At every turn, the sanctimonious and meddling voice known as “world opinion” takes offense and condemns Israel for yet another infraction of the world’s moral sensibility. This voice has achieved an international political legitimacy such that even the silliest condemnation of Israel is an opportunity for self-congratulation.
Rock bands find moral imprimatur in canceling their summer tour stops in Israel (Elvis Costello, the Pixies, Gorillaz, Klaxons). A demonstrator at an anti-Israel rally in New York carries a sign depicting the skull and crossbones drawn over the word “Israel.” White House correspondent Helen Thomas, in one of the ugliest incarnations of this voice, calls on Jews to move back to Poland. And, of course, the United Nations and other international organizations smugly pass one condemnatory resolution after another against Israel while the Obama administration either joins in or demurs with a wink.
This is something new in the world, this almost complete segregation of Israel in the community of nations. And if Thomas’s remarks were pathetic and ugly, didn’t they also point to the endgame of this isolation effort: the nullification of Israel’s legitimacy as a nation? There is a chilling familiarity in all this, too. One of the world’s oldest stories is playing out before our eyes: the Jews are being scapegoated again.
“World opinion” labors mightily to make Israel look like South Africa in the apartheid era—a nation beyond the moral pale. And it projects onto Israel the same sin that made apartheid South Africa so untouchable: white supremacy. Somehow “world opinion” has moved away from the old twentieth-century view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a complicated territorial dispute between two long-suffering peoples. Today the world puts its thumb on the scale for the Palestinians by demonizing the stronger and whiter Israel as essentially a colonial power committed to the “occupation” of a beleaguered Third World people.
This is now—figuratively in some quarters and literally in others—the moral template through which Israel is seen. It doesn’t matter that much of the world may actually know better. This template has become propriety itself, a form of good manners, a political correctness. Thus it is good manners to be outraged at Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and it is bad manners to be outraged at Hamas’s recent attack on a school because it educated girls, or at the thousands of rockets Hamas has fired into Israeli towns—or even at the fact that Hamas is armed and funded by Iran. The world wants independent investigations of Israel, not of Hamas.
The entire Western world has suffered from a deficit of moral authority for decades now. Today we in the West are reluctant to use our full military might in war lest we seem imperialistic; we hesitate to enforce our borders lest we seem racist; we are reluctant to ask for assimilation from new immigrants lest we seem xenophobic; and we are pained to give Western Civilization primacy in our educational curricula lest we seem supremacist. Today the West lives on the defensive, the very legitimacy of our modern societies requiring constant dissociation from the sins of the Western past—racism, economic exploitation, imperialism, and so on.
When the Israeli commandos boarded the last boat in the Gaza-bound flotilla and, after being attacked with metal rods, killed nine of their attackers, they were acting in a world without the moral authority to give them the benefit of the doubt. By appearances they were shock troopers from a largely white First World nation willing to slaughter even “peace activists” to enforce a blockade against the impoverished brown people of Gaza. In the eyes of a morally compromised Western world, the Israelis looked like the Gestapo.
This, of course, is not the reality of modern Israel. Israel does not seek to oppress or occupy—and certainly not to annihilate—the Palestinians in the pursuit of some atavistic Jewish supremacy. But the merest echo of the shameful Western past is enough to chill support for Israel in the West.
The West also lacks the self-assurance to see the Palestinians accurately. Here again it is safer in the white West to see the Palestinians as they advertise themselves—as an “occupied” people denied sovereignty and simple human dignity by a white Western colonizer. The West is simply too vulnerable to the racist stigma to object to this neocolonial characterization.
Our problem in the West is understandable. We don’t want to lose more moral authority than we already have. So we choose not to see certain things that are right in front of us. For example, we ignore that the Palestinians—and for that matter much of the Middle East—are driven to militancy and war not by legitimate complaints against Israel or the West but by an internalized sense of inferiority. If the Palestinians got everything they want—a sovereign nation and even, let’s say, a nuclear weapon—they would wake the next morning still hounded by a sense of inferiority. For better or for worse, modernity is now the measure of man.
And the quickest cover for inferiority is hatred. The problem is not me; it is them. And in my victimization I enjoy a moral and human grandiosity—no matter how smart and modern my enemy is, I have the innocence that defines victims. I may be poor but my hands are clean. Even my backwardness and poverty only reflect a moral superiority, while my enemy’s wealth proves his inhumanity.
In other words, my hatred is my self-esteem. This must have much to do with why Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s famous Camp David offer of 2000, in which Israel offered more than 90 percent of what the Palestinians had demanded. To have accepted that offer would have been to forgo hatred as consolation and meaning. Thus it would have plunged the Palestinians—and by implication the broader Muslim world—into a confrontation with their inferiority relative to modernity. Arafat knew that without the Jews to hate, an all-defining cohesion would leave the Muslim world. So he said no to peace.
And this recalcitrance in the Muslim world, this attraction to the consolations of hatred, is one of the world’s great problems today—whether in the suburbs of Paris and London, or in Kabul and Karachi, or in Queens, N.Y., and Gaza. The fervor for hatred as deliverance may not define the Muslim world, but it has become a drug that consoles elements of that world in the larger competition with the West. This is the problem we in the West have no easy solution to, and we scapegoat Israel—admonish it to behave better—so as not to feel helpless. We see our own vulnerability.