By Barry Rubin
Aside from all the traditional reasons—antisemitism, oil money, strategic weight of the Arab world, guilt over colonialist pasts, fear of Islamist violence, etc)—there are some very important new ideological reasons for the dislike (or hate) of Israel by large elements of the Western elite, especially what is called the intellectual elite, there are some new ones of the greatest importance.
If you understand these factors, it also explains a lot more generally about the (temporarily?) hegemonic ideology that has taken over much of Western academia, media, and politics.
As a Jewish state, and a country where religion plays an important role, Israel is anathema to Western leftists and intellectuals who are against religion, or at least against Judeo-Christian religions. Incidentally, though, Israel is not a theologically based or defined states. In fact, Jews are a people who happen to have a distinctive religion, something rather common in history. The idea that Jews are only a religious group is a very recent idea in world history.
But the allergy to religion in public life is a powerful force in Western elites today. Why doesn’t this apply to Islam? There are a number of reasons but one rarely mentioned is that Islam isn’t “their” religion, meaning that they have never personally or collectively rebelled against it, nor has it shaped elements in their own society that these people hate. Islam may be a repressive religion in Saudi Arabia, but it isn’t responsible for Jerry Falwell or the “Christian right.” Hence, to a member of the Western elite, it isn’t “their” problem.
While this is a simplification, to get across the idea I will use the following phrase: Islam for them is in the class of a “quaint, alien custom” rather than something they viscerally hate or believe their societies have dispensed with for the better. This is especially true, of course, for the anti-religious Jews among them.
For those from that general approach, of course, the alternative is to accept secular Zionism and support for non-religious forces in Israel, which are in the large majority of course.
Israel represents a nationalist movement and is thus anathema to Western leftists and intellectuals who are against nationalism. As with religion, of course, it is usually only the nationalism of their own people or patriotism toward their country they oppose. As with religion, they think this is a remnant of the “dark ages” of human division and mutual hatred which should be dispensed with as soon and completely as possible. Just as religion is identified with obscurantism and superstition, nationalism is identified with fascism and national chauvinism.
And, again, for the Jews among them who are assimilationist or believe the role of Jews is to be the most steadfast fighters for revolutionary change, Israel is especially repugnant.
Their idea is to make assimilation (and the disappearance of the Jews as a people) count by helping to create a glorious utopian society, the same kind of idea that mobilized Jews to be Communists in earlier generations. [If you are interested, read my book, Assimilation and its Discontents.] Jewish Communists fought, sacrificed, and died for decades only to find that the USSR’s Communism became the most powerful antisemitic ideology during the Soviet Union’s last four and a half decades.
For those from that general framework, a variant of acceptable Zionism historically has been support for left-of-center forces in Israel, not necessarily even far-left ones.
The idea that a country should consist of a distinct people, a central idea during the last two centuries and still dominant in most of the world, has become a sin in the thinking of the hegemonic view in the West, indeed the sin of “racism.”
It is important to note that this is true on two different levels:
First, in opposition to the idea that a specific ethnic group be virtually coexistent with the nation-state (the French in France; the Italians in Italy)
But also, second, that the population of a given country should have a coherent culture, identity, and worldview. After all, various countries have absorbed large numbers of immigrants but integrated them into a national community based on common beliefs. Multiculturalism has abandoned this approach.
In other words, it is not enough according to this ideology to have a multi-racial, multi-religious group of people who are “English” or “”French” for example, but a multi-racial, multi-religious group that belongs to multiple communities without an overarching identity and a basic common worldview. (Now that’s a formula for the failure and collapse of a society into violence, poverty, and collapse if I’ve ever heard one.)
Actually, Israel is an example of a country that has absorbed large numbers of immigrants. In proportionate terms there is no nation state in the world that has done this to a greater extent. But Israel is a Jewish state, a state built around a people with a common identity, and this framework, which has been the norm for several centuries in the West, has suddenly been branded illegitimate. And so Israel is hated for this reason by those who would destroy their own people and nation-state. They don’t want a successful example around to discourage suicidal tendencies in their countries.
Incidentally, if a Palestinian state ever comes into being it will be governed according to the constitution already written for it by the Palestinian Authority: An Arab state whose official religion is Islam and which will grant or withhold citizenship depending on whether one is a member of the Palestinian Arab people. And the world is now also accepting in practice a Hamas-ruled Palestinian Islamist state which even further restricts the definition of the nation. How ironic!
4. Israel Fights Revolutionaries
True, the Western Left is…leftist. It supposedly stands for widespread democracy, equality for women and homosexuals, secularism, and various other things. The revolutionary Islamists are rightists and have the opposite position on all of these issues.
But that’s not important. The self-identified revolutionaries of the West, even though they use no violence, see the revolutionaries of the Middle East as kith and kin. The latter are “fighting the man,” to use American slang. They want to overturn the system; they hate the West’s values and policies. So the parlor radicals of the West embrace them. After all, Che Guevara is dead and there are no Marxist revolutionary movements doing much.
So in revolutionary solidarity, elements of the Western elites embrace those who would love to torture or shoot them as romantic figures. For them, precisely because Israel is pro-Western, it is on the side of the “reactionaries.”
5. Israel Fights to Defend Itself
If you are under attack because people want to wipe you off the map and deliberately attack your civilians as their main strategy (it’s called terrorism), and you defend yourself, there is going to be violence. If there is violence and you are the least bit successful, there will be casualties on the other side. And inevitably in modern war—no matter how hard you try to avoid it—some of those casualties are going to be civilians.
