Friday, October 31, 2014

Reading Israel from Left to Right

NEW YORK – Israel’s current government and its supporters in the West are quick to denounce criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitism. This can be inaccurate and self-serving, but it is not always wrong.

Israel’s defenders are right to point out that public opinion in Europe, and to a much lesser extent in the United States, tends to be much more critical of Israeli atrocities in Gaza than about bloodier violence committed by Muslims against Muslims in other parts of the Middle East.

This can be explained by the fact that Israel is supported by Western governments and generously subsidized by American taxpayers. There is not much that public outrage can do about the behavior of Iranian mullahs or Syrian thugs. But Israel is “one of us.”

To be sure, excessive zeal in denouncing Israel, and cheap comparisons between Israeli violence and Nazi mass murder, betray a dubious urge to throw off the burdens of guilt. After decades of feeling obliged to drop the collective European head in shame for what was done to the Jews, people can finally say with an element of glee that Jews can be murderers, too. But, though unseemly, this is not necessarily anti-Semitic.

Anti-Zionism takes a nasty turn to anti-Semitism when it conflates Jews with Israelis – for example, when the British Liberal Democratic politician David Ward criticized “the Jews” for inflicting horrors on the Palestinians. And, while one can be skeptical about Zionism as a historical project, to deny Israel’s right to exist is hard to distinguish from anti-Semitism.

The most sinister form of anti-Zionism is to be found among leftists who see Israel and the US as the planet’s twin evils. Those who see dark American forces behind all that is wrong with the world, from financial crashes to the violence in Ukraine, are prone to detect the malign hand of Israeli or even Jewish lobbies in every US policy.

The link between corrupting Jewish influence and the US was originally a right-wing trope. Jews were supposedly rootless, clannish, and omnipotent, with no loyalty to any nation. The immigrant society of the US was seen as rootless by definition. In the view of early-twentieth-century right-wing European nationalists, Anglo-American capitalism, controlled by Jews, undermined the sacred ties of blood and soil.

This worldview also blamed the Jews for Bolshevism, which might seem like a contradiction, but is not. Bolshevism, like capitalism, was internationalist, at least in theory. (Joseph Stalin was actually a Soviet nationalist who also denounced Jews as rootless cosmopolitans.)

The dangers of zealous anti-Semitic attacks on Israel are obvious. If Israel was not just a fearful nation oppressing the Palestinian people, but the source of all evil, any form of violence, however destructive of self and others, could be justified. If the Israel Defense Forces were the modern equivalent of the Nazis, it should be smashed with maximum force. If all Jews were responsible for the oppression of Arabs, attacks on Jews in Europe, or anywhere else, should be condoned, if not actively encouraged.

The number of people in the West who really hold such beliefs is, I believe, small. Such people exist in universities. They write blogs. They march together in demonstrations with some indisputably anti-Semitic Islamist militants. But they are far from the mainstream.

Remarkably, some of Israel’s most ardent admirers are now to be found on the right – and even the far right. Quite a few are members of political parties with a profoundly anti-Semitic provenance, such as Austria’s Freedom Party, whose early members included former Nazis. The Freedom Party leader, along with such luminaries of the populist right as Filip Dewinter, the Flemish nationalist leader, and the Dutch demagogue Geert Wilders, have visited the West Bank and voiced their support for Israeli settlements.

This can be explained partly by antagonism against Islam. Right-wing populists in Europe regard Islam as the greatest threat to the West. So, naturally, they applaud the Israeli government for using harsh measures to keep the Arabs down. As Wilders put it, the Israelis “are fighting our fight. If Jerusalem falls, Amsterdam and New York will be next.”

But the main reason for this new solidarity between Western right-wing populists and the state of Israel might lie deeper than shared antipathy toward Islam. No state is static, and Israel has changed a great deal since the heroic decades after its founding in 1948.

