originally published on March 24, 2012. Oddly, the Israel antisemitism post is longer than the other one, because it's a more controversial topic.
To what extent does Israel’s conduct create antisemitism?
I think Israel exacerbates and magnifies anti-Semitism but I don’t think Israel actually creates much of it. Why do I think this?
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: I don’t like the current Israeli government at all. I think that the West Bank settlements are a terrible idea and should either be closed or other land should be traded for them. I think there is a big opportunity at the moment caused by unusual moderation on the West Bank while we’re seeing extremism out of Gaza from Hamas (where there are zero settlements); the best way to undermine Hamas is to play nice with Fatah on the West Bank so that the Gazans see that moderation has serious advantages and eventually throw Hamas out. As often happens, this is an opportunity ignored by Israel’s Likud leadership. I think that the Palestinian State must be given a corner of Jerusalem to put a capital in for the simple reason that a deal that isn’t good for both sides isn’t good for either in the long run because the disadvantaged party will perpetually undermine the agreement instead of supporting it. I think that the ultra-Orthodox have too much policy control in Israel and it is, in the long run, bad news. (The arrest of women for worshipping with a Torah at the Kotel – Western Wall – was a travesty.) I don’t think it’s appropriate any more for the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to be free of the obligation of military service on the grounds that they’re studying Torah – given how many of them there are now, we’ve gone from protecting a function to giving too many privileges to what has turned into a sizeable minority and encouraging both segregation and irresponsibility. I think that Muslims who are Israeli citizens are still treated less than equally – in terms of details like inferior trash collection in their neighborhoods – and that there is zero reason for this crap; also, Avigdor Lieberman’s suggestion that Israeli Muslims should be forced to make loyalty oaths is a fantastic idea if what you want to accomplish is to make their loyalty dependent on oaths. I think if the Israeli government can afford it, some reparations to Palestinians forced out in 1948 would be helpful in spite of the fact that no Arab nation has offered reparations to Jews forced out in the aftermath of Israel’s founding, just because such reparations to Palestinians is likely to help any agreement stick, which is in everyone’s best interests.
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are going anywhere. A failure to acknowledge this doesn’t constitute good policy and can’t lead anywhere good but there are a few bad places it can lead, none of where Israel wants to be, like turning into a real apartheid state (as opposed to phony accusations of being there already) or losing its Jewish majority.
OK, so I pretty much think that Likud is primarily composed of intolerant xenophobic bastards. However, if you go to Israel, then cross the border of your choice, wherever you end up will be even more intolerant and xenophobic than where you just left. You will also notice that, unlike in Israel’s case, the press around the world doesn’t talk much about the intolerance and xenophobia over those borders. Why not?
Because the main issue with Israel isn’t its conduct per se; it’s who is responsible for that conduct.
My original plan was to talk a lot about the grounds on which I think Middle Eastern reaction to Israel is based heavily on anti-Semitism. (I may still do that.) Here on OS we’re very concerned about the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism; after all, a lot of OSers really hate Israel but can’t stand the idea that anyone would dream that they hate Jews. However, I think if you discussed this distinction with an average Middle Eastern Muslim, they’d wonder why the Hell you were bothering. Typically, they don’t, because they don’t regard anti-Semitism as something to be ashamed of. Islam has been interpreted as saying that Jews are a population to be tolerated at best but strictly as second-class citizens, hit with an extra tax for not converting to Islam. Listen to any of thousands of sermons in mosques in the Middle East as to what the Imams are saying about Jews, emphatically including some of those Imams who run Iran. Listen as the flotilla was launched from Turkey to Gaza with references to the Holocaust – and I don’t mean in a sympathetic way. Listen as the Israelis boarding those flotilla boats were met with shouts of “Go back to Auschwitz!” Watch Iran host Holocaust denial conferences. Watch Egypt run Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a serialized TV show, presented as fact. These are not the voices of people who are distinguishing between Israelis and Jews. As far as too many of these people are concerned, the difference between an Israeli and an American Jew is how far your rocket has to travel to reach them.
Maybe some of you think I still need to explain why I believe that anti-Semitism has a major role in Middle Eastern anti-Zionism. Just to cover myself, I’ll do that. The reason is something I alluded to above: The vast difference in reactions to various behaviors when you cross borders.
Why do I think this constitutes anti-Semitism? To answer that question, let me illustrate using an American example:
The United States is still a very racist country, though this fact is not universally acknowledged. When those of us who are convinced of this argue this point, we turn to the most convincing piece of evidence available, evidence whose scope is so overwhelming and whose cause is so unambiguous as to be inarguable:
Disparities in sentencing.
When comparing Black and White criminals who committed similar crimes and had similar criminal records, average sentences for some crimes are absurdly longer for Black defendants, like triple the length. There are also major differences in sentences based on the race of the victim.
