On Criticizing Israel

Here is my (somewhat lengthy) response to a reader who posed some thoughtful questions.

1. As far as alternatives to Israel’s current hawkish direction, I would recommend more recognition of the basic human rights of the Palestinians, a cessation of settlements in the West Bank, and a greater reluctance to engage in counter-productive wars. These are pretty common positions in the American left, and no one is suggesting that they would result in an immediate end to the conflict.

From what I’ve read, Arab-Israelis have pretty decent basic human rights in Israel. They make up about one-sixth of the population, vote and have representation in the Knesset. No doubt there are problems, but I wonder how bad they have it compared to the state of Palestinians in Lebanon, for instance. There is an uncommon article in the Guardian by Tom Gross, who writes about the thriving economy of the West Bank and – contrary to general opinion – even Gaza. As for the Palestinians who do not live in Israel, my opinion is that they should not have the right to vote in Israeli elections (see 2; was this what you meant?). Of course, they voted in Gaza and got Hamas. Hamas promptly threw out Fatah, turned Gaza into a gigantic missile launch-pad, and got a war with Israel. This could have been adroitly avoided by getting on with the business of bettering the lives of Gazans but, alas, this is not what Hamas is about. As Alan Dershowitz shrewdly suggested: If Israel’s enemies dropped their weapons, there would be peace; if Israel dropped its weapons, there would be genocide.

2. A basic tenant of liberal thought is that extremism is abated by the growth of a robust middle class (see Gross article above) and the resulting social liberalization (see Hamas charter above), and that the more direct approaches favored by a neo-con viewpoint only serve to aid the demagogues who run totalitarian states (i.e., Hamas airing anti-Semitic kids programs on TV). Hence the lefty hesitance to back pre-emptive military strikes against Iran. And that’s just arguing for these actions on their practical merits for the sake of the people of Israel proper, not taking on the moral dimension of why Palestinians should have the right to vote, basic water rights, etc.

I don’t think Hamas’ antagonistic (to put it lightly) kids’ shows are the result of Israeli sanctions. They are the result of Hamas’ politics, its propaganda, its absolute refusal to recognize Israel and the iron-fisted control it wields over the people of Gaza. Think Iran (that’s where a lot of the rockets come from). And to think that during quiet periods like this, they’re gearing up for another war. Just like Hizbollah to the north. Again, Iran. The sanctions on Gaza (even during the 2009 war Israel was making sure food and medicine got through on a daily basis, though Hamas was reported to have co-opted the lion’s share for its own men) are similar to the sanctions we speak about with regard to Iran. They are an alternative to military action. No one says they actually work, but we agree they beat bombs.

(By neocon, do you mean Netanyahu? They got a war with Olmert, widely considered the weakest leader in Israeli history. Or was that the reason they felt they could attack southern Israel with impunity? Anyway, I rooted for Livni. But let’s not forget about Barak, who offered Arafat nearly everything he wanted. The Israelis got the Al-aqsa intifada instead of a deal, which in turn got the Palestinians Sharon. One might argue that Hamas’ rocket fire got them Netanyahu instead of a more moderate Tzipi Livni.)

3. I don’t at all agree with your thesis that the Western media and Western liberals unfairly single out Israel. But suppose I accepted your premise and evidence. With that taken as a given, what do you think motivates them (the BBC, Sullivan, Human Rights Watch, etc.) to do it? What is animating their supposed bias? I know I can explain at length why I think about Israel’s human rights violations and military actions far more than say, the conflicts in Sri Lanka or the the human rights violations in North Korea, but that’s a bit off topic.

There are a few good websites who actually parse reportage on Israel for bias and inconsistencies. One is Just Journalism, which has written a lot about BBC. Another is Honest Reporting. Check out Tom Gross (same as above). Just scroll down for his analysis of BBC and even NYT. Jeningrad is an article well worth reading, about the supposed massacre of Jenin in 2002, which never actually happened..