In the early years, Israel was admired by Western leftists for being a progressive state, run by Polish and Russian socialists. Today’s Israeli leaders, however, in their rhetoric and behavior, often sound more like the old European anti-Semites. Israeli Jews are now firmly rooted in their own national soil. But the ruling ideology is no longer socialism; it is a form of ethnic nationalism, with a great deal of military swagger. No wonder, then, that Israel’s current admirers have a distinctly illiberal cast.

They reflect current mainstream opinion more than leftist anti-Zionists do. The world is increasingly fragmenting, with fearful people embracing smaller, defensive identities: Scottish, Catalan, Flemish, Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, and so on. The idealistic internationalism of the early postwar years is collapsing fast. Tribal feelings – national, ethnic, and religious – are filling the vacuum. And, most ironic of all, Israel, a nation-state built by a people despised for their cosmopolitanism, has become a prime symbol of this disturbing trend.

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  1. Commentedgeorges makhtouf

    Ian Buruma repeats without analyis canards like "Israeli atrocities in Gaza".

    A better test for possible anti-Semitism is to compare the criticism and actions leveled at the US for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Were US airmen, or the population at large, widely condemned as child-killers or compared to Nazis? Was Israel's sending of 100,000+ text and voice warnings to Gazans really worse than US air strikes without warning in Iraq or Afghanistan? In one single incident in the 1991 Gulf War, over 400 Iraqi civilians were killed in one air strike on a bomb shelter. Any moves to refer to ICC? US atrocities in Iraq? A nation of child killers?

    The difference in reactions can very plausibly be attributed to anti-Semitism, the fury that Israel is taking similar, but much milder actions to threats across its borders as the US has taken to threats 8000 miles from its borders.

    Criticism of Israel is valid when the critics can demonstrate that they showered similar criticism to other nations taking similar steps.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Ian Buruma is right that the shelling of Gaza last month had intensified Israel bashing. He illustrates the problematic between "criticism of Israeli policies" and anti-Semitism. It suits the leadership in Israel to see protests against its aggression as anti-Semitism, because it doesn't have to question the proportionality of its bombardment in Gaza.
    If one takes a look at previous Israeli offensives in Gaza, anti-Semitic incidents rose in their wake, before falling again. This had much to do with the fact that in times of the Palestinian conflict people were more aware of anti-Semitism.
    In France high profile incidents like the killing at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012; the shooting in the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May; attacks on Jewish businesses and a synagogue in Sarcelles near Paris in July; made international headlines.
    Unfortunately there were extremists in Europe, who had made "cheap comparisons between Israeli violence and Nazi mass murder". Some Jews felt that anti-Semitic sentiments in some parts of France and Germany reminded them of the Nazi era.
    It's true that most people can't distinguish the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. As many in the West see Islam as a threat, in their eyes Israel is a lesser evil. Ahead of the European Parliament elections in May, "Western right-wing populists" ingratiated themselves with Jewish voters.
    Mr. Buruma says "in the early years, Israel was admired by Western leftists for being a progressive state, run by Polish and Russian socialists. Today’s Israeli leaders, however, in their rhetoric and behavior, often sound more like the old European anti-Semites".
    Indeed Israel is still run by Russians. Over 300.000 Russian immigrants are said to be living in the country and they form the base of the influential right-wing nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu".

