Not long ago, the Economist ran an unsigned editorial called the “Auschwitz Complex.” The unnamed author blamed serial Middle East tensions on both Israel’s unwarranted sense of victimhood, accrued from the Holocaust, and its unwillingness to “to give up its empire.” As far as Israel’s paranoid obsessions with the specter of a nuclear Iran, the author dismissed any real threat by announcing that “Iran makes an appealing enemy for Israelis,” and that “Israelis have psychologically displaced the source of their anxiety onto a more distant target: Iran.”
It is hard to fathom how a democracy of seven million people by any stretch of the imagination is an “empire.” Israel, after all, fought three existential wars over its 1947 borders, when the issue at hand was not manifest destiny, but the efforts of its many enemies to exterminate or deport its population. I would not otherwise know how to characterize the Arab promise of more than a half-century of “pushing the Jews into Mediterranean.”
While it is true that Israeli forces stayed put on neighboring lands after the 1967 war, subsequent governments eventually withdrew from the Sinai, southern Lebanon, and Gaza—areas from which attacks were and are still staged against it. The Economist’s choice of “appealing” is an odd modifying adjective of the noun “enemy,” particularly for Iran, which has both promised to wipe out Israel and is desperately attempting to find the nuclear means to reify that boast.
The Economist article is fairly representative of European anger at Israel, a country that is despised by most of the nations that make up the UN roster. Or as Nicky Larkin, an Irish documentary filmmaker and once vehement anti-Israel activist, recently confessed, “An Irish artist is supposed to sign boycotts, wear a PLO scarf, and remonstrate loudly about The Occupation. But it’s not just artists who are supposed to hate Israel. Being anti-Israel is supposed to be part of our Irish identity, the same way we are supposed to resent the English.”
What then are the sources for widespread hatred of Israel? Such venom cannot be explained just by political differences with its Arab and Islamic neighbors. After all, take any major issue of contention—occupied land, refugees, a divided Jerusalem, cross border incursions—and then ask why the world focuses disproportionately on Israel when similar such disputes are commonplace throughout the globe.
Over half a million Jews have been ethnically cleansed from Arab capitals since 1947.
Does the world much care about the principle of occupation? Not really. Consider land that has been “occupied” in the fashion of the West Bank since World War II. Russia won’t give up the southern Kurile Islands it took from Japan. Tibet ceased to exist as a sovereign country—well before the 1967 Middle East War—when it was absorbed by Communist China. Turkish forces since their 1974 invasion have occupied large swaths of Cyprus. East Prussia ceased to exist in 1945, after 13 million German refugees were displaced from ancestral homelands that dated back 500 years.
The 112-mile green line that runs through downtown Nicosia to divide Cyprus makes Jerusalem look united in comparison. Over 500,000 Jews have been ethnically-cleansed from Arab capitals since 1947, in waves of pogroms that come every few decades. Why are they not considered refugees the way the Palestinians are?
The point is not that the world community should not focus on Israel’s disputes with its neighbors, but that it singles Israel out for its purported transgressions in a fashion that it does not for nearly identical disagreements elsewhere. Over 75 percent of recent United Nations resolutions target Israel, which has been cited for human rights violations far more than the Sudan, Congo, or Rwanda, where millions have perished in little-noticed genocides. Why is the international community so anti-Israel?
A new sort of fashionable and socially acceptable anti-Semitism looms large. For much of the past two millennia in the West, hatred of the Jews was a crude prejudice, rich with state-sanctioned religious, economic, and social biases. By the same token, dissidents, leftists, and anti-establishmentarians once took up the cause of decrying anti-Semitism, an Enlightenment theme until well after World War II.
No more—with the establishment of Israel, anti-Semitism metamorphosized in two unforeseen ways. First, it became a near obsession of the modern Left, which associated the creation of the Jewish state with a sort of Western hegemonic impulse. That Israel was democratic and protected human rights in a way unlike its autocratic neighbors mattered nothing. To the international Left, Israel was a religious, imperialistic, and surrogate West in the Middle East.
The new anti-Semites are not crass and vulgar. They are sophisticated intellectuals.
After the 1967 war, when a once vulnerable Israel emerged victorious and apparently unstoppable, Jews lost any lingering sympathy from the horrors of World War II and Israel became a full-fledged Western over-dog, closely associated with its new patron, the much envied and hated United States. Not only were the new anti-Semites no longer just buffoonish skinheads, neo-Nazis, and Klansmen, but they were polished and sophisticated intellectuals. Deploring anti-Semitic illiterates in white sheets was rather easy; but countering Hamas cartoons of Jews as apes and pigs in West Bank newspapers was difficult when they were disseminated in the name of free speech at U.C. Berkeley.
