Magazine | October 20, 2014, Issue

A Sad Reversal

Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned against Israel, by Joshua Muravchik (Encounter, 296 pp., $25.99)

Israel does what it has to do in order to survive on the battlefield and off it. The international order is sometimes upset. There are some who think it only right and proper that a small country should defend itself in the face of implacable neighbors, but quite a swath of public opinion conjures up hostile analogies to Nazi Germany. In the 1930s, Nazis boycotted Jews, and today, liberals boycott Jews. Prominent figures such as former president Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu accuse Israel of racism as though it were a pariah nation comparable to apartheid South Africa. In the streets of the great cities of Europe, demonstrators have waved placards proclaiming, “Hitler was right” and “Jews to the ovens.” Making David into Goliath is a discussion of the politics and personalities responsible for completely misrepresenting Israeli and Jewish reality. Written with only the lightest touch of polemics, this book is instructive and of course could hardly be more timely.

Take the recent fighting in Gaza. Hamas, the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, hoped to kill as many Israelis as possible by firing missiles indiscriminately at them. Anticipating Israeli countermeasures, Hamas compelled the inhabitants of Gaza at gunpoint to stay put as human shields in premises — some right next to mosques and a hospital — where they had sited their launch pads. Sure enough, some of these unfortunates were killed in air raids. Making sure to publish grim photographs of dead civilians, Hamas accused Israel of “disproportionate bombing” and “war crimes,” the very actions for which they themselves ought to have been brought to account. Deliberate inversion of the truth brings together Muslim extremists and secular European freethinkers whose sole belief in common is that Jews will always do their worst.

A fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Joshua Muravchik traced in a previous book, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (2002), the wreckage that socialism strewed in its wake. Today’s misrepresentation of Jews and Israel, as he presents it, is a socialist hangover. The core doctrine of the Left used to be that equality and progress depended on class struggle. Egalitarian in its early years, Israel was widely praised for practicing traditional European socialism. The Left also approved of Zionism as the national-liberation movement of Jews determined to survive as an independent nation in spite of Hitler and the Holocaust. Even Stalin at first agreed to Israeli statehood.

With the Cold War under way, the Soviet policy of subsidizing and arming the militarized regimes coming to power in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq necessarily meant abandoning Israel. In the run-up to the Six-Day War of June 1967, these client Arab regimes threatened to exterminate Israel. People everywhere agonized that another Holocaust was imminent. Israeli politicians and generals were known to have had breakdowns under the stress. The crisis ended unexpectedly with Israel occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the territories that ever since have been an insoluble problem. To cover the setback, within 24 hours the Soviet media and apologists in the West were already mythologizing Israel as Nazi Germany and Moshe Dayan, then defense minister, as another Hitler. To quote Muravchik, the perception of hitherto potential victims of genocide had been instantly transformed from that of “pioneers” into that of “colonizers,” perpetrators of aggression, fascists, and imperialists.

Alone or in combination with other Arabs, Palestinians have gone to war with Israel whenever they have been able to and no doubt will do so again, next time perhaps with Iranian help. Of course they would prefer to win, but the balance of power is against it. Under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, Palestinians pursued tactics that baffled Israel and the United States. A master of deception, Arafat calculated very exactly the degree of terrorism that would incline Western politicians and diplomats to appease him. Frisked at airports, threatened by dramatic hijackings, intimidated by the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, fearful that the oil embargo after the so-called Yom Kippur War of 1973 might give the Arab producers the whip hand over economies, people began to wonder whether Israel consciously or unconsciously was making them pay too high a price for its existence.

More than that, Arafat made a virtue of terrorism. His Palestine Liberation Organization was only one among other similar movements taking power in the countries of Asia and Africa. Israelis might pretend to have a national-liberation movement, but to Palestinians they were definitely Western colonizers and imperialists. Ethnicity in this view was class struggle at a national level. Violence in getting rid of Western influence should be understood as liberating, and genuine progressives everywhere ought to support it.

#page#Invited to address the General Assembly of the United Nations, Arafat appeared in khaki fatigues and was obliged to leave at the doorway his revolver, but not its holster. The promises he then gave of peace with Israel blended with threats. “The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which he fights,” he said. “Whoever stands by a just cause . . . cannot possibly be called a terrorist.” Having given him a standing ovation for this, the General Assembly voted the notorious resolution that Zionism is racism. What it had come to was that the newly independent Asian and African countries had a forum where they outnumbered the democracies, exploited the intellectual climate that favored them, and institutionalized the misrepresentation of Israel. According to Muravchik, three-quarters of the General Assembly resolutions criticizing a particular country apply exclusively to Israel; and the right word for this is “demonization.”

Westerners offer parallel misrepresentations of Israel. After the 1967 war, General de Gaulle described Jews as “an elite people, self-assured and domineering,” which must have been a surprise to Auschwitz survivors or the million refugees from Arab countries. De Gaulle probably thought that French interests lay with the Arabs. Bruno Kreisky, chancellor of Austria from 1970 to 1983, was another foremost leader (in Muravchik’s words) “undoing Europe’s sympathy for Israel and its people.” His case is complicated. Jewish, he seems to have felt that he had to excuse himself to fellow Austrians. On the one hand, he defended and promoted former Nazis, and on the other, he waged a highly personal and unseemly campaign against Simon Wiesenthal, celebrated for his role in helping bring Adolf Eichmann to trial for arranging the logistics of the Holocaust. Muravchik quotes from Kreisky’s memoirs a passage stating that what was happening in Israel was “abominable and repugnant.” Criticism is one thing, but the masochistic torment that some Jews and Israelis, mostly academics and journalists, inflict upon themselves is something quite else. Muravchik holds up for scrutiny some of the better known — for instance, Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, Norman Finkelstein, and Richard Falk on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Whether out of fear, guilt, a misplaced inferiority complex, or the longing to be notorious, they are “proud to be ashamed,” in the phrase of the novelist Howard Jacobson. Psychologists will have to explain this mystifying phenomenon.

A chapter is devoted to the late Edward Said, a Palestinian-American professor at Columbia University, and himself another special case. Published in 1978, his passionate tract Orientalism put in intellectual form the Third World grievance that the West is exploitative and oppressive. According to Said, everyone in contact with the world of Islam was an imperialist, consciously or unconsciously advancing Western interests at the expense of Muslims. Even scholars and travelers were in this unacknowledged conspiracy to obtain power. Professional Orientalists have been busily demolishing Said’s argument, pointing out its inconsistencies, contradictions, and plain historical mistakes. Nevertheless, Said’s intention was to fit Israel into the wider context of colonization, in effect denying that its existence has anything to do with a movement of national liberation, and insisting that the country rightfully belongs to the PLO.

Does it matter that the misrepresentation of Israel has been carried to such lengths and fed by so many sources? Authoritative Muslim voices like to assert that Jews are not part of the Holy Land’s history. Ancient Jewish archaeological remains, Hebrew inscriptions, and the Bible are treated as evidence of nothing. Muslim clerics preach that the Temple in Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall are monuments of Islam. Palestinian spokesmen claim that the land’s inhabitants in those early times were proto-Arabs, although the real Arabs broke out of the desert many centuries later. Some go so far as to say that Jews aren’t really Jews at all but descendents of pigs and apes.

Gathering force, the campaign to delegitimize Israel is a call to arms, a danger bound to be tested on more battlefields. If things were ordered rationally, Making David into Goliath would stop that campaign dead in its tracks.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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