Creating people's geographies
An excellent short article on Israel
By Tony Judt
Last update – 18:05 05/05/2006
By the age of 58 a country – like a man – should have achieved a certain maturity. After nearly six decades of existence we know, for good and for bad, who we are, what we have done and how we appear to others, warts and all. We acknowledge, however reluctantly and privately, our mistakes and our shortcomings. And though we still harbor the occasional illusion about ourselves and our prospects, we are wise enough to recognize that these are indeed for the most part just that: illusions. In short, we are adults.
But the State of Israel remains curiously (and among Western-style democracies, uniquely) immature. The social transformations of the country – and its many economic achievements – have not brought the political wisdom that usually accompanies age. Seen from the outside, Israel still comports itself like an adolescent: consumed by a brittle confidence in its own uniqueness; certain that no one “understands” it and everyone is “against” it; full of wounded self-esteem, quick to take offense and quick to give it. Like many adolescents Israel is convinced – and makes a point of aggressively and repeatedly asserting – that it can do as it wishes, that its actions carry no consequences and that it is immortal. Appropriately enough, this country that has somehow failed to grow up was until very recently still in the hands of a generation of men who were prominent in its public affairs 40 years ago: an Israeli Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in, say, 1967 would be surprised indeed to awake in 2006 and find Shimon Peres and General Ariel Sharon still hovering over the affairs of the country – the latter albeit only in spirit.
But that, Israeli readers will tell me, is the prejudiced view of the outsider. What looks from abroad like a self-indulgent, wayward country – delinquent in its international obligations and resentfully indifferent to world opinion – is simply an independent little state doing what it has always done: looking after its own interests in an inhospitable part of the globe. Why should embattled Israel even acknowledge such foreign criticism, much less act upon it? They – gentiles, Muslims, leftists – have reasons of their own for disliking Israel. They – Europeans, Arabs, fascists – have always singled out Israel for special criticism. Their motives are timeless. They haven’t changed. Why should Israel change?
But they have changed. And it is this change, which has passed largely unrecognized within Israel, to which I want to draw attention here. Before 1967 the State of Israel may have been tiny and embattled, but it was not typically hated: certainly not in the West. Official Soviet-bloc communism was anti-Zionist of course, but for just that reason Israel was rather well regarded by everyone else, including the non-communist left. The romantic image of the kibbutz and the kibbutznik had a broad foreign appeal in the first two decades of Israel’s existence. Most admirers of Israel (Jews and non-Jews) knew little about the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948. They preferred to see in the Jewish state the last surviving incarnation of the 19th century idyll of agrarian socialism – or else a paragon of modernizing energy “making the desert bloom.”
I remember well, in the spring of 1967, how the balance of student opinion at Cambridge University was overwhelmingly pro-Israel in the weeks leading up to the Six-Day War – and how little attention anyone paid either to the condition of the Palestinians or to Israel’s earlier collusion with France and Britain in the disastrous Suez adventure of 1956. In politics and in policy-making circles only old-fashioned conservative Arabists expressed any criticism of the Jewish state; even neo-Fascists rather favored Zionism, on traditional anti-Semitic grounds.
For a while after the 1967 war these sentiments continued unaltered. The pro-Palestinian enthusiasms of post-1960s radical groups and nationalist movements, reflected in joint training camps and shared projects for terrorist attacks, were offset by the growing international acknowledgment of the Holocaust in education and the media: What Israel lost by its continuing occupation of Arab lands it gained through its close identification with the recovered memory of Europe’s dead Jews. Even the inauguration of the illegal settlements and the disastrous invasion of Lebanon, while they strengthened the arguments of Israel’s critics, did not yet shift the international balance of opinion. As recently as the early 1990s, most people in the world were only vaguely aware of the “West Bank” and what was happening there. Even those who pressed the Palestinians’ case in international forums conceded that almost no one was listening. Israel could still do as it wished.