This probably isn’t deliberate most of the time, but it’s still racism.
It becomes important to understand what the issue is here and what it isn’t. I am not arguing that Black defendants were innocent, I am arguing that the differences in the scale of justice meted out are not, in fact, just, and that all available evidence as to the cause points straight to racism and nowhere else obvious. The issue, to use another word, is bigotry.
Now, let’s apply this model to a larger scale:
The international, particularly Middle Eastern, vilification of Israel is absurdly greater than that of any other country guilty of proportional offenses. There are way more United Nations resolutions condemning Israel than there are condemning any other nation – second place for this dubious honor isn’t close – and yet Israel’s human rights record as independently evaluated is better than that of a substantial portion of the UN membership. Israel, as a result of the regional structure of organization the UN uses, is the only member nation that can never get a seat on the Security Council.
What has Israel done?
Forcibly moved a large Muslim population? A much, much larger Muslim population was forcibly moved when India and Pakistan gained their independence, coincidentally right around the time Israel did. The reaction has never been parallel or proportional. This coin also has a second side: How many Arab states lost their Jewish populations by either driving them out or by making it abundantly clear that they were no longer safe. Some of this was done during WWII by Arab leaders inspired by Hitler; some of it was done in the aftermath of the founding of Israel when Arab governments assumed that their Jewish populations would automatically be loyal to Israel instead of their home countries – again, making no distinction between Jews and Israelis – in spite of the fact that some of these Jewish populations had been in these countries for millennia and, at least in the case of Iraq, had previously in their history turned down an opportunity to leave home and go back to the land of Israel (during the era of Ezra and Nehemiah, when some Babylonian Jews returned but a large number stayed on). Incidentally, the number of Jews who left majority Muslim countries during this process outnumbers the number of Muslims who left Israel (voluntarily and involuntarily combined) in 1948. Have you ever heard any international reaction to the forcible moving of Jews in the region? I didn’t think so.
Killed Muslim civilians? Far more have been killed in sectarian violence in Iraq and genocidal violence in Darfur than by Israel. Syria is scoring pretty high on this scale at the moment and you’ll notice how reasoned the Middle Eastern reaction is to this.
Treated Muslims unequally? Look at how Middle Eastern governments, of both national and territorial entities, treat Jews. There are religious Jewish populations that don’t approve of the foundation of Israel on the grounds that the return should have been accomplished by God and not by Man. However, even Jewish populations that are religiously anti-Zionist are not welcome in, for example, the Palestinian territories as residents: The Palestinian Authority doesn’t accept Jews, though the West Bank certainly has sites holy to Jews, so Jews would have reasons to want to live there that have nothing to do with the State of Israel. In Saudi Arabia, an area that used to have Jews according to the Qur’an, Jews aren’t typically allowed in even as tourists. Israel, in contrast, has Muslim citizens, Muslims in the Knesset, and Druze Muslims in the military. The asymmetry of religious tolerance gets no attention at all; on one side are the Israelis whose religious tolerance, while way beyond that found in most of the Arab world, is unacceptably less than optimal and who I bring up at all because one would think that international judgment of Israel’s conduct should indicate something about international standards for conduct; on the other side is the Palestinian Authority whose religious tolerance is completely nonexistent when it comes to Jews.
If Israel’s offenses aren’t out of proportion with that of other actors, why is Israel the target of so much more vilification than other national actors that act worse?
To repeat and slightly alter a paragraph from earlier in this post:
It becomes important to understand what the issue is here and what it isn’t. I am not arguing that Israel was innocent, I am arguing that the differences in the scale of justice meted out are not, in fact, just, and that all available evidence as to the cause points straight to anti-Semitism and nowhere else obvious. The issue, to use another word, is bigotry.
This does NOT mean that Israel gets carte blanche on the grounds that other countries in the area routinely do worse. The fact that Israel encounters anti-Semitism does not excuse all actions. However, the fact that Israel encounters anti-Semitism makes certain issue stands on the part of their government predictable; if we do not work to reduce the anti-Semitism they face (NOT the criticism, the anti-Semitism), we will continue to see actions we view as morally repugnant in the name of survival. This I can pretty well promise.
Why? Two reasons:
1. Because if the Israelis view opposition to their country as driven primarily by their identities rather than their actions, they will view policy change as useless because it doesn't fix the problem; i.e. concessions won't change their identities, change of which is out of the question. By this logic, concessions buy them nothing but buy those who want to kill them everything, making concessions illogical. This is pretty much how Likud works. The one time a powerful Arab official deliberately took anti-Semitism out of his official policy, this being Anwar Sadat, the Israelis gave Egypt the Sinai Peninsula back. Not just any Israelis - Likud did.