There was a second facet of the new anti-Semitism. The establishment of the state of Israel itself also served as a respectable cloak for anti-Semitism. One now spoke not of disliking Jews, but only of despising the Jewish state and seeing Palestinians as if they were victims analogous to minority groups within the West. From Oxford dons to award-wining novelists, it became socially acceptable to decry the creation of Israel in a way it was not to say that the Jews were again causing trouble. Alleging that “Jews” had too much influence was still retrograde, but worrying about the power of the “Jewish lobby” was suddenly politically-correct.
Oil, of course, played an even larger role. By the 1960s, the West was heavily dependent on Persian Gulf and North African oil and gas, and by the 1990s, was in a rivalry with emerging economies in India and China to ensure steady Middle East supplies. After the deleterious oil cutoff of 1973, the Arab world proved not just that it was willing to use oil as an anti-Israel weapon, but also that it could do so quite effectively.
On the flip side, since the 1960s, trillions of petrodollars have flowed into the Islamic Middle East, not just ensuring that Israel’s enemies now were armed, ascendant, and flanked by powerful Western friends, but through contributions, donations, and endowments also deeply embedded within Western thought and society itself. Universities suddenly sought endowed Middle East professorships and legions of full tuition-paying Middle East undergraduates. Had Israel the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, then “occupied” Palestine might have resonated at the UN about as much as Ossetia, Kashmir, or the Western Sahara does today.
"Being anti-Israel is supposed to be part of our Irish identity," says a filmmaker
Size matters as well. Israel is tiny; its enemies, legion. For many in the world, demography is everything: would an opinion-maker or journalist rather side with seven million Israelis or 400 million of their enemies in the largely Islamic Middle East? And if Israel had clearly done well in the 1947, 1956, and 1967 wars, after the next round of fighting in 1973, 1982, and 2006, critics smelled weakness and found it more comfortable to prefer the soon-to-be winning side. As a result, diplomats, military officers, journalists, writers, and actors found it easier to count heads and choose the path of least resistance—given Israel’s recent inability to defeat quickly and decisively its Arab adversaries.
The terrorism of the last thirty years loomed large as well. If in the 1970s, Western governments feared that their Olympic games, their jet airliners, their embassies, and their sports teams might by attacked by secular left-wing Palestinian terrorists, by the late 1990s they were even more afraid that radical Islamist suicide bombers and terrorists would strike not just abroad, but inside Europe and North America itself. After 9/11, to draw a cartoon in Denmark mocking a Jewish rabbi would earn either praise or indifference; but to caricature Mohammed or the Koran ensured threats of assassination in the heart of postmodern, humanitarian Europe.
Intellectuals are not moral supermen, and supposedly courageous muckraking writers and journalists prefer, we have seen, to live without fear than to accurately describe the situation on the ground in the Middle East. For many intellectuals, the choice of lauding or disliking Israel was not just based on careerist self-interest, but also on a careful calculus that Western nations, for all their talk of free speech, were as terrified of terrorists as were the latters’ targets. Criticize or caricature radical Islam, and a terrorist was more likely to get you than your fearful Western government was to protect you. Ask Salman Rushdie or Kurt Westergaard.
Finally, Israel in the West has become analogous to something like the uncool image of Sarah Palin—a target of mindless and uniformed invective that nevertheless serves as a sort of cachet or membership card into the right circles. Filmmakers do not usually shoot sympathetic documentaries about Israel—not if they want grants from foundations and social acceptance from their peers and overseers. Visiting journalists and authors might hotel in Israel, but their professional work on the West Bank will be praised and supported to the degree that it is pro-Palestinian and shunned should it be either balanced or pro-Israeli.
Will the image of Israel ever be reversed? Only if the above criteria are altered—a damning indictment that popular antipathy has little to do with the reality of Israel’s predicament.
Victor Davis Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a classicist and an expert on the history of war. He is a syndicated Tribune Media Services columnist and a regular contributor to National Review Online, as well as many other national and international publications; he has written or edited twenty-three books, including the New York Times best seller Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. His most recent book is The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost - from Ancient Greece to Iraq (Bloomsbury 2013). He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Bush in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008 and has been a visiting professor at the US Naval Academy, Stanford University, Hillsdale College, and Pepperdine University. Hanson received a PhD in classics from Stanford University in 1980.