Vilification of Israel is unjustified
Israel’s struggle to exist alongside its neighbors in peace went from being known as the Arab-Israeli conflict (in which it was undeniably David) to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in which its enemies could claim that it was actually Goliath).
Published on James Kirchick, World Affairs Journal
Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel
Joshua Muravchik (New York: Encounter Books, 2014)
Can there be any doubt that Israel is the most reviled country in the world today? No other nation engenders as much scorn, whether measured in newspaper column inches, street protests, or computer pixels. The only aspect of the hatred more disturbing than its virulent omnipresence is how out of proportion it is to Israel’s real (and alleged) wrongdoing. North Korea functions as a vast gulag, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deploys chemical weapons on children, and the Castro brothers have ruled despotically over their Cuban island fiefdom for five decades running, but none of these dictatorial regimes invite anywhere near the scrutiny, never mind spittle-flecked loathing, engendered by the Jewish democratic state.
A majority of Europeans, according to polls, consider this tiny country of eight million people to be the greatest threat to world peace. An Israeli soldier fires a rubber bullet in the West Bank and it will generate venomous crowds in cities around the globe; Iranian paramilitary basij forces murder peaceful demonstrators in broad daylight and the world emits barely a peep of protest.
Why the Jewish state generates such disproportionate anger is the subject of Joshua Muravchik’s thorough and careful study, Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel. The easy answer is anti-Semitism, and while hatred of Jews certainly does factor in generating hostility to Israel, this cannot be the only explanation. We know this because Israel, ever since its founding in 1948, has been a Jewish state, and yet its status as the world’s polecat was not earned until decades later. Muravchik’s answer to the question is multifaceted, and he devotes a chapter each to several elements which, he contends, have contributed to Israel’s unenviable position, from the “Power of Oil” utilized by the Arab states as a weapon of political blackmail, to the volte-face of the Socialist International, the worldwide association of center-left political parties that once stood foursquare behind the Jewish state.
Much of the reason for the shift in world attitudes can be attributed to a basic change in the optics of the Middle East conflict. When Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, it did so as a nascent nation of Holocaust survivors and steely agrarian pioneers, surrounded by hostile Arab armies intent on finishing what the Nazis had started. In these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why Israel earned the admiration of so many people around the world during the first years of its precarious existence, among Americans—many of whom, as Christians, felt a religious obligation to support the return of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land—in particular.
Israel accepted the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, which would have divided the British Mandate territory between Arabs and Jews and placed Jerusalem under a form of international trusteeship. The Arabs rejected it, choosing war over compromise. When Israel won that war, it also won the admiration of much of the (non-Arab and non-Muslim) world. Here was a plucky little nation, a young democracy, defending itself against annihilationist aggression. Facing such challenges, the Israel of the middle twentieth century was easily identifiable as David battling for its very survival against the Arab Goliath.
The narrative, however, began to change following the Six-Day War of 1967. In the midst of defending itself against yet another Arab attempt to destroy it, Israel came into possession of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories that had, up until that time, been illegally occupied by Jordan and Egypt, respectively. Both parcels of land were populated with Arabs, many of whom had fled from Mandate Palestine—either on their own volition or because they were driven from their homes by Israeli troops—in 1948. Now, the conflict could be reframed not as that of little Israel against the vast Arab world, but rather, between mighty Israel and the occupied, stateless Palestinians (who had only recently begun to embrace a distinct “Palestinian,” as opposed to Arab, national identity). In shorthand, Israel’s struggle to exist alongside its neighbors in peace went from being known as the Arab-Israeli conflict (in which it was undeniably David) to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in which its enemies could claim that it was actually Goliath).
No longer was the saga of Israel one of a long-stateless people returning to their national home and defending it against the legions of the Arab world. “Instead of proclaiming openly their determination to deny the Jews a state,” Muravchik writes, “Israel’s enemies now accused the Jews of denying that same right to another people, the Palestinians.” Ruling over an occupied population, Israel and its sympathizers would have more difficulty portraying it as the underdog. This is the major reasons that the international left, which (at least theoretically) loves underdogs, turned on Israel.
Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union had initially backed the Yishuv, as the pre-statehood Jewish community in Palestine was known, which it saw as a beachhead of socialism and a worthy irritant to its new Cold War adversary, Great Britain. But soon after Israel’s War of Independence, Moscow’s strategic calculation changed as the Jews outlived their usefulness as enemies of London. The Soviets now made a play for the sympathies of the Arab world. Suddenly, Moscow had gone from being the savior of the Jewish state (it was a last-minute arms shipment from Czechoslovakia, authorized by Stalin, that had rescued Israel in 1948) to the world headquarters of “anti-Zionist” (often barely disguised anti-Semitic) propaganda.
Moscow’s decision to back the Arabs against Israel provided a foretaste of what was to come from the global left. The story of the world’s turning against Israel is largely the story of the left turning against Israel, and few are better equipped to tell that sad and disgraceful tale than Muravchik. A former national chairman of the Young People’s Socialist League, he is well acquainted with the history of left-wing movements around the world. In America, support for Israel was widespread on the American left; as an example, Muravchik cites the figure of Senator Wayne Morse, one of only two votes against the Tonkin Gulf resolution authorizing the Vietnam War, who went so far as to urge President Lyndon Johnson to break Gamal Abdel Nasser’s naval blockade of the Jewish state with American military force. Senator Eugene McCarthy, later a hero to the anti-war movement, said that America had “the legal and moral obligation” to defend Israel militarily from aggression.
It would take some time for left-wing attitudes to evolve in a direction more critical of Israel, and one of the earliest, and most influential voices in turning the tide was Bruno Kreisky, the postwar Austrian chancellor and influential mover and shaker within the Socialist International. A deracinated Jew, Kreisky was ashamed and embarrassed by his patrimony, which he (correctly) viewed as an obstacle to his political ascent in a country as deeply anti-Semitic as Austria. Viennese Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal, whose campaign to bring Nazi war criminals to justice greatly annoyed an Austrian public that largely considered itself Hitler’s “first victim,” was a “Jewish fascist,” Kreisky alleged, heading an organization that acted like a “mafia.” Ingratiating himself with his constituents, Kreisky assured that “one finds reactionaries also among us Jews, as well as thieves, murderers, and prostitutes.”
Kreisky was a despicable character, the sort of man for whom the term “self-hating Jew” was created. Muravchik makes a strong case for him as the spark that ignited the fire of anti-Israelism in Europe. Kreisky was well attuned to changes within the global left, which, having exhausted the Marxist dictums of proletarian class struggle, was taking up the cause of third-worldist revolution against the “imperialist powers,” usually defined as the Western powers, Israel foremost among them. Under Kreisky and his German colleague Willy Brandt, the former Social Democratic chancellor of West Germany, the Socialist International adopted a neutralist position in the Cold War. This was a serious shift for an organization founded as a resolutely anti-Communist, pro-Western force in global affairs (few had suffered so grievously under communism as social democrats). Going further, in 1979, Kreisky welcomed PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat to Vienna. “Such a refugee as I once was,” Kreisky, who had lived in exile during World War II, said by way of explaining his personal interest in the PLO, “has special understanding for movements of a similar kind,” effectively likening Israel to Nazi Germany. Thus was a trope born. On his own initiative, Kreisky issued a report suggesting that European governments adopt a “less emotional posture” to the Middle East conflict, that is, presumably, one unburdened by feelings of a European responsibility to the Jewish state.
The shift by the Socialist International, Muravchik argues, was reflective of deeper currents within the global left. Spurred by the rise of the “New Left,” and its ambition of a “third force” in global affairs standing between American capitalism and Soviet communism, the non-communist left underwent an “ideological transformation” in which the struggle of “the third world against the West?.?.?.?replaced the older Marxist model of proletariat versus bourgeoisie.” Despite its absorption of many Jews from Arab lands, Israel was placed within this simplistic framework as a symbol of Western, imperialist domination.
