On Criticizing Israel

Justin E. H. Smith

I would like to lead my life, with Spinoza, sub specie aeternitatis. I truly would. But every now and then my fellow men show themselves to be so brutish that I have no choice but to come back down to earthly reality and cry shame. Such a moment was the Israeli siege on Gaza that began at the end of last year, which prompted me to try to do what I could, with the low-grade weaponry of rhetoric, to convince the unconvinced that this was a thing to be harshly denounced. What did I do? Well, I wrote up my case, and I made it known through various low-voltage electronic media. Why did I not do more, like Jeff Halper? As I've said, I am hardly a philosophe engagé. I confess to doing as little as possible.

In any case, my minor foray into activism was also a learning experience. What did I learn? Among other things, I learned that, as one might fear, criticism of Israel really does draw the creeps out of the woodwork: there are indeed many out there who are far too eager to see in Israel's aggression the confirmation of their own fantastical, alternative accounts of the secret forces guiding world history. I also learned that there are many out there who take the opinions of these alienated, ill-informed bigots far too seriously, and who mistakenly suppose that any and all criticism of Israel must come from, or lead to, that same dark place.

Should one then refrain from criticizing Israel altogether? This is a privilege no one would dream of granting to any other state in the world, and one I certainly don't grant to my native country or to my adoptive one. Or should one instead insist that such delicacy around the question, such special treatment, is itself a manifestation of the same sort of unhistorical, unscientific Sonderweg-thinking that, under other circumstances, has been used not to hold Israel above all criticism, but rather to blame Jews for whatever goes wrong with the world? I know which of these two approaches I choose, and I insist that to say this is also a choice to stoke antisemitism is not only a fallacy, but also a smear.

Some who have written in response to my intervention have expressed concern that critics of Israel's aggression do not take sufficient pains to distance themselves from those who use this aggression opportunistically to advance their troglodytic world-view and their –how shall I put it?– unscholarly conspiracy theories. Well, let us consider a parallel example. I for one would not think to preface the (patently true) observation that Robert Mugabe is a brute with the assurance, “I have nothing against black people, but…”

Now it is certain that there are some out there who believe that Mugabe's mess stems from an inherent incapacity among Africans for self-government, and who might mistake any criticism of an African dictator for agreement with their own view. But these are not my conversation partners, and I don't care what they think. The way to deal with these people is not to try to convince them of anything, but only to ensure that they remain estranged from any serious decision-making process. Let them have their AM talk radio and their barber-shop mutterings; we on the other hand have serious work to do. Similarly, antisemites who shroud their bigotry in criticism of Israeli policy are not of particular concern to me, and I don't see why I should be compelled to account for their presence among the critics of Israeli policy simply because I myself am a critic. Again, racists, for their own reasons, don't like Mugabe either, but that's not my business.

Unwavering defenders of Israel often observe that the critics seem disproportionately interested in this particular conflict, when there are numerous other conflicts in the world that appear to be of relatively little interest to them. This the defenders take as evidence of antisemitism. As one comparatively thoughtful antagonist demanded to know from me:

[W]hy is there so much emotion among the anti-Zionist protest movement? What's at stake? Why do these protesters have such a visceral, angry feeling about a country 5000 miles away, and no comparable anger about far worse events/discrimination/bloodshed in equally distant Turkey/Kurdistan or Myanmar or Sudan or Tibet or you name it? When none of them affect the protesters' lives in any meaningful way? (we can exclude actual Jews or Palestinians from this question.)

Where to begin? As an aside, I should say that I can't speak for the “anti-Zionist protest movement.” Anti-Zionism seems to me as pointless as anti-Bonapartism, or opposition to the Agricultural Revolution. These are things that have already happened, and the only relevant question is how to deal with their legacies. We may, in a scholarly mood, question whether the best solution to Christian Europe's inability to realize the virtues of tolerance and cosmopolitanism espoused by Toland, Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, and others was to grant to the people that Christian Europe rejected a portion of a European colony in the Near East. But that is what happened, and no one who now lives there is going anywhere. So when we move from the amusing game of counterfactual history to serious proposals for solutions to current problems, rational minds must agree that good-faith commitment to a two-state solution is what is needed, not death to Israel, nor yet illegal settlements in Palestinian territory, collective punishment through home demolitions, and targeting of civilians in the name of security.

