War of the Words: Israel and the U.S.

Foreign Affairs, Global War on Terrorism, Judaism, Other, Other Religions, Politics, Religion — By on June 14, 2010 at 1:01 am

As Israel struggles to stay afloat beneath the nearly universal condemnation of its conduct in the recent flotilla incident, I can’t help wondering: When did racism suddenly become so socially acceptable – and even fashionable – in the U.S.?

To be sure, the decades-long struggle between Israel, Palestine, and the rest of the world is far from simple, and atrocities have doubtless been committed by both sides.  War is ugly, and we are rightly repulsed by it.  We make an enormous tactical mistake, however, when we allow this to separate us form our long-time ally–because that is exactly what our mutual enemy hopes for.  The U.S. government is doing no one any favors by distancing itself from Israel’s recent actions—no one, that is, except the flotilla organizers.  They depended on just this sort of reaction to solidify Israel’s place as Most Hated Nation. By making their own enemy the enemy of the civilized world, the Islamists behind the flotilla have gained an entirely new set of friends and potential allies.

Anti-Zionism is often merely a half step away from anti-Semitism. Though the two ideologies are not precisely identical—anti-Semitism was around long before the state of Israel existed—they are very closely related—so closely related, in fact, that in stoking the flames of anti-Zionism across the globe, the organizers of the flotilla have, at least temporarily, made anti-Semitism a Western virtue.  And almost no one has noticed.

Israel’s account of the events leading up to this week’s international outrage is fairly straightforward.  In fact, it’s the only unambiguous part of this whole PR nightmare.  Every other nation’s reaction has been so heavily contextualized with emotions and memories of past events that it’s a wonder we know what happened at all.

This is intentional.  Cold, hard facts are easy to confirm or deny; symbols are not. The flotilla, its cargo, and its passengers were selected to confuse the issues by serving as a symbol of Israeli aggression or of Palestinian hardship or of . . . whatever else it might take to turn the world against Israel.  Mostly, it was intended to spark anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments all over the globe.  It worked.

The international media’s emotional outrage is clearly about a lot more than just the deaths of the protestors on the flotilla.  It’s about the much longer struggle, stretched out over decades, between Israel and Palestine.  It’s about the resentments on both sides, and about how hard it is to wait patiently for a resolution between two competing worldviews.  And it’s about the belief, implicit in all these frustrations, that the world would be a better place without both Israel and the Jewish people.

In other words, it’s about the Islamist narrative.

Why is the leadership of our government buying into this narrative? It’s not a narrative that will ever be good for the U.S.  Neglecting our longstanding relationship with Israel will merely lead to the deterioration with our other Middle Eastern alliances.  With Iran so close to developing a nuclear weapons arsenal, we cannot afford to cause unnecessary shifts in the balance of power.  Not only can we not afford to alienate our ally, but we also can’t afford to endorse anti-Semitism in any form—not only because it is wrong, but also because where anti-Semitism thrives, anti-Americanism too often follows.

Yet we are endorsing it, as is the rest of the world, when we refuse to give Israel a fair trial.  This is not to say that Israel is incapable of error or that we should support our ally without reservation or precondition. Like all nations, Israel is a flawed state composed of imperfect people.  But in being so quick to assume that the international media narrative is correct, we are opening ourselves to exactly the sort of feelings and opinions that our enemies have been hoping for.

Islamists have ennobled their own position in the world by making Israel a global outcast.  They’ve encouraged us to turn against one of our best allies, endangering our own security in the process. They’ve also enflamed the anti-Semitic suspicion and hatred that is frequently associated with anti-American convictions.

The media frenzy surrounding the flotilla will quickly subside and most of us will forget about it within weeks. But next time Israel acts in a way that the world doesn’t approve of,  it will be easier for us to uncritically condemn them, and easier for us to learn to hate them.  If we don’t stop ourselves we will become so much like our enemies that they will defeat us without our even noticing. ‘


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  • Naomi

    Disclaimer: This is a political topic in regard to which I have a difficult time keeping my cool; please forgive me if I end up a little overheated, though I will try to do my best to remain as rational as humanly possible because I think it’s desperately important to do so

    The argument that criticism of Israel is directly linked to anti-Zionism is false; the argument that anti-Zionism is directly linked to anti-Semitism is false; the resulting inference that criticism of Israel gives vent to anti-Semitic sentiment is false; and this topic is particularly sensitive for me because, as a Jew, I deeply resent the co-opting of the “Anti-Semitism!” rallying cry every time Israel ends up in trouble AND believe it ultimately serves our real anti-Semitic enemies more than it serves ourselves.