The Israeli nakba
But today everything is different. We can see, in retrospect, that the victory of Israel in June 1967 and its continuing occupation of the territories it conquered then have been the Jewish state’s very own nakba: a moral and political catastrophe. Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza have magnified and publicized the country’s shortcomings and displayed them to a watching world. Curfews, checkpoints, bulldozers, public humiliations, home destructions, land seizures, shootings, “targeted assassinations,” the separation fence: All of these routines of occupation and repression were once familiar only to an informed minority of specialists and activists. Today they can be watched, in real time, by anyone with a computer or a satellite dish – which means that Israel’s behavior is under daily scrutiny by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The result has been a complete transformation in the international view of Israel. Until very recently the carefully burnished image of an ultra-modern society – built by survivors and pioneers and peopled by peace-loving democrats – still held sway over international opinion. But today? What is the universal shorthand symbol for Israel, reproduced worldwide in thousands of newspaper editorials and political cartoons? The Star of David emblazoned upon a tank.
Today only a tiny minority of outsiders see Israelis as victims. The true victims, it is now widely accepted, are the Palestinians. Indeed, Palestinians have now displaced Jews as the emblematic persecuted minority: vulnerable, humiliated and stateless. This unsought distinction does little to advance the Palestinian case any more than it ever helped Jews, but it has redefined Israel forever. It has become commonplace to compare Israel at best to an occupying colonizer, at worst to the South Africa of race laws and Bantustans. In this capacity Israel elicits scant sympathy even when its own citizens suffer: Dead Israelis – like the occasional assassinated white South African in the apartheid era, or British colonists hacked to death by native insurgents – are typically perceived abroad not as the victims of terrorism but as the collateral damage of their own government’s mistaken policies.
Such comparisons are lethal to Israel’s moral credibility. They strike at what was once its strongest suit: the claim of being a vulnerable island of democracy and decency in a sea of authoritarianism and cruelty; an oasis of rights and freedoms surrounded by a desert of repression. But democrats don’t fence into Bantustans helpless people whose land they have conquered, and free men don’t ignore international law and steal other men’s homes. The contradictions of Israeli self-presentation – “we are very strong/we are very vulnerable”; “we are in control of our fate/we are the victims”; “we are a normal state/we demand special treatment” – are not new: they have been part of the country’s peculiar identity almost from the outset. And Israel’s insistent emphasis upon its isolation and uniqueness, its claim to be both victim and hero, were once part of its David versus Goliath appeal.
Collective cognitive dysfunction
But today the country’s national narrative of macho victimhood appears to the rest of the world as simply bizarre: evidence of a sort of collective cognitive dysfunction that has gripped Israel’s political culture. And the long cultivated persecution mania – “everyone’s out to get us” – no longer elicits sympathy. Instead it attracts some very unappetizing comparisons: At a recent international meeting I heard one speaker, by analogy with Helmut Schmidt’s famous dismissal of the Soviet Union as “Upper Volta with Missiles,” describe Israel as “Serbia with nukes.”
Israel has stayed the same, but the world – as I noted above – has changed. Whatever purchase Israel’s self-description still has upon the imagination of Israelis themselves, it no longer operates beyond the country’s frontiers. Even the Holocaust can no longer be instrumentalized to excuse Israel’s behavior. Thanks to the passage of time, most Western European states have now come to terms with their part in the Holocaust, something that was not true a quarter century ago. From Israel’s point of view, this has had paradoxical consequences: Until the end of the Cold War Israeli governments could still play upon the guilt of Germans and other Europeans, exploiting their failure to acknowledge fully what was done to Jews on their territory. Today, now that the history of World War II is retreating from the public square into the classroom and from the classroom into the history books, a growing majority of voters in Europe and elsewhere (young voters above all) simply cannot understand how the horrors of the last European war can be invoked to license or condone unacceptable behavior in another time and place. In the eyes of a watching world, the fact that the great-grandmother of an Israeli soldier died in Treblinka is no excuse for his own abusive treatment of a Palestinian woman waiting to cross a checkpoint. “Remember Auschwitz” is not an acceptable response.
In short: Israel, in the world’s eyes, is a normal state, but one behaving in abnormal ways. It is in control of its fate, but the victims are someone else. It is strong, very strong, but its behavior is making everyone else vulnerable. And so, shorn of all other justifications for its behavior, Israel and its supporters today fall back with increasing shrillness upon the oldest claim of all: Israel is a Jewish state and that is why people criticize it. This – the charge that criticism of Israel is implicitly anti-Semitic – is regarded in Israel and the United States as Israel’s trump card. If it has been played more insistently and aggressively in recent years, that is because it is now the only card left.
