The Question Everyone Asked Me in Israel
I just returned from teaching and collecting data in Israel for 2 1/2 months. I had a fine time working with Israeli students and engaging in various academic projects of my own. Interestingly, every nonacademic Israeli (the average person on the streets or in the bars), after the usual preliminaries, asked me the same question: “Why does the world, they asked, pay so much attention to us and why do they hate us so much?” Most Israelis just don’t understand the animosity directed at them. They don’t understand how places like Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Zimbabwe float by with relatively little attention but Israel, a successful free-market democracy, is the brunt of so much criticism.
I typically began the discussion with lots of explanations including the amount of news that came out of Israel because it was an open democracy and you could file a story easily, the cachet of the holy land, the successful portrayal of the Palestinians as “oppressed,” and a variety of other explanations that are not my main concern at the moment. I also often made reference to the power of anti-Semitism by pointing out ironically that the Jews were hated historically when there are weak, and isn’t it interesting that they are still hated now that they are strong. What does that tell you?
But the question of blame in Israel is particularly interesting. Part of Israel’s current crisis is a “crisis of blame.” The second intifada was blamed on Israel. All Israeli security concerns result in blame as the Palestinians are described as largely defenseless. The controversial book by Peter Beinart is a litany of blame targeting Israel and there are a number of places, as Daniel Gordis has pointed out, where Beinart is simply wrong and does not have his facts straight. What is even more insidious is how politically incorrect it has become to credit Israel. Nobody ever mentions the extraordinary number of cultural and artistic alliances between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society. Nobody mentions Israel’s coordination with the Palestinians with respect to development and medical issues. Israel always seems to be spoken of in cold detached language while Palestinian problems garner tremendous emotion.
So this question of why Israel receives so much international attention and condemnation, why they get so much blame, remains an enigma. Israel has gone from holding the moral high ground while it made the desert bloom to a pariah nation. The answer to the problem of blaming Israel is of course complex but it has one component that is clear. It is the problem of liberalism that rejects any sort of ethnic nationalism and believes it to be a remnant of old world tribalism. Moreover, liberalism has come full circle toward an inability to take a stand on many things – to get in the ring and punch for what it believes in. To paraphrase Barack Obama “the arc of justice is long but it bends toward democracy and freedom.” That is to say, as rigid and authoritarian political polities move to the future they will look more like Israel. Their economies and their individual freedoms will be more pronounced. They will bend toward Israel.
Israelis want one thing. When the day comes that this conflict ends, when all the borders are established and the streets are named, they want there to be standing a Jewish state. A state devoted to Jewish particularity. Not a Torah state, not another Iran, but a state devoted to Jewish history, culture, art, literature, and politics. Israeli bashing seems to be an effort to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state, an effort to thoroughly delegitimize Israel. And this is one reason Netanyahu always demands during peace processes that the PLA recognize Israel as a Jewish state.