The stars were sparking over Gaza on the unforgettable night when Yasser Arafat kissed me — gently, tenderly, sincerely. I’ve rarely felt more relaxed or more comfortable with a world leader; he was kneading my shoulders and massaging my back at the time. As the tension of a hard day drained out of me, I looked wonderingly at our reflections in the window as he closed his sensitive and expressive eyes and bent down to kiss me on the crown of my head.
It had been a hard day; a long business lunch at a fish restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean, a quick dip in the water, and one meeting after another. In the afternoon I spent some time with Madame Arafat; she converted to Islam before marrying the leader of the Palestinian national movement, but had a beautiful, autographed biography of John Paul II on her coffee table. She was very excited; to help with the Palestinian struggle she had planned a benefit in Paris to help Palestinian hospitals and we passed an agreeable hour as she told me of her plans.
I bring up this tranquil, tender moment when two busy lives intersected because I’m about to do something that usually makes for trouble: while continuing to blog on a range of subjects over the next week to ten days I’ll put up some more posts on the reasons why the United States supports Israel as much as we do. I’ve touched on this subject before; my post on the “Israel Lobby Syndrome,” or ILS, that strikes some of our foreign policy specialists from time to time was not universally popular — anymore than Chairman Arafat was. You can look at the comments page or check here and here to see some interesting responses.
Now some of the trouble I brought on myself; ‘realist’ is a word that so many people use in so many senses that I should have understood that its use in this context would only confuse matters. I suppose I had in mind the misguided book written by two prominent ‘realist’ scholars that appeared a couple of years ago on this subject. (Here is a link to the review of the book I wrote at the time in Foreign Affairs.) It’s also true that some of the people whose bad advice led President Obama into the biggest and most costly foreign policy blunder of his administration so far are often called ‘realists.’ For those with short memories, these are the people who seem to have persuaded the President to issue a public demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity. This was based on a completely unrealistic understanding of America’s leverage over Israel. Israel rejected the President’s demand out of hand, and the rejection set President Obama’s hopes for progress toward peace in the region back by at least a year. This was bad for him, bad for the United States, bad for Israel and bad for the Palestinians.
I often hear self-described realists urging us to do completely unrealistic things when it comes to Israel, and the earlier post reflected that. I remain genuinely puzzled why people who in other contexts have quite interesting things to say manage to trip up in such foolish and self-defeating ways when the I-word comes up, but you can’t tar all realists with that brush, and to anybody out there who felt unfairly besmirched by the association — I’m sorry.
Blogging on US-Israel relations is a political nightmare; there is so much mistrust, wounded righteousness and ill feeling on all sides that it’s hard to strike the right tone and make your points clearly enough to avoid being misunderstood. The core points I want to make aren’t about whether American foreign policy toward Israel is a good thing or not, but this debate is so politicized that if you criticize the thesis that American policy toward Israel represents the power of American Jews people assume that you are part of the lobby. In fact, arguably the people who suffer the most from mistaking the political basis of America’s policy in the Middle East are those who want to change it. Those who don’t understand the American politics of this issue are never going to come up with effective strategies for change.
Frankly, those who think they can make substantive changes in American policy toward Israel by attacking the Jews and the Israel lobby remind of some bulls I once saw at the bull fights in Madrid. Bull after bull went for the red cape, not the matador. Bull after bull went down in the dust as the crowds cheered and threw flowers. That is pretty much what has happened to those who want to distance the US from Israel; they go for the highly visible and attractive target of the Israel lobby, and time after time they go down. I don’t think this is smart, but don’t let me stop anybody’s fun.
I’ll get into the reasons why I think the Israel lobby is more matador’s cape than matador going forward, but there’s one difficult subject that needs to be addressed up front, and that issue is anti-Semitism. This form of prejudice is as deeply embedded in western Christian history as racism is in American culture. As a native South Carolinian born back in the days of legally-enforced racial segregation, I have learned a lot about the subtle qualities and stubborn persistence of racist images and ideas that you take in unconsciously from the culture that shapes you.We’ve come a long way in fighting both types of prejudice, but you’d have to be naive and ignorant to think they have just vanished away. I am always nervous around people who stridently insist that racism has disappeared in mainstream American life and only lingers on in weirdo subcultures; I feel the same way about people who say that anti-Semitism is no longer a significant feature of western culture. I am especially leery when people who loudly and implausibly assert that anti-Semitism isn’t a problem anymore make harsh and unbalanced criticisms about the world’s only Jewish state.
