Every few months, Israel is publicly pilloried in the international media and on university campuses around the world for some alleged violation of human rights, real or imagined. Last month it was over an Israeli raid on a Turkish ship trying to run the blockade on Gaza, which left nine dead after the ship resisted seizure. A few months from now it will be over something else: Perhaps it will be over Israeli action against the Islamic terror state in Gaza, or against the Hizballah army in South Lebanon and its ever-growing mountain of missiles. Perhaps it will be over an Israeli strike on the Iranian or Syrian nuclear programs. Perhaps it will be over the destruction of an Iranian weapons ship at sea. Perhaps it will be over the revelation of an Israeli covert operation in an Arab country or in Europe or elsewhere. Perhaps it will be over an incident in an Israeli jail or at a roadblock in the West Bank. Perhaps it will be over the visit of an Israeli public figure to the Temple Mount, or the purchase and occupancy by Jews of a building in East Jerusalem. Perhaps it will be over something else.
But whatever the ostensible subject, and regardless of whether Israel’s political leaders and soldiers and spokesmen do their work as they should, we know for certain that the consequence of this future incident, a few months from now, will be another campaign of vilification in the media and on the campuses and in the corridors of power—a smear campaign of a kind that no other nation on earth is subjected to on a regular basis. We know we will again see our nation treated not as a democracy doing its duty to defend its people and its freedom, but as some kind of a scourge. We’ll again see everything that’s precious to us, and everything we consider just, trampled before our eyes. We’ll again have to experience the shame of having former friends turn their backs on us, and of seeing Jewish students running to dissociate themselves from Israel, even from Judaism, in a vain effort to retain the favor of digusted peers. And we’ll again feel the bite of the rising anti-Semitic tide, returned after its post-World War II hiatus.
All this has happened repeatedly, and we know it will happen again. Indeed, these outbursts have grown more vicious and effective with each passing year for a generation now. And there’s every reason to think this humiliating trend will continue, with next year worse than this one.
As to the reactions of Jews and other friends of Israel to these smear campaigns—as far as I can tell, the reactions haven’t really changed in the last generation either: My friends on the political left always seem to think that a change of Israeli policy could prevent these campaigns of vilification, or at least lessen their reach. My friends on the political right always seem to say that what we need is “better PR”.
No doubt, Israel could always stand to have better policies and better public relations. But my own view is that neither of these otherwise sensible reactions can help improve things, because neither really gets to the heart of what’s been happening to Israel’s legitimacy. Israel’s policies have fluctuated radically over the past 30 or 40 years, being sometimes better, sometimes worse. And the adroitness with which Israel presents its case in the media and through diplomatic channels has, likewise, been sometimes better, sometimes worse. Yet the international efforts to smear Israel, to corner Israel, to delegitimize Israel and drive it from the family of nations, have proceeded and advanced and grown ever more potent despite the many upturns and downturns in Israeli policy and Israeli PR.
Nothing could make this more evident than the Jewish withdrawal from Gaza and the subsequent establishment there of an independent and belligerent Islamic republic 40 miles from downtown Tel Aviv. Israelis and friends of Israel can reasonably be divided on the question of whether this withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, or the parallel withdrawal from the security zone in South Lebanon in 2000, was really in Israel’s interests, and whether the Jewish state is today better off because of them. But one thing about which we can all agree, I think, is that these withdrawals did nothing to stem the tide of hatred and vilification being poured on Israel’s head internationally. Whatever it is that is driving the trend toward the progressive delegitimization of Israel, it is a trend operating more or less without reference to any particular Israeli policy on any given issue.
To put this in slightly different terms, it’s not the maintenance of a security zone in South Lebanon, or Israeli control of the Gaza Strip, or a raid on a Turkish blockade runner’s boat that is reponsible for what is happening to Israel’s position on the world stage. These specific instances of Israeli policy are, for our opponents, nothing but symbols of something deeper and more hateful that they see revealed time and again when they look upon the state of Israel and its deeds. And until we understand what this deeper issue with Israel is, I believe we’ll remain powerless to understand the progressive growth of the hatred toward us—and powerless to fight it.
The rest of this letter will be devoted to trying to get at what that underlying objection to Israel is. This won’t be your usual op-ed piece on the subject because I don’t think the answers we want are accessible by looking at surface phenomena. I think we have to go much deeper. After I try to do that, I’ll say a few words about what I see as the only possible course of action if we are interested in ultimately reversing this trend.
July 14, 2010