The only Israelis who want the U.S. to attack Syria are young Jews. They are militant. But their parents say Obama missed his chance and nothing will be gained by attacking Syria. They are angry with Obama for confusing the matter of red lines when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, but they are also upset with the Israel lobby for pushing a war when they are the ones who have to get gasmasks.
I observed these attitudes in interviews with a dozen Jewish Israelis in Jerusalem the day before Yom Kippur.
The young people are frightening. They are far more rightwing and militant than their elders.
“Obama knows what he needs to do. He needs to stop talking and start doing. How he can sleep at night when they are killing kids,” said a 20-year-old soldier wearing a yarmulke and sitting in Zion Square.
The soldier was not concerned about the slippery slope. “If Iran attacks Israel– they can try. And when they try, we will kick their ass. We trust God.”
Nearby, a 19-year-old waitress with thick hair who wore a tank top and described herself as firmly secular, and who said she went to a school with Muslims, was also for action. “I’m not sure about it, but I think he should take Assad out,” she said. “The people I work with agree.”
We often hear about the growing intolerance in Israeli society. These young people’s attitudes are symptomatic. There isn’t a peacenik to be found. Some of their attitudes seem as narrow as North Koreans’.
“All the young people are less afraid of war than the older people,” said Shoham, 17, seated in the pedestrian mall on Ben Yehuda Street.
“The younger people have fire in their eyes and want to do their ideals,” said her friend Matanya, 19, wearing a black tshirt for the unit he wants to join in the army. “There was a guy named Roosevelt who said to walk around with a big stick and not talk loudly. Obama he talks loudly and doesn’t have a stick. It seems like a joke.”
The older people I met showed much more restraint.
“I don’t know any Israelis who are cheering on Obama to strike,” said a 59-year-old mother of three who moved to Israel from the States in 1996. “Especially up north, the feeling is that it’s none of our business. Neither side is wonderful. As Netanyahu says, Iran is the red line. Syria is the mess. If Obama was going to get involved, it would have been best two years ago.”
She said Israelis are mad at the Israel lobby for pushing war. “Everyone’s mad at AIPAC for that. Because we’re the ones who are going to pay.”
Amiel Vardi, a scholar and anti-occupation activist whom I interviewed at the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demonstration Friday, agreed that the mother of three reflected mainstream Israeli Jewish public opinion. The time for an attack has passed. Just two weeks ago Israelis were mostly for an attack on Syria, he says. But they are extremely sensitive to American public opinion, and they have taken the Obama nod to Congress as a signal. In the last week, mass opinion has become: it is easy to start a conflict but hard to end one.
I spoke to two middle-aged people who reflected this shifting pattern. Yeheskel, 45, and Sarah, 37, are rightwingers who wanted Obama to act. But they said that he had missed his chance; and the time for a strike was over. Besides, they said, an attack on Syria would only have symbolic benefits: showing Iran who is boss.
“A token strike– I don’t think it would have done very much at all,” Yeheskel said. “But what happened to Obama? He is weak. He is afraid. And now all the world sees, also Iran– they are not afraid of America.”
Sarah said, “It shows to Israel, we have no one to trust. How are we going to stop Iran? Israel is representing the whole world against Iran.”
Yeheskel said a political resolution of the Syrian conflict would only empower Assad and Hamas and Iran.
And he said that Obama’s failure on Syria was a symptom of the American public’s retreat from Israel. “If you look at Google comments, America says, we’re fighting in Iraq for Israel, and Iran for Israel. If it wasn’t for Israel, there would be peace. You couldn’t say so many things about Israel and Jews ten years ago.”
I also spoke with several Palestinians about Syria. They were all against American intervention. A 65-year-old shopkeeper in the Old City was angry.
“It is a war against Islam. In Yemen, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, and in Syria. It is another Crusade. Is that what Obama wants?”