The burdens that Israel should not have to bear

ESSAY: Between being treated as a conduit for Western colonial guilt and as a beacon of Western Enlightenment, Israel is being slowly strangled.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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Have you taken the Israel test yet?

‘The Israel Test’, as defined by American author George Gilder in his 2009 book of that name, is where your attitude towards Israel is treated as a barometer of your attitude towards the key political, moral and philosophical issues of our time. As Gilder sees it, Israel has become a ‘crucial battlefield for Capitalism and Freedom’. Those who support modernity, who are enamoured with ‘capitalist creativity’, will surely support Israel, says Gilder, since Israel is a ‘leader of human civilisation, technological progress, and scientific advance’. And those who are hostile towards ‘capitalist creativity’, who are uncomfortable with modernity and its alleged excesses, will probably oppose Israel. These people are more likely to adhere to ‘the rule of leveller egalitarianism… covetous “fairness”… and resentment of achievement’, says Gilder, and therefore see Israel as suspect, dangerous even, because it dares to be ‘free, prosperous, and capitalist’ (1).

In short, one’s entire political personality, one’s philosophical stance on such key matters as freedom and progress, can be measured by one’s attitude towards Israel, a tiny, troubled country in the Middle East. Today, as the international reaction to the rising tensions between Israel and Gaza further confirms, pretty much everyone is taking an Israel test. They may not have heard of this test, or read Gilder’s book, or be taking the test consciously, but increasingly, Western thinkers, politicians and activists define themselves through their attitude towards Israel. They project on to Israel either their desperate desire to save Western Enlightenment values from being trashed (with some seeing Israel as the No.1 defender of those values), or their aching guilt over the values of Western colonialism (with others seeing Israel as the No.1 embodiment of those archaic values), and then cheer or denounce Israel and its local wars accordingly.

This transformation of Israel into a conduit for the hopes and desires of both sides in the modern-day Culture Wars is a disaster for the Middle East, and for Israel in particular. It heaps on to Israel two profound, historic burdens that it cannot and should not have to bear: the burden of protecting Western Enlightenment from ‘barbarism’ and the burden of atoning for the historic sins of Western colonialism. And it inevitably imbues the local wars in the Middle East with an apocalyptic momentum, turning what are frequently just desperate wars of self-defence or opportunistic wars of self-assertion into End-of-Times conflicts between what Gilder describes as ‘barbarism, envy and death and civilisation, creativity and life’. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s description of Israel’s recent skirmishes as ‘great battles between the modern and medieval’ suggests that Western observers’ redefinition of the Middle East conflict as a battle over their values, their beliefs, their philosophical needs, has, worryingly, been taken to heart by the conflict’s protagonists.

Whipping boy for Western liberals

The first side in the great cynical projection on to Israel, which in Europe is easily the noisiest, most influential side, is that which treats Israel as the foul embodiment of values we thought we had long ago put to rest: colonial values of nationalistic self-interest and territorial expansion.

Among people who consider themselves liberal and progressive, who cleave to fashionable ideas about fairness, social justice and having an ‘international community’ to oversee global problems, who might be described as the cultural elite, hostility towards Israel is intense, bordering on hysterical. Israeli military action riles this political set far more than the military action of any other nation on Earth, including America and Britain. Where America and Britain’s numerous military excursions, particularly in Iraq, are described by this political set as ‘mistakes’ or as ‘counterproductive’, in that they apparently generate more terrorism than they defeat, Israel’s militarism is described in the most heated language imaginable: as ‘murderous’, a kind of ‘bloodletting’, even Nazi-like. Israel’s militarism never fails to generate large protests in European capitals, from Rome to Berlin to London, at which gatherings of Islamists, leftists and respectable academics wave placards denouncing Israeli apartheid, murder, barbarism, and so on.

The double standard inherent in this shrill, ahistorical response to Israeli militarism is clear if one contrasts it with the response to something like the Obama administration’s bombings in Pakistan. In many ways, Obama has already done to rural parts of Pakistan what Israel is currently doing to Gaza – that is, he has launched bombing raids against militants which have inevitably killed or injured large numbers of innocents, too. Where Israel has said to have killed 130 in Gaza over the past week – some of them Hamas militants but many of them not – Obama’s drone attacks in Pakistan in recent years have killed many more: an estimated 2,600, in fact, only around 13 per cent of whom were militants. This means that around 2,200 ordinary Pakistanis have been killed in bomb attacks okayed by Obama. Yet far from Obama’s drone attacks generating public protests, or being described as ‘murderous’ and ‘Nazi-esque’ by respectable, caring newspapers, Obama remains a hero of the very same set that sees red whenever Israel fires a missile or a gun.