There are many in Western elites who are against war and violence, at least unless it is waged “perfectly” with no casualties, or no military casualties, on the other side.
“Worse” yet, you might win the war. If the other side refuses to give up and make some kind of equitable peace, the conflict will go on. If you capture their territory and they refuse to make peace, you have to occupy it. All these things are impermissible according the (temporarily?) dominant ideology in much of the West.
Thus, Israel’s “sin” is to defend itself and to win. There are, however, rational people in the West who think this is a good thing. The cleverness of the strategy of Israel’s enemies is to use their own people as human shields, to promote their suffering to gain sympathy abroad and mobilize militancy at home. This fools many people in the West, though there are others who see through this ploy.
6. Israel is involved in Conflict
There are those in the West who think that conflict is not only a bad thing but a wholly unnecessary thing. There’s a Yiddish proverb that goes: Only a dead man has no problems. The extreme form of this as applied to contemporary views is if there’s a conflict caused by Israel’s existence, end Israel’s existence and there’s no more problem.
In addition, however, there is a more moderate version: Since conflict is unnatural, the conflict can and should be quickly ended. By demanding that the conflict only be ended on terms that ensure its security and end the conflict, Israel is being obstructive.
So for much of the anti-Israel left, the conflict can be ended real fast and would be only if Israel gave in on every point. Thus, there would be no violence or anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East and no terrorism in the world.
This leads into…
7. Causes of Radicalism
To paraphrase Paul Berman, the new ideology refuses to face the fact that there are deep conflicts in the world and that there are anti-freedom forces seeking to take power and oppress others or even wipe them out. Consequently, there are two ways to deal with this: ignore the threat or insist that it can be wished away. (This one is also prevalent on the Israeli far left.)
Ignore the threat: There are no radicals, just people seeking to be free and materially well-off. So the threat to Israel would disappear if only Israel changed its policy or made huge concessions.
Wish away the threat: Be nice to the radicals, apologize to them, engage them, give them what they want, and they will become moderate.
Israel is thus in the way to solving all these big problems. Consequently, it is at fault for their continuation. Possibly Israelis are stupid and don’t understand that their real interest is to give in and give away. Of course, it is the “great geniuses” who understand nothing and would be in the crocodile’s belly before you can say, “Tom Freedman is an appalling sycophant.”
8. If you’re “non-white,” you’re automatically right; if you’re the underdog we’ll roll your log.
[This was a tough rhyme. Log-rolling is an old American political slang word, meaning that I will help you get what you want.]
Reacting against centuries of discrimination and racism, the current idea is not to banish racialism—as Martin Luther King advocated, to create a color-blind society—but merely to reverse it. Israel is seen as stronger, whiter, and First World. [In reality, the skin tone test wouldn’t work between Israel and some of its enemies.]
If you are a Western elite left-wing hegemonic type, you feel guilty for being rich. But that’s ok. You can hold onto everything you have (even a gas-guzzling car] and redeem yourself by having Israel pay the bill for you.
Being the underdog, however, does not make someone automatically virtuous, especially if your problem is largely your own fault. African-Americans faced slavery and discrimination and thus are legitimate underdogs; Israel’s enemies have repressive dictatorships, waged war and terrorism, and refused compromises that would have solved their problems (with Israel, at least). That’s why they are worse off. It is political vice, not virtue that has landed them there.
So if Israel has “made the desert bloom,” produced so many great inventions and innovations that benefit humanity, won the wars and survived, that is all the more reason for those who hate Israel to hate Israel. As Bob Dylan writes, they say, “There’s no success like failure.” But, in fact, “Failure’s no success at all.” Or as I wrote years ago about Yasir Arafat, the trouble with having your strategy based on being an underdog is that you have to keep losing.
Another element here is the view that, to paraphrase an intellectual famous for being…an intellectual, Susan Sontag, Western civilization is the cancer of the world. Israel is thus part of that cancer which must be cut out. Or to paraphrase a famous slogan of the last group that seriously tried to wipe out the Jews, “Today Israel, Tomorrow the Western World!” Again, Israel’s virtues–reasonably regulated capitalism, democracy, modernism, freedom, success–are precisely the reasons for it to be hated.
The success of America is poison to this portions of the elite because they don’t want to believe that these techniques lead to success. The same applies to Europe. And they refuse to realize that their proposed policies will wreck their own countries. They want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, then eat it and expect to still get golden eggs every day.
And so in many ways, Israel is merely a stand-in for everything they hate closer to home. This is an important secret that must be kept from its own people because it will lose the anti-Israel mob support. (Reminds me of the Canadian anti-Israel group which talked too much, going from condemning Israel as a settler-colonial state that should be abolished to saying the same thing about Canada. Oops!)
This is quite a long list. I should hasten to add that brevity forces simplification and that not all the above characteristics can be found in one person or political group. To do a proper job of explaining this, especially by offering the dozens of examples going through my mind as I write this, would require a book. Hopefully, though, this effort is useful for you.
Finally, there is an important other side to this analysis. Those in the West who don’t agree with the above list of items tend to be supportive of Israel. This doesn’t just mean conservatives but real liberals (in the American sense of that word). And as the extreme left wears out its welcome mainly due to other issues—a process that is happening pretty fast and steadily—the pendulum is swinging back. In fact, if one examines public opinion polls and looks beyond the elite mass media this trend is already visible.
Come to think of it, that’s a really good reason for the anti-Israel group to hate Israel: It is living proof that they are wrong.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books.