February 5, 2014
Feb 5, 2014
9 Min read time
One valid answer to why Israel? is simply: why not Israel?
Haifa University in Israel. Photograph: David King
Why Israel?—that is, why boycott Israel and not, say, China?—has become a central question in the bitter arguments over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The latest brawl followed the decision of the American Studies Association to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, its first and only such endorsement. The question of why Israel has arisen over boycotting Israeli scholars, Israeli companies, Israeli hummus, American companies that sell to Israel, Israeli music venues, and so on.
That Westerners of Arab, Muslim, or Jewish heritage get involved (on both sides) might be taken for granted; many have deep personal commitments. But why do so many leftish Americans and Europeans who have no personal stake in the Palestine-Israel conflict focus on it? To be clear, the question is not one of justification—whether Israeli policymakers or the boycotters and other critics have moral standing for the positions they hold. What concerns me here is explanation: Why has Israel come to occupy so much of the left’s attention?
• • •
Leading anti-Israel activists on the left do not give the naïve answer that they single Israel out because Israel is singularly deserving of it. Whether the concern is political oppression, civilian war deaths, or the displacement of native peoples, they would acknowledge that there are far worse offenders.
Last November a U.N. interpreter, having forgotten that her microphone was on, put it this way, “When you have . . . like a total of ten resolutions on Israel and Palestine . . . C’est un peu trop, non? [It’s a bit much, no?] . . . There’s other really bad shit happening, but no one says anything about the other stuff.”
One valid answer to why Israel? is simply: why not Israel? This was, in effect, the answer that Curtis Marez, president of the American Studies Association, gave: “one has to start somewhere.” Whatever other really bad shit is happening does not erase the deaths of several hundred civilians in the last Gaza war, the destruction of Palestinian farmers’ livelihoods, or the confiscations of land. That many other countries might better deserve to be the rogue or pariah nation is, for many on the left, a side issue; Israel is on the agenda now. Fair enough.
Yet we must ask why Israel is the first and, for many, only nation on the moral outrage agenda. The critics provide several answers, but they are strained, post hoc rationalizations.
One often hears some variant of this explanation: Israel earns her singular damnation because of her singular privilege in American foreign policy. One version, also provided by the president of the American Studies Association, argues that critics place Israel on the top of the list because she is the largest beneficiary of U.S. military aid (an almost-fact; right now, Afghanistan is the largest recipient).
This logic, however, has not been consistently applied. First, over the years, American aid has gone to many tainted nations in East Asia, Latin America, and more recently Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan, but the left has not and does not target them for boycotts. Second, the greatest aid the United States delivers is not money but the lives of its military men and women. American soldiers have not fought and died for Israel, as they have for, among others, South Korea in the 1950s, South Vietnam in the 1960s, Kuwait in the 1990s, and Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. While leftists often opposed these wars, they did not argue that American assistance should make the assisted nations targets of boycotts. (Conversely, apartheid South Africa, which the left did boycott, was never an American aid favorite.) Third, although the volume of U.S. financial aid might rationalize Americans scrutinizing Israel, it cannot explain western Europeans doing the same.
A variant of the claim that America’s unique treatment of Israel accounts for the left’s unique interest in Israel is that the Jewish nation’s political clout in the United States gives it unique protection and immunity. If normal politics cannot get the United States to rein Israel in, then a movement of private citizens must target the malefactor.
The logic fails here, too. First, the premise of Israeli clout is exaggerated. Were it so great, the United States would long ago have bombed Iran, never have sold advanced fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, not repeatedly pressed Israel to retreat from conquered territory, and so on. Second, it is not true that Israel gets a unique pass from the United States. American presidents routinely waive official human rights restrictions on aid to and trade with sketchy countries such as Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, and Colombia. While the left has objected to those policies and to those regimes, it has not called for boycotts of their institutions. Third, Israel hardly has unique clout or immunity in Europe (except perhaps in Germany) and, yet, the European left treats it uniquely.
Other explanations for singling out Israel are similarly weak—and are also striking for their de-legitimation of the state. One hears, for example, complaints that Israel is a religiously defined state. But this is hardly unique. Just count the national flags bearing crosses, crescents, Koranic texts, or similar images; there are dozens, though Israel’s is the only one with a Star of David. And one hears that Israel is an ethnically defined state. Yet, most states, including European ones, are ethnic states. What is the former Yugoslavia today if not seven states for seven peoples? And, of course, one hears that Israel is xenophobic and anti-Arab (even an apartheid state). Again, hardly unique. Though deplorable, Israeli episodes cannot match the daily accounts from across the globe of state-sponsored ethnic attacks, expulsions, and massacres (e.g., Gujarat, 2002).
