As the search continues for the three teenagers who were kidnapped while hitchhiking to their settlement in the West Bank over a week ago, Israel’s historical dilemma regarding terrorism is starting to come with a hitch: The sympathy the western world once lavished on the Jewish state has lessened to the point of near indifference.
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Yes, there is a movement gathering some momentum on Facebook. For example, Tie Three Yellow Ribbons for Our Boys - involving ribbons tied on oak trees made famous by Tony Orlando and Dawn in their 1973 hit song - has its own Twitter hashtag, #yellowribbons4ourboys. (Poignantly, Tony Orlando visited the families of the three missing teenagers and publically pleaded with Hamas for their release while in Israel on a pilgrimage. Only in Israel with its unpredictable political situation could Orlando and his song make such an unlikely comeback.)
Touching though they may be, these symbolic ribbons hardly constitute a global crusade. Despite calls for nations and human rights activists to demand the immediate release of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, most nations are silent, many human rights groups are uncaring, and Jewish institutions have shown themselves to be ineffectual. Meanwhile, Hamas isn’t claiming responsibility for their abduction and the boys are no closer to coming home.
The United States is far more preoccupied with its own former prisoner of war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who it seems was voluntarily kidnapped by the Taliban and has now returned to less than a hero’s welcome. Eric Cantor’s descent from Jewish political life has garnered more headlines than the three Israeli teenagers. Hillary Clinton’s new memoir is, apparently, of far more interest than any daring house-to-house search in the West Bank, even though one of the teenagers has dual Israeli-American citizenship. And, finally, how can a kidnapping compete, globally, with the World Cup?
It wasn’t always this way. Those who came of age in the 1960’s-70’s remember a time when the world always rooted for the plucky Israelis—that mix of sabras and Holocaust refugees immersed in Middle Eastern grit—engaged in a daily hot war with Arabs during the Cold War. Israel was the first society that had to adjust to a brand new theater of war, one that had no defined battlefields but rather existed in the precincts of ordinary life—airports, bus terminals, cruise ships, the Olympic Games.
It’s been a long time since those iconic, tragic days when airline hijackings, Black September’s Munich massacre, fedayeen night raids on Israeli villages, letter bombs detonating at Israeli embassies, explosions on commuter buses and in pizza shops, resonated deeply with Americans and Europeans, alike. What kind of people were these “so-called Palestinians”, they all wondered? How can Israelis ever feel safe amid such madness?
Those questions aren’t being asked anymore. Arguably the world has grown inured to the realities of daily life in Israel, where a simple walk to a Tel Aviv grocery can feel like taking a turn at a Las Vegas roulette wheel. Perhaps everyone has become weary of Israel's predicament, an insurmountably desperate situation.
After years of witnessing acts of constant terror from afar, nothing that happens on biblical soil surprises anyone anymore. Ancient Israel was once a messianic stage for signs and wonders; today the gross spectacle of children being taken hostage has become positively routine—even boring. For most people, the situation Israel faces on the ground is surreal, although Americans were granted a front-row seat on 9/11 and at the finish line of the Boston Marathon nearly two years ago.
To be sure, years of occupation and the expansion of settlements have also degraded the glued-to-the-television-set fixation that Americans once had for Israeli news updates. Nowadays, however, Israel’s vaunted liberal democracy and the unpleasant things Israel often does in the service of uprooting terrorism can, on occasion, resemble a nation less open and more stifling—at least on its outer frontier.
Being the perpetual underdog came with privileges Israel lost when it became the undisputed superpower in the region. The price Israel pays for being able to chart its own destiny—to return the West Bank, or not, according to its own timetable—is a global perception that the Jewish state relinquished the moral high ground and became the bully in any Middle Eastern fight. Wrongheaded and twisted though that sentiment might be, it is a common opinion Israel must challenge.
Palestinian terror was once universally regarded as savage and Israel's defensive stands were deemed necessary and unassailable. The world’s muted response to these recent kidnappings makes plain that this is no longer the case. During this evolving crisis in Israeli history, support within the American mainstream is diminished, and among Europeans is hardly evident at all.
One reason this is true is because at polite cocktail parties and on college campuses it is fashionable to regard Palestinian suffering as the human rights abuse du jour—no matter what happens to Israelis, no matter what else happens around the world.
Those three kidnapped teenagers—their whereabouts still unknown, their survival looking grimmer with each day—are silent casualties of the world’s cruel indifference to Israel’s plight.
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and professor at NYU School of Law, is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society and the author, most recently, of “Payback: The Case for Revenge.” Follow him on Twitter: @thanerosenbaum