Israel faces a biased barrage
WHY are Western liberals more offended by Israeli militarism than by any other kind of militarism? It’s extraordinary. France can invade Mali and there won’t be loud, rowdy protests by peaceniks in Paris. David Cameron can order air strikes on Libya and British leftists won’t give over their Twitterfeeds to publishing gruesome pics of the Libyan civilians killed. Barack Obama can resume his drone attacks in Pakistan, killing 13 people in one strike last month, and Washington won’t be besieged by angry anti-war folk demanding “Hands off Pakistan”.
But the minute Israel fires a rocket into Gaza, radicals in all these Western nations will take to the streets, wave hyperbolic placards, fulminate on Twitter, publish the names and ages of everyone “MURDERED BY ISRAEL”, and generally scream about Israeli “bloodletting”. (When we bomb another country, it’s “war”; when Israel does it, it’s “bloodletting”.)
Anyone possessed of a critical faculty must at some point have wondered why missiles fired by the Jewish state are apparently more worthy of condemnation than missiles fired by Washington, London, Paris, the Turks, Bashar al-Assad, or anyone else.
Parisians who have generally given a Gallic shrug as French troops have retaken francophone Africa over the past two years turned out in their thousands at the weekend to condemn “Israeli imperialism”. Americans who didn’t create much fuss last month when the Obama administration started bombing Pakistan again gathered at the Israeli embassy in Washington to yell about Israeli murder. Hundreds of Brits gathered at the Israeli embassy in London, bringing traffic to a standstill as they yelled about murder and savagery, in scenes notable by their absence three years ago when Britain sent planes to pummel Libya.
Such are the double standards that many Western liberals now call on their own rulers to condemn or even impose sanctions against Israel. That is, they want the bombers of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya to rap Israel’s knuckles for bombing Gaza. It’s like asking a great white shark to tell off a seal for eating a fish.
“The international community should intervene to restrain Israel’s army,” says a columnist for The Guardian. By “international community” he means “a meeting of the UN Security Council”. The Security Council’s permanent members are the US, Britain and France, who have done so much to destabilise the Middle East and North Africa over the past decade; Russia, whose wars in Georgia and Chechnya suggest it is hardly a devotee of world peace; and China, which might not invade other countries but is pretty adept at brutally suppressing internal dissent. On what planet could nations whose warmongering makes the assault on Gaza look like a tea party in comparison be asked to rein in Israel? On a planet on which Israel is seen as “different”, as more criminal than any other state.
The double standards were perfectly summed up last week in the response to an Israeli writer who said in Britain’s The Independent that Israel’s attack on Gaza made her want to burn her Israeli passport. She got a virtual pat on the back from virtually every British commentator who thinks of him or herself as decent. This was “common sense from one Jew”, people tweeted. No one stopped to wonder if maybe they should have burned their British passports after Yugoslavia in 1999, or Afghanistan in 2001, or Iraq in 2003, where often more civilians were killed in one day than have been killed by Israel over the past week. British militarism is decent, you see — Israel’s is different, worse, more evil.
During this latest Israeli assault on Gaza, we haven’t only seen anti-Israel double standards on full display once more — we have also witnessed anti-Israel sentiment becoming more visceral and more unhinged than ever, to such an extent that it is now very difficult to tell where anti-Zionism ends and anti-Semitism begins.
So it isn’t only the Israeli state that has come in for fury from radicals — so have the Israeli people, and even the Jews.
In Paris on Sunday, what started as a protest against Israel ended with violent assaults on two synagogues. In one, worshippers had to barricade themselves inside as anti-Israel activists tried to break their way in using bats, some chanting “Death to Jews!” On the demo at the Israeli embassy in London last week some held placards saying “Zionist media cover up Palestinian Holocaust”, a reference to a familiar anti-Semitic trope about Jews controlling the media. At a protest in The Netherlands, Muslim participants waved the Islamic State flag and chanted: “Jews, the army of Mohammed is returning.”
When a Danish journalist published a photo of what he claimed to be a group of Israelis in Sderot eating popcorn while watching Israeli missiles rain on Gaza, it became a focal point of Westerners’ fury with Israelis. These people are “disgraceful”, “inhuman scum”, “pigs”, said angry tweeters. Bona fide anti-Semites got in on the act: one racist magazine published the Sderot picture under the headline “Rat-faced Israeli Jews cheer and applaud air strikes on Gaza Strip”.
The speed with which what purported to be an anti-war sentiment aimed at Israel became a warped fury with Israeli people, the ease with which demonstrations against Israeli militarism became physical attacks on Jews, suggests there is something very unwieldy about anti-Israel sentiment, something that allows it to slip from being a seemingly typical anti-war cry to being something much uglier and ancient in nature.
It isn’t only the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that is blurred — so is the line between fact and fiction. As the BBC has reported, the wildly popular hashtag #GazaUnderAttack, which has been used nearly 500,000 times over the past week to share photos of Israel’s assault, is extremely unreliable. Some of the photos being tweeted are actually from Gaza in 2009. Others show dead bodies from conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Yet all are posted with comments like: “Look at Israel’s inhumanity.” The aim is not to get to the truth of what is happening in Gaza but simply to rage, to scