By Barry Rubin
To be frank, the question of whether Israel is a “normal country” is a trick question. As I said, the answer is “yes” but the problem is that the definition of what a normal country is has changed.
For example, it is now held to be evil and racist—rather than merely stupid—if a country doesn’t allow unlimited immigration, even illegal immigration—of anyone who wants to live there. It is now claimed to be illegitimate if a country has any religious component, or if it is identified with a single coherent people. A country that defends itself or perhaps even has enemies is labeled abnormal, too.
What is remarkable about the demonization of Israel today is that it combines two different and profoundly contradictory strands that look amazingly strange in the conditions of this era.
The first is that of the old pseudo-leftist radicalism of the 1960s-1970s era in which Israel was portrayed in semi-Marxist language as imperialist, aggressive, evil, and to be wiped out even in genocidal fashion.
The second is that of the 1990s’ peace process era in which the Palestinians are portrayed as moderate, yearning only for peace and a state of their own and Israel falsely portrays the situation as one of great threats to itself.
Issue number one is that those two “narratives” haven’t been introduced to each other. How do those in the second group—including Jewish opponents of Israel—reconcile themselves with the first group, who are after all the people they are supporting.
Issue number two is that this is the era of Hamas, Hizballah, Ahmadinejad, September 11, the bombing of the London underground and bus, and therefore the nature of the threat and extremism is most apparent.
Perhaps, then, the people in the second group should pay some attention to their allies and the goals they are pursuing, the situation in the Middle East, and other such things. You don’t need to listen to what Israel is saying so much as to listen to what those who hate and want to destroy it are saying.
[Note by the way that Israel is among the world’s most successful countries for integrating people from very diverse socio-economic background, racial appearance, differences in level of religious observance, and national origin. Of course, these people had an identity in common and were integrated into a new society and culture–it is now argued with too much harshness in the state’s early years–quite well. The model of normality some are attempting to impose now, however, is to take in people without limit and deliberately not integrate them but to leave them as separate communities with a minimum in common. This will ultimately lead to their being mutually hostile communities.]
Of course, none of this is applied to non-Western nations, countries quite content to have a single people (or at least a single dominating group), common culture, main religion, and strict control over who becomes a citizen. They may use against foreigners and for their own benefit the tools of words like “racism,” “Islamophobia,” and “multi-culturalism” but they are not stupid. They intend to survive.
These countries and ideologies are, in fact, more racist and xenophobic–but never criticize themselves or are criticized as such–than the countries always criticized as allegedly racist and xenophobic.
As I have previously remarked here, this factor of changing definition explains both why many love Israel in the West and why many hate it. The phrase “canary in the coal mine”–something that warns about imminent contemporary threats and dangers, is often used to express this point about Israel. But there are other canaries in the coal mine—Lebanon, Georgia—whose falling over is being ignored. Israel, because it can and will defend itself, is the eagle in the coal mine.
World War One was called the war to make the world safe for democracy. Today’s war against Israel is one to make the world unsafe for democracy and the nation-state. To the extent that those in Western democratic states join it, they may ultimately end up being neither Western nor democratic over time.
One should not exaggerate the problem in the West but it is a considerable one, the greatest internal challenge most have faced since 1945. The medicine prescribed for modern countries by large elements of their elites is not a vitamin but a suicide pill. As the dosage increases and the patient starts to exhibit unpleasant symptoms, he may realize what is happening and punch the incompetent or ill-intentioned doctor in the nose.
In my introduction to our new book, Israel: An Introduction, to be published in February by Yale University Press (inquiries welcome for using it as a text in high school, college, and adult education courses), my main theme is that when one gets beyond the political turmoil—which looks a lot more abstract when one actually lives in Israel—the country is quite normal and very much of a success story. That doesn’t mean it has no unique features of its own, but that’s true for every country on closer examination.
One of those features is the Israeli love of self-criticism (the true national sport) and reflection. But that factor which many (especially in the Arabic-speaking world) see as a weakness is in fact a strength. For these qualities make it possible to correct mistakes and fix problems to a greater extent.
Of course, there are still many problems and shortcomings which I could list at length—see, I told you!—but that’s true for all countries even if they are swept under the rug. Indeed, sweeping real problems and practical solutions under the rug is the hallmark of a score of other countries in the region.
I wasn’t joking in this article’s first paragraph saying that the main “abnormality” is the nonsense said and written about Israel. David Ben-Gurion expressed the fundamental pragmatism that would shape the country when he said, to put it into contemporary language, that what’s most important was not what the other nations said but what the Israelis did. Still true today.
Perhaps there should be a Normal Country Movement for those who don’t want to be reduced to mere geographical dimensions, housing within themselves a Balkan cacophony of countries and nations certain to quarrel. That’s a recipe for conflict, not of living happily ever after. When people ask me if I worry about Israel’s survival, my answer is: No, I’m worried about the survival of everyone else.