Israel still looks good, warts and all
The alliance between the Western Left and Islamic anger is perplexing, writes Greg Sheridan | May 06, 2009
I HAVE my very own Israel problem and it is this: the Israel I know, which I have visited for weeks at a time, which I experience through its literature and media and the Israeli citizens I have met, bears no relation to the Israel I see in most of the Western media. That Israel seems almost to dominate Western intellectual life. It is commonly held that Israel lies at the heart of the widespread Muslim hostility to the West and much of the ideological conflict in the Middle East. But Israel must surely also lie at the heart of the West itself; it is so often the centrepoint of raging ideological debate, shrill mutual denunciation, ferocious polemic, emotional demonstrations, university activism and academic boycotts.
That Israel of the Western mind (and indeed of the Arab mind) is a hateful place: right-wing, militaristic, authoritarian, racist, ultra-religious, neo-colonial, narrow-minded, undemocratic, indifferent to world opinion, indifferent especially to Palestinian suffering.
Yet the Israel I know is mostly secular, raucously, almost wildly democratic, has a vibrant left wing, having founded in the kibbutz movement one of the only successful experiments in socialism in human history. It is intellectually disputatious; any two Israelis will have three opinions and be happy to argue them to a lamp post. It is multi-ethnic, there is a great stress on human solidarity, there is due process. And I've never heard an Israeli speak casually about the value of Palestinian life. I've heard Israelis voice a desire to neutralise Hezbollah or remove Hamas from leadership in Gaza, but I've never in any context heard an Israeli express the view that the value of a human life is determined by race.
The Israel I know is a Western democracy, often under siege, often making mistakes, sometimes moral mistakes. But I also see its institutions, its courts, its free press and vigorous academics challenging those mistakes and trying to correct them, sometimes exaggerating them in the process. I see a society striving for the good, sometimes doing the wrong thing, certainly not beyond criticism, but overall behaving as well as any comparably sized Western society would or could in all the circumstances.
How to explain this contradiction between the Israel I see and that other, evil Israel that dominates so much Western intellectual life?
One reason Israel generates such passionate responses is because of the multiplicity of its identities and the variety of functions it fulfils in political debate. Each of these identities or roles is affected by all the others, but it's helpful to disentangle them conceptually.
First, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Turkey is a democracy but is not technically in the Middle East. Lebanon is no longer a full democracy, its politics dominated by armed militias and Syrian interference. Israel is the only society in the Middle East with all the institutions of a democracy: a media that reveals all its secrets, a free parliament, independent courts, independent universities and the rest. This earns it a lot of support, especially in the US, but it also means that Israelis generate much of the most damaging criticism of Israel.
This is a singular quality of Israel but it is also discloses a singular quality of the Middle East. Is there another region in the world in which there is only one democracy? This fact alone demonstrates how utterly at odds with its own region Israel is, but also how very odd that region is. The Jewish people, as Walter Russell Mead has written, are an old people but the Israelis are a young people. And deeply imprinted on their DNA is the culture of democracy.
Israel is also the only Western nation in the Middle East (with the exception of substantial but minority parts of Lebanon). Israel is the only national expression of Western values, and indeed Western power, in today's Middle East. These terms can be confusing. The West aspires to universal values of democracy and human rights that can be as well observed in Japan, South Korea or India, nations with very different cultural traditions from the West. Nonetheless these values, while universal, define Western nations in their polities.
This leads to the third of Israel's distinctive roles. Second only to the US, Israel is the most acute object of the hostility to the West that flourishes in Western intellectual life. Official Iranian propaganda has described the US as the "Big Satan" and Israel as the "Little Satan". In the West, this is a view mostly found on the ideological Left but it has echoes more generally. Much of it is heir to traditional Marxism, which saw the structure of capitalist societies as inherently unjust and built on exploitation. This ideology was expanded to incorporate the international economy: Western nations are rich because they exploit poor nations. This is not the social democratic critique of neo-liberalism recently articulated by Kevin Rudd. It is instead the view that capitalist societies, and the international system, are of their essence irredeemably and intolerably unjust.
If you add to this inheritance the polemic of Noam Chomsky and his disciples against Western militarism, of Edward Said against Western scholarship and understanding of the Middle East and indeed of all formerly colonised peoples, and of the epistemological assault on traditional Western knowledge mounted by French critical theory from the 1960s onwards, you have a paradigm for understanding the West into which Israel fits all too neatly.
This paradigm can be reduced to four propositions: Western societies are inherently evil and unjust in their economic order; they are inherently racist both as successors to European colonialism and in their treatment of their own racial minorities; their knowledge is inherently false, they labour under false consciousness; and they maintain global hegemony through military and financial power.
