Gaza flotilla: invasion of the moral armada

Everyone talks about the siege of Gaza, but a more profound problem today is the intellectual, moral siege of Israel by the Respectable World.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Many people are understandably concerned about the siege of Gaza by Israel. But the flotilla incident this week confirms that there’s a more pressing, profound and almost completely unquestioned problem today: the intellectual, moral siege of Israel by the Respectable World. There is nothing remotely progressive, far less radical, in the transformation of Israel into the whipping boy of a motley crew of Western moral entrepreneurs, radical Islamists and momentum-seeking left-wing activists. In fact it is fuelled by a quite intense hypocrisy and political opportunism, and it is warping the political dynamic in the Middle East, making life worse for Israelis and Palestinians.

Of course the invasion of the flotilla by the Israel Defense Forces, during which at least nine people were killed, was a deplorable and foolish act of violence. But few people have asked what is the real purpose of this ‘humanitarian flotilla’. The activists claim they’re only interested in delivering essentials to beleaguered Gazans. Critics describe the flotilla as an ‘armada of hate’, which is delivering materials, and possibly even weaponry, to Hamas. Both sides are wrong. These boats, which have been sailing to Gaza for the past two years, are best understood as a pompous, moralistic armada, fuelled by the self-righteousness of Western and Islamist activists keen to advertise their superiority over the new pariah state of the chattering classes: Israel.

The moralistic armada is a physical manifestation of the shallow Israel-bashing that has become utterly unexceptional and uniform in respectable Western circles in recent years. These ships combine the narcissism, self-promotion, pro-interventionism and, ultimately, the pro-imperialist bent to the anti-Zionism that is now widespread in polite society. The narcissism is captured in the fact that one of the ships is called the MV Rachel Corrie, named after the 23-year-old American activist who became a hero of the Western liberal media after she was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer during a Palestinian-pity trip to the West Bank in 2003.

The self-promotion is captured in the fact that some of the great and the good have sailed on these boats, including writers, thinkers and Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. Bizarrely, Swedish writer Henning Mankell, creator of the popular Wallander detective series, was on the flotilla invaded by the IDF. So was a Swedish MP. There were 28 Britons on board the ships. Earlier ships have featured such luminaries as Lauren Booth (who built a career in journalism on the back of being the sister-in-law of Tony Blair), European MPs and a former US colonel. Does Gaza really need writers and celebs to offload food at its ports? This is naked self-promotion, the cynical depiction of oneself as a superior, humane, international-law-abiding citizen by standing, Kate Winslet-style, on the deck of a ship that is Against Israel. (The respectability of contemporary anti-Israel rage is demonstrated by the fact that the flotilla violence means Mankell will now miss his appointment to discuss the ‘Palestinian humanitarian odyssey’ with Jon Snow at the Guardian Hay Festival.)

And the pro-Western, pro-militaristic thirst behind modern-day anti-Israel sentiment is clear from the fact that many of the flotilla activists and their supporters are now calling for the ‘international community’ to punish Israel. Because Israel has crossed a ‘boundary of civilisation’, says one writer, it must have sanctions imposed upon it by the United Nations. Others are calling for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be put on trial for committing a ‘war crime’. A Guardian editorial says NATO should be sent to Israel.

These demands that the powerful institutions of the West reprimand, isolate and possibly even attack Israel give the lie to the idea that anti-Israel sentiment is a form of peace activism. It is better understood as a ramshackle, informal campaign for the assertion of Western might over a disobedient state, where no weapon in the ‘international community’s’ armoury – from sanctions to military invasion – is considered beyond the pale in the need to punish the Israelis. The response to the flotilla incident shows that some are extremely keen that their fashionable disgust with Israel be backed up by brute sanction or physical force. They are effectively demanding the punishment of Israel to satisfy their own puffed-up moral outrage against what they have decreed to be the World’s No.1 Pariah State.

The fact that the flotilla to Gaza, with its weird mix of hippy, Islamist and imperialist sentiment, was powered by an underlying desire for Western punishment of Israel does not, of course, justify the IDF’s reckless actions. But it does help to explain why Israel did what it did. These are fundamentally hostile boats – no, not because they purportedly harbour weaponry for Hamas or are packed with wannabe suicide bombers (though some on the boats have expressed their desire for martyrdom), but because they represent, fundamentally, the existential anti-Israel outlook that has manifested itself in the West in recent years. There is no nation on Earth that would not be at least concerned about the arrival of an intervention-demanding force near its shores.

The flotilla incident confirms that for many bereft and confused politicians and activists over here, supporting Palestinians has become a shortcut to discovering a sense of urgent purpose and moral meaning. Palestinians are turned into the playthings of moral charlatans, some of whom even wear the keffiyeh, in a PC version of blacking up, or go to live with Palestinians and act as ‘human shields’. In Europe in particular, shallow pro-Palestinian pity / anti-Israel sentiment is widespread, for various but always self-serving reasons. It unites the far left and the far right, with the left hoping to conjure up some profound feeling of anti-imperialist rage and the right trotting out the usual old rubbish about ‘evil Jews’. It unites radical Islamists and mainstream politicians, where Islamists sustain virtually their entire off-the-peg victim identity by pointing to Israel’s ‘genocide’ of a section of the ummah and politicians can score some easy points, especially with the influential liberal classes, by denouncing Israel.

And, as demonstrated by the UN’s unusually speedy condemnation of the flotilla incident and the Lib-Con government’s expressions of outrage, anti-Israel sentiment is extremely useful for Western governments and international bodies, too. It allows them to take the moral highground on the international stage at a time when, post-Iraq, it is increasingly difficult for them to do so. It allows them to brush over their own acts of aggression, both in the past and in the present, by going along with the idea that Israel is a uniquely colonialist, belligerent nation whom they, being whiter than white, have the right to lecture and hector. When Israel is continually said to have crossed a ‘boundary of civilisation’, governments can conveniently pose as civilised by posturing against it. This opportunity to recover some Western authority, to rehabilitate the say-so of powerful governments over ‘pariah states’, has been handed to the international community by the supposed peace activists of the anti-Israel lobby.

I don’t support Israel. I think Palestinians ought to enjoy full national independence. But I want nothing to do with the orgy of moralism directed at Israel today by a mish-mash of dinner-party liberals, radical Islamists and clapped-out left-wingers. Most dangerously of all, this rise of respectable anti-Zionism is having a detrimental impact on the ground in the Middle East, causing Israel to become increasingly isolated and its relations with surrounding Palestinian territories to become increasingly tense. When you treat a state as a pariah, it is more likely to think and act like one, to become insecure, unpredictable, to lash out violently.

These flotilla activists fancy themselves as a modern-day version of the individuals who went to Spain during the Civil War to join international brigades in fighting for a Spanish republic. Yet those individuals were driven by a thirst for freedom, by positive visions of the future, by a willingness to take serious personal risks, and above all by a belief that people alone – and not powerful, self-serving institutions – could change mankind’s destiny for the better. Not a single one of those admirable traits was present on the ship of fools sailing to Gaza.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill examined the new politics of anti-Zionism and looked at the role of the Western peace process in turning Gaza into a bloody trap. Nathalie Rothschild thought the London demonstration against the war in Gaza was fuelled by narcissism rather than real solidarity. Mick Hume asked if the Middle East conflict was a war without ends. Daniel Ben-Ami labelled Israel a warrior-victim state. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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