2. Because anti-Semitism plays into the Israeli leadership's hands in a remarkably similar way to how anti-Zionism plays into Arab leadership's hands: By giving each a major excuse not to change. If this is truly what Likud believes, the logical place to put its energy is into proving that their opponents are just a bunch of anti-Semites.
Unfortunately, the Likud case is too easy to make: "Why should we pull the settlements out of the West Bank? It won't help; we'll end up with less land and no more safety. We tried this already; in fact, we tried it with the Palestinians: We forcibly pulled all our settlers out of Gaza. All it bought us was a few years' worth of missiles fired at Sderot - when we pulled out of Gaza, anti-Israel violence didn't diminish, it escalated."
And make it they do. It used to be that they made it primarily to American Jews, a community which doesn't buy into it as universally as it used to. However, the American fundamentalist Christian community buys into it completely; after all, they're already inclined to demonize Islam and this is a great way to make their case. Likud's base in the US has shifted for this reason.
Here is where I part ways with Likud on anti-Semitism:
1. Though anti-Semitism is utterly pervasive among Israel's enemies, I don't buy that all anti-Semitism is intrinsically insurmountable. Sadat proved that. Accepting anti-Semitism as a given means giving up completely on peace, which is not in Israel's best interests. When we're asked the question: "What can we do about anti-Semitism?" the answer isn't "Nothing."
2. As Jews, our moral obligations are not determined by the actions of our neighbors. In terms of freedom to citizens, measures taken to avoid the deaths of innocent civilians in military actions, egalitarianism, medical aid to people in trouble overseas, etc., Israel is miles ahead of anyone anywhere near them, but one of the ultimate objects behind having a Jewish state is to run it by Jewish moral standards, not by comparative standards. The object isn't to be Better than anyone else in particular; the object is to be Good.
3. It is not cost-effective for Israel to maintain the status quo, so it is logical for Israel to search seriously for alternatives. Being in a constant state of the brink of war is expensive in too many ways. Therefore, Israel should concentrate on what can be done about anti-Semitism on a local level.
If nothing else, if you interact with me with any regularity you can begin to tell why I'm so worried about anti-Zionism taking forms that can be construed as anti-Semitism: The more Israel sees anti-Semitism in its critics, the less likely we are to see improvement. Whenever you claim Israeli Immoral Exceptionalism (I just came up with that phrase), you might as well be telling Benjamin Netanyahu to open up another Israeli settlement on the West Bank.
A somewhat tangential but very important point:
I am not interested in entertaining the argument that Israel’s behavior creates justifiable anti-Semitism because I do not believe that bigotry can be justified by anything. I am not Israeli. I do not vote in Israeli elections. I do not influence Israeli policy-makers. I do not support the current Israeli government in a similar vein to my lack of support for the Republican Party. I do not recognize anyone’s right to hate me for Israel’s policies, nor do I recognize the right of anyone to attack, persecute, or threaten non-Israeli populations based on actions for which they bear no responsibility. Anyone who does is an anti-Semite, a garden-variety bigot. Period.
OK, moving on:
The next question is: Why is most of the Muslim Middle East so much more sensitive to the crimes of Israel than to the crimes of anyone else?
My best theory is the phenomenon of the Uppity Jews. Muslims all over the Middle East will tell you that Jews and Muslims used to get along. This is largely true; all that’s missing is the phrase “as long as they knew their place.” If this sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that. (If the word “uppity is unfamiliar to you, it was American southern slang for Blacks who “didn’t know their place.” They were frequently taught their “place” by the Ku Klux Klan.) And then these outside agitators (Eastern European Jewish Freedom Riders down from New Yor….uh, I mean Eastern European Jewish Holocaust survivors) screwed everything up. Of course, that doesn’t exactly wash, because when Israel first had a Sephardic (Mediterranean Jews, mainly from Arab countries) majority is when the Labor Party started losing national elections to the more hard line and less tolerant Likud Party. In other words, contrary to what we hear a lot, Israel isn’t simply a “Western” country; in fact, when Israel first turned more hard line, Westerners were literally in the minority.
Here was this small, traditionally subservient population. First they manage to get a country; a pretty tiny one, but a country nonetheless, and a bunch of Arab nations attack simultaneously to nip this upstart in the bud. And fail at it. For the next nineteen years, Egypt and Jordan keep the Arab refugees from Israel in refugee camps, largely to keep them angry. Then the pan-Arabist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt starts preparations to drive the Jews into the sea in 1967, militarily seals off Israel’s only access to the Indian Ocean, and war breaks out with Israel against all its neighbors…..which Israel wins. In less than a week. Which leads to a huge new problem:
Tiny Israel (about the size of New Jersey but skinnier) has now given itself a bit more of a cushion around a lot of its borders. It takes all of Jerusalem, including access to the Kotel, also known as the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall, which might have been less of an issue if Jordan had allowed Jewish visitors there between 1948 and 1967. Along with Jerusalem, however, comes the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. The original refugee populations, kept in camps for nineteen years under Egyptian and Jordanian rule, are now under Israeli rule, as are local populations. Now the traditional model is upside down: there is a significant Muslim population being ruled by Jews, more or less as conquerers. Whatever anger there was to begin with gets worse in a hurry.