One argument, more tailored to the Israeli case, is that the state is the West’s bastard creation—specifically, Europe’s compensation to the Jews for the Holocaust. This history is wrong. The Arab-Jewish struggle in Palestine had commenced years before Hitler, the British were aching to leave Palestine, and cold-blooded analysts would have bet on the Jews winning. Israel was probably coming anyway. And, even if Israel were the West’s child, she would not be a unique in this respect either. Consider all the cross-ethnic nations that the colonial powers drew up as they sailed off and that have suffered civil wars since.
• • •
Israel’s partisans have their own answers to the why Israel? question. One is the influence of Arab oil money and Muslim numbers. This may help explain the obsession with Israel in international forums (un peu trop, non?), but Cambridge dons’ and Berkeley radicals’ outrage are not bought by Saudi money. The major explanation Israel’s defenders offer is plain: anti-Semitism. This is unsatisfying, as well.
To be sure, anyone who knows Western history, the genteel anti-Semitism of old European elites, and the long thread of leftist anti-Semitism (including Karl Marx on the “Jewish Question”) must grant anti-Semitism some role. Research shows that people today with classic anti-Semitic attitudes—for example, agreeing that Jews cheat at business—are more likely than others to condemn Israel.
Yet, the activist circles I am speaking about are not classic, racist anti-Semites. Many, perhaps most, boycotters can say without irony that some of their best friends are Jews. They descend culturally from the Dreyfusard circles a century ago. Moreover, anti-Semitism has declined in recent decades while anti-Israel views have grown.
• • •
What then does explain the singling out of Israel? I am most persuaded that a key part of the explanation is the development of media storylines. The spotlight, which once flattered Israel, now casts it harshly. Before the 1960s and ’70s, the Western media’s Israel was a plucky nation of hard-working farmers who ingeniously made the desert bloom, built an egalitarian society in the kibbutz and a socialist one in the state, sheltered traumatized Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab countries, and defeated the armies of several reactionary states in near-biblical fashion. Importantly, Jews were victims—the past victims of fascism and the present victims of terrorism. Whatever the mix of myth and reality in this romance, the narrative made Israel a favorite of the left. Historian Colin Schindler describes the European left’s “sympathy for Zionist aspirations and the construction of socialism in Palestine.” In the aftermath of World War II it was “common for the cause of Israel to be compared to that of the Spanish civil war.”
Starting in the ’60s and accelerating afterwards, the images and storylines shifted. Israel became more closely aligned with the United States in the Cold War and thus tainted with America’s sins. Soviet bloc anti-Zionism grew. More important, Israel was no longer underdog and victim. Triumphant in war and now ruler of many Arabs, Israel started looking more like Goliath than David. In response, left-wing media such as The Guardian, once a supporter of Zionism, became fierce critics. The BBC made the same journey. By the new millennium, Israel had ended airplane hijackings and nearly ended terrorist bombings. Pictures of Jewish children blown up in buses were replaced by pictures of Arab children hit by Israeli ordinance. The long-running, widely watched Holy Land drama continued, but the plot had turned. Live by the camera; die by the camera (or 5 Broken Cameras).
Some might ask who turned the media. I suspect it largely turned itself, that it is in the nature of dramatic tropes to simplify heroes and villains, to rest on moral certainties. Over the last few decades, the growing power of Israel, growing permanence of the occupation, and far more widely available images of Palestinian suffering have turned the storyline.
Israeli leaders complain that Western media single out Israel unfairly and that those pictures, in effect, lie. Israeli citizens complain about their leaders’ amazingly tone-deaf hasbara (“explaining”; really, public relations). But, as many have noted, smarter PR won’t change the story—not in an open society. Nor will efforts inside and outside Israel to silence critics. Rulers in places such as Iran and China can black out the bad news, and rulers in many other nations can assume that Westerners don’t care, but Israel is almost fully revealed. The botched reaction to the Gaza Flotilla raid, defiant settlement expansions, checkpoint harassment, and xenophobic resolutions in the Knesset cannot be kept from today’s episode of myth and reality.
Occasional, passing events disrupt the new story line—Israel dragging its settlers out of the Sinai in 1982 and dragging its settlers out of Gaza in 2005, for example. Occasional suicide bombings and periodic rocket attacks briefly revive the image of victimized Israel. But the storyline is pretty much set for the time being. To dislodge herself from the top of the outrage list, boring the left so that it looks elsewhere for a cause, Israel will need to make major alterations to the reality on the ground. It is unclear whether the politics of the country—it is, uniquely in its neighborhood, a democracy, and voters continue to back parties that support the occupation—will allow that.
Why Israel? Israel’s defenders charge double standards and attribute them to anti-Semitism (a position adopted by the U.S. State Department). However, realism—and Israelis pride themselves on being hard-headed realists—suggests that such complaints, valid or otherwise, will not change the narrative. Until new facts on the ground challenge the narrative, the left’s selective focus on Israel will probably continue.
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February 05, 2014
9 Min read time