That small correction out of the way, I should perhaps start responding to my questioner by noting that he has made an empirically false observation. Many of Israel's critics are veteran human-rights defenders, and are either serially or simultaneously engaged in campaigns for peace and justice elsewhere. An observation such as his could only, I imagine, be made by a youngster with no living memory of the passion, and even the 'viscerality', of North American and European opposition to apartheid in South Africa or to dictatorship throughout Latin America.

Second, and relatedly: in supposing that 'connection' to a place is what confers license to have an opinion about what goes on there, the lad unwittingly puts his finger right on the answer to the question as to why so many of us care about what happens on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean: that region is of tremendous importance for US foreign policy in a way that, for better or worse, Myanmar and Congo are not (at present). Even if it's “5000 miles away” (as if that made any difference in an age of jet travel and instantaneous long-distance communication, and as if non-Jewish, non-Palestinian critics were for that reason incapable of forging bonds of friendship and even love on both sides!), this conflict is in no small part America's conflict. This is to say, among other things, that it is my conflict, and I won't sit silently by just because I lack the correct ancestry. In many of the international campaigns against unjust political regimes in the past 50 years or so, about which the questioner appears to know nothing, those Americans (and often Western Europeans and Canadians) who were involved were so because their own country was directly implicated in supporting, or even creating, the far-away injustice. What myopia it would have taken to have shrugged and declared, as President Reagan arranged for the munition of death squads: Oh well, I'm not Nicaraguan!

My questioner is at least right to notice that there is something arbitrary in the way in which causes become causes célèbres. I have been insisting for a long time that the Uighurs of the Xinjiang province of China deserve at least as much of our concern as the Tibetans do, even though Richard Gere has not yet noticed what a 'spiritual' people they are, and even though they do not have a P.R. man as smooth as the Dalai Lama speaking for them. But while the case of Tibet belies my questioner's claim that Israel has some special purchase on the Western activist's attention, the case of what would be Eastern Turkestan shows just how difficult it is for an activist to influence the course of events in a part of the world in which his or her own government plays no significant role in the creation of internal policy. China does whatever the hell it wants, and it is difficult to imagine any Western grass-roots campaign that might sway the Central Committee anytime in the near future. The case of Israel is very different in this regard. An American really does have reason to hope that grass-roots democracy might change US foreign policy. And a change in US foreign policy could, in turn, lead directly to a softening of Israel's brutish behavior.

Still another obvious reason why one might pick Israel out for particular criticism without, for that, being an antisemite, is that Israel, unlike, say, Sudan, purports to be a member of that abstract community of civilized nations that we call 'the West'. Israel is a product of the Enlightenment: it is a multiparty democracy; it has its own Rousseau Society; it produces books about multiculturalism; it sends contestants to the Eurovision song contest; etc. None of these things is true of Sudan. For better or for worse, this means that Israel is held up to different standards. My questioner wants to know why critics of Israel do not turn their attention to Myanmar or Sudan. I want to say: what a fine comparison class! One may indeed ask how much remains of the decent, liberal, humanist legacy of Israeli society when these are the countries that suggest themselves for comparison.

I don't doubt that in raw numbers the Sudanese government, or the warlords who have replaced it, are responsible for more deaths than Israel's government is. But you can be sure that if, say, England were to use phosphorus bombs in Belfast, or if Canada began demolishing homes and practicing targeted assassinations on unruly Mohawk reservations (and Gaza, whatever euphemisms might be proposed to describe its status, is a reservation), the outcry would be at least as great as it is against Israel, and this would not be because of some paranoid suspicion that 'the Jews' are behind the scenes pulling the strings, but only because –again, for better or worse– we expect more of England and Canada. Some of us continue to expect more of Israel, in contrast to those who appear to believe that criticism of Israel is by definition enmity towards Israel, and from there, towards Jews.

My questioner was repeating talking points without substance, all of which I have heard with minor variations from dozens of people since I spoke out against the siege of Gaza. To repeat these talking points requires, at the very least, a good mix of logical fallacy and bad faith, and I prefer to believe that most of the people who repeat them are only unwitting participants in a smear campaign that has as its objective the complete silencing of critics of Israel through elision of all such criticism with antisemitism. The only fitting response is to call the smear campaign by its real name, and to kindly let them know that they are talking to the wrong person.

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.