After spending 10 days in Jordan and Israel, mostly Israel, I returned with mixed feelings. The Israelis are a hard people to warm up to. Admittedly, our sample was small and our interactions brief and shallow. We were tourists, scarcely scratching the surface.

But my impressions are my impressions, so I’ll share them.

I’ve always been sympathetic to the Israelis, and continue to be, but I’m also critical. Frankly, I’m worried about their national soul. The zeal of nation-building in the 1950s and ’60s must have been a glorious time, but that excitement seems long past. The young idealists are now senior citizens, and the country has settled into a permanent, perhaps hopeless, siege mentality. The people we came in contact were guarded, aloof, humorless.

Perhaps it couldn’t have been otherwise. Oppressed, persecuted, and/or mass-murdered for 2,000 years, the Jews saw their window of opportunity after World War II, seized it, and made the most of it. But they’ve been the “enemy” for 50 years here, and Arab rhetoric, not known for its subtlety, hasn’t exactly calmed nerves. The Jewish Diaspora/Israeli experience is based on one bedrock principle?#34;never trust your neighbors. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you, and essentially, that is the basis of all Israeli foreign policy: preventive paranoia.

It’s hard to argue with their experience, yet the only way the turmoil in the Mideast will ever be resolved is if the Israelis and the Palestinians (plus surrounding Arab nations) learn how to trust.

How naive, you can hear both sides retort. “You don’t know these people. If you give an inch, they take a mile.” The prevailing ethic in the Mideast seems to be that if you don’t forcefully stand up to your enemy, he’ll walk all over you. Hence the endless cycle of retaliation.

I’m simplifying, of course, but the Israelis have cultivated a no-nonsense, hard-ass demeanor, necessitated, they would likely say, by having a permanent target painted on their backs. There’s a “don’t mess with us” macho air about them.

Necessary, perhaps, but also damaging to the national soul?#34;just as America’s soul has been damaged by our invasion of Iraq. Israel, like us, now worships before the twin idols of safety and security. To achieve those goals, thanks to considerable generosity from the U.S., which showers them with foreign aid, Israel has become the superpower of the Middle East. The supreme irony is that after 2,000-plus years of being oppressed, they have adopted the methods of the oppressor in order to guarantee their security. Necessary or not, it makes them look bad.

Something there is that does not love a wall, and the Israelis are building plenty of them?#34;checkpoints, too, to restrict freedom of movement, for terrorists and the innocent alike. I suspect the Israelis no longer care how it looks. “We’ll do whatever it takes. If you don’t like it, too bad. You don’t have to live with what we live with.”

Pay a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum outside Jerusalem, and it’s hard to argue. The Jews have suffered greatly?#34;so greatly, they seem to be saying, that they’re justified in doing almost anything to assure security.

But acting like a bully, even when necessary, eventually makes you a bully, and in the long run, even the unforgivable treatment of the Jews throughout history can’t justify mistreating other people.

That, I think, is the cultural crisis facing the Israeli culture. The Islamic culture is facing it too. Both sides fear extinction. Both lash out in desperation.

The problem is when security becomes your god, injustice is the consequence, and eventually, it compromises both your security and your soul.

That lesson, I fear, will be learned only after a great deal more suffering.

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