Israel was once the plucky underdog supported by Western public opinion, Left and Right. Today, it is the object of a global campaign to demonise the state and question its very right to exist. A new book by Joshua Muravchik, Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel (Encounter Books, 2014), seeks to explain this fall.
Joshua Muravchik is a fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom.
Part 1: 1967: the turning point
Alan Johnson: Let’s begin in 1967. Why was the Six Day War such a turning point?
Joshua Muravchik: For three main reasons, the third of which has different component parts. The first reason is simply that Israel was never again to seem as vulnerable or endangered as it did at that moment. With memories of the Holocaust still fresh, many people around the world – and particularly in Europe – shuddered at the idea that there might be a reprise of that. The Arab spokesmen were making blood-chilling threats and mobilised their armies on Israel’s borders, so there was a rallying to Israel’s side. Then, when Israel won so easily and so overwhelmingly, it didn’t seem to be so endangered.
Second, Israel’s smashing victory was a terrible humiliation to the Soviet Union – Israel was in the Western camp in the Cold War and the Arabs were in the Soviet camp. This had consequences. It was very moving for Jews in the Soviet Union, many of whom had no substantive Jewish identity at that point. They weren’t practising Jews, religiously, and they mostly didn’t have any other cultural connection to Jewishness, because it wasn’t really allowed (except that it was stamped onto their internal passports). It touched off this movement of Soviet Jews demanding to emigrate, which was the first relatively mass protest movement in the USSR in its history.
On top of that, I think it gave some inspiration to dissidents within the Eastern Bloc who had been unhappy under Soviet rule (to put it mildly), but who had very faint hope of being able to do anything about it. The fact that little Israel could defeat larger, Soviet-armed clients was a ray of hope for them. The Kremlin was infuriated and perhaps somewhat frightened by all this, so it amplified its global campaign of anti-Zionism and began to treat Zionism as a major global menace. That had some reverberations around the world, as a part of world opinion was subject to Soviet influence.
The third factor was that this defeat was also an immense humiliation to Nasser. Nasser was, I think to this day, the most popular leader there has ever been in the Arab world and his ideology was pan-Arabism. At that moment, pan-Arabism was the ‘hottest’ idea in the Arab world, perhaps in a way analogous to the excitement around Islamism of recent decades. This terrible bringing low of Nasser also cleared the field for the renewed expression of particular nationalisms – especially the emergence of Palestinian nationalism – which had not been a factor in the Arab world (and hadn’t even been a strong factor in the Palestinian world) until that moment.
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed in 1964 – by Nasser – and it did not have an agenda of creating a Palestinian state or Palestinian sovereignty; those two things were not mentioned in the Palestinian National Charter written in 1964. But after 1967, those who were nationalists, namely a little group led by Arafat based in Kuwait who had formed Fatah, moved into the PLO, which they had not been part of, and took it over. (I believe Arafat became chairman in 1969). They made it a platform for Palestinian nationalism which began to be espoused among the Palestinian people, among other Arabs and on a global stage.
I said that part three of my three-part answer had different parts to it: the other side of this coin was that Israel ended up occupying the West Bank and Gaza (as well as the Golan Heights, which was a different matter). Ruling over several million Palestinian Arabs, suddenly Israel was an occupier and the conflict became redefined. Instead of the Arabs versus little Israel, it became Israel against a much smaller and weaker Palestine and that put Israel in a different light. Up until now, people understood the conflict was about the effort to deny the Jews a state of their own; now it was recast as the Jews denying somebody else a state.
Part 2: Oil and Terrorism
AJ: Your book really faces up to how huge shifts in what we could call ‘raw power’ – in particular, the new power of oil, and of terrorism –– to intimidate states and suborn the foreign policy of western countries. Could you talk a little bit about the impact of these two developments on Israel?
JM: These material forces influenced governments. There were also intellectual changes which influenced the opinion leaders. Of course, there’s no wall separating governments and the opinion class, or the two forms of power, material and intellectual: both things had an effect on both groups.
The material factors began with a campaign of terrorism by the Palestinians and they may have even surprised themselves at how effective they were at intimidating both Europeans and moderate Arabs. If you’d have asked me what their goal in this terror campaign was, I would have said that, more than intimidation, the goal was simply to draw the world’s attention to the Palestinian cause by these dramatic acts. And the aeroplane hijackings, bombings and sometimes machine-gunning did draw the world’s attention. Even though people didn’t like terrorism, it made them more aware of the Palestinian cause and it had an intimidating effect which evoked a kind of appeasement response.
We know that several European governments made quiet deals with the Palestinians to keep the violence off their soil. One barometer of this was that in virtually every case – and there were dozens – where the perpetrators were taken into custody after a hijacking or terror act, they were soon released. This was sometimes in exchange for other hostages who had been seized by the terrorists and sometimes as part of some other diplomatic deal. This was a measure of how much governments, particularly European governments, didn’t want to be embroiled in a conflict with these groups and were inclined to make concessions to keep things quiet. Something similar was at work among the moderate Arabs; Arafat’s deputy, “Abu Iyad,” even boasted in his memoirs that he had created ‘a climate of terror’ around the Rabat Arab League summit in 1974, which declared the PLO the sole representative of the Palestinian people. This climate of terror was one of the ways the moderate Arabs were whipped into line. So the terrorism, oddly, even though it alienated and was ugly to people, did in fact advance the Palestinian cause.
On top of that, and in the same era, came the Oil Embargo (1973); in that case we even had some European leaders saying openly that because they were dependent on Arab regimes for energy supplies they had to adjust their policies in order not to alienate those regimes. Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs that he felt very strongly that the West could not safely live under a ‘Sword of Damocles’ of future oil cut-offs. He had the idea to somehow rally Western countries to come up with a way of counteracting it so they wouldn’t be subject to future threats. He doesn’t say what that method would have been, presumably some reciprocal threat, but he does say in his memoirs that, ‘every minister I consulted was still terrified of possible confrontation with the oil producers.’ It would be fair to say this was easy for the US since we were, on the whole, less dependent on Middle Eastern oil by a considerable margin than the Europeans and the Japanese were at that time. But whatever the balance between the US and the Europeans, the point was that oil was a powerful factor of intimidation.
The third thing I would put in this category of ‘material’ pressures is the overwhelming weight of numbers on the Arab side. There were 22 Arab League states to one Israel, 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to one Israel and 100 Muslims in the world for each Jew. I think the Arabs learned how to take advantage of the diplomatic and economic muscle that this constituted, above all in taking control of the UN. Outside of the Security Council, where there is a Western veto, they took control in all other UN bodies and used the UN as a battering ram against Israel.
Part 3: The ‘new paradigm of progressive thought’
AJ: You talk in the book about a new paradigm of progressive thought. What was it about that paradigm that meant Israel was the big loser?
JM: In a nutshell, after a century or so, the paradigm which came from Marx – of a class struggle – had lost a good deal of its allure and was pushed aside by the new paradigm of racial, national and ethnic struggle. That grew out of the anti-colonial movements which reverberated in Europe and were overlaid by the Civil Rights Movement in the US. In the US, Civil Rights was something different to anti-colonialism, but both were seen to be part of one broader struggle of the people of colour against the white man, or as is sometimes put, the ‘Rest against the West.’ I remember for example Jesse Jackson, at the height of his considerable popularity in the US, made a visit to Cuba and launched into a litany of slogans, the theme of which was ‘our time has come’ and where the first person plural of ‘our time’ meant blacks in America, Latinos and other third-world people fighting against the West. It was seen somehow as all part of one omnibus struggle and this paradigm really was more exciting to my generation and subsequent ones – generations post-World War Two – than the older class struggle paradigm. The labour movement today, (certainly in the US, but I think throughout the West) is a less exciting, vibrant or inspiring than it was during my parent’s generation.
Now if you look at the world and see a drama of the ‘Rest against the West’, or the people of colour against the white man, and perceive that struggle as the main moral drama of the age, then Israel comes across as the Western white guys, whilst the Arabs and Palestinians are the anti-colonial people of colour. It doesn’t matter what the details of any episode are: history tells you that one side are the ‘good guys’ and the forces of the future while the other side are the forces of the past which need to be swept away.