It is easy to see where Israel fits in this analytical grid, and why it has a starring role. It is capitalist, Western, an ally of the US and uses military force when necessary to maintain its security. It rules, if temporarily, over an occupied Arab population and despite its own racial diversity is a mostly non-Arab population in a predominantly Arab region.
Of course a lot of people in the West are hostile to Israel without embracing this intellectual world view but the coherence and strength of some version of it in the most politically active minorities in the West -- academe, media, many church bureaucracies -- gives great added force to the generalised hostility to Israel.
But there is another factor, probably as important as these, and this is Israel's role as the homeland of the Jewish people. Israel's founders decided that it would be a Jewish state and a democracy, a home and a refuge for Jewish people, but which also gave full political, civic and human rights to all its citizens regardless of their religion or racial background.
When you come from a predominantly Western, immigrant society such as Australia or the US, you know some groups well but you know them only as minorities. When you visit their homelands, it is a strange experience; you see them no longer as minorities but as the setters of social, cultural, even religious norms. I had this experience when I first visited India, Vietnam and Israel. You see the minority as the majority and it's at first slightly disconcerting, then exhilarating.
Israel's role as the Jewish homeland, when Jewish civilisation was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust, gives it a special place in the estimation of those who love and admire Jewish culture. It is an inherent part of Israel's purpose and identity, which is little remarked in mainstream media because there is an understandable focus on covering the occupied Palestinian territories rather than the life inside Israel.
But it is the central reality for those motivated by anti-Semitism. And the evidence is strong that anti-Semitism is once more a growing force in the world. Anti-Semitism has a long, shameful and astoundingly resilient history in Western civilisation. You can make a case that Western anti-Semitism predates Christianity because of Jewish resistance to ancient Rome. In a sense, the world owes monotheism to the Jews.
But classical Western anti-Semitism begins with the view of the Jews as the people who rejected Jesus, and indeed were responsible for his death, thus being guilty of deicide.
This Christian hostility to Jews was not present among the first Christians but took some centuries to develop fully. Many of the finest Christian thinkers struggled to work out their religion's relationship to the Jews. Were the Jews at best the chosen people who rejected Christ? Were the Jews no longer the chosen people, with that mantle transferring to Christians who accepted Christ's incarnation as the messiah? The greatest of the early church fathers, St Augustine, in the fourth century titled one of his last works Sermons Against the Jews.
Through the Crusaders to the Spanish Inquisition and beyond, the persecution of Jews, to varying degrees of intensity, was a factor of Western life, culminating in Hitler's Final Solution. It was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Catholic Church issued its definitive instruction: "True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf John 19.6); still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the holy scriptures."
That was a welcome statement by Vatican II but a culture cannot easily eradicate something as ingrained as Western anti-Semitism, even after the horror of the Holocaust and the clarity of modern church teaching.
What can be surprising to the modern consciousness is how pervasive anti-Semitism was in Western culture, and not very long ago. Recently I spent a summer holiday self-indulgently reading Victorian literature. I made my first direct acquaintance with the works of Charles Dickens. Consider this description of Fagin from Oliver Twist:
Standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old, shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.
Dickens was a writer of genius and a man of prodigious moral and political imagination. Yet throughout Oliver Twist Fagin is almost always referred to as "the Jew" and presented as the embodiment of moral depravity and manipulation, whose only interest is money and whose chief activity is the corruption of the young.
I also read Maise Ward's biography of G.K. Chesterton, who straddled Victorian and later periods in English letters. Ward's biography is the only serious study of Chesterton to be written before the Holocaust. She airily admits and dismisses Chesterton's relatively mild anti-Semitism, unlike later sympathetic biographers who hide it or explain it away. Chesterton was a man suffused with decency and gentleness, and the greatest English proponent of the Catholic vision, yet he was also a kind of mildly anti-Semitic Zionist who believed Jews could not live well in a Christian kingdom such as England and therefore should all go and live in Palestine.
What has this to do with today?
Apart from the deicide charge, the most powerful elements of classical Western anti-Semitism were the contentions that Jews wielded vast and malign "money power", manipulated politics for their own benefit, corrupted, generally in some sexual way, the morals of Western societies, were disloyal to the nations they lived in and, later, were behind the rise of international communism.
This resulted in an operational double standard towards Jews. Any crime, and many harmless actions, by an individual Jew tended to be seen as part of a Jewish conspiracy. And Jews were held to standards no one else was held to.
There are clear echoes of this in modern attitudes to Israel. In 1975 the UN passed an infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism. More than 15 years later this was rescinded. Now, Israel is frequently called an apartheid state. The foundational basis of Israel is argued to be illegitimate.
