Magazine | October 19, 2015, Issue

Hung Up on Israel

(Zoltan Kluger/GPO via Getty Images) Survivors of Buchenwald in Haifa, July 1945
An explanation for the sincere

At the recent Republican presidential debate, many of the candidates mentioned Israel. Jeb Bush, for example, said that we need to reestablish “our commitment to Israel, which has been altered by this administration.” Carly Fiorina said that the first phone call she would make, from the Oval Office, would be to “my good friend Bibi Netanyahu.” Its purpose would be “to reassure him we will stand with the State of Israel.”

After the debate, some observers wondered, “Why so much attention to Israel? Are these people running for president of the United States or president of Israel?”

I myself have received similar questions over the years. People ask, sometimes with scorn, sometimes with sincere curiosity, “Why do you write so much about Israel? Why are you hung up on Israel?” I would think the answer were obvious. But if it were, people would not ask these questions. And honest questions deserve honest answers.

Israel is the only state whose very right to exist is called into question. (Ukraine, however, is beset with problems of its own. And Taiwan has well-founded anxieties.) Ever since it was born in 1948, people have tried to kill Israel. It is a tiny country amid enemies. Four wars of annihilation have been waged against it. There have been smaller conflicts as well, though still serious. Every day, Israel deals with Hezbollah, Hamas, and their like. And Iran has pledged to wipe it off the face of the earth.

I think Israel is a great and admirable state. I think Zionism is a great and admirable movement. The revival of Hebrew alone is one of the more astonishing developments of modern times. But Zionism aside, there is the fact that Israel was established a mere three years after the Holocaust. (Zionism began in the 19th century, remember.) Israel was established a mere three years after the ovens of Auschwitz and the rest stopped belching. Three years after two-thirds of European Jewry were murdered.

The Jews refused to disappear altogether. In Israel, they are living in sovereignty for the first time in 2,000 years. To begrudge the Jews their state, after the Holocaust, is particularly disgusting, I think.

People say that Israel has treated the Arabs badly. I disagree. Obviously, Israel has made mistakes, as people do. But that Israelis are more sinned against than sinning, I have no doubt. I also have no doubt that, as soon as the Palestinians and other Arabs are willing to coexist, there will be peace. I also know that Arabs serve in the Israeli parliament, heckling the prime minister. And that, when gays in the West Bank or Gaza are threatened with lynching, they flee to Israel.

You may not agree with me on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, or Zionism, and that is perfectly understandable. But consider: Israel is the most condemned nation of all 200 in the world, virtually a pariah state. Why? Isn’t this a little odd? A little out of order?

William F. Buckley Jr. observed that, within every person, there is a tank of indignation. A person’s supply of indignation is not inexhaustible. What does he spend it on? Many people spend a shocking percentage of their tank on Israel. “To be anti-Israel is not to be anti-Jewish!” they protest. True. But I also think of what Paul Johnson says: “Scratch a person who is anti-Israel, and you won’t have to dig very far until you reach the anti-Semite within.”

Israel, encircled by enemies and threatened with destruction, should have more support than any other nation. Instead, it has the least.

The United Nations often seems to exist to oppose Israel. Since 2006, the U.N. Human Rights Council has condemned Israel 62 times. It has condemned the rest of the world a combined 59 times. (Syria is in second place, by the way, with twelve condemnations. North Korea has a paltry eight.)

There is a great BDS movement in the world — with “BDS” standing for “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.” This movement targets one country, and one country only: Israel. In 2013, Stephen Hawking accepted an invitation to attend a conference in Israel honoring Shimon Peres. Hawking is the British physicist, as you know. He is one of the most famous and most admired men in all the world. Peres is an Israeli statesman and dove. Under pressure, Hawking changed his mind about going to Israel, saying he needed to respect the BDS movement.

A glance at his travel record is illuminating. In 1973, Hawking went to the Soviet Union. In 2007, he went to Iran. The year before, he had gone to China, where, according to a state news agency, he was “treated to a Hollywood-style reception.” Hawking said, “I like Chinese culture, Chinese food, and, above all, Chinese women. They are beautiful.” Israeli women are pretty hot themselves. And they don’t live in a one-party police state with a gulag. Nor does Israel imprison Nobel peace laureates, such as Shimon Peres. China does.