Part 4: Academia and the importance of Edward Said
AJ: You devote an entire chapter of the book to the late Edward Said. Why is he so important to this story?
JM: One, he was the apotheosis of this new paradigm which I have described. Two, he was immensely influential. For example, a few years ago a reviewer in The Guardian described him as ‘perhaps the most influential intellectual of the 20th century,’ and I don’t think that raised any eyebrows. Over here, a few years ago, an internet search of university syllabi found 868 different courses in American colleges and universities where one or another book by Edward Said is assigned. Such major universities as UCLA and Georgetown have entire courses on the thought of Edward Said and Cambridge University Press has published the Cambridge Introduction to Edward Said.
I try to show in the book that his work is really flawed in a fundamental way; not only is it something which is mistaken, or that I disagree with, but it rests on a kind of intellectual fraud – arguing a hypothesis without doing the obvious scholarly tests of it, in fact quite conscientiously rigging the evidence beforehand to sustain the hypothesis, even though any reasonable way of formulating the test would have refuted the hypothesis. His hypothesis in his most famous book Orientalism is that ‘every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethno-centric.’ Later in the book he says explicitly that the generalisations he makes about Europeans also apply to Americans. What it boils down to is: every white person is inherently racist, which is of course self-contradictory, because if you say every white person is inherently racist, that in itself is a racist statement! And if the racism of white people really is inherent – if it’s in their DNA – then how can you make a moral judgement of it?
That was the essence of what Said had to say. I call it a fraud, but I also think it perfectly captured not only this paradigm, but the mood of an era in which Europeans were beset by guilt over colonialism and Americans were beset by guilt over the whole history of race in America. This guilt would have been much more useful had it burgeoned back when Asia and Africa were still colonies or when slavery or Jim Crow were still being practised, but it says something about the weakness of human beings that the guilt seems to grow larger after the fact, when it doesn’t really matter very much.
AJ: Was Said the person who took this ‘West vs. the Rest’ paradigm and applied it to the Israel-Palestine conflict, making the conflict intelligible in those terms?
JM: He was a very curious Palestinian in the sense that he had grown up in Egypt in a very well to-do Protestant home. His name, Edward, he once explained to an interviewer, was taken from Prince Edward. Said’s father was a man who made wealth and was fiercely eager to culturally westernise his own life and family. Said went to an elite high school in the US and then to American colleges and universities; his initial field was literary criticism. So although he was of nominal Palestinian background, he seemed like a standard Western left-of-centre intellectual and that was how he presented himself at the time he wrote Orientalism, the book which made his career. After Orientalism, most of his writing was about the Palestinian cause and he served on the Palestinian National Council. In later interviews he said that when he wrote Orientalism, he had the Palestinian cause in mind all along, even though he had not acknowledged this in the book.
Part 5: When Israel ‘plays into the hands of its enemies’
AJ: One of the chapters in Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel is titled ‘When Israel shows the world its less endearing face.’ We had the victory of the Likud in 1977, the rise of revisionist Zionism, the increased salience of the claim to all of Mandate Palestine as Jewish and biblically-secured, the rise of religious settler movements and the project of retaining the territory captured in the 1967 War. You quote Menachem Begin saying ‘you don’t annex your own country.’ And then there’s the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. So in this five or six year period are several developments which make people take a second look at Israel. You cite a column from this period by the American George Will. He warned that Israel’s existence depended upon ‘its tenuous hold on the imagination of the West, and especially of the American people.’ That hold, argued Will, depends on ‘Israel appearing familiar … part of the Western family… Its aspirations must be intelligible to the secular people who could not care less what God promised Abraham.’ In our legitimate desire to push back against the demonisation of Israel, are we a little reticent to talk about as all this as a factor in the perception of Israel today?
JM: I would be acting more like Edward Said if I didn’t also acknowledge the things that cut against my main hypothesis, namely the things Israel has done that are offensive to people, or that people do not understand and which put Israel in a bad light. It’s very important to address these. There are two related parts to this. The first concerns where the writ comes from for Israel’s claim to its existence, to this territory. The second is the actual behaviour of Israel on the territory occupied in 1967.