The habit of tarring any foreign criticism with the brush of anti-Semitism is deeply engrained in Israeli political instincts: Ariel Sharon used it with characteristic excess but he was only the latest in a long line of Israeli leaders to exploit the claim. David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir did no different. But Jews outside of Israel pay a high price for this tactic. Not only does it inhibit their own criticisms of Israel for fear of appearing to associate with bad company, but it encourages others to look upon Jews everywhere as de facto collaborators in Israel’s misbehavior. When Israel breaks international law in the occupied territories, when Israel publicly humiliates the subject populations whose land it has seized – but then responds to its critics with loud cries of “anti-Semitism” – it is in effect saying that these acts are not Israeli acts, they are Jewish acts: The occupation is not an Israeli occupation, it is a Jewish occupation, and if you don’t like these things it is because you don’t like Jews.
In many parts of the world this is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling assertion: Israel’s reckless behavior and insistent identification of all criticism with anti-Semitism is now the leading source of anti-Jewish sentiment in Western Europe and much of Asia. But the traditional corollary – if anti-Jewish feeling is linked to dislike of Israel then right-thinking people should rush to Israel’s defense – no longer applies. Instead, the ironies of the Zionist dream have come full circle: For tens of millions of people in the world today, Israel is indeed the state of all the Jews. And thus, reasonably enough, many observers believe that one way to take the sting out of rising anti-Semitism in the suburbs of Paris or the streets of Jakarta would be for Israel to give the Palestinians back their land.
If Israel’s leaders have been able to ignore such developments it is in large measure because they have hitherto counted upon the unquestioning support of the United States – the one country in the world where the claim that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism is still echoed not only in the opinions of many Jews but also in the public pronouncements of mainstream politicians and the mass media. But this lazy, ingrained confidence in unconditional American approval – and the moral, military and financial support that accompanies it – may prove to be Israel’s undoing.
Something is changing in the United States. To be sure, it was only a few short years ago that prime minister Sharon’s advisers could gleefully celebrate their success in dictating to U.S. President George W. Bush the terms of a public statement approving Israel’s illegal settlements. No U.S. Congressman has yet proposed reducing or rescinding the $3 billion in aid Israel receives annually – 20 percent of the total U.S. foreign aid budget – which has helped sustain the Israeli defense budget and the cost of settlement construction in the West Bank. And Israel and the United States appear increasingly bound together in a symbiotic embrace whereby the actions of each party exacerbate their common unpopularity abroad – and thus their ever-closer association in the eyes of critics.
But whereas Israel has no choice but to look to America – it has no other friends, at best only the conditional affection of the enemies of its enemies, such as India – the United States is a great power; and great powers have interests that sooner or later transcend the local obsessions of even the closest of their client states and satellites. It seems to me of no small significance that the recent essay on “The Israel Lobby” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt has aroused so much public interest and debate. Mearsheimer and Walt are prominent senior academics of impeccable conservative credentials. It is true that – by their own account – they could still not have published their damning indictment of the influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. foreign policy in a major U.S.-based journal (it appeared in the London Review of Books), but the point is that 10 years ago they would not – and probably could not – have published it at all. And while the debate that has ensued may generate more heat than light, it is of great significance: As Dr. Johnson said of female preachers, it is not well done but one is amazed to see it done at all.
The fact is that the disastrous Iraq invasion and its aftermath are beginning to engineer a sea-change in foreign policy debate here in the U.S. It is becoming clear to prominent thinkers across the political spectrum – from erstwhile neo-conservative interventionists like Francis Fukuyama to hard-nosed realists like Mearsheimer – that in recent years the United States has suffered a catastrophic loss of international political influence and an unprecedented degradation of its moral image. The country’s foreign undertakings have been self-defeating and even irrational. There is going to be a long job of repair ahead, above all in Washington’s dealings with economically and strategically vital communities and regions from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. And this reconstruction of the country’s foreign image and influence cannot hope to succeed while U.S. foreign policy is tied by an umbilical cord to the needs and interests (if that is what they are) of one small Middle Eastern country of very little relevance to America’s long-term concerns – a country that is, in the words of the Mearsheimer/Walt essay, a strategic burden: “A liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states.”