      CommentedErwin Hirschmann

      You seem to forget, that so-called Anti-Zionism in Europe (which infact is anti-semitism) is as old as the late 60s. At that time the argument was, Jews and Palastinians should live in a bi-national state and Israel had no right to exist. The same people are now at work again supported by Muslims living in Europe. The Gaza war was just a very welcome opportunity. It is amazing, people seem to forget that Israel is not a product of the Holocaust and that Israel is the historical home of the Jews. Jews have lived there throughout the centuries and massive Immigration of Jews started in the 19th century, the Holocaust just speeded things up. And if you look at Turkish statistics, you will find out to what extent the Turkish government settled Egyptians and Arabs from other countries in Palastine in the same period. But all of that is history. Today Israel faces the problem with securing her existance - which will be ever more difficult after the Gaza war. The question to be answered is: Can a Palastinian State at the eastern border be trusted or does the country face a much more costly experience as was the case with Gaza. One thing is certain, Europeans or Americans will answer of course the Palastinian State can be trusted - they do not have to live with the consequences (and don't care about the consequences for Jews inside or outside Israel). Somebody once wrote, first Europeans said, "we don't want you, than Spain said "get out or we shall burn you", than came the Germans saying "you have no right to live" and now "you have no right to your own state". I think, it is high time Israel starts to ignore Europe and to some extent also the US and tries to find her own way together with neigbours like Egypt and Jordan. Such policies might be very costly, but they will be cheaper in terms of lives lost.

  3. CommentedJim Kelley

    Could we trade two Moses, one virgin Mary, and one Holy Spirit for all the Muhammads, and start over with some new stories. It should not take a hundred years for Israel to make good neighbors. Giving up the Jewish label might be a start. Israel seems like a Williamsburg, Virginia with nuclear arms. Time for everyone to embrace the enlightenment, evolve.

  4. Commentedstephen klein

    To say that Israel is an apartheid state is insane. Integration of Israeli Arabs into Israeli society is an ongoing reality. Whereas diverse groups such as Christians, Druze, and Muslims are engaged in lethal combat all over the Middle East, all these groups in Israel are thriving. They are thriving because they have invested their resources in economic development and not in terror. In Gaza Hamas has invested millions in building an infrastructure of terror, thousands of underground rockets and attack tunnels. If they had chosen economic investments, they would have become the Singapore of the Middle East with a seaport and an airport. After sending thousands of missiles into Israel from schools, hospitals, and homes they have turned Gaza into a hell. Did you really think Israel wouldnt fire back in self-defense? Kids close to the border have grown up with the knowledge they have fifteen seconds to make it to the nearest shelter. Israel is not the problem it is the solution for the Middle East.

  5. CommentedCurtis Carpenter

    Professor Buruma might be read here to charge ALL leftists as seeing Israel and the US as the planet's twin evils -- but I can assure him that that is not the case. I may be over-reacting, but I have a hard time visualizing the average Al Qaeda leader as a "leftist" -- but have no trouble seeing him as a "planet's twin evils" guy.

  6. CommentedShane N

    Sounds to me like the good professor is suffering from a bad case of cognitive dissonance. Attempting to justify to yourself why those on the extreme right are the strongest supporters of Israel by cherry picking examples of leftist who have made anti-semitic comments might relieve your pain but it is nothing but cheap, parlour room propaganda. Israel has become an apartheid state that is the root of many of the problems in the Middle East. Boycott, diversify and sanction.

      CommentedIvan Yu

      Shane, you should not use words you don't comprehend, like "apartheid". but I would like to see a list of Middle East problems rooted in existence of Jewish state.

  7. CommentedPaul Daley

    Sectarian propaganda. Israel's crimes are simply of a different order and different kind than those of other states. Israel has simply destroyed the lives of millions of Palestinians over a period of generations through a coldly calculated and deliberately executed policy of racism. No other state has done anything similar.

      CommentedIvan Yu

      Paul, are you sure? do you realize how many Palestinians were killed by IDF? and how many Arabs were killed by Socialist (Baath) and Islam regimes in the Middle East? and by Islamic terrorists?