But this, surely, is remarkable. Nobody declares Saudi Arabia an illegitimate state because it has no democracy or human rights, and its doctrinaire Wahhabi Sunni establishment rules over a marginalised Shia minority. Nobody declares Turkey an illegitimate state because it has a disgruntled Kurdish minority, some of whom certainly aspire to statehood. Even North Korea, the most extreme Stalinist gulag on earth, is constantly reassured that the West accepts not only the legitimacy of its state, but does not even seek regime change. Only the legitimacy of Israel is routinely questioned: a special standard for the Jewish state.
Similarly, a malign Zionist or Jewish influence in the media is frequently asserted, even though the Western media is full of criticism of Israel.
Increasingly, anti-Israel demonstrations in the West include direct references to Jews as well as to the state of Israel. Even in a peaceful society such as Australia, the Jewish community routinely has to take security precautions at religious, educational and social functions that no other religious community has to. In Jewish suburbs in London, the graffiti could not be more direct: "Kill the Jews". British novelist Howard Jacobson has written of how he now feels uncomfortable as a Jew in Britain. He has written of "the slow seepage of familiar, anti-Semitic calumnies into the conversation".
Every American Jew who supported the US intervention in Iraq was suspected, without evidence, of doing so because of consideration for Israel, thus reviving the old canard that Jews cannot be loyal citizens of the states they live in because of their over-arching loyalty to Israel.
Even where hostility is directed specifically at Israel rather than at Jews, when this hostility is extreme and beyond reason, it affects the social atmosphere for Jews. As Jacobson comments, there is "a deranged revulsion, intemperate and unconcealed, which nothing Israel itself has done could justify or explain were it 10 times the barbaric apartheid state it figures as in the English imagination".
However, even as classical anti-Semitism has had to make its reappearance in the West in mostly disguised form, it is raging without any disguise at all across the Arab world. The examples are limitless but let me offer just a few. The government-aligned Al-Gomhuria newspaper in Egypt published a cartoon of a serpent strangling Uncle Sam. The caption read: "The Jews taking over the world".
An Egyptian cleric, Ahmad Abd al-Salam, on Al-Nas TV, said: "I want you to imagine the Jews sitting around a table, conspiring how to corrupt the Muslims ... The Jews conspire how to infect the food of Muslims with cancer."
Also on Al-Nas TV, another Egyptian cleric, Safwat Higazi, revealed the wholly fictitious scoop that the female figure in the Starbucks logo was really Queen Esther of the Jews.
Throughout the Arab world, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious tzarist forgery, figure in popular culture. The Iranian Government, famously, sponsors conferences in which the sole purpose is to deny that the Holocaust took place.
Throughout Gaza and the West Bank an extravagant anti-Semitism is a central part of the Palestinian discourse. Anyone who doubts this should Google the Hamas charter, where they will learn that even Rotary and Lions clubs are part of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy.
One of the most telling examples of this Arab anti-Semitism is provided in Martin Indyk's brilliant new book, Innocent Abroad (Simon & Schuster, 494pp, $49.95 hardback). Although focused predominantly on the '90s Middle East peace process, when Bill Clinton was US president and Indyk one of his senior advisers, it is one of the best recent books on the modern Middle East, with a compelling narrative, shrewd insider accounts, engaging personal insights and a sense of the broad sweep of history.
But for the purposes of this analysis, a meeting Indyk describes in 1998 between Clinton and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is most instructive. This was at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Indyk writes:
Abdullah leaned across the table and explained to Clinton in a hushed voice that he had information that Monica Lewinsky was Jewish and part of a Mossad plot to bring the president down because of his efforts to help the Palestinians. He told the president that he intended to share this intelligence with senators he would meet after lunch in an effort to help forestall his impeachment.
This anecdote echoes one of a generation earlier told in Henry Kissinger's memoir, in which Kissinger holds a formal meeting with a Saudi ruler who tells him the world is beset by a global communist conspiracy, which is a mere part of the broader global Jewish conspiracy.
The Indyk and Kissinger anecdotes, each astonishing in its way, confirm the pervasiveness of Arab anti-Semitism and that it is not wholly a construct of Arab regimes for internal political purposes but is to some extent genuinely believed in Arab societies.
Nonetheless it would be wrong to underestimate the benefits that anti-Semitism can provide Arab regimes. Israel is the licensed grievance for these societies. By theologising the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and presenting it as a case of Western and specifically Jewish persecution of an Arab minority, Arab regimes, even those allied with the US, can offer an outlet to anger on the street and attempt to channel both Islamist and pan-Arab sentiments in a direction that does not challenge their rule.
