Quest for civil liberties should not ignore self-defense

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Anyone who was not hopelessly addle-pated would know that the terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah will not voluntarily desist until Israel is destroyed — more specifically, until Israel's Jews are driven into the Mediterranean.

Some years ago, I was walking in Jerusalem just after a bomb had exploded in the marketplace and saw a commotion to which I naturally gravitated. An American Jew I knew, a civil liberties activist, was dressing down a couple of Israeli policemen who had stopped two Arabs for questioning.

The policemen were explaining that the Arabs were acting suspiciously and were coming from the direction of the bombing. But the American Jew would have none of it.

"Acting suspiciously is not reason enough to stop them," he said. "If you thought two Jews were `acting suspiciously,' would you stop them? You are singling out Arabs, and violating their rights. No wonder they're angry."

He was simple-mindedly transferring his American experience to the Israeli scene. Sure, we have had our New York City and Oklahoma City bombings. But we are not cheek by jowl with territories harboring religious zealots who daily try to drive us into the ocean, and have some capacity to do so.

All civilized societies such as those of the United States and Israel start with a law and desire to protect even criminals against violations of basic human liberty and dignity. But, to our regret, circumstances may have to modify that law and desire. After a certain point, self-defense has to be figured into the equation.

Take the pattern of cross-fire between Lebanon and Israel. Hezbollah lobs some shells into Israel, which responds by attacking terrorist centers in Lebanon. The cycle continues. Innocent people are tragically killed, in Israel and in Lebanon.

The cry rises: "Both sides should stop." Translated, that means that Israel should stop retaliating. We are once again in the land of the muddle-headed who say that retaliation won't bring peace.

But what will bring peace? An Iranian spokesman last week said that if the Israelis stopped attacking, Hezbollah might well stop. But, translated, that means that if Israel had not retaliated, Hezbollah would never have stopped what they had started.

The clear-headed know that when dealing with the likes of Iran and Hezbollah, only the application of measured force can bring a modicum of peace, saving even more lives on both sides from being tragically snuffed out.

When faced with terrorism, there is enough muddle-headedness to go around: Witness the terrorism bill that has been batted around in Washington, D.C. The Republican leadership, the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union joined together to get rid of provisions that would increase wiretap authority, among other things.

But some wiretap authority, carefully regulated, is probably necessary for the intelligence needed to forestall future violence in this country by small terrorist cells. The privacy of the citizenry must still be protected, but it is just not as easy as it once was.

By the same token, the Clinton administration's decision to send arms to Bosnia by way of Iran was as addle-pated as it comes. Iran is today the main source of terrorism in the world. We will rue the day we legitimated that regime and helped to plant its tentacles in the middle of Europe.

Because of its special experience with terrorism, past and present, the Jewish community should be more active in helping the media and policy makers keep their heads clear on this frustrating subject. Civil liberties and peace must always be high on our agenda, but so must self defense.

The writer is director emeritus of Brandeis University's Nathan Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy. He is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.