  8. CommentedRoger Lerner

    Careful Suhayl, your prejudice is showing. "WASP Nations" "WASP-backed State" No doubt that was just a short hand, not bigotry.
    Sixty-five yeas plus after the end of WWII and colonialism is still the fall guy is it?
    Fine with me, but the problem is the facts get in the way. The "WASP" nations invest billions in the development of the non-WASP World through direct aid and trade. Since the end of the Cold War, there are no impediments to self determination (Indeed see the lament as to ethnic "fragmentation" in the main article), other than those imposed by conflict claims of various people over the same territory. No Neo-Colonialist in sight my friend.
    The problem with the "victim mentality" you express is that it harms the victim. It keeps them from addressing the real problems e.g. education, role of women, enforceable commercial law; ethnic rivalry/tribalism; basic infrastructure (drinking water; health care) and the big one which stop progress on all else, corruption. Those problems have little to do with those "WASPS" you want to blame.
    As for Israel and the Palestinians, both sides treat each other abysmally. It is the consequence of a true blood feud. Private blood feuds end when people sicken of the violence and renounce retribution and negotiate their grievances. Public group feuds carry on because there are vested political interests in not settling. The most recent war in Gaza is the perfect illustration on both sides--entrenched interests with little real interest in resolution.

  9. Commentedhari naidu

    Gideon Levy - Haaretz columnist - was literally lynched domestically - from the right - during the recent Gaza War by Israel. They even labeled him an *anti-Semite*.

    Did you know that? Do you understand that your knowledge of Israeli politics leaves a lot to be desired by a Prof.

    It'd be better if you didn't get subjectively carried away by your intuitive intelligence. You may not know, but like in US today, demographics has dramatically changed the nature of politics in Israel.

      CommentedBea Reg

      Ivan Yu, Levy has now bodyguards and he hates it. There have been a number of articles about how hated Levy is, both in Israeli and foreign media, including The Guardian if you care to google. Here is a link to one:

      CommentedIvan Yu

      could you please provide a proof-link for "literal lynching" of Gideon Levy because Google can't find any, you are probably much more knowledgeable than Google.

  10. Commentedj appelbaum

    "The number of people in the West who really hold such beliefs is, I believe, small. Such people exist in universities. They write blogs. They march together in demonstrations with some indisputably anti-Semitic Islamist militants. But they are far from the mainstream."
    Really!? Mr. Buruma, you've got to get out more often. Some weekend you ought to spend some time in the hinterlands beyond the confines of Bard. Go have a drink with the guys who work on the county highway department or some of the local auto shops etc. You'll get the picture. Read comments to Wall Street Journal opinion pieces. Read comments to articles on the Economist, Yahoo or other online venues, either Jewish or Israel related. You'll get the picture as Westerners let their hair down.

  11. CommentedSuhayl 53

    Lots of good points in this article that make common sense to anyone reading the article. Three points, I'd like to make: (1) The point about "Israel being one of us" is exactly the issue that divides the WASP world from the rest. You can, therefore, imagine what the Arabs in the Middle East must feel about having a WASP-backed state like Israel armed to the teeth situated in their midst, treating the Arabs in an Apartheid fashion. Understanding this perspective and resolving this issue will go a long way towards removing the hostility towards Israel from the Arabs and cut off the support for terrorism. (2) The point about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism being indistinguishable arises from the fact that Israel has been created by the WASPs as a Jewish-only state, contrary to the principles of equality and freedom of all religions practised elsewhere, including in WASP nations post WW2. Any Muslim who's true to their Book, will not be an anti-Semite or an anti-Christian because the Quran recognises them as equal to Muslims and respects their religions - not something that could be said in reverse about the Bible or Torah (this is obvious since Islam was not in existence when these Books were "written"). Muslims can be anti-Zionists but not anti-Semites, even though the western media likes confusing the two (because there is a dominating presence of Jewish and pro-Zionists within western media). Unless this media bias is removed, people in WASP-nations will remain ignorant of the truth. (3) Yes, it is true that leftists tend to see the US, EU and Israel as an Axis of Evil. But can you blame them, when the WASP nations is extracting so much wealth through globalisation and creating so much destruction through their military might in the rest of the world? The WASP nations need to mature and adopt an inclusive attitude towards the world and remove the inequality. There will be no peace until this is in place.