Kreisky embodied the transformational European attitude to Israel in another important way: he was a reliable appeaser of terrorism. In 1973, when a group of Palestinian commandos seized a train carrying Soviet Jewish refugees on their way from Czechoslovakia into Austria, Kreisky acceded to their demand that he shut down the processing station in Vienna through which Soviet emigrants had been making their way to Israel. Known as the Schönau ultimatum—named after the old castle in which the transit facility was located—this decision came to symbolize the European response to Arab terrorism, which was one of continual placation.
Indeed, the Schönau incident demonstrates how some of the reasons for the world’s turn against Israel are breathtakingly simple. Today, critics of the Jewish state spend a great deal of time lambasting the behavior of its government, its wartime tactics, and the nature of the occupation, to name just a few subjects of reproach. But intellectual arguments attacking the validity of Zionism as a national movement, or ideological attempts to portray Israel as an imperialist “settler colonial state,” or the often unfair and excessive attacks on the methods by which Israel protects itself, obscure the simpler and grubbier reasons that often underlie opposition to Israel: cowardice, particularly in Europe, in face of the sheer number of Arab and Muslim states, those countries’ power over the global oil supply, and the unscrupulous tactics to which they have resorted to get their way.
In his chapter “The Uses of Terrorism,” Muravchik provides a short history of terrorism in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Arab non-state actors (which were often backed by the Soviets or other despotic, anti-Western regimes) perfected the spectacular arts of kidnapping and hijacking. To younger readers who were not alive at the time, such as this writer, it will seem as if there was an international airline hostage incident every week throughout this period. While Israel, through force of sheer necessity and will, had effectively made their national carrier, El Al Israel Airlines, hijack-proof, Europeans could almost always be counted upon to give the terrorists whatever they wanted: money, planes, or the release of other terrorists imprisoned (under light sentences) for earlier terrorist outrages.
Similarly with oil, many countries caved in to Arab demands, particularly after the 1973 energy crisis. The wielding of this weapon was “enough to cause a permanent readjustment of the balance of political influence between Israel and the Arabs.” Willing to use ruthless violence against civilians and buttressed by its control over much of the world’s oil supply, it was only a matter of time before the Arabs would be able to channel their influence through an institution like the United Nations, to whose abject politicization Muravchik devotes a maddening chapter.
Muravchik is not an uncritical apologist for the Israeli governments of past and present. A chapter on the 1982 Lebanon War, “Israel Shows a Less Endearing Face,” soberly recounts how the conflict earned Jerusalem a great deal of criticism, including from its friends. “Israel’s existence depends on its tenuous hold on the imagination of the West, and especially of the American people,” George Will, one of the Jewish state’s most eloquent defenders, wrote at the time, in a column cited by Muravchik. “That hold depends on Israel appearing familiar—part of the Western family. So Israel must not begin to appear bizarre.” The man who waged the Lebanon War, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was the sort of Israeli leader unfamiliar to many Westerners; a member of the Likud party, he was not the warm and cuddly Labor Zionist to which many European socialists could relate.
Much like Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War helped give sustenance to America’s left-wing “adversary culture,” so did Begin spawn the rise of a left-wing counter-establishment in Israel. The newspaper Haaretz, the human rights organization B’Tselem, a cadre of “post-Zionist” academics, and a whole constellation of other nongovernmental organizations, many of them funded by European foundations, now work full-time exposing Israel’s foibles to the world. Some of them even question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Muravchik does not lament the existence of this adversary culture, which is, after all, an inevitable occurrence in any open and democratic society such as Israel’s. But he is distressed at the recklessness with which many of the country’s left-wingers hurl their accusations, readily gobbled up as they predictably are by a global industry of professional anti-Israel activists. While America can withstand the condemnations hurled at it by its domestic detractors, “the same cannot be said for Israel,” a once widely admired country that has become, perhaps ineluctably, the Jew among the nations.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.