Travel now to Scotland, where the West Dunbartonshire Council forbids local libraries to carry Israeli books. More specifically, the libraries are forbidden to carry books printed in Israel. If they are by Israelis, but printed elsewhere, that’s kosher. Not long ago, one of the libraries purchased The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that infamous forgery, on grounds that people ought to read what they like.

Wherever they go in the world, Israeli athletes and musicians are hounded and harassed. In 2009, the Davis Cup was held in Sweden. (This is the annual tennis competition.) The Israelis had to play a match in an empty arena, because protests and other disruptions had been promised. For two years in a row, an Israeli female tennis player at the ASB Classic in New Zealand was screamed at. After one of the matches, the 22-year-old Shahar Peer said that the words had been hard to understand, “but I did hear my name all the time, which wasn’t really nice.”

In both London and Edinburgh, concerts of the Jerusalem Quartet have been disrupted. Prominent writers have defended those disruptions too, with one music critic saying that the quartet was “fair game for hecklers.” A concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms was disrupted. One of the critics present said that the hall “had the atmosphere of a riot.”

In this general atmosphere, the Russian-born pianist Evgeny Kissin took out Israeli citizenship. He explained, “When Israel’s enemies try to disrupt concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra or the Jerusalem Quartet, I want them to come and make trouble at my concerts, too — because Israel’s case is my case, Israel’s enemies are my enemies, and I do not want to be spared.” Last summer, I did a public interview of Gianandrea Noseda, an Italian conductor. Among his posts is guest conductor of the Israel Phil. After the interview, I drew him aside and thanked him for going to Israel. To some people, it would have seemed strange to thank him. But he, for one, understood.

When the Alaska governor Sarah Palin became famous, some people thought it was strange that she had an Israeli flag in her office. I understood completely. She was obviously expressing solidarity with a gutsy country under siege. Later, she wore a lapel pin with the American and Israeli flags intertwined. In an article, I commended this. A reader wrote me to say, “I happen to be a Roman Catholic American of Irish descent. What would you think if, one day, Palin wore a pin with the American and Irish flags intertwined? Or the American and Vatican flags?” One thing I think is that, if Ireland were in Israel’s position, a lot of us would plaster ourselves with shamrocks and fly the Irish flag.

If the world would leave Israel alone — simply let it be, let it live — I would probably think about Israel as much as I do, say, Uruguay. I don’t mean to offend Uruguay. But Uruguay almost never crosses my mind.

I used to know a lot about South Africa, as many others did. This was during apartheid days, when South Africa was a focus of world attention. We knew the big players, Mandela and Tutu, of course, but also others, such as Steve Biko, and Joe Slovo, and Helen Suzman, and Chief Buthelezi. (I wish more people knew about an earlier chief and anti-apartheid leader, Albert Lutuli, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1960.) But after apartheid was overcome, South Africa hardly ever made the news. I would be hard pressed to tell you who was president today. Is it still Zuma?

There is a great civilizational divide in the world, with the likes of ISIS and the mullahs on one side, and their prey on the other. Israel’s foes are our foes, or certainly my foes. If the world lets Israel go down, then the world is an ass, and a betrayer. Moreover, the prospects of civilization itself are in doubt. So, yes, I think and write a lot about Israel. I have been slammed as an “Israel Firster” (in imitation of the old, Lindberghian “America Firster”). I say again, leave Israel alone, and it will get the Uruguay treatment. Which it has longed for from the beginning.

I have a friend who says she wants to move to Israel when the crunch comes. She is not Jewish, but she has a conscience, probably formed in World War II, when she was a girl. She and some family members had a narrow escape in that war. Not all of the family survived. And having seen one holocaust of the Jews, she can’t stand the idea of another. “If the bombs are going to fall on them,” she says, “I want them to fall on me, too.” This is extreme, but I understand it.

Some years ago, I attended a conference in Jordan on the Dead Sea. One day, at twilight, I stood on the shore and looked over at Israel. I thought of the teeming hatred against Israel, the annihilationist hatred. And I wanted to throw my arms around that country, somehow, in protection. I feel sure you understand.

In This Issue


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