It’s hard to say what’s so bad about Israel, and its defenders–having nothing better to use–have seized on this. Some do so soberly, like Harpers publisher John R. MacArthur, who thinks Israel comes off no worse than the Russians in Chechnya, and much better than the Americans in Vietnam (Toronto Globe and Mail, May 13th, 2002). Others do so defiantly. True, Israel has taken the land of harmless people, killed innocent civilians, tortured prisoners, bulldozed houses, destroyed crops, yada yada yada. Who cares? What else is new?
I completely sympathize with this point of view. The appetite for world-class atrocity may be adolescent, but it belongs to an adolescence that many of us never outgrow. The facts are disappointing. Even compared with post-Nazi monsters like Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein, the Israelis have killed very few people; their tortures and oppression are boring. How could these mediocre crimes compete for our attention with whatever else is on TV?
They couldn’t; in fact they are designed not to do so. Yet Israel is a growing evil whose end is not in sight. Its outlines have become clearer as times have changed.
Until sometime after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel’s sins were unspectacular, at least from a cynic’s perspective. Israel was born from an understandable desire of a persecuted people for security. Jews immigrated to Palestine; acquired land by fair means or foul, provoked violent reactions. There ensued a cycle of violence in which the Jews distinguished themselves in at least one impeccably documented and truly disgusting massacre at Deir Yassin, and probably many more that Jewish forces succeeded in concealing. The new state accorded full rights only to its Jewish inhabitants, and defeated its Arab opponents both in battle and in a propaganda campaign that effectively concealed Israeli racism and aggression. It was said then, as now: what’s so bad about that? The answer is, nothing. Of course the perpetrators of these crimes deserve no state, but only punishment: what else is new? Isn’t this the normal way that states are born?
Israel’s pre-1967 crimes, then, are not a part of its special evil, though they did much to create it. The past was glorified, not exorcised. Both Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, indisputably responsible for the worst pre-1967 brutalities, went on to become prime minister: the poison of the early years is still working its way through Middle East politics. But the big change, post-1967, was Israel’s choice of war over peace.
Sometime after 1967, Israel’s existence became secure. It didn’t seem so during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but soon it became clear that Israel would never again be caught with its guard down. Its vigilance has guaranteed, for the foreseeable future, that Arab nations pose no serious threat. As the years pass, Israel’s military advantage only increases, to the point that no country in the world would care to confront it. At the same time, and to an increasing extent, Palestinians have abandoned any real hope of retaking pre-1967 Israeli territory, and are willing to settle for the return of the occupied territories.
In this context, the Israeli settlement policy, quite apart from its terrible effect on Palestinians, is outrageous for what it represents: a careful, deliberate rejection of peace, and a declaration of the fixed intention to dispossess the Palestinians until they have nothing left. And something else has changed. Israel could claim, as a matter of self-interest if not of right, that it needed the pre-1967 territory as a homeland for the Jews. It cannot say this about the settlements, which exist not from any real need for anything, but for three reasons: to give some Israelis a cheap deal on housing, to conform to the messianic expectations of Jewish fundamentalists, and, not least, as a vengeful, relentless, sadistically gradual expression of hatred for the defeated Arab enemy. In short, by the mid-1970s, Israel’s crimes were no longer the normal atrocities of nation-building nor an excessive sort of self-defense. They represented a cold-blooded, calculated, indeed an eagerly embraced choice of war over peace, and an elaborate plan to seek out those who had fled the misery of previous confrontations, to make certain that their suffering would continue.
So Israel stands out among other unpleasant nations in the depth of its commitment to gratuitous violence and nastiness: this you expect to find among skinheads rather than nations. But wait! there’s more! It is not just that times have changed. It also has to do with the position Israel occupies in these new times.
Though we might wish otherwise, the political or historical ‘location’ of a crime can be a big contributor to its moral status. It is terrible that there are vestiges of slavery in Abidjan and Mauritania. We often reproach ourselves for not getting more upset about such goings-on, as if the lives of these far-off non-white people were unimportant. And maybe we should indeed be ashamed of ourselves, but this is not the whole story. There is a difference between the survival of evil in the world’s backwaters and its emergence in the world’s spotlight. If some smug new corporation, armed with political influence and snazzy lawyers, set up a slave market in Times Square, that would represent an even greater evil than the slave market in Abidjan. This is not because humans in New York are more important than humans in Abidjan, but because what happens in New York is more influential and more representative of the way the world is heading. American actions do much to set standards worldwide; the actions of slave-traders in Abidjan do not. (The same sort of contrast applies to the Nazi extermination camps: part of their specialness lies, not in the numbers killed or the bureaucracy that managed the killing, but in the fact that nothing like such killing has ever occurred in a nation so on the ‘cutting edge’ of human development.) Cultural domination has its responsibilities.
What Israel does is at the very center of the world stage, not only as a focus of media attention, but also as representative of Western morality and culture. This could not be plainer from the constant patter about how Israel is a shining example of democracy, resourcefulness, discipline, courage, toughness, determination, and so on. And nothing could be more inappropriate than the complaints that Israel is being ‘held to a higher standard’. It is not being held to one; it aggressively and insolently appropriates it. It plants its flag on some cultural and moral summit. Israel is the ultimate victim-state of the ultimate people–the noblest, the most long-suffering, the most persecuted, the most intelligent, the Chosen Ones. The reason Israel is judged by a higher standard is its blithe certainty, accepted by generations of fawning Westerners, that it exists at a higher standard.