Western liberals (I suppose we should grant them that) are even staging the sixth annual Israel Apartheid Week right now. If we travel back a bit in time, we have Durban I & II, the first of which was supposedly a  conference against racism, but which was taken over by anti-Israel activists. At Durban II, last year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was allowed to voice his redundant opinion that Israel is a racist country and that it should be “wiped off the map.” Obama even pulled out of it. As for the UN, a list of its resolutions against Israel can be found here. Hence, UN Watch. And then the protests during the 2009 war in Gaza (scary photos here) by people I have a hard time thinking of as liberals. A liberal myself, I find the liberal worldview irreconcilable with the zealotry of Hamas, Hizbollah and the current Iranian regime. (While Israel is heavily targeted by the UN, Iran’s current president – who may be setting records for human rights abuses in real-time – is invited to speak time and again on behalf of “peace” and bettering the world. He should have been swiftly marginalized by the UN in my view. But, alas, that has not been the case.)

NGO Monitor is an organization which tracks the bias of NGOs working in Israel or openly taking political positions against it (they are supposed to be politically neutral, if I understand correctly). Here is a choice “boycott Israel” image. I don’t see quite the same tone when China is mentioned, or Iran, Sudan, Lybia, Syria or a host of other countries where human rights are nothing more than lip service paid to the Western media’s thirst for rhetoric. Not to mention political cartoons depicting Sharon feasting on Palestinian babies, Israelis obsessively compared to Nazis, blood libels like the one last year when a Swedish paper accused the IDF of trafficking in the organs of dead Palestinians, without a shred of evidence other than the “tesimony” of a few nameless residents of the West Bank.

Which is not to imply that Israel does no wrong, or that there aren’t legitimate issues on the table, or even that criticism of Israeli policy is to be silenced (I don’t know of anyone, no matter how hawkishly pro-Israel, who thinks this – though it has become something of a mantra in circles where Jimmy Carter is still taken seriously). I am a Zionist because I believe in a world that has room for one Jewish country. Inter-Muslim warfare is tearing apart the Middle East far worse than the presence of five million Jews in a country roughly the size of Sicily.

The grand matrix of hatred, snobbery and intolerance which is the anti-Israel crowd has morphed into an international movement capable of uniting extreme left with extreme right, Christian with Muslim bigotry, secular liberals with ultra-conservative authoritarians, terrorists with human rights advocates, Holocaust deniers with those who dedicate themselves to the prevention of future genocide on planet earth.

In Thomas Friedman’s oft-cited words, “Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East — is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”

4. Why do they do it (see 3)?

This is the toughest question of all. I do not doubt that many of Israel’s critics are sincere in their wish to see an Israel which is more respectful of its Arab citizens, and that lives alongside a peaceful Palestine in robust economic well-being. I would count Andrew Sullivan in this group. His excursions into mere rhetoric (what blogger hasn’t made them?) may well be just that. But that a thriving country like Israel, girded by enemies intent on its wholesale destruction, a country which makes serious global contributions to the betterment of human life for everyone (science, medicine, ethics), should be sniggeringly accused of committing “assisted suicide” baffles this blogger.

Steven Weinberg, physicist and Nobel laureate, when declining an invitation to speak in Great Britain due to a boycott of Israeli academics (!), said:

“I know that some will say that these boycotts are directed only against Israel, rather than generally against Jews. But given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicated a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than anti-semitism.”

Andrew Sullivan may or may not agree with Weinberg, one of many American liberals with a very different opinion of the Middle East muddle.

Leon Wieseltier Blasts Andrew Sullivan

It was a long time coming. If you’re in the mood for a nice long article (well, not so nice), put your boxing mittens on:

Criticism of Israeli policy, and sympathy for the Palestinians, and support for a two-state solution, do not require, as their condition or their corollary, this intellectual shabbiness, this venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews. I have striven for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and territorial compromise, and two states, for many decades now, but Sullivan’s variety of such right thinking is completely repugnant to me. There are decent and indecent ways to advocate change. About the Jews, is Sullivan a bigot, or is he just moronically insensitive? To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left.

And don’t be put off by the initial discussion of Auden’s theology. My question for Wieseltier would be: if the Christian doctrine of the trinity is so ridiculous, “a retraction of the monotheistic revolution in thinking about God,” then isn’t “thinking about God” in itself equally a retraction of the more logical position of non-theism? After all, to hold up even an ethereal, invisible, incomprehensible God to the universe only complicates matters unnecessarily. It’s no wonder religious thinkers like Augustine, Auden and Sullivan make such a mess of things.

Or is Wieseltier just another de facto atheist begging to be let out of the closet?