I understand that from Begin’s point of view, and the point of view of many or most Zionists, Israel is the ancient and the biblical home of the Jewish people. But I think for the rest of the world, the claim to the land can’t be based on that. It has to be based on the Balfour Declaration, which was then incorporated into the treaties ending the First World War, creating the legal Palestine Mandate owned by Britain. And it is further based on the UN Partition Agreement. This all creates a legal case for Israel’s right to exist. There is certainly also a strong legal case in international law for Israeli actions of self-defence and there’s even a strong legal case for some changes in the temporary borders along the armistice lines of 1949 (the borders in existence at the outbreak of the Six Day War) – that is, legal basis in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 242, reiterated in Resolution 338 – which spoke of secure and recognised borders.
You have this whole constellation of legal (and with it moral) claims that Israel, and those who advocate for Israel, can point to. But Begin turns to the biblical claim which resonates with some people, but not with most. I think it probably doesn’t even resonate with most Jews and certainly not with a lot of non-Jews. Maybe some biblically-orientated Christians would also accept it but that’s much too thin a reed to rest a claim on in contemporary politics.
Compounding that was Begin’s decision to encourage settlements in the West Bank. Some of them had begun, but they had been mostly – not entirely – discouraged by the Labour governments until then. As I said before, there was a wide feeling inside Israel, which was pretty much accepted in the US and to some extent elsewhere, that there would be some adjustments to the 1949 Armistice lines to make Israel more secure. If there were some settlements in areas which had some clear connection to the need for security, I think that would have been accepted by many. But Begin’s project, or the project he supported, was to use settlements in order to try to cement control of the West Bank. That was both foolish from a public relations point of view and also really hard to defend on principle. You could make a case saying that countries which get attacked and subjected to aggression by their neighbours and successfully defend themselves may end up occupying some territory which belonged to the aggressor and hang on to it. That has happened in other places and no one has complained too much. But in this case, the terrible problem is that there are Arabs living in these territories. In the modern world there’s no justifiable way to deny them some form of sovereignty or self-determination.
The third part was the 1982 Lebanon War which was engineered by Sharon but with Begin acquiescing in it. The war had an element of justifiability; the PLO was camped on Israel’s northern border and had vowed to destroy Israel. It kept up a ‘tat-tat-tat’ of terror attacks. Israel was not obligated to endure that, so the idea of pushing the PLO away from the border was in itself justifiable under the rubric of self-defence. But Israel went much further than that – it wanted to re-make Lebanon. This was unlike Israel’s other wars, which were clearly wars of self-defence; this was really a war of choice and a war of a certain ambition. Not imperial ambition, Israel was not trying to seize any of Lebanon, but it was trying to install a different government in Lebanon.
That there was something wrong in this, even if you could justify part of it, was suggested by the fact that Begin was lying about Israel’s objectives in the war. It may be that Begin was not deliberately lying – that Sharon was lying to Begin and Begin was just repeating the lie – but they were lies. If you have a good case to make, then why lie about it? It was symbolised at the end by the airstrikes on Beirut when Arafat was holed up there. Israel, in particular Sharon, was trying to pressure him to take his PLO forces and leave and they were dropping bombs on buildings where they thought the PLO had leaders and facilities. It was an ugly picture which seemed to encapsulate this war of dubious legitimacy. Then, of course, it was capped off with the massacre in Sabra and Shatila after Arafat left. You can put some things on the scale on the other side, there were a lot of other bad things done by other actors in the region which may not have been criticised as harshly, but nonetheless, these were bad things done by Israel and they harmed Israel’s case to the rest of the world.
Part 6: The rise of an Israeli ‘adversary culture’
AJ: The book also identifies a development within Israel that helped cause the world to fall out of love with the country; a kind of obsessive focus on Israel’s mistakes by some Israelis in what you call an ‘adversary culture’. Any outsider looking to demonise Israel, you note, ‘has already had his research done for him by Israel’s home-grown adversary culture and can couch his vituperations in quotes from Israeli sources.’ What is the ‘Israeli adversary culture’ and why has it been so damaging for Israel’s international standing?