I’m not trying to grade the incommensurable suffering of people around the world, but if we compare the attention and care that the international community has extended to the Palestinians with our attention and support for other victims in other places, a disturbing pattern emerges. Whatever the wrongs of Israel’s occupation policy — and I agree that there are some — the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank but even in Gaza, live much better than many people in the world whose suffering attracts far less world attention — and whose oppressors get far less criticism. I would much rather be a Palestinian, even in Gaza, than a member of a minority tribe in the hills of Myanmar, or almost anyone in the Eastern Congo or Darfur. Millions of children in Pakistan and Indonesia have less food security, less educational opportunity and less access to health services than Palestinians who benefit from UN services (to which the United States is historically the largest single contributor) that poor people in other countries can only dream of.
The disproportionate reactions to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians constitutes a genuine scandal and pretty much proves that anti-Semitism did not die when Hitler shot himself underneath Berlin. Russia treats its Chechens much worse than Israel treats its Arabs yet there are plenty of self righteous German leftists who want to disinvest from Israel but favor closer relations with Putin’s Russia. These people will hotly deny that they are anti-Semites and get all huffy and moralistic; I am not sure that the rest of us should take them at their word. The pious people in Turkey who have gotten so angry recently about Israeli actions in Gaza haven’t perhaps thought as deeply as they could have about Turkey’s record with the Armenians, Greeks and the Kurds. Although life is far from perfect for Arabs in Israel, Muslim and Christian Arabs generally have more freedom, dignity and equality in Israel than Christian Arabs, Jews and non-Arab ethnic groups enjoy in many Arab countries.
I’m not trying to say that anti-Semitism is the only reason why people react with disproportionate outrage to Israeli wrongdoings. This dispute has lasted so long and events like the last war in Gaza are covered so much more thoroughly on television than other violent episodes, and the Israelis are so much more open about allowing the world press to see what is going on that Israeli actions and their consequences are well publicized. And for people in Europe, Israel is close at hand and seems in many ways part of the same cultural space; events there somehow seem more real than bigger problems farther way. It is also true that some ’causes’ somehow get to be more chic and interesting than others; the Palestinian cause is ‘in’ in a way that, say, the cause of Iranian Baluchistan or of Christian tribal people in northeastern India is not. And of course for the Palestinians and their allies, mobilizing public anger against Israel is an important tactic in the long-running dispute.
But even after making all the possible and necessary allowances, there is something disturbing about the widespread excessive fixation on Jewish shortcomings. Almost the whole world is barking obsessively and furiously at the Jews while ignoring equal or worse problems on every side. At worst and far too frequently, this is anti-Semitism in full career: virulent, murderous, irrational, vile. It must be opposed, and it must be called to account.
I have no doubt that most of the official criticism that Israel receives from the European Union (to take one example) is hypocritical hogwash. If any democratic European country faced the same kinds of threats that Israel did — hostility from the region, a constant threat of suicide bombers, persistent legal and political efforts to delegitimize the state, periodic uprisings among ethnic minorities, and rocket attacks from areas just over its frontier — those tut-tutting moralists would show another side of their character and act at least as ruthlessly as Israel sometimes does. (And sometimes, as in Israel’s case, their anger and fear would lead them to do things that were unwise and self-defeating. No democracy under the threats and pressures that Israel has faced throughout its existence could avoid excesses and even crimes.)
Now to give them their credit, I believe that many of the individuals who denounce Israel’s policies would also denounce the tough policies that their own governments would adopt in similar circumstances. After all, many Israeli intellectuals and others denounce some of Israel’s policies. However, stridently emotional critics of Israel’s policies who spend more time and more energy on Israel than they do on other, more serious human rights abuses around the world and who come from countries with long histories of deeply rooted anti-Semitism (which is virtually every country in Europe) should take a good hard look at that righteous rage. Yes it feels good to let that anger run free. But remember please that Satan likes to appear as an angel of light. Mistaking hatred and resentment for a disinterested love of justice is one of the most common and most destructive mistakes human beings can make.