Since then, Israel has developed economically very quickly, with a highly technological economy and a concentration of highly educated citizens like no other nation on Earth. Most Arab economies are stagnating and most of the ones that have done well in recent years have done so based on oil, not anything they actually produce. (The main exception these days is, believe it or not, the Palestinian West Bank, which is actually industrializing.) The growing contrast serves as a growing irritant and, more importantly, as a growing humiliation, which is the most dangerous thing you can do to a population. Nothing will build hatred faster than humiliation.
Lest anyone misread my tone: I do not view the lack of Arab economic progress independent of oil as a good thing; I view it mainly as a byproduct of despotic regimes using Israel as a distraction to their populations for how little they’re doing to serve those populations. Zionist or not, I view the popular revolutions around the Arab world as a great thing.
Israel has been guilty of making its own problems worse, partially by not taking advantage of opportunities (particularly recent ones on the part of Fatah, which has shifted a lot of emphasis from Israeli resistance to economic development) and partially by having both a political and a cultural tin ear. Any given culture will value the scarce commodity. In the case of Jews, that’s traditionally been justice, particularly as it relates to safety. In Israel, safety takes precedence because they live in a very unsafe neighborhood and founded their country in the aftermath of the most unsafe period for Jews in about two thousand years. On the other hand, what the Arabs have tended to lack from the rest of the world is respect. That’s why you see all that crazy conspicuous construction in Dubai. Jews may have faced a lot of persecution but we’ve always been respected – people acknowledge that we’re capable. That is, if anything, even more true in Israel, so Israelis don’t tend to view respect as a valuable commodity; in fact, they can’t relate to it as a valuable commodity – to an engineering-oriented people in a respect-rich environment, worrying a lot about manners seems sort of pointless. However, it is extremely valuable to Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. Treating Palestinians like criminals at checkpoints is, quite simply, political stupidity. Get nasty to some guy’s wife and kids in front of their husband and father when you have a choice is a great way to make an enemy for life, while showing more respect could gain more substantive concessions and is essentially free. Hey, why bother when we’ve got the guns? Because the right gestures could make some of those guns unnecessary.
That’s all I’m going to say about anti-Semitism among Middle Eastern populations for the time being. There are also a lot of anti-Semitic attitudes centered around Israel in Europe; again, not new anti-Semitism so much as exacerbated existing anti-Semitism. The reasons there are somewhat different:
1. Viewing the Israelis as oppressors minimizes European guilt for either not helping Jews survive the Nazis or actually collaborating with the Nazis.
2. Referring to the Israelis as “Nazis” has the twin advantages of making Jews look even less deserving and trivializing the whole Nazi episode, further minimizing their guilt.
3. Demonizing Israel pacifies Europe’s growing Muslim population.
4. Demonizing Israel, because it pacifies the growing European Muslim population, minimizes European guilt about discriminating against Muslims in areas like employment.
5. Demonizing Israel curries favor with majority Muslim oil producing countries in the Middle East.
What makes European anti-Semitism targeted at Israel especially bizarre is the issue of ignored shared values. We could compare Israel to most countries in the region but, being as we’re concentrating on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, particularly with Gaza, let’s compare the two entities in power, in Israel and Gaza:
One entity practices religious pluralism, the other doesn’t.
One entity is, in the civic sphere, gender-egalitarian; the other oppresses the crap out of women.
The first entity is not actively trying to get rid of the people in the second entity; the second entity is actively trying to get rid of the people in the first.
One entity has a better gay rights record than the United States has; the other has a worse gay rights record than Uganda has.
One entity has a free press, the other doesn’t.
One entity expends massive – in fact on a scale unprecedented anywhere – efforts to avoid killing innocent civilians during military actions; the other consistently targets them.
One entity practices political pluralism, the other doesn’t; in fact, the other has been known to shoot the kneecaps out of political opponents from within their own people.
You’d think, given the liberal attitudes found in most European countries, particularly Western European countries, that people there would gravitate toward the first entity. Actually, a surprising number gravitate toward the second. And typically give it a free pass for its behavior.
How many reasons can there be?
Not very many I haven’t already listed. But, mainly,
See the title.