On Pilgrims and Zionists

Why I’m thankful America didn’t turn out like Israel.

It's Thanksgiving, which means it's time to think about Israel.

That's not as nonsensical as it may sound. The Pilgrims who established our American Thanksgiving ritual thought about Israel a great deal: both they and the larger group of Puritan settlers who followed them a decade later saw themselves as New Israelites, forced into the wilderness by religious persecution.

Given that history, Thanksgiving is a good time to contemplate the parallels between the United States and Israel. After a week of front-page news about Israel and the violence that has increasingly come to define it, this is also a good time to count our blessings -- for despite many parallels, the United States is, thankfully, not Israel. Not yet.

"Empty Land"

Tradition tells us that the first Thanksgiving feast took place in the autumn of 1621, as the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest. On December 12, 1621, Robert Cushman preached the earliest surviving sermon to the Pilgrims. God, said Cushman, had opened "a way...for such as have wings to fly into this Wilderness," so that "as by the dispersion of the Jewish church through persecution...a light may rise up in the dark." A New Israel had sprung up in New England.

If the early American setters saw parallels between themselves and the ancient Israelites, we modern Americans can also find parallels between the American Pilgrims and the Jewish Zionists who settled in Palestine between the late 19th and mid-20th century.

After all, America and Israel share similar origin tales: the Pilgrims who set sail from Plymouth, England in 1620 did so against a backdrop of European religious wars, massacres, and persecution; while the Jews who founded the modern state of Israel fled centuries of European anti-Semitism and the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust.

Each of the two groups imagined themselves to be settling a mostly empty wilderness: "We found the place where we live empty, the people being all dead and gone away," reported Cushman in 1621. Three hundred years later and almost 5,000 miles away, Jewish Zionists sought "a land without a people, for a people without a land." Palestine "remains at this moment an almost uninhabited, forsaken and ruined Turkish territory," enthused Israel Zangwill, an early Zionist, in 1902. He later realized his mistake ("Alas... The country holds 600,000 Arabs"), but by then the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine had picked up unstoppable momentum.

Both the Pilgrims and the Zionist settlers -- separated as they were by centuries and miles -- underestimated the staying power of the local inhabitants. In the "New Israel" of New England, Cushman observed that the natives who initially appeared were "very much wasted of late, by reason of a great mortality that fell amongst them three years since." (Though Cushman probably didn't know it, the "great mortality" stemmed from smallpox, typhoid, and other diseases unwittingly brought by European fishermen.) With regard to the "poor heathens," wrote Cushman, "Our care hath been to maintain peace amongst them."

The Native Americans turned out to have opinions of their own about the European "errand into the wilderness," however, and over the next decades, European encroachment onto Native American land increasingly led to conflict. New England saw the Pequot War of 1637, for instance, followed by King Phillip's War of 1675-6, which killed hundreds of settlers and thousands of Native Americans.

The Zionists who settled in Palestine found themselves similarly mired in conflict. As the region's Jewish population increased from just over 10 percent in the early 1920s to about 33 percent after World War II, tensions with the Arab majority went up as well. By the late 1930s, attacks on Jewish settlements by Arab militants were matched by retaliatory attacks on Arabs by Jewish paramilitary groups.

Diverging paths

Here, however, Israel's path began to diverge from that of early America. The Native Americans were already badly weakened by epidemic disease and internecine conflict by the time European settlers arrived in force. Although bloody skirmishes between Europeans and Native Americans continued until well into the 20th century, by the mid-1700s the native population had ceased to pose an existential threat to the European colonists, and the emerging nation could turn its attention to other matters. To the colonists, all this was a sign of God's providence. To the Native Americans, it was just a tragedy.

In Palestine, things were different: the Arab inhabitants declined to die out of their own accord, leaving the Jewish settlers surrounded by displaced, aggrieved locals. Escalating attacks and counter-attacks embroiled the Israelis in a cycle of violence and retaliation. In 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state, war immediately broke out with Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq. Israel prevailed -- but in the nearly seven decades since then, Israel has remained in a state of intermittent war.

Israel's cycle of war and escalation broke out yet again last week, as Israel retaliated against Hamas rocket attacks by pounding Gaza from the air. In this conflict -- as in all of Israel's past conflicts -- Israel's military superiority (much of it thanks to U.S. weapons sales and aid) has made it a lopsided fight: as of Tuesday, five Israelis and 130 Palestinians had been killed. In the last Gaza conflict -- Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009 -- 13 Israelis and 1,400 Palestinians died during the three weeks of fighting. During the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon War, Lebanese casualties exceeded Israeli casualties by a factor of ten.

