Friday 8 May 2009

Israel: real and imaginary

Via Mick, a powerful piece by Greg Sheridan on the differences between the Israel he knows, and the Israel that dominates the Islamic - and increasingly the Western leftist - imagination. It's the kind of article you can't help quoting big chunks from, so here goes:

I have my very own Israel problem and it is this: the Israel I know, which I have visited for weeks at a time, which I experience through its literature and media and the Israeli citizens I have met, bears no relation to the Israel I see in most of the Western media. That Israel seems almost to dominate Western intellectual life. It is commonly held that Israel lies at the heart of the widespread Muslim hostility to the West and much of the ideological conflict in the Middle East. But Israel must surely also lie at the heart of the West itself; it is so often the centrepoint of raging ideological debate, shrill mutual denunciation, ferocious polemic, emotional demonstrations, university activism and academic boycotts.

That Israel of the Western mind (and indeed of the Arab mind) is a hateful place: right-wing, militaristic, authoritarian, racist, ultra-religious, neo-colonial, narrow-minded, undemocratic, indifferent to world opinion, indifferent especially to Palestinian suffering.

Yet the Israel I know is mostly secular, raucously, almost wildly democratic, has a vibrant left wing, having founded in the kibbutz movement one of the only successful experiments in socialism in human history. It is intellectually disputatious; any two Israelis will have three opinions and be happy to argue them to a lamp post. It is multi-ethnic, there is a great stress on human solidarity, there is due process. And I've never heard an Israeli speak casually about the value of Palestinian life. I've heard Israelis voice a desire to neutralise Hezbollah or remove Hamas from leadership in Gaza, but I've never in any context heard an Israeli express the view that the value of a human life is determined by race.

The Israel I know is a Western democracy, often under siege, often making mistakes, sometimes moral mistakes. But I also see its institutions, its courts, its free press and vigorous academics challenging those mistakes and trying to correct them, sometimes exaggerating them in the process. I see a society striving for the good, sometimes doing the wrong thing, certainly not beyond criticism, but overall behaving as well as any comparably sized Western society would or could in all the circumstances.

Sheridan challenges the view that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is the root cause of all the ills of the Middle East (an old argument trotted out again the other day by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian):

As a matter of mere logic, the presence of 5.5 million Jews in Israel cannot be responsible for the economic and political development of hundreds of millions of Arabs. But the Arab mind is presented with a disagreeable conundrum. The Arab world possesses, in its view, the one true religion, the greatest culture and much of the world's oil, yet its societies are impoverished and dysfunctional. How can this be explained? In societies that do not allow searching criticism of ruling regimes, the answer has to come in the form of anti-Arab conspiracies, centred on the West generally, but more specifically on the US, Israel and the Jews. 

This Arab anti-Semitism, popular and official, is incidentally a huge obstacle to peace. If Israel is not just a nation like any other but the most visible and offensive manifestation of a giant Western and Jewish conspiracy against Islam and the Arabs, then making peace with it is not honourable but despicable. 

What is perplexing is the emerging strategic alliance between the Western Left and Islamist anger. This is evident especially in Western demonstrations where left-wing protesters carry banners saying things such as "We are Hamas". 

But it is also to be observed in the general silence of the Western Left on human rights abuses throughout the Arab world and in Iran. One of the most arresting sights in Israel is the magnificent Bahai headquarters in Haifa. The Bahais have an equally beautiful temple in New Delhi. The Bahais fled to Israel and India, two states where minority religions are not subject to official persecution, because of the murderous repression they suffer in Iran. Yet the Western Left is infinitely more active about Israeli human rights abuses, real or alleged, than Iranian human rights abuses. Similarly, the more left-wing the Western feminist, the less will be said about the routine abuse of women's rights in much of the Arab world.

Sheridan's final paragraph is particularly shrewd:

Both the intense hatred and in other circles the affection that Israel inspires have little to do with the actions any Israeli government could reasonably take. It is rather Israel's multiple identities, going to the heart of Western history and contemporary Arab politics, the hostility among intellectuals to Western society, the inheritance of anti-Semitism and the search for scapegoats for the Arab world's troubled encounter with modernity, that ensure that the Israel of the mind will remain at the forefront of international concerns.

He might have added that a 'troubled encounter with modernity' is also a trait shared by many western intellectuals.

1 comment:

TNC said...

Israel is a beautiful place and Israelis are a diverse and complex people. One thing that I became more aware of after hanging out with Israelis here in NYC and then hanging out with them in Yerushalayim is the centrality of the conflict in most discussions about Israel. This is the case in media outlets that support Israel as well as anti-Zionist organs.

But there is so much more going on over there in the arts and culture, technological innovation, ancient history/archeological discoveries, recreational opportunities, the list goes on and on. I listened to Indian Jews jam out in a Mizrahi synagogue on the edge of the Negev, discussed Aliyah, Zionism and post-Zionism at Hebrew University, and hung out with my good friends--including a hearty contingent of leftists--on a settlement outside of Yerushalayim. I really want to go back.