That essay is thus a straw in the wind – an indication of the likely direction of future domestic debate here in the U.S. about the country’s peculiar ties to Israel. Of course it has been met by a firestorm of criticism from the usual suspects – and, just as they anticipated, the authors have been charged with anti-Semitism (or with advancing the interests of anti-Semitism: “objective anti-Semitism,” as it might be). But it is striking to me how few people with whom I have spoken take that accusation seriously, so predictable has it become. This is bad for Jews – since it means that genuine anti-Semitism may also in time cease to be taken seriously, thanks to the Israel lobby’s abuse of the term. But it is worse for Israel.
This new willingness to take one’s distance from Israel is not confined to foreign policy specialists. As a teacher I have also been struck in recent years by a sea-change in the attitude of students. One example among many: Here at New York University I was teaching this past month a class on post-war Europe. I was trying to explain to young Americans the importance of the Spanish Civil War in the political memory of Europeans and why Franco’s Spain has such a special place in our moral imagination: as a reminder of lost struggles, a symbol of oppression in an age of liberalism and freedom, and a land of shame that people boycotted for its crimes and repression. I cannot think, I told the students, of any country that occupies such a pejorative space in democratic public consciousness today. You are wrong, one young woman replied: What about Israel? To my great surprise most of the class – including many of the sizable Jewish contingent – nodded approval. The times they are indeed a-changing.
That Israel can now stand in comparison with the Spain of General Franco in the eyes of young Americans ought to come as a shock and an eleventh-hour wake-up call to Israelis. Nothing lasts forever, and it seems likely to me that we shall look back upon the years 1973-2003 as an era of tragic illusion for Israel: years that the locust ate, consumed by the bizarre notion that, whatever it chose to do or demand, Israel could count indefinitely upon the unquestioning support of the United States and would never risk encountering a backlash. This blinkered arrogance is tragically summed up in an assertion by Shimon Peres on the very eve of the calamitous war that will in retrospect be seen, I believe, to have precipitated the onset of America’s alienation from its Israeli ally: “The campaign against Saddam Hussein is a must.”
The future of Israel
From one perspective Israel’s future is bleak. Not for the first time, a Jewish state has found itself on the vulnerable periphery of someone else’s empire: overconfident in its own righteousness, willfully blind to the danger that its indulgent excesses might ultimately provoke its imperial mentor to the point of irritation and beyond, and heedless of its own failure to make any other friends. To be sure, the modern Israeli state has big weapons – very big weapons. But can it do with them except make more enemies? However, modern Israel also has options. Precisely because the country is an object of such universal mistrust and resentment – because people expect so little from Israel today – a truly statesmanlike shift in its policies (dismantling of major settlements, opening unconditional negotiations with Palestinians, calling Hamas’ bluff by offering the movement’s leaders something serious in return for recognition of Israel and a cease-fire) could have disproportionately beneficial effects.
But such a radical realignment of Israeli strategy would entail a difficult reappraisal of every cliche and illusion under which the country and its political elite have nestled for most of their life. It would entail acknowledging that Israel no longer has any special claim upon international sympathy or indulgence; that the United States won’t always be there; that weapons and walls can no more preserve Israel forever than they preserved the German Democratic Republic or white South Africa; that colonies are always doomed unless you are willing to expel or exterminate the indigenous population. Other countries and their leaders have understood this and managed comparable realignments: Charles De Gaulle realized that France’s settlement in Algeria, which was far older and better established than Israel’s West Bank colonies, was a military and moral disaster for his country. In an exercise of outstanding political courage, he acted upon that insight and withdrew. But when De Gaulle came to that realization he was a mature statesman, nearly 70 years old. Israel cannot afford to wait that long. At the age of 58 the time has come for it to grow up.
Tony Judt is a professor and the director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, and his book “Postwar: The History of Europe Since 1945” was published in 2005.