitler's South African imitators?
        Having grown up in an Irish-Catholic clan where it wasn't dinner
without an argument, and it wasn't an argument unless somebody was
shouting, family strife was nothing new to me. In my New Jersey childhood,
many had parents or grandparents with one foot in the old country. Those of
us more interested in baseball than ancient ethnic grudges often learned to
trust each other by laughing together at their foibles.

        This was altogether different. Largely educated by and among Jews,
I remember feeling simply paralyzed by the moral symbolism of those faint
blue tatoos. Of course, I agreed with my friend that the South African regime
was morally indefensible. My knowledge of that country, however, was
limited to a handful of novels. As if stricken mute, I watched in horrified
fascination as the argument descended into the bitterest insults a father and
son could hurl at each other-terrible accusations of disloyalty and betrayal.
        No thoughtful observer of the sickening violence between the Israelis
and Palestinians needs reminding that passions exactly like these animate the
present crisis. It's tempting to stand silent and let those with the strongest
feelings fight it out. Which is why it's worthwhile pointing out that events
subsequently proved both my friend and his father wrong. The South African
apocalypse never came. Each man's bitter caricature of his political foes
proved overly dramatic. With huge effort on both sides, reconciliation
became possible. If far from paradise, today's South Africa appears on its
way to becoming a "normal"  democratic state.
        All of which is roundabout way of emphasizing how crucial it is
that Americans support Secretary of State Colin Powell's mission of Middle
East diplomacy. Defending Yasser Arafat is impossible, but it's absurd
to pretend he's controlling events. Veteran U.S. diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinski,
hardly a sentimental leftist, may have put it best. The tragedy, he told an
interviewer for New Perspectives Quarterly, is that "a country that started
off as a symbol of recovery of a people who were greatly persecuted now
looks like a country that is persecuting people. Meanwhile, the United States
and Israel are becoming isolated internationally. This could hurt America's
ability to conduct its war on terrorism.

        "In the longer term," Brezinski added "what worries me is that the
Palestinians are being turned, largely thanks to the efforts of Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon, into some-thing like the Algerians: people absolutely determined
to wage urban guerrilla warfare brutally, ruthlessly, at any cost and at enormous
self-sacrifice. At the same time, the Israelis are becoming like the white
supremacist South Africans, viewing the Palestinians as a lower form of life,
not hesitating to kill a great many of them and justifying this on the grounds
of self-defense."

        Calls urging "moral clarity" by Democrats and Republicans alike must be
resisted. Allegedly made in the name of a higher rationality, they're an invitation
to abandon reason for sectarian emotionalism, and to provoke a war sure to
bring catastrophe to Israelis, Palestinians and Americans.

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