Furthermore, while I am reluctant to call out individuals, I believe that unconscious but real anti-Semitism informs many contemporary attitudes toward the Jewish state. I’ve run across a surprisingly large number of people who believe that Israel’s right to exist is conditional: that Israel has to earn and keep re-earning its legitimacy by behaving better than other countries. I have also been told many times that the Jews are not a “real” people.
These views are anti-Semitic, pure and simple. The Jews are a real people, a nation, and they have the same right to self determination that other nations have. The Jewish state is the expression of their natural right to self-determination and whether that state behaves well or badly, wisely or foolishly, it has the same right to exist as Finland, the United States or Egypt. To deny the right of the Jews to a state is to deny them a basic human right on account of their nationality; I’m sorry, but this is anti-Semitic behavior. If you work very hard, and are very clever and exceptionally careful in your moral and political judgments, it is technically possible for a gentile to be an anti-Zionist without being an anti-Semite, but this state of mind is not as easy to achieve as many people think. Many and perhaps most of those who insist so self-righteously on this precious distinction haven’t worked nearly hard enough to earn it.
Opposing particular Israeli policies, of course, is very different from opposing the right of the Jewish people to have a state. Opposition to a given Israeli policy or even set of policies may be a sign of a passionate attachment to the Jewish people and their right to have and protect a state. An article in the current American Interest by former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer offers a pretty devastating critique of Israel’s settlement policy as it has been carried out. In the same way, it’s not anti-Semitic to argue that the United States should change its policy toward Israel.
Finally, the belief that only Israeli recalcitrance prevents the outbreak of peace in the Middle East strikes me as delusional. We all want this horrible, draining and destabilizing conflict to end, but there is very little prospect for a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians anytime soon. The two sides share responsibility for this situation and to some degree both sides are trapped by a logic for which neither side is fully to blame. Certainly the desire of some ultra-Zionists to continue building settlements in the West Bank is a factor, as is the much more widespread Israeli determination to hang on to every inch of East Jerusalem that they can. On the Palestinian side, however, the obstacles are equally deep and to make matters worse, with outside powers like Syria and Iran meddling constantly in Palestinian politics for reasons of their own. Weak leadership, fragile institutions and a lack of a sufficiently strong consensus among Palestinians worldwide to accept partition as the final outcome to the long struggle would continue to obstruct a peace settlement even if all the Israeli obstacles were to disappear. And if the Palestinians and Israelis reach an agreement, other countries in the Middle East are likely to continue to stir the embers of hatred for generations to come. Even if there is a formal settlement, we are likely to see decades of continuing violence and retaliation. Some Palestinians (and some Israelis) will reject the peaceful solution and the compromise of partition; outside powers and the Palestinian diaspora are likely to fund groups committed to armed struggle. Bombs will go off; rockets will fire; Israel will at times retaliate. The legacy of the struggle is too deep, too bitter to fade away all at once.
Managing unhappiness rather than building utopia is what we Americans are likely to be doing in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. We will be trying first to reduce the ability of Palestinian-Israeli confrontations and violence to disturb our other regional interests. Second we will be working to improve the conditions of daily life for both groups, and especially for Palestinians who need the help more. Finally, we will be doing our poor best to develop the network of ideas, institutions and policies that can bring Israelis and Palestinians together to settle the most contentious of the issues that divide them.
Back on that scented evening during the Clinton administration as the breakers crashed on the beach and Chairman Arafat bent down to give me his kiss, I was more optimistic about the prospects of Middle East peace than ever before. It’s all been downhill from that moment; Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all brought big hopes to the region. Let’s hope Obama’s luck changes, but for now there doesn’t seem to be much sign of it. The Iranians and the Syrians seem to be blowing off his overtures of friendship; the Saudis are confessing their disappointment to Maureen Dowd.
Given all that, I’m not going to spend precious blogging time writing new peace plans for two sides who don’t want my help. But over the next week as I go forward with this subject I’ll try at least to make clear to Americans and others just why the United States has been and remains so supportive of the Jewish state. In part, however, the answer is this: western anti-Semitism, while still a force in American life, is for a variety of reasons weaker in the contemporary United States than it is in other parts of the Christian and post-Christian west.