After the Israeli raid on the Turkish blockade breakers’ boat off Gaza this summer, I kept running into the same question: Why does international condemnation of Israel continue to grow ever more virulent? Shouldn’t Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and the withdrawal from the Security Zone in Lebanon in 2000, have led to a decrease in such hostility?
To me, the answer’s clear: If the Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza had no effect on the trajectory of accelerating anti-Israel hatred in Europe and on American campuses, it’s pretty obvious this trajectory is being fueled by some factor we aren’t taking into account.
I think there is such a factor: the European Union.
I elaborated on this view in an essay called “Israel Through European Eyes,” which I posted on my blog, Jerusalem Letters. And I was pleased that J.J. Goldberg chose to review the essay in the Forward (“The Israeli Right’s ‘Post-Nationalism’ Excuse,” September 3). But unfortunately, instead of engaging with what I actually wrote about the causes of Israel’s delegitimization in Europe, Goldberg decided what we really need is a column speculating about my motives for writing the essay. That’s too bad, because we can’t improve European views of Israel until we begin giving serious thought to the problem — and to the European political theory that stands behind it.
In 1795, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant took up his pen with the aim of demolishing the idea of the independent nation-state. Kant thought the very idea of a “sovereign” nation, with a right to decide for itself whether to take military action, was a form of barbarism. Individuals enter civilization by giving up the right to violent self-help. In the same way, nation-states will enter the stage of “moral maturity” when they renounce their “brutish freedom,” giving up their right to unilateral armed force.
When Kant wrote, no nation on earth had reached the stage he called “moral maturity.” But in the 1990s, many in Europe believed they’d finally arrived: No more border checks, an international currency, a European flag. These were the outward symbols of a New Paradigm in the thinking of many Europeans about international relations: The nation-state idea was dead. When morally mature nations fight, they don’t go to war – they go to court.
This new European paradigm doesn’t mean every nation is now “morally mature.” In the eyes of New Paradigmers, North Korea, Iran, Turkey, the Arabs and the Third World are still basically primitive peoples, still on the road to consolidating stable nation-states. Like children, they aren’t ready for morality and reason.
But Israel is a different story. Jews are seen as a European people, and we’re expected to renounce our “brutish freedom” like the other European nations. No wonder New Paradigmers hate us: They see unilateral Israeli exercise of force as illegitimate in principle.
That’s what I wrote. Goldberg’s response was, as I say, to guess at my motives: He suggests the essay is pro-Benjamin Netanyahu, although Netanyahu isn’t in it. He says my reasoning runs flak for West Bank settlers, although the West Bank isn’t in it. He says, not once but twice, that the essay calls for a “purge” of anti-Zionist professors in Israel’s universities — even though there’s nothing in it about taking any action whatsoever against anti-Zionist professors in Israel’s universities.
This just doesn’t cut it as a serious conversation —and this isn’t the only instance. The fact is Jewish public discourse on crucial issues is often shockingly shallow, in both Israel and America. The paradigm shift in the way Europeans see Israel is a slightly more difficult subject than what we’re used to. You really do need to know a little about the political thought of Mill and Kant, Habermas and Queen Elizabeth I, to understand what’s happening to us, and to be able to respond intelligently to it.
But instead of rising to this modest challenge, some of us would just rather turn back the channel to what’s easiest: Bibi and the West Bank.
This is a huge problem. Not everything in our national life boils down to yesterday’s headlines. If Israel is to survive, we’ve got to become more sophisticated in the tools available to us for understanding the reality we face. Ultimately, this means establishing colleges where aspiring young leaders, both liberals and conservatives, will be able to study political theorists such as Kant and Mill seriously in light of the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people. There’s nothing like such a college today. Getting started on it is a strategic imperative.
But even now, before we have such colleges, we should be able to agree on this: Bibi and the West Bank are important, but they’re not everything. Israel’s delegitimization in European eyes is a subject important enough to deserve our attention — without turning the channel.
Yoram Hazony is provost and senior fellow at the Shalem Center, in Jerusalem. His Jerusalem Letters blog is available at www.jerusalemletters.com.