But Israel's immense military superiority has produced only illusory gains. What good is winning when winning only sows the seeds of the next conflict, one following another in rapid succession?

As Janine Zacharia, former Jerusalem bureau chief of the Washington Post, wrote last week, "Israel's response to these ongoing rocket attacks is justified. But being justified isn't the same thing as being smart. The truth is Israel has been engaged in a low-grade war with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip for five years now, with no plan besides a misguided military strategy for how to end it.... To be sure, Israel will once again achieve many of its short-term tactical goals...[but] in the end, Israel will be no safer, although it will surely be more alone in the world and living in a neighborhood that is less tolerant of its aggressive countermeasures."

Once, Israel represented a dream or freedom, safety, and peace for Europe's persecuted Jews. But decades of on-and-off war, suicide bombers, and rockets attacks have left Israel isolated, imperiled, and in danger of losing its soul. Each new round of asymmetric attacks from Palestinians or neighboring states triggers an outsized Israeli military response, which buys a few years of relative quiet, until the violence escalates again. And meanwhile, Israel has become a permanent garrison state, defined almost solely by its embattled status and losing, each year, a few more of its democratic traditions.

"Everyone is sad"                                                                                

This isn't an "attack upon Israel." Suicide bombs and makeshift rockets are weapons of the weak, but they have left a trail of mangled, broken bodies all the same, and the Holocaust still casts a long shadow. By now, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are fighting the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Arabs displaced or killed by the Jewish settlers who created the state of Israel. Everyone's a victim, and everyone has become a perpetrator.

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick recently wrote the best essay I've seen yet on living in Israel during the current conflict: "[T]he harrowing accounts of burnt-out basements and baby shoes on each side of this conflict don't constitute a conversation.... Scoring your own side's suffering is a powerful way to avoid fixing the real problems, and trust me when I tell you that everyone -- absolutely everyone -- is suffering and sad, and yet being sad is not fixing the problems either.... Bombing the other side into oblivion is no more a solution than counting your dead children in public.... Please don't judge. Work toward solutions. Because everyone on every side of this is desperate. This isn't a way to live and we all know it."

In the Arab-Israeli conflict, there is a stronger side and a weaker side, but there is certainly no "right" side.

There but for the Grace of God

This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for all the mundane but vital blessings: happy children, a loving husband and family, work that I love, the health to enjoy it. I'm also thankful that we Americans still live in relative peace and prosperity. And this year, I'm particularly thankful I don't live in Israel, that America is not Israel, and that America's path long ago diverged from Israel's.

That it did so is hardly to our credit, since the American Republic was built upon the virtual destruction of the Native Americans. Our peace and prosperity owe much to happy accidents of geography -- how lucky to have oceans on two sides! -- and more to the suffering of others (slavery, too, casts a long shadow).

But we should not assume that America is exempt from Israel's fate. Stunned by the 9/11 attacks, in 2001 the United States began a blind lurch towards the Israeli path, ultimately embroiling ourselves in two bloody wars of occupation. With our temporary embrace of torture, we came perilously close to losing our own national soul.

Although we have now repudiated torture, we continue to find the Israeli path tempting. Indefinite detention has become an accepted reality for America, along with an aggressive, expanding surveillance state. Before 9/11, the United States condemned Israeli "targeted killings" of alleged terrorists. Now, targeted killings have become the American weapon of choice.

Like the Israelis, we're increasingly playing counterterrorism whack-a-mole -- and as with the Israelis, each drone strike may pull us that much further into an endless cycle of attack, retaliation, counter-attack, and counter-retaliation, with nothing gained at the end of the day but dead bodies on all sides.

Israel is what the Pilgrims imagined themselves to be building, and if we are not both lucky and wise, Israel is what we may yet become -- but not in the way our forebears imagined.

The Eyes of All People Are Upon Us

Shortly after the First Thanksgiving, Robert Cushman urged his fellow Pilgrims to "win [the natives] to peace both with yourselves, and one another, by your peaceable examples." The lesson didn't really take.

Few Americans have heard of Cushman, but most are familiar with John Winthrop's Arabella Sermon, delivered nine years later. Like Cushman, Winthrop exhorted his fellow American settlers to set a good example:

[We must] follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.... We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities.... [So] Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us.... For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us.

Less often quoted is the more ominous passage that follows:

For if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken... wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world....Wee shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us, till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.

Happy Thanksgiving.


National Security

Sex and the Modern Soldier

Just how bad is the military's woman problem?

