Puzzling Neighbors

Balint Vazsonyi

In the best American traditions, an unending line of men and women warns us about generalizations, apportioning collective blame, or the unthinkable - inflicting harm to our neighbors because they are of Arab origin or of Moslem faith.

That is as it should be and someone like myself, enjoying the privilege of access to the people of this great country, has an obligation to fall in line.

I confess, the air time devoted to the absolution of Arabs and Moslems seems excessive. I admit, Tom Brokaw's near-hysterical repetition of the word "bigots," describing Americans experiencing a natural human reaction, disturbed me. But Mr. Brokaw was tired, and I sincerely defer to native-born Americans in all matters of tolerance. In fact, I got a lecture from Representative Barney Frank during hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives because of what he denounced as my mistaken belief that Americans are the most tolerant breed on Earth. But they are. Mr. Frank is living proof that they are.

Nothing should be allowed to change that blessed tolerance. Nothing.

When I now raise questions about our Arab and Moslem neighbors, it is not because nineteen of the nineteen highjacker/mass-murderers were Arab Moslems. It is not because Arabs were dancing in the street. It is not even because of the unspeakable affront of Yassir Arafat sending us a cheap camera trick while thousands were giving real blood.

The puzzle for me is the absence of a speech by an American of Arab origin or Moslem faith that would make me feel better. The statements are fatuous, commonplace, flat, defensive. Even when the president visited Washington's Islamic Center Monday afternoon and spoke eloquently about the greatness of Islam, no Moslem present seemed able to say a single word appropriate to the occasion. Why?

A disturbing suspicion is creeping into my brain. They are not giving us comfort because they cannot give us comfort.

Ever since the establishment of the state of Israel, the entire Arab/Moslem world has focused on what they call the "Arab Cause" - drowning every Israeli man, woman and child in the sea off Haifa. The spectacle of so huge a segment of the world focusing its entire attention upon the destruction of a tiny country is unique in the history of the world. It distorts everything.

Yet it would not surprise me to learn that practically no Arab, no Moslem is able to take distance from the "Arab Cause." And that may be what stands in the way.

How are you going to be a genuine American if the soul of generation upon generation is consumed by the determination to kill certain people? The trouble with statements coming from Arab/Moslem sources since September 11 has been the underlying implication that they have a just cause, even though its representatives "went too far" this time.

They don't have a just cause - not if they are American. I am not certain they understand that.

The right of Israel to exist, and America's prerogative to protect it, has not been a topic open to rational discussion with Arabs and Moslems anywhere. Arabs and Moslems in America see themselves unequivocally on one side, and it is not the American side.

America has had a long-standing policy about the matter, and if they - not as individuals but as a community - disagree with America's policy as a matter of course, they are a permanent source of discontent.

They may not be able to understand that in moments like these it is irrelevant whether the Palestinians or the Israelis are right. It is irrelevant whether it's about Jews, Tibetan Monks, Hottentots or the duckbilled platypus. Americans of all stripes discuss these and other issues day and night. Americans disagree about them day and night. But when the chips are down, Americans are Americans and other matters fade into instant oblivion.

The chips are down. The crisis in our midst is real because, quite seriously, I am not sure Arabs and Moslems are able to treat the big questions as other Americans do. We should have heard official statements from Arab and Moslem Americans about the guilt and shame they now feel. Yes, we should say we don't hold them guilty. But they should respond by saying they feel responsible, even though they did not physically participate.

If, instead of saying they are afraid to go out, they would tell us they are ashamed to go out, we would go to their houses and drive them to the food store in our own cars.

That's how Americans are.