Other countries, of course, have put on similar airs, but at least their crimes could be represented as a surprising deviation from noble principles. When people try to understand how Germans could become Nazis, or the French, torturers in Algeria, or the Americans, murderers at My Lai, it is always possible to ask–what went wrong? How could these societies so betray their civilized roots and high ideals? And sometimes plausible attempts were made to associate this betrayal with some fringe elements of the society–disgruntled veterans, dispossessed younger sons, provincial reactionaries, trailer trash. If these societies had gone wrong, it was a matter of perverted values, suppressed forces, aberrant tendencies, deformed dreams. With Israel, there is no question of such explanations. Its atrocities belong to its mainstream, its traditions, its founding ideology. They are performed by its heroes, not its kooks and losers. Israel has not betrayed anything. On the contrary, its actions express a widely espoused, perhaps dominant version of its ideals. Israel is honored, often as not, for the very same tribal pride and nation-building ambitions that fire up its armies and its settlers. Its crimes are front and center, not only on the world stage, but also on its own stage.
What matters here is not Israel’s arrogance, but its stature. Israel stands right in the spotlight and crushes an entire people. It defies international protests and resolutions as no one else can. Only Israel, not, say, Indonesia or even the US, dares proclaim: “Who are you to preach morality to us? We are morality incarnate!” Indonesia, or Mauritania, or Iraq do not welcome delegations of happy North American schoolchildren, host prestigious academic conferences, go down in textbooks as a textbook miracle. Characters on TV sitcoms do not go off to find themselves in the Abidjan slave markets as they do on Israel’s kibbutzim.
Israel banks on this. Its tactics seem nicely tuned to inflict the most harm with the least damage to its image. They include deliberately messy surgical strikes, halting ambulances, uprooting orchards and olive groves, destroying urban sanitation, curfews, road closures, holding up food until it spoils, allocating five times the water to settlers as to the people whose land was confiscated, and attacks on educational or cultural facilities. Its most effective strategies are minimalist, as when Palestinians have to sit and wait at checkpoints for hours in sweltering cars, risking a bullet if they get out to stretch their legs, waiting to work, to get medical care, to do anything in life that requires movement from one place to another, as likely to be turned back as let through, and certain to suffer humiliation or worse. Israel has pioneered the science of making life unlivable with as little violence as possible. The Palestinians are not merely provoked into reacting; they have no rational choice but to react. If they didn’t, things would just get worse faster, with no hope of relief. Israel is an innovator in the search for a squeaky-clean sadism.
The worse things get for the Palestinians, the more violently they must defend themselves, and the more violently Israel can respond. Whenever possible, Israel sees to it that the Palestinians take each new step in the escalation. The hope is that, at some point, Israel will be able to kill many tens of thousands, all in the name of self-defense.
And subtly but surely, things are changing still further. Israel is starting to let the mask drop, not from its already public intentions, but from its naked strength. It no longer deigns to conceal its sophisticated nuclear arsenal. It begins to supply the world with almost as much military technology as it consumes. And it no longer sees any need to be discreet about its defiance of the United States’ request for moderation: Israel is happy to humiliate the ‘stupid Americans’ outright. As it plunders, starves and kills, Israel does not lurk in the world’s back-alleys. It says, “Look at us. We’re taking these people’s land, not because we need it, but because we feel like it. We’re putting religious nuts all over it because they help cleanse the area of these Arab lice who dare to defy us. We know you don’t like it and we don’t care, because we don’t conform to other people’s standards. We set the standards for others.”
And the standards it sets continue to decline. Israel Shahak and others have documented the rise of fundamentalist Jewish sects that speak of the greater value of Jewish blood, the specialness of Jewish DNA, the duty to kill even innocent civilians who pose a potential danger to Jews, and the need to ‘redeem’ lands lying far beyond the present frontiers of Israeli control. Much of this happens beneath the public surface of Israeli society, but these racial ideologies exert a strong influence on the mainstream. So far, they have easily prevailed over the small, courageous Jewish opposition to Israeli crimes. The Israeli government can afford to let the fanatical race warriors go unchecked, because it knows the world would not dare connect their outrages to any part of Judaism (or Zionism) itself. As for the dissenters, don’t they just show what a wonderfully democratic society Israel has produced?
As Israel sinks lower, it corrupts the world that persists in admiring it. Thus Amnesty International’s military adviser, David Holley, with a sort of honest military bonhomie, tells the world that the Israelis have “a very valid point” when they refuse to allow a UN investigative team into Jenin: “You do need a soldier’s perspective to say, well, this was a close quarter battle in an urban environment, unfortunately soldiers will make mistakes and will throw a hand grenade through the wrong window, will shoot at a twitching curtain, because that is the way war is.”(*) We quite understand: Israel is a respectable country with respectable defense objectives, and mistakes will be made. Soldier to soldier, we see that destroying swarthy ‘gunmen’ who crouch in wretched buildings is a legitimate enterprise, because it serves the higher purpose of clearing away the vermin who resist the implantation of superior Jewish DNA throughout the occupied territories. It is this ability to command respect despite the most public outrages against humanity that makes Israel so exceptionally bad. Not that it needs to be any worse than ‘the others’: that would be more than bad enough. But Israel does not only commit its crimes; it also legitimates them.
That is not a matter of abstract moral argument, but of political acceptance and respectability. As the world slowly tries to emerge from barbarism–for instance, through the human rights movements for which Israel has such contempt– Israel mockingly drags it back by sanctifying the very doctrines of racial vengeance that more civilized forces condemn. Israel brings no new evils into the world. It merely rehabilitates old ones, as an example for others to emulate and admire.
Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at: email@example.com
(*)BBC, “Expert weighs up Jenin ‘massacre’“, Monday, 29 April, 2002, 14:31 GMT 15:31 UK,