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Why the world has turned against Israel

Long-read

Why the world has turned against Israel

On the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding, the right to self-determination has fallen tragically out of favour.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Long-reads Politics World

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Israel will start celebrating the 75th anniversary of its creation this evening. Given the hatred Israel evokes from Islamists, regional powers and Western leftists, it is remarkable it has survived for so long.

To be sure, Israel has also had substantial international support at times. From the late 1960s onwards, it could rely on America as an ally – although that backing seems to be waning today, particularly among Democrats. It is also often forgotten that left-wingers used to be staunch supporters of Israel. Indeed, from Israel’s foundation in 1948 through the 1960s, the left generally celebrated Israel as an expression of Jews’ right to national self-determination. This began to change in the 1970s, as sections of the left increasingly came to view Israel as an imperialist power. It was only in the 1990s, however, when Western elites started to reject the idea of national self-determination, that support for Israel on the left really began to erode.

The outside world’s perception of Israel has changed enormously in its 75-year history. These changes owe at least as much to developments in the West as they do to developments in Israel. In particular, it seems clear that waning support for national self-determination in the West has made it harder for Israel to justify its existence.

1948-67: The birth of Israel

On 14 May 1948, the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, read out Israel’s declaration of independence. Immediately afterwards, Israel was attacked by the armies of five Arab states. Despite months of fighting, the Israeli state managed to survive until armistice agreements were reached in early 1949. About 700,000 local Arabs left in the tumult – some fleeing, others expelled – but the importance of this population transfer was only recognised much later.

Israeli infantry man their machine guns and rifles before attacking the Egyptian army, 23 October 1948.
Israeli infantry man their machine guns and rifles before attacking the Egyptian army, 23 October 1948.

The creation of the Israeli state was a remarkable success for the Zionist movement. Zionism was essentially a nationalist cause, albeit an unusual one. It is true that the Jewish liturgy, going back thousands of years, had talked of the historical land of Israel (eretz Yisrael in Hebrew). But the goal of the Zionist movement was the creation of an Israeli state (medinat Yisrael) that would act as a national haven for the Jewish people around the world. Although Zionism started off as a minority movement among Jews in the late-19th century, it gained widespread support among Jewish communities after the tragedy of the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, Israel would not have been created without substantial international support. Back in November 1947, the United Nations general assembly adopted the partition plan for Palestine, embodied in UN resolution 181, which included the acceptance of the creation of a Jewish state. Out of the UN’s then 56 member nations, 33 voted for it (including America and the Soviet Union), 13 voted against (mostly from the Islamic world) and 10 abstained (including Britain).

There were many reasons why the UN voted for the creation of Israel. There was significant sympathy for Jews after the horrors of the Nazi years, and many nations also made geopolitical calculations on the basis of their national interests. But, above all, there was a widespread recognition of national self-determination as a vitally important principle. The UN charter of 1945, for instance, emphasised the importance of ‘self determination of peoples’ in its first article.

At the time, the left also generally supported the principle of national self-determination and therefore generally looked favourably on Israel. Indeed, as Walter Russell Mead, a foreign-affairs professor and Wall Street Journal columnist, notes in his recent book, The Arc of a Covenant: ‘During the early decades of its existence, Israel was more popular on the left than on the right, and more popular in Europe than the United States.’

1967-90: The Palestinian question

The Six-Day War between Israel and the surrounding Arab states in June 1967 was a pivotal moment. Israel had launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt after Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had publicly threatened it. Israel then defeated the Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in less than a week.

Israel’s victory represented a traumatic humiliation for the Arab regimes. Many had been boasting of the power of Arab nationalism – a movement purporting to represent the whole Arab people rather than just one state – in the run-up to the war. On paper, their forces were much stronger than those of Israel. Yet Israel called their bluff by striking first to devastate their armies.

One consequence of the war was that the number of Palestinians under Israeli control increased dramatically. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt (which Israel unilaterally withdrew from in 2005). Israel’s new borders were much more easily defensible. But the expansion stored up future problems, with so many Palestinians falling under Israel’s military control.

The discrediting of Arab nationalism also bolstered the emergent Palestinian nationalist movement. For the first time, Palestinian organisations, under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), came to play a prominent role in the region. A conflict between Israel and Arabs increasingly morphed into one between Israel and the Palestinians.

Isaac Deutscher, a Polish Marxist writer, drew humanistic conclusions from the new situation. On 23 June 1967, two weeks after the war had ended, he gave a prescient interview to the New Left Review. In it, he related a parable about a man jumping from the top floor of a burning building in which many members of his family had already perished. The man saved his own life by falling on someone below, but in the process he inadvertently broke that person’s arms and legs.

Deutscher’s tale clearly related to the situation in which Israel and the Palestinians then found themselves. European anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, had forced many Jews to flee to what became Israel. The unintended consequence of this was that the indigenous inhabitants of the area suffered. Deutscher argued that the rational outcome was for the two sides to come to some kind of agreement. The man who fell out of the burning building should, as soon as he recovered, try to help the person he inadvertently injured. And the person who suffered broken limbs should realise the falling man was the victim of circumstances outside of his control.

Deutscher understood that the national aspirations of both sides needed to be recognised if there was to be a genuine peace.

Sadly, not everyone reacted to the new post-1967 reality as humanistically as Deutscher. Indeed, in the same interview, he warned of the danger of a more negative reaction, particularly in the Arab world, where he feared the resurgence of anti-Semitism. There was a risk that what he called the ‘socialism of fools’ would take hold, with Israel’s military success regarded as proof of an international Jewish conspiracy.

Indeed, this was the reaction not just in parts of the Arab world, but also among supposedly radical circles in the West. A ‘new anti-Semitism’ was emerging in which hostility towards Jews took the form of an obsessive hatred of Israel, as a symbol of Jewish evil. As American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset put it in a 1971 New York Times piece: ‘Increasing numbers of New Leftists, black militants and advocates of the Palestinian cause are not only anti‐Israeli and anti-Zionist, but, more, are moving toward – or have already achieved – full‐fledged anti‐Semitism.’

Still, in the 1970s and 1980s, this new anti-Semitism largely remained a minority position in Western circles. Israel’s right to self-determination was generally supported alongside an increasing recognition of Palestinian rights.

1990-today: The rise of globalism

The end of the Cold War transformed attitudes to self-determination. It marked the beginning of an era of rampant Western or ‘humanitarian’ interventionism and a globalist championing of a borderless world. This shift away from an international order based on the principle of national sovereignty had a significant effect on Israel and the Palestinians.

From an Israeli perspective, it became much harder to justify Israel’s existence in a world where the right to self-determination was being devalued. In many cases, Israel faced outright hostility.

 Demonstrators gather outside Downing Street demanding justice for Palestine on June 12, 2021 in London, England.
Demonstrators gather outside Downing Street demanding justice for Palestine on June 12, 2021 in London, England.

For many on the left, Israel’s commitment to national self-determination started to appear hopelessly outdated. Left-wing historian Tony Judt argued along these lines in a 2003 New York Review piece:

‘In a globalised world, Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one. In today’s “clash of cultures” between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.’

The rise of identity politics has also fuelled the negative perception of Israel in the West. Israel has increasingly come to be seen as a beneficiary of the supposed ‘white privilege’ of the Jews. From this perspective, the Jewish state becomes a force for evil, a dangerous ethno-state, while Palestinians take the role of oppressed people of colour. And so today, Israel is singled out, to use the contemporary parlance, as an ‘apartheid state’.

But it would be wrong to see the monstering of Israel as a victory for Palestinian rights. On the contrary, the denigration of the right to national self-determination undermines the Palestinian cause, too.

Indeed, many of today’s anti-Israel activists aren’t really interested in Palestinian self-determination. They are mainly concerned with attacking Israel as a symbol of everything they dislike, and supporting Palestinians as Israel’s victims. This leads them to uncritically endorse Hamas, the leading Islamist representative of the Palestinians, and often Islamism more broadly.

Islamism’s goal is not national self-determination, for the Palestinians or anyone else. Rather, it wants to create an international Islamic order. That much is all too clear in the doctrines of Islamist organisations and in the work of Islamist ideologues, such as Sayyid Qutb. The destruction of Israel – and not the creation of a Palestinian state – is seen as central to achieving that objective. These aspirations are frequently expressed in openly anti-Semitic and indeed genocidal terms – as can be seen in the 1988 covenant from Hamas.

Anti-Semitism has been central to Islamism since it started in the first half of the 20th century. Islamists regard Jews as an expression of ‘cosmic Satanic evil’, who should be physically exterminated if Islam is to flourish. In drawing such conclusions, it has always been heavily influenced by the most backward forms of European thought. Indeed, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), a Tsarist anti-Semitic forgery about a supposed Jewish conspiracy to control the world, is frequently cited in Islamist texts.

There is now considerable overlap between what are in effect two forms of identity politics. There is a leftist form from the West and an Islamist form originating in the Middle East. Both are hostile to the principle of national self-determination in general, and to Israel’s existence in particular. What would have been unthinkable a generation ago – the denial of Israel’s right to exist – is today all too easily embraced. As is a barely concealed anti-Semitism, too.

Take the Palestinian slogan, ‘from the river to the sea’ (meaning from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean), which is popular among both Islamists and Western leftists. For the Islamists, it clearly means that few if any Jews should be allowed to live in this land. Indeed, they often state openly that they want to murder most if not all of the Jews living there. So when they chant ‘Palestine should be free’ they typically mean free of Jews. Leftists are either unaware of this or, in many cases, choose to ignore it.

It is up to Israelis and Palestinians to work out how best to resolve the conflict between them. That’s what self-determination means. What we in the West can do is to support the principle of national self-determination itself. In that respect, the fact that Israel has made it to 75 years, despite the formidable odds against it, should be celebrated as a remarkable achievement.

Daniel Ben-Ami is an author and journalist. He runs the website Radicalism of Fools, dedicated to rethinking anti-Semitism. Follow him on Twitter: @danielbenami

Pictures by: Getty.

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Topics Long-reads Politics World

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