As I write this, the Petraeus saga, which morphed first into the Petraeus-Broadwell saga, and then into the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley saga, followed closely by the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley-Allen saga, is morphing into Phase 5, or maybe it's Phase 6. Who can keep track? By now, I believe, it's the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley-Allen-Evil Twin Natalie-Shirtless FBI Agent-Eric Cantor-Classified Documents story.

By the time you read this, the saga will have morphed into Phase 11 or 12, and it will no doubt have been revealed that Anthony Weiner was Jill Kelley's college roommate before a series of harassing phone calls from a Lockheed Martin executive led him to take up residence instead in one of those fancy hotel rooms favored by disgraced Gen. Kip Ward. Prince Harry and the Waffle House guy will probably also turn out to be involved.

But let's put schadenfreude briefly aside -- who can possibly keep up with these high-society types, anyway? -- and focus instead on the important question my mother asked me today, in a breathless early-morning call: What is up with these generals?

More specifically: Does the U.S. military have an adultery problem? A woman problem? A generic, all-purpose craziness, sleaze, and corruption problem? A public-image problem?

Answering these questions in order, I can offer a definitive "sort of," "kind of, "maybe," and "very possibly."

First, adultery and related peccadilloes.

Officially, military culture tends to smile upon marriage and frown upon singleness. The military provides married personnel with benefits not available to single personnel, and even today, officers often feel that remaining unmarried is regarded as professionally suspect (not just because it may raise suspicions of homosexuality -- for senior male officers in particular, a wife has historically been considered a must-have accessory, needed in her hostess role as much as in her role as companion). But ironically, the military's very "pro-marriage" culture may lead to a higher incidence of divorce and marital problems.

A recent Rand Corp. study found that compared with demographically matched civilians, military personnel are more likely to get married -- but after leaving the military, veterans are more likely than non-veterans to get divorced. "[T]hese findings," the study concluded, "suggest that the military provides incentives to marry … but that once the servicemembers return to civilian life and these incentives are absent, they suffer higher rates of marital dissolution than comparable civilians. This suggests that the military may encourage unions that would not normally be formalized into marriage in a civilian context, and are consequently more fragile upon exit from the military."

If some service members marry because it's expected or rewarded rather than because they've found a compatible partner, those marriages are presumably more fragile before exit from the military as well as after. There's no way to know for sure whether infidelity is more common in the military than in the civilian world, of course. Needless to say, adultery is one of those things people generally -- no pun intended -- lie about. But even if we leave aside the question of military marriages that should probably never have been entered into, it seems reasonable to suppose that adultery might be more common in the military than in the civilian world.

Military careers can place great strain on marriages. Military families are frequently uprooted, and deployments can separate spouses by thousands of miles, year after year. Consider David and Holly Petraeus, who reportedly moved 23 times over the course of their marriage and were frequently separated by lengthy training periods and deployments. That would test any marriage.

Military personnel have -- literally -- a societally granted license to kill, at least in wartime, and it's reasonable to expect those entrusted with such power to adhere to unusually high standards of behavior. Thus, adultery is still punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) -- and people still lose their jobs over it. "Mere" adultery is generally not sufficient to get a service member in legal trouble, though. That kicks in only if there's evidence that the adulterous conduct was "to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces." In other words, if no one's making much of a fuss about it and adultery is the only form of misconduct alleged, no one's likely to be punished. But the risk is always there.

Of course, a wide range of other conduct can also be prejudicial to good order and discipline or likely to "bring discredit" upon the armed forces, and the UCMJ offers fairly wide latitude to commanders who believe that their subordinates have been up to no good, regardless of the form taken by the no-goodness. For officers, "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" remains punishable under the UCMJ ("gentleman" has been generously defined to include ladies too). How often these UCMJ provisions are used to go after sexual indiscretions is unknown, as the military does not keep easily accessible records of such allegations or case dispositions.

Even retired military personnel are subject to the UCMJ, though the military rarely takes the trouble to go after retired service members. Will retired General Petraeus find himself in legal trouble? Probably not, unless a hue and cry over double standards forces the military to take action. Why should a retired four-star get away with conduct that could lead to a demotion, separation, or reduction in pay for a junior officer or enlisted soldier?

The Woman Problem

It would be fair to say that the military still has something of a woman problem. Although most military jobs are now open to women -- the exception being certain combat jobs -- women still make up only a small minority of all military personnel (about 15 percent) and a still-smaller minority of senior officers (no surprise, given that today's senior women officers joined the military, by definition, in an era in which even fewer jobs were open to women).

The military remains plagued by allegations of sexual harassment and assault, and a number of studies by the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs have concluded that women in the military face higher rates of sexual assault than do civilian women. Here again, no big surprise: The military remains an overwhelmingly male -- and overwhelmingly macho -- institution. Women are outnumbered and often rendered nearly invisible in a culture in which nearly all senior officers are male.

