Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Israel Through European Eyes
Maimon Schwarzschild

Here is a fascinating essay posted last week by Yoram Hazony on why hatred for the Jewish state is so intense and so increasingly prevalent, especially (although by no means exclusively) among Europeans.

Every few months, Israel is publicly pilloried in the international media and on university campuses around the world for some alleged violation of human rights, real or imagined.

[W]hatever the ostensible subject... we know for certain that a few months from now [there]will be another campaign of vilification in the media and on the campuses and in the corridors of power—a smear campaign of a kind that no other nation on earth is subjected to on a regular basis. We know we will again see our nation treated not as a democracy doing its duty to defend its people and its freedom, but as some kind of a scourge.

And we’ll again feel the bite of the rising anti-Semitic tide, returned after its post-World War II hiatus.

No doubt, Israel could always stand to have better policies and better public relations. But my own view is that... neither really gets to the heart of what’s been happening to Israel’s legitimacy. Israel’s policies have fluctuated radically over the past 30 or 40 years, being sometimes better, sometimes worse. Yet the international efforts to smear Israel, to corner Israel, to delegitimize Israel and drive it from the family of nations, have proceeded and advanced and grown ever more potent despite the many upturns and downturns in Israeli policy and Israeli PR.

Nothing could make this more evident than the Jewish withdrawal from Gaza and the subsequent establishment there of an independent and belligerent Islamic republic 40 miles from downtown Tel Aviv. Israelis and friends of Israel can reasonably be divided on the question of whether this withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, or the parallel withdrawal from the security zone in South Lebanon in 2000, was really in Israel’s interests, and whether the Jewish state is today better off because of them. But one thing about which we can all agree, I think, is that these withdrawals did nothing to stem the tide of hatred and vilification being poured on Israel’s head internationally. Whatever it is that is driving the trend toward the progressive delegitimization of Israel, it is a trend operating more or less without reference to any particular Israeli policy on any given issue.

[Israel's] standing has been deteriorating for the past generation, not because of this or that set of facts, but because the paradigm through which educated Westerners are looking at Israel has shifted. We’ve been watching the transition from one paradigm to another on everything having to do with Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign nation.

What’s the old paradigm? And what’s the new one to which the international arena is shifting?

Let’s begin with the old paradigm, which is the one that granted Israel its legitimacy in the first place. The modern state of Israel was founded, both constitutionally and in terms of the understanding of the international community, as a nation-state, the state of the Jewish people. This is to say that it is the offspring of an early modern movement that understood the freedom of peoples as depending on a right to self-protection...

But the idea of the nation-state has not flourished in the period since the establishment of Israel. On the contrary, it has pretty much collapsed. With the drive toward European Union, the nations of Europe have established a new paradigm in which the sovereign nation-state is no longer seen as holding the key to the well-being of humanity. On the contrary, the independent nation-state is now seen by many intellectuals and political figures in Europe as a source of incalculable evil, while the multinational empire—the form of government which John Stuart Mill had singled out as the very epitome of despotism—is now being mentioned time and again with fondness as a model for a post-national humanity.

Try to see this through European eyes: Try imagining being a proud Dutchman, whose nation was the first to light the torch of liberty in that hopeless uprising against Catholic Spain in a war of independence that lasted eighty years. “Yet I am willing to give this up,” he says to himself, “to sacrifice this heritage with its dreams of past glory, and to say goodbye to the country of my forefathers, for the sake of something higher: I will make this painful sacrifice for the sake of an international political union that will ultimately embrace all humanity. Yes, I will do it for humanity.” Yet who is it who stands against him? Who, among the civilized peoples, would dare turn their backs on this effort, blessed by morality and reason, to attain at last the salvation of mankind? Imagine his shock: “The Jews! Those Jews, who should have been the first to welcome the coming of the new order, the first to welcome the coming of mankind’s salvation, instead establish themselves as its opponents, building up their own selfish little state, at war with the world. How dare they? Must they not make the same sacrifices as I in the name of reason and good?

And this, I think, gives us the answer to the question with which we started. We want to know how it can be that at some very fundamental level, the facts don’t seem to matter any more: How it can be that even where Israel is undoubtedly in the right—not to mention the inevitable cases in which Israeli leaders or soldiers have performed poorly—the country can be pilloried in campaigns of vilification that bite deeper and hit harder with every passing year. How it can be that after the destruction of the Israeli security zone in South Lebanon, and after Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the hatred of Israel only grows more full-throated? The answer is that while hatred for Israel may, at a given moment, be focused quite sincerely on certain facts about the security zone or the Gaza Strip or the Turkish blockade runners, the trajectory of international disgust or hatred for Israel is just not driven by any of these facts. It is driven by the rapid advance of a new paradigm that understands Israel, and especially the independent Israeli use of force to defend itself, as illegitimate down to its foundations.

It's a troubling thesis, very cogently argued.  These are just excerpts: there is much more to the full essay.  Do read the whole thing.