JM: It was surprising to me to come across it. I thought that Israelis universally had a sense of the fragility of their country. I’ve had a reader comment to me that this was a particularly painful part of the book to read.
In the US, we had a strand of opinion which was very substantial in my generation in the 1960s, the so-called New Left; people who think the US really is a terrible country. It was common for these radicals to spell America with a ‘k’ rather than a ‘c’ to suggest something dramatic and make an implicit analogy with Nazi Germany. People would speak of being in the ‘belly of the beast,’ with the US being the ‘beast.’ There was a whole strand of political opinion in the US which looked upon the US itself as the main problem in the world; as if the US were the ‘evil empire’ as Reagan called the USSR. It was surprising for me to discover that the exact same thing exists in Israel; that there’s a layer of political opinion in the radical Left in Israel that looks upon Israel as a monster, as a terrible country and as something that shouldn’t exist and should be replaced by some kind of multi-ethnic state.
How important is it? Just like the radical Left in the US it can’t get enough votes to get a seat in Parliament, but it does have substantial representation in the academic world. There are some petitions which get signed by some hundred academics saying the most extreme things and even suggesting that Israel should somehow self-dissolve in favour of a multi-national state. This isn’t so influential in Israel, but when it pops up it makes the headlines outside of Israel. There are also groups, NGOs which form that may have the adherence of only a small number of Israelis but then get funded by European governments who are very critical of Israel. If a small group is able to get a substantial grant from the EU or from some EU country, they can get an office, some staff and make a lot of noise – and so they do.
Part 7: The post-socialist spiritual vacuum of Zionism
AJ: As I understand your argument, the ‘adversary culture’ was able to have such an impact because Zionism itself lost the ability to animate people’s lives. Labour Zionism declined, as did every other form of socialism all over the world, and the alternative to it in Israel, a more religious and scriptural form of Zionism, didn’t really move people in the same way or in the same numbers. Could you talk about this part of the book’s argument?
JM: In the Zionist movement there were always different strands, but the dominant strand was Labour Zionism. As you know, Marxist thought was very strongly represented among Jews and Jewish intellectuals going back to the 19th century. Labour Zionism put together the idea of Zionism with the global ideals of socialism. The idea of the Labour Zionists was that in creating Israel, they would not only create a homeland which would be a refuge, redemptive for the Jewish people; it would also be a model socialist society of high ideals. I think that was accomplished to a surprising degree by the kibbutz movement. To my eyes, the kibbutzim were the farthest mankind ever got towards creating a real socialism that was free, voluntary, democratic, egalitarian and completely conformed to the ideals which inspired so many people over generations to become socialists. Private property was really abolished – in some kibbutzim there was not even personal clothing! At the end of the week you’d turn in a bunch of laundry to the central laundry and get back a stack of cleanly laundered communal clothes to wear for the next week.
Some of the esprit de corps of Israel and some of the affection for it in the outside world was that it was not merely the Jewish redemption or the Jewish refuge, but a model of socialism. But the model petered out, as different socialist models did around the world. In the case of the kibbutzim, it was in the third generation: the founders built these wonderful utopian models, their children laboured to preserve them but their grandchildren grew tired of living in this particular way and wanted more individualism. Israel moved away from socialism, as did most of the world. That benefited Israel economically – the country grew more prosperous as it moved more towards market economics – but it robbed the country of two things. First, that favour in the eyes of others which it had earned for its socialist experiment. Second, the self-identity of building a model society. Israel became a country of people living their own daily lives for their own well-being, with a diminished sense of higher purpose.
Part 8: Turning the tide
AJ: What is the beginning of wisdom when it comes to turning around the shift in opinion about Israel?
JM: That’s not my forte; I spent the first 10 years of my adult life being a kind of activist and decided I wasn’t very good at it, so I’m perhaps not well-credentialed.