The best way to understand this extraordinary and shameless double standard that Europe’s cultural elite in particular applies to Israel is as a consequence of how these people view Israel: not simply as another country that does questionable military things, like America or Britain or France, but rather as a remnant, or a reminder, of an era that every right-minded, progressive person defines him or herself against – the era of colonialism and of nationalism. Israel has effectively been turned into a conduit for Western colonial guilt, for Western self-disgust with the crimes committed by our nations in history. Israel, through its use of rather old-fashioned, sometimes belligerent language about pacifying those people who allegedly threaten its values or existence, has come to be treated as the embodiment of those colonial values that every decent Western politician now explicitly eschews and every serious academic writes scabrous revisionist histories about. Uniquely among nations that pursue military objectives, Israel is frequently said to be driven by ‘an expansionist, lawless and racist ideology’ and is said to be led by ‘colonialists’, ‘racists’ and even ‘fascists’.

It is important to note how much this transformation of Israel into a whipping boy for the sins of colonialism is a project initiated by the elites rather than by radicals. Anti-Israel posturing and protesting dresses itself up in radical garb, with Israel-hating street protesters frequently claiming a lineage with anti-imperialist movements of the past. But in truth, the demonisation of Israel as the embodiment of ideologies from the past – particularly colonialism and racism – is led by elite elements. The United Nations in particular has played a key role in projecting on to Israel the sins of colonialism. The UN’s jumped-up Human Rights Council has passed more resolutions condemning Israel than it has against all other states combined. In 1975, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3379, which explicitly ‘determined that Zionism is a form of racism’ and condemned Israel for its adherence to doctrines of ‘racial differentiation or superiority’ and for its ‘colonialism’ (2). It is this frequent intergovernmental denouncement of Israeli behaviour and colonialism which informs radical protesting against Israel. Indeed, today’s shrill agitators against Israel, those left-wingers and liberals who make up today’s Israel-hating respectable classes, will often cite UN resolutions as a justification for their disproportionate fury with Israeli militarism. Such protesters are better understood, not as a genuinely independent or radical movement against militarism, but rather as a spin-off from international elites’ cynical, self-serving transformation of Israel into the embodiment of ugly outdated colonial values.

This means there is a great irony to anti-Israel sentiment in the West today: it depicts itself as anti-colonialist, sometimes even as anti-imperialist, but it actually helps to rehabilitate Western and particularly UN authority in global affairs in a new way. The transformation of Israel into a kind of scapegoat for the crimes of colonialism is itself a neo-colonial act, driven as it is by the needs of Western and other powers to assert their post-colonial diplomatic and military authority over so-called deviant states, like those that exist in the Middle East. Indeed, radical protesters’ description of Israel as a ‘rogue state’, as ‘the real rogue state in the Middle East’, as a ‘state of insanity’, speaks to their instinct to fashion a foreign territory that both they and their leaders might reprimand and punish. Anti-Israel activists and thinkers frequently call on ‘Our Leaders’ to enforce sanctions against Israel or to criminalise it with the tag ‘rogue state’ or even to intervene in it, militarily if necessary, to put a stop to its ‘barbarism’ and ‘bloodletting’. This reveals that modern, fashionable anti-colonialism, the reckoning with past colonial crimes, is underpinned by its own brand of colonial-style moral superiority and disgust with disobedient foreigners, in this case Israelis.

A key trend in Western public life today, particularly among those who define themselves as progressive, is to feel and proclaim alienation from the past, to express a profound discomfort with the things and events that brought about the modern, industrial world. From re-appraising the Enlightenment to handwringing over the Industrial Revolution to churning out texts on how horrendous exploration and colonialism proved to be, it is now de rigueur for Western intellectuals and activists to be consumed by a kind of self-disgust that dresses itself up as a radical stance. It is in this context that intense anti-Israel sentiment emerges, where, in George Gilder’s words, Israel comes to be hated for its ‘virtues’, primarily for the perception that it is a stubbornly old-fashioned outpost of ‘freedom and capitalism’.

Embodying the Enlightenment?

The second side in the great cynical projection on to Israel is that which views Israel as the embodiment of the Enlightenment, which believes, in Gilder’s words, that ‘the Israel test is ultimately a test of our own will to triumph’ against the ‘forces targeting capitalism and freedom’. Where the anti-Israel lobby sees every conflict Israel is involved in as a Nazi-style venture by a wicked colonialist state, the Israel-as-Enlightenment lobby sees them as civilisational wars, in which Western values, the Enlightenment itself, is threatened with being crushed by the enemies of progress. For this group, Israel represents all that is good in Western history, rather than all that is bad, and therefore this group is resolutely, unapologetically Pro-Israel.

One Western journalist describes Israel as ‘our Jews’, in the sense that if Israel were to be ‘wiped out’, then ‘we will be wiped out, too, all of the modern world and its achievements – swept back into the Dark Ages mulch from whence we came’. Apparently, Israel represents ‘mankind’ and ‘the very future of our species’. American writer Earl Tilford writes about the contrast between Israel, which is a product of the ‘Judeo-Christian culture that fostered the Enlightenment’, and its neighbouring states, which are possessed of a ‘medieval cultural ethos … more reminiscent of tribalism than civilised society as the West knows it’. In his book The Case for Israel, Alan Dershowitz moves beyond making the case for a specifically Jewish homeland and instead transforms Israel into a civilisational symbol. Israel ‘deserves to exist,’ he says, ‘as a beacon of liberty and democracy in a sea of tyranny and hatred’.

