Reading Between the Criticisms

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published June 16, 2010, issue of June 25, 2010.
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What’s wrong with the following assertions?

• Israel is a wholly legitimate state, long-established and internationally recognized. It is not going away, nor should it. The United States was not “illegitimate” back when its laws and its customs were racist, nor even when slavery was legally sanctioned. Like its policies or not, Israel’s legitimacy is a non-issue.

• Israel is a democracy, with an independent judiciary and free elections. It is largely true that it is the only democracy in the Middle East.

• Israel’s sense of siege should not be underestimated; Israel is not responsible and cannot be blamed for the fact that many of its near neighbors long denied its right to exist.

• Hamas, firmly in the negationist tradition of Palestinian resistance movements from 1948 through the early 1980s, will have to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.

• The gun lobby, the oil lobby and the banking lobby have all done far more damage to the health of this country than the Israel lobby has. The Israel lobby does a very good job; that’s what lobbies are for.

• While criticism of Israel is not predominantly motivated by anti-Semitism, many Jews and Israelis have not forgotten that there have been occasions in the recent past (notably in the Soviet Union and its satellites) when “anti-Zionism” was a convenient surrogate for official anti-Semitism.

What’s wrong with these statements is that they are accurate paraphrases of sections of a June 9 New York Times Op-Ed essay by Tony Judt, the distinguished NYU historian who has been notorious in much of the Jewish community since his 2003 essay in The New York Review of Books, in which he wrote: “The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.” Moreover, the reasonable statements above are excerpted from a column that is chiefly devoted to criticizing Israel, calling it “America’s greatest strategic liability in the Middle East and Central Asia” and recommending that the United States sever the “umbilical cord” that connects it to Israel.

What can we learn from Judt’s analysis? We can learn at least that people, even very smart people, can be both right and wrong, and that it is well to distinguish between the two. After all, it is no small thing to learn that Tony Judt dismisses the claim that Israel is somehow “illegitimate” or that it is not a democracy. Perhaps we can also learn to be less hasty in dismissing the accompanying critical statements that at first blush set our defenses going. So, for example, Judt argues that “From French Algeria through South Africa to the Provisional I.R.A., the story repeats itself: the dominant power denies the legitimacy of the ‘terrorists,’ thereby strengthening their hand; then it secretly negotiates with them; finally, it concedes power, independence or a place at the table. Israel will negotiate with Hamas: the only question is why not now.” That is surely not “the only question.” But as surely, it is a reasonable question.

Peter Beinart’s provocative recent essay, also in The New York Review of Books, has been greeted more cordially than Judt’s essays were, but it, too, has provoked substantial criticism. Beinart’s central thesis is that “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.” Beinart’s critics fault his characterization of the attitudes of young American Jews and, more broadly, his alleged indifference to Israel’s real world challenges.

But: The worlds that Beinart, Judt and other commentators describe are not disconnected from the tumbling events of the real world. In the increasingly unreal real world, Israel has successfully destroyed its cordial relationship with Turkey, an example of governmental malpractice that is without precedent in all of Israel’s history. In the real world, Israel refuses to allow a serious independent investigation of the Mavi Marmara fiasco, thereby demonstrating that it learned nothing from its stonewalling of the Goldstone investigation. In the real world, Israel persists in believing that its international disrepute is a public relations problem, not an outcome of its policies. One does not have to accept the critics’ conclusions in order to agree that something is rotten in the State of Israel.

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