We have a very different situation in the US from what you have in the UK or in Europe. American public opinion is still very strongly favourable to Israel, more so than the US government at this moment, but because the US government is very sensitive to public opinion it can’t be too unfriendly, and it isn’t. In the US the key thing is that Israel gets tremendous and crucial support from Evangelical Protestants. Yet, the American Jewish community mostly keeps the Evangelicals at arm’s-length and is uneasy with this support. It’s perfectly clear to me why that feeling is there; historically, Jews suffered persecution in Europe and the secular world was much more inclined to favour citizenship and liberation for the Jews than the religious world. This is exemplified by the Dreyfus Affair, which is in a sense the emblematic expression of the battle in European opinion about Jews and anti-Semitism. It’s kind of ingrained in Jews that the more secular Christians are more likely to be our friends and the more religious ones are more likely to persecute us. But it needs to get un-ingrained because in the US Evangelical Protestants are really ardent, important friends of Israel. They also have friendlier attitudes towards Jews per se than others, so it really behoves the Jewish community in the US to open its heart to the Evangelicals and reciprocate this friendly attitude.
In Europe, the main thing is to fight back fearlessly, especially on an intellectual level; the anti-Israel sentiment there has taken on the spirit of a lynch mob. People get intimidated and either keep quiet or defend Israel in very apologetic ways. Israel does have its flaws, but these flaws are first of all not greater – and perhaps are much less – than those of any other Western country. Second of all, if you compare them to the flaws of the enemies of Israel, to any of the Arab societies or the radical Islamist movements which are spearheading the fight against Israel – it’s like comparing something very small to something enormous.
Israel is a very good country in many ways: in terms of making a good life for its people (including its Arab citizens), in terms of the generous things it does towards the outside world and even in terms of things it does toward its Palestinian neighbours. This is true even if you think that Netanyahu’s stance in negotiations is insufficiently conciliatory, which it may be. The number of Palestinians who are treated every year in Israeli hospitals is enormous. Even during the recent war in Gaza there was this constant flow of Palestinians crossing the border into Israel whenever there were lulls in the fighting, to be treated in Israeli hospitals. Palestinian doctors often do their training residency in Israeli hospitals. This is one example I can cite, but there are many. All countries are imperfect because all human beings are imperfect. You can make a list of things to criticise in Israel, but if you measure it by any consistent scale – comparing Israel to other countries and particularly comparing it to its neighbours and enemies – it has a defensible and an admirable record. People who support Israel’s right to exist and want to defend Israel against this lynch mob atmosphere ought to be un-apologetic.
I think the argument here is rather crude. This exemplified by the comments in Said which are intellectually shabby. Said did not claim that all Europeans and Anericans were racist but that orientalism was secreted within the dominant discourse on the East. This constructed the East as ‘other’ to the normal west. In this binary the East is seen as backward, frequently violent and nearly always exiotic. It us difficult to argue with this analysis whether looking at 18th an 19th century colonial accounts of the East, much academic literature of the 20 th or the popular media. Said’ s writings on Palestine were subsequent to this analysis. There are quite discrete and are not at all connected to the current tropes. Said was not an unusual Palestinian at all just one who was brought up in the diaspora – his intellectual interests and contribution are partly reacted to this experience something which we Jews can surely relate to?
The book chapter may be more nuanced, but the interview section about an Israeli “adversary culture” seems to paint all Israeli NGOs that voice criticism with the same brush. In democracies it is the very role of national human rights and social justice NGOs to hold their own governments and societies to account, however unpopular such criticism may sometimes be. That such NGOs operate in Israel and have access to the courts is an essential constituent of Israeli democracy and it is the campaigns against them by right wing chauvinists that are undemocratic.
The most undemocratic forces in Israel are the self-styled “leftists.”
They respond with any criticism by shouts of “Fascism,” and believe that they have a self-evident right to monopolise government and society.
A well balanced book which legitimately highlights the positives and the negatives about Israel and its actions. The exposure of the hypocritical western Left which is so determined to attack the West and as a consequence seems to see no contradiction in aligning itself to some dispicable regimes and movements across the world. I look forward (in hope, more than expectation) to seeing equally well balanced and self-critical publications by Palestinian or other Arab historians and political commentators.