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.

Hamasburg and Fatahville

Here is a clever test to see if you can tell the difference between Fatah (the good guys) and Hamas (the bad guys) by their respective charters.

The PLO-Fatah charter can be read in full here.

The Hamas charter can be read here.

Now you can’t pretend you don’t know what they have to say.

I’m reading an engaging book by Michael Burleigh called Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism. The book got mediocre reviews, but it’s not as bad as its critics want you think. Above all, it’s a decent one-volume introduction to its subject, not the final word.

In one chapter, Burleigh narrates the assassination of Jordanian prime minister Wasfi Tal in 1971 by a Palestinian “Black September” terrorist. The prime minister was gunned down in front of his hotel in Cairo. In Burleigh’s account one of the murderers, Manzur Khalifa,

“knelt down to lap up blood from the pool spreading beneath Tal’s [the prime minister’s] body. His lower face smeared red, Khalifa shouted: ‘I am proud! Finally I have done it! We have taken our revenge in a traitor.”

This is, of course, a particularly gruesome episode, if only for the blood-drunkenness. Murder in cold blood no longer even has the power to shock us.

I leave you to sort out the difference between Fatah and Hamas for yourself.

Why is Caryl Churchill Having All the Fun?

David Hare must’ve been asking himself this very question lately. Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children has garnered all the attention recently among British Israel-bashers and their intellectual followers. Her play has been performed all over the place, it has been the object of harsh criticism for its simplistic view of Israeli history and utter veneration for “speaking truth to power” (what truth? what power?). Caryl Churchill has left her colleagues far behind. She’s been hogging the spotlight.

So David Hare, another of Britain’s illustrious intellectual playwrights, got the chance in this week’s NYRB to vent his own frustration at the Israeli “apartheid-wall”. He calls it a monologue, lending a theatrical veneer to his rant, which others might simply call an op-ed piece.

I won’t pick through its every sentence. I’m not an authority on the subject, though I have seen it, and what I saw at the time (2004) was mostly a security fence. There was a section of high concrete wall, and it was explained to us that this was a built in a place where Palestinian snipers used to shoot Israeli motorists from their rooftops. Those Israelis are always exaggerating–eh, Mr. Hare?

To his credit, Mr. Hare admits that the fence has done its job by curbing Palestinian suicide bombers. He quotes his Israeli friends’ dismay:

“I regret it.” “I’m ashamed of the wall.” “I drive for miles so that I don’t have to see it. But it works. 80 percent of terrorist attacks against Israel have stopped. Have been stopped. Am I not meant to be pleased about that?”

Indeed, are we all not meant to be pleased about that? In Mr. Hare’s Israel, there are good Israelis–who are ashamed at having to protect themselves against genocidal fanatics–and bad Israelis–who do the protecting. Hare enjoys the company of Israeli intellectuals like himself, who discuss over tea and cakes how many meters of Palestinian farmland were confiscated in order to protect Israeli civilians from an endless terror campaign against them for the crime of being Jewish. He loves Israeli self-doubt, the mark of a true Jew. He, like his colleague Mrs. Churchill, despises Jewish self-defense. This is a crime worse than the sixty-year Arab-Muslim war against Israel’s existence.

Here is Hare on Hamas, in a perfectly polished gem of willful ignorance:

Hamas isn’t very nice. You wouldn’t be nice if you lived under permanent siege.

To be fair, Hare was speaking about Hamas torture of Fatah members in Gaza. So he knows they’re not nice guys. One assumes he’s done his homework, too, and knows about the way Hamas operates: booby-trapping homes, schools, zoos, using children as human shields, etc…the usual. But he’s not put off by any of that, he’s too much of an intellectual to be shocked by Hamas. He’s positively floored, however, that Israel would take security measures against such barbaric murderers–measures that–holilah!–inconvenience the murderers themselves and the society which supports them unconditionally. Hare makes no mention that the Palestinians of Gaza have been taken hostage by their own elected leaders, and that the failure of Palestinian society is far more the result of their unwillingness to relinquish their fanatical, monomaniacal and self-destructive war against the very idea of a Jewish state in “their part of the world” than it is the result of any Israeli intractability.

But wait, it gets better:

Even Professor Neill Lochery of London University, a friend of Israel, the author, for goodness’ sake, of Why Blame Israel?, has described the security fence as a white elephant. “Already,” he says, “the wall belongs to a bygone era.” Because before it was even finished, before the $2 billion had even been spent, Israeli’s enemies had switched tactics. They had moved on from suicide bombing to missiles, to firing Qassam rockets, which could, if deployed in the West Bank as they have been in Gaza, sail oblivious way up high above the wall, fueled by nothing but sugar and potassium nitrate.

Get it? Before the wall had even been finished, Israel’s enemies had “switched tactics!” Doh!! This is Israel-as-Homer Simpson, a blundering doofus always one step behind the wily Palestinians. Why bother trying to curb mass murder when your murderers will only switch tactics? How stupid of them! What could they be thinking? Of course, the Palestinians only abandoned suicide bombing because it was no longer feasible, because Israel had defeated it as a tactic. This is proof of the determined ingenuity of the murderers, not of the incompetence of the Israelis to forsee every possible attempt to murder and terrorize its citizens. David Hare has it backwards.

There is nothing especially new in Mr. Hare’s monologue. He chills with the intellectual elite on both sides, content to take their observations as hard-won truths. This gives his own insights more clout, being on familiar (and non-hostile) ground. And, as we all know, it’s no great feat of courage to criticize the Israelis. They will not come after you, kidnap you, graffiti your walls or threaten you. They will not wage war against you in any way, except perhaps intellectually. Some of them will even agree with you, whether you are full of shit or not.

Surely this is the mark of a sick society, one which has lost its moral compass in the muck of war. Eh, Mr. Hare?