    First, Zionism is a complex political-ideological movement with complicated historical origins and not easy to sum up in the space of one comment; at the risk of some oversimplification, Zionism, which existed for a long time before World War II, gained new popularity as a Jewish movement advocating for a Jewish homeland post-Holocaust. (It later became associated with specifically advocating a Palestine-located Jewish homeland rather than one in an alternate location–New Zealand and Alaska, among others, were also on the table.)

    And so, the first thing to note: from the very origins of the movement, not all Jews were Zionists. Many devout Jews were deeply alarmed by Zionist sentiments (again, for complicated reasons) and the resultant struggle tore many Jewish communities apart. (Read Chaim Potok's The Chosen for a window on this.) Zionism represents a particular belief about the Jews as people; namely, that it is important for us to have our own national-political identity and our own nation to go with it. Not all Jews share this and many of those who don't, while respecting and even loving Israel for opening its doors to Jewry worldwide, do not appreciate it when political Israel occasionally crosses the border into setting itself up as Judaism incarnate (or when other political bodies or positions do the same).

    So. Enter Israel. The second thing to note: Israel is a political entity. It is a nation. Like America or Germany or any other nation, it is fallible; every nation makes mistakes. Sometimes many people die as a result of those mistakes. As Rachel wisely pointed out, “the decades-long struggle between Israel, Palestine, and the rest of the world is far from simple, and atrocities have doubtless been committed by both sides”. Being pro-Israel, therefore, is not a simple matter of being pro-Jewish and pro-Zionist — you can be both without being pro-Israel, which is to say, you can support Jews and support the notion of a Jewish homeland without supporting (some of) the current political decisions or attitudes of this particular Jewish homeland's particular current government.

    I was pro-America even when I was anti-Bush, for that matter, so let's take it one degree farther: you can be pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist, AND pro-Israeli without supporting every decision made by Netanyahu & co.

    Run that chain in reverse: I can criticize a decision without criticizing Israel, Zionism, or Jews. So can anyone else. And this flotilla business is still a murky incident. (We don't even have a full investigation upon which to report yet.) Moreover, the international community has a responsibility to interact with Israel as a NATION, first and foremost, because that's how the international community works. It's supposed to see (inter)national concerns before all others and respond accordingly. Granted, there are critical nuances here; more often than is ideal, nations only criticize the nations they don't like or don't agree with (or are threatened by). (As a side note, the inference that we can't criticize our allies while remaining allied with them always puzzles the living daylights out of me. What else are allies for? If they won't criticize you constructively, who will?) We also absolutely have to remain very conscious that there does exist a very real, very dangerous, very noisy group of genuine anti-Semites who would love to see the Jews blasted off the face of the earth, and not all of them are Muslims (and not all Muslims are among them, of course).

    Still — and this is where I start to get grouchy — lately, Israel and Israel's allies do NOT hesitate to cry anti-Semitism EVERY time Israel comes under criticism. And so, if I, as a center-leftist Jewish Christian, say that I'm not 100% sure the flotilla incident leaves Israel entirely blameless, my criticism of Netanyahu's government becomes a criticism of Israel, which becomes a criticism of Zionism, which becomes a criticism of not only the behavior but the very existence of all Jews everywhere, which is anti-Semitism. This makes me VERY angry for what I think are obvious reasons. It may serve someone's political interest for all criticism of the nation of Israel to be labeled anti-Semitic, but it's morally unconscionable. It also, if I may hazard a controversial opinion, gives Israel's true enemies reason to believe that Israel is not viewed objectively by its allies, but is rather treated with unparalleled partiality bordering on the irrational, which gives them further fodder for their own anti-Semitic arguments. This is such a complicated issue that our only choice, as supporters of Jews OR Zionists OR Israel OR Netanyahu, is to retain firm but nuanced positions rather than resorting to anything that could be criticized by those who really do wish Israel, and all Jews everywhere, to vanish.

    Oh, and finally, the other reason this business stresses me out is that, on a domestic level, it allows the American right to take a nasty dig at the American left on completely unwarranted grounds. Accusing the average leftist commentator of anti-Semitism is as insulting as it is utterly bogus.

    Ergo, Rachel, I believe I have demonstrated that your statement that “in stoking the flames of anti-Zionism across the globe, the organizers of the flotilla have, at least temporarily, made anti-Semitism a Western virtue” is false. I also find it offensive (though I love you to pieces, as I hope I've told you often enough). Have I provided enough counter-argumentative material to warrant a revision?

  • LindsayStallones

    Really well said, Naomi, and classily so. I haven't really had the chance to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in depth. What sources would you recommend?

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