Where once Israel was seen by some right-wingers, particularly of the American Republican variety, as a useful political ally overseas, now it is increasingly discussed as a cultural ally, even an existential one. As more and more of Washington’s realpolitik officials start to look upon Israel as a pesky burden rather than a useful foreign friend, a small but determined band of right-leaning thinkers argues that Israel is in fact more key to America and the preservation of her ideals than it has ever been. One American writer says Israel stands at ‘the frontline of the war between civilisation and barbarism’. Echoing Eric Hoffer’s famous Los Angeles Times article of 1968, in which Hoffer argued that ‘should Israel perish, the holocaust will be upon us all’, the British commentator Melanie Phillips recently claimed that Israel is at the ‘defensive frontline against a tyranny that wants to envelop us all. If Israel were to fall, the rest of us would not be far behind.’ Indeed, in Phillips’ view, ‘The issue of Israel sits at the very apex of the fight to defend civilisation. Those who want to destroy Western civilisation need to destroy the Jews, whose moral precepts formed its foundation stones.’

What we can see here is the transformation of Israel into a proxy army for that faction in the Western Culture Wars that has lost its ability to defend Enlightenment values on their own terms, or even to define and face up to the central problem of anti-Enlightenment tendencies today. Where anti-Israel activists project on to Israel responsibility for Western wrongs, increasing numbers of pro-Israel thinkers project on to Israel the urgent need to defend Western rights, to stand up against ‘barbarism’ and for what one British journalist describes as ‘freedom and enlightenment’, which Israel is said to embody. Here, the failure of Enlightenment supporters in the West firstly to work out what is causing anti-Enlightenment thinking today, and secondly to find a way to counter it effectively, is projected on to Israel, so that the modern and profound crisis of Enlightened thinking comes to be explained as a simple case of medieval barbarians (Islamists) attacking a symbol of Enlightenment (Israel). Thus, the only thing that concerned Enlightenment supporters need to do, apparently, is cheer for Israel.

It is striking that many of the passionate defenders of Israel in Western intellectual discourse are the same people who have raised quite legitimate concerns about the rise of relativism and the denigration of truth over the past ten to 15 years. These right-leaning thinkers and writers have, in different ways and with varying degrees of success, tried to counter backward intellectual trends and have made the case for rationalism, science, and excellence in the academy and the arts. In debates about education, multiculturalism, science, rationality and reason, many of the thinkers who over the past five years have singularly thrown their lot in with Israel have previously sought to stave off the tsunami of relativism and dumbed-down thinking that has swamped the West in recent decades.

But that is, and remains, an uphill struggle. It is hard work, in our Age of Relativism, to argue for the values of liberty, equality and excellence. Enlightenment values are held in historically low esteem, looked upon as outdated or even oppressive, and defending them is difficult. How much easier it is to externalise and dramatise this slog to fight for Enlightened thinking, by projecting it on to a foreign field: the Middle East. In recent years, particularly since 9/11, the right-leaning side in the Culture Wars has opportunistically hitched its pro-civilisation stance to the war against Islamic radicalism, against small groups of religious militants whom they now depict as the greatest threat to the Western way of life. Their flagging, battered 1990s struggle to defend the Enlightenment was re-energised by the brutally simplistic ‘war on terror’ launched in 2001. Eventually they came to see Islamic militancy as the great enemy of the Enlightenment and thus Israel, Public Enemy No.1 of all Islamic militants, as its supreme defender. Israel’s militarism, its use of force against its opponents, has become a physical stand-in for any forceful, meaningful intellectual arguments among the increasingly isolated defenders of the Enlightenment in the West.

This is a dangerous game. For it, too, imbues conflicts in the Middle East with more momentum than they possess or deserve. What is in truth a conflict over territory and existence comes to be understood as an existential war over the key values of our time, even of all time. This will do nothing to satiate the violence in the Middle East, and a great deal to intensify, to deepen it, to make it more ferocious still by cynically attaching to it all the doubts and debates that obsess modern-day Western observers and activists.

Israel is at risk of buckling under the pressure put on it by both its Western haters and lovers. The anti-Israel lobby heaps upon Israel historic judgements that it does not deserve and should not have to answer. And the pro-Israel lobby expects Israel to do something that it, or any other nation on its own, is incapable of doing: defending for all of mankind the values and thought of the Enlightenment. It is high time we let Israel and its neighbours alone to resolve their many problems and crises for themselves, and set about addressing our own pasts and our own values here at home, in our press and academies and discussion circles, rather than cynically projecting them Over There.

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

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

Topics World


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