The implications go beyond Israel, of course: as is so often true where Israel and its survival are concerned.  If Israel's existence is illegitimate, then every other democratic nation-state is implicitly illegitimate too.  There is undoubtedly unique venom for Israel: deep-rooted cultural anti-semitism is surely one reason.  Also, Israel is tiny, which makes it an easy target for bullying.  But Hazony makes a strong case that the intellectual and moral underpinnings of democratic statehood and self-government are eroding in many places, not only where Israel is concerned.

Hazony is the founder of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, which is on its way to becoming a full-fledged college.  Keep an eye on it.  It has the makings of something important and good.

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Maimon Schwarzschild


Hazony's thinking far too philosophically about an essentially political phenomenon. Most of the demonizers of Israel's nation-statehood are perfectly happy to support a virulent Palestinian nationalism that embodies the very worst elements of the old European variety: ethnic chauvinism, historical grievance, irredentism, and even anti-Semitism. They're not so much philosophically opposed to the nation-state as politically enamored of anti-Americanism, or third-world romanticism, or one-world internationalism, or anti-Semitism.

As for Shalem College, it's another case of overly philosophical thinking. In theory, the traditional model of the liberal arts college founded on academic freedom, peer review and the unbiased pursuit of scholarly excellence should result in outstanding research and education. In practice, the model invariably creates hives of stifling PC conformity and slavish devotion to pointless, obscurantist academic fashions. What makes Hazony think his institution will follow exactly the same formula as so many others, and yet turn out entirely different?

Posted by: Dan Simon | Jul 22, 2010 9:10:44 AM

Things are always simpler than that. Cowardice and the path of least resistance explain European attitudes.

It is ironic and altogether right that the marginalization of the European nation and the increasing power of the European Union only has seen to increased resentments and hatreds between Europeans. But for Jews they can still agree.

Posted by: james wilson | Jul 22, 2010 9:54:20 AM

That's only part of it. That mentality despises the New Jerusalem, as well as the old.. Californians should understand this very well. For us back here on the other side of the country, in the land of the Walking Purchase, and the Paxton Boys Uprising and the Sullivan Expedition, it is but a little bit harder to appreciate how we, as well as the Israelis, are hated as peoples of the wagon-train, as trekkers-forth.

Posted by: Lou Gots | Jul 22, 2010 11:17:02 AM

But this is really no different from the old antisemitism, which said that Christians had admitted their sins and were forgiven, while Jews hadn't and weren't. It's saying, "Look at them, they think they're better than us, but really they're not even as good." It's dressed up in modern clothing, but it really isn't much different. The only thing that protects Israel is that anti-Islamic feeling is even worse. For now, anyway.

Posted by: mike livingston | Jul 22, 2010 6:06:47 PM

To Dan Simon: I mostly agree with the first paragraph of your comment. I take Hazony to be exploring the implications of "one-world internationalism", which you rightly identify as one of the sources (although not the only source) of antipathy to Israel.

Your second paragraph seems to despair of creating honest, alternative intellectual institutions. Since I suspect that the "established" campuses are now hopeless, irremediable, at least in the medium run, I hope you are wrong about the possibility of creating alternatives that can resist the corruption and propagandisation that we see around us.

Posted by: Maimon S. | Jul 22, 2010 9:04:48 PM

Maimon, I don't think it's impossible to create honest, alternative intellectual institutions. But that task begins with understanding how and why the traditional model has failed. Shalem College appears to be based on the premise that the traditional model of the liberal arts college is perfectly wonderful, and that the abject failure of virtually every college founded on the same model proves only that they've all betrayed the model--sort of the way the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba, and the rest betrayed Marxism, I suppose.

The basic problem for any human institution is accountability--defining the institution's goals, and holding the institution's participants accountable for meeting them. The traditional liberal arts college--since the mid-twentieth century, at least--defines its goals extremely vaguely, along the lines of "outstanding education and research", and then trusts the "scholarly community", meaning either the faculty itself or the small cliques of researchers that form around narrow research topics, to fill in the detailed aims and then judge whether it has met them. It should hardly surprise anyone, then, that for the overwhelming majority of universities, the goals have veered into irrelevancy, and their fulfillment has been spotty at best.

If Shalem College, or any other college, wishes to remedy this problem, it should begin by addressing the fundamental problem, which is the faculty's lack of accountability to anyone outside their narrow community. I have seen nothing emanating from Shalem's supporters to suggest that they have any such reforms in mind.

Posted by: Dan Simon | Jul 23, 2010 11:18:15 AM

I'll tell you why the vilification and marginalization of Israel proceeds apace -- because the Jews are so much more
sympathetic dramatically when they are lining up meekly for the cattle cars (Schindler's List) than they are
agressively and unapologetically defending themselves (Munich).

And those d*mn stubborn Jews (but I repeat myself) insist on asserting, defending and extending themselves unlike, say,
continental Europeans or bien pensant Americans.

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