This extends to the home front, as well. In certain ways, the informal culture of military officers resembles the 1950s more than the 21st century. Military life isn't just hard on marriage -- it's also hard on the careers of the (mostly female) civilian spouses of military personnel. Rising up the career ladder isn't easy when you move from one military base to another every few years. One military friend of mine recalls a general telling junior officers -- in a recent lecture at an official Army command training event -- that they should actively discourage their wives from pursuing careers, because career women would be less supportive and flexible military wives. And though official publications now speak of officers' "spouses" rather than "wives," the military still produces etiquette guides for spouses, with a rather gendered focus on appropriate forms of address at social functions and the proper pouring of tea and coffee.

Here's something I worry about: Will the fallout from the Petraeus scandal make it even tougher for military women to rise to senior rank? In the military as in the civilian world, career advancement often has as much to do with informal mentoring relationships as with formal education or qualifications. No one bats an eye when the (male) boss goes out running or drinking with his (male) subordinates, but post-Petraeus, how many male senior officers will do the same with female subordinates? Not a lot -- and though such risk-aversion may reduce any appearance of impropriety, it will also reduce the odds that women will get the crucial mentoring that is provided so freely to their male colleagues.

All-purpose craziness, sleaze, and corruption?

Most soldiers I know do their best to live up to the Army values: "loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage." Every service has its own creed, but the core values of each service are basically the same, and every day, most of the roughly 2.5 million men -- and women -- in the military try their best to live up to them.

Needless to say, however, these values don't appear to have been particularly exemplified by the alleged recent behavior of General Petraeus and General John Allen. And it's not the marital infidelity -- acknowledged or alleged -- that bothers me. I'm willing to write that off to human frailty. Did General Allen exchange risqué emails with Kelley? Maybe -- but I don't really care. As for General Petraeus, when a lonely late-middle-aged married man with a stressful job falls into bed (or under the desk) with an attractive and adoring younger woman, it's not excusable, perhaps, but it's certainly understandable -- and really none of the country's business.

It's the emerging story of the all-too cozy relationship between Tampa's nouveau riche and the top brass at Centcom that makes me feel less charitable. Perhaps le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point -- but why were Petraeus and Allen spending all their free time at lavish parties hosted by a rich Tampa socialite? Who told Kelley it was fine to declare herself the "social liaison" to Centcom? Why didn't the fact that Kelley and her family were embroiled in multiple lawsuits alleging fraud and unpaid debt set off alarm bells for anyone at Centcom? Who anointed the 37-year-old Kelley as a Centcom "honorary ambassador," fostering relations between top Centcom officials and "Middle Eastern government officials"?

And, of course, what induced two of America's highest-ranking generals to wade into a vicious custody case involving the child of Kelley's twin sister, Natalie Khawam, sending character testimonials on Khawam's behalf to a judge who had declared Khawam to be a "psychologically unstable" manufacturer of "sensational accusations … so numerous, so extraordinary, and … so distorted that they defy any common sense view of reality"?

Talk about conduct "of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces."

Needless to say, no one's sure yet what's true and what isn't, and what more lies hidden under various carpets and rocks. But enough has already emerged to raise serious questions about the ethics and judgment of several top officials. Was there actual corruption, nepotism, and impropriety? Unclear -- but there was unquestionably an appearance of impropriety, and we should expect better of America's most decorated military officers.

Service members sure expect better of them. I've been asking around among military friends, and all I hear is shock, disgust, and a sense of betrayal. "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," one officer told me. "We're being had. These guys have chests full of medals, and they preach to us about military values. But look at this -- what the f*** are they doing?"

Does the military have a public image problem?

Whatever the reaction within the military community, will these revelations taint the military's public image? Since the 9/11 attacks, the military has become the most trusted institution in America. Indeed, Americans have put the military on such a high pedestal that it's considered near sacrilege for civilians to offer any criticism of the military. But there's no guarantee that things will stay that way. It depends on the breadth and depth of the rot.

If the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley-Allen business appears to be an aberration, Americans will forgive and forget: after two decades of war, most people are willing to cut the military some slack.

But if this week's revelations turn out to be the tip of the iceberg -- if whistle-blowers, media probes, and congressional investigations produce a rash of similar stories involving other senior military figures -- the public's patience may wear thin, fast. Being America's most trusted institution won't help the military much then: We're more appalled by those who betray our trust than by the bad behavior of those we never trusted in the first place. Sex abuse scandals in the Catholic clergy are a case in point.

The higher they are, the harder they fall.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images