From my blog.
Israel, I have argued, is aptly viewed as a modern hybrid of ancient Athens and Sparta, and debate typically turns on which aspect to stress. However, something is missing in this characterization. Consider how a major Israeli daily wants the PM to address the world:
The mass circulation Maariv devoted its front page to a suggested speech for Mr Olmert to deliver to world leaders.
“What is it about us, the Jews, the few and persecuted, that arouses all these instincts of cosmic justice in you?” it read. “We are not hesitating, apologising or relenting.
“Gentlemen, it is time for you to understand: The Jewish state will no longer be trampled underfoot… I serve as a mouth today for six million bombed Israeli citizens, who serve as a mouth for six million annihilated Jews, who were burnt to dust by savages in Europe… And you, just as you did not take the matter seriously at the time, you are ignoring it now.”
If this tirade is indicative of Israeli public opinion, it is a disturbing mentality on the part of a nation engaged in two-front war against two neighboring populations involving large-scale razing of roads, bridges, water mains, power stations, hospitals, and housing quarters by means of tank shells, artillery rounds, cluster bombs, and guided missiles, killing nearly 1,000 civilians and driving many hundred thousands to flee. The eminent historian Tony Judt, in an outstanding essay from May called ‘The country that wouldn’t grow up’, pegs it as ‘macho victimhood’.
But today the country’s national narrative of macho victimhood appears to the rest of the world as simply bizarre: evidence of a sort of collective cognitive dysfunction that has gripped Israel’s political culture.
And the long cultivated persecution mania – “everyone’s out to get us” – no longer elicits sympathy. Instead it attracts some very unappetizing comparisons: At a recent international meeting I heard one speaker, by analogy with Helmut Schmidt’s famous dismissal of the Soviet Union as “Upper Volta with Missiles,” describe Israel as “Serbia with nukes.”
Serbia with nukes. What harsher indictment in Western ears? Even to its less hostile critics, Serbian nationalism remains predicated on a literally epic victim cult. The difference is that Jews can claim, to a greater extent, an actual history of massive collective persecution. However, Judt notes, to new generations of non-Israelis, this history is becoming just that:
Israel has stayed the same, but the world… has changed. Whatever purchase Israel’s self-description still has upon the imagination of Israelis themselves, it no longer operates beyond the country’s frontiers.
Even the Holocaust can no longer be instrumentalized to excuse Israel’s behavior…. In the eyes of a watching world, the fact that the great-grandmother of an Israeli soldier died in Treblinka is no excuse for his own abusive treatment of a Palestinian woman waiting to cross a checkpoint. “Remember Auschwitz” is not an acceptable response.
In short: Israel, in the world’s eyes, is a normal state, but one behaving in abnormal ways. It is in control of its fate, but the victims are someone else. It is strong, very strong, but its behavior is making everyone else vulnerable. And so, shorn of all other justifications for its behavior, Israel and its supporters today fall back with increasing shrillness upon the oldest claim of all: Israel is a Jewish state and that is why people criticize it. This – the charge that criticism of Israel is implicitly anti-Semitic – is regarded in Israel and the United States as Israel’s trump card. If it has been played more insistently and aggressively in recent years, that is because it is now the only card left.
Judt knows only too well what he is talking about. Himself a declared ‘proud Jew’, he was nonetheless subjected to a scathing campaign of defamation upon his famous 2003 essay in The New York Review of Books. Here he concluded thus:
The depressing truth is that Israel’s current behavior is not just bad for America, though it surely is. It is not even just bad for Israel itself, as many Israelis silently acknowledge. The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.
His recent essay in Haaretz reiterates this crucial point:
In many parts of the world this is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling assertion: Israel’s reckless behavior and insistent identification of all criticism with anti-Semitism is now the leading source of anti-Jewish sentiment in Western Europe and much of Asia. But the traditional corollary – if anti-Jewish feeling is linked to dislike of Israel then right-thinking people should rush to Israel’s defense – no longer applies. Instead, the ironies of the Zionist dream have come full circle: For tens of millions of people in the world today, Israel is indeed the state of all the Jews. And thus, reasonably enough, many observers believe that one way to take the sting out of rising anti-Semitism in the suburbs of Paris or the streets of Jakarta would be for Israel to give the Palestinians back their land.
Nor does this apply only to Muslims. On the one occasion I have ever personally heard an ethnic Scandinavian express anti-Semitic views, the objects of his disapproval turned out to be Israeli occupation policies and the US pro-Israel lobby. A man of little formal education, he confused these with Jews as such, as he realized when pointed out. Ironically, however, garden-variety apologists for Israel would eagerly concur with his original self-identification as an anti-Semite.
In other words, this victim cult is doubly self-reinforcing. Not only does Israel’s contempt for human rights and international law antagonize a growing fraction of humanity, which rejects the tired image of a civilized oasis besieged by barbarians. In addition, helped by the efforts of Israel’s propagandists to stifle criticism, this enmity toward a state is increasingly redirected at ethnic Jews everywhere, boosting the irrational sentiment that made necessary the creation of a Jewish nation-state in the first place, long after such nationalist projects had been discredited in Europe.
This has got to end before it is too late. After all, a Serbia with nukes may eventually feel the need to use them.