This exploitation of anti-Semitism fits a broader political narrative of the Arab world. A few years ago a committee of Arab intellectuals working under the auspices of the UN produced a devastating indictment of the Arab encounter with modernisation. Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis recounts and updates some of their most shocking findings in the March-April 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs. Here are a few of the depressing highlights. In the previous quarter century, real per capita gross domestic product has fallen in the Arab world. Combined Arab GDP in 2000 was less than that of Spain. One-fifth the number of books are translated every year into Arabic as are translated into Greek in Greece. Between 1980 and 2000, Egypt registered 77 patents in the US, South Korea 16,328. And so on.
As a matter of mere logic, the presence of 5.5million Jews in Israel cannot be responsible for the economic and political development of hundreds of millions of Arabs. But the Arab mind is presented with a disagreeable conundrum. The Arab world possesses, in its view, the one true religion, the greatest culture and much of the world's oil, yet its societies are impoverished and dysfunctional. How can this be explained? In societies that do not allow searching criticism of ruling regimes, the answer has to come in the form of anti-Arab conspiracies, centred on the West generally, but more specifically on the US, Israel and the Jews.
This Arab anti-Semitism, popular and official, is incidentally a huge obstacle to peace. If Israel is not just a nation like any other but the most visible and offensive manifestation of a giant Western and Jewish conspiracy against Islam and the Arabs, then making peace with it is not honourable but despicable.
What is perplexing is the emerging strategic alliance between the Western Left and Islamist anger. This is evident especially in Western demonstrations where left-wing protesters carry banners saying things such as "We are Hamas".
But it is also to be observed in the general silence of the Western Left on human rights abuses throughout the Arab world and in Iran. One of the most arresting sights in Israel is the magnificent Bahai headquarters in Haifa. The Bahais have an equally beautiful temple in New Delhi. The Bahais fled to Israel and India, two states where minority religions are not subject to official persecution, because of the murderous repression they suffer in Iran. Yet the Western Left is infinitely more active about Israeli human rights abuses, real or alleged, than Iranian human rights abuses. Similarly, the more left-wing the Western feminist, the less will be said about the routine abuse of women's rights in much of the Arab world.
The strategic alliance of the Western Left and Islamist sentiment, on the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, is evident at the UN. There, Arab and African majorities in league with the UN bureaucrat class constantly formulate condemnations of Israel's alleged human rights abuses while no resolution is moved regarding human rights in Iran or Saudi Arabia or China. Much criticism of Israel is genuinely concerned with Palestinian welfare and the injustices numerous Palestinians have suffered. It is the exaggeration of Israel's sins, some of them real enough, and the hysterical criticism and denunciation of Israel, that owes so much to meta-rational factors.
Similarly, the assumption that Israel does not seek peace and a just solution for the Palestinians is flawed. Again, Indyk is most instructive on this. He provides the crispest account so far of the 2000 Camp David peace conference and the offers that Israel's prime minister Ehud Barak, under Clinton's influence, made to Yasser Arafat. It is clear that Clinton and Barak offered Arafat a Palestinian state on more than 95 per cent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, as well as a territory transfer from Israel proper to make up for the less than 5 per cent of the West Bank that would be taken in the main Jewish settlements. The Palestinian state was to embrace all the Palestinian suburbs of East Jerusalem and even have a form of sovereignty over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
It may be a long time before Israel feels enough confidence in a Palestinian interlocutor to make such an offer again, as such a settlement would involve grave risks to Israeli security.
Whatever the reasons for Arafat's blanket rejection, the offer flatly rebuts the idea of Israel as determined never to make peace. Since 1977 Israel has given up territory equivalent to three times its size in exchange for peace with various neighbours. This was land acquired in defensive wars that made a contribution to Israeli security. Israel may be guilty of many things but a refusal to compromise is not one of them.
There are also several positive identities that Israel projects. Israel's successful economy, built from nothing, ought to be an inspiration to the rest of the Middle East. Israel is also a front-line state in the conflict with terrorism. Israeli policymakers are forced to confront and think through the political and moral dilemmas all democratic states face in the age of terror. Israel's agonising internal debates are of interest to all democracies. Israel does not have the option of not taking terrorism seriously, yet its diverse and feisty people are determined to remain democratic. Beyond security, its multicultural and multiracial peoples, and the compromises they need to make to forge a common nation, are relevant to a society such as Australia.
Both the intense hatred and in other circles the affection that Israel inspires have little to do with the actions any Israeli government could reasonably take. It is rather Israel's multiple identities, going to the heart of Western history and contemporary Arab politics, the hostility among intellectuals to Western society, the inheritance of anti-Semitism and the search for scapegoats for the Arab world's troubled encounter with modernity, that ensure that the Israel of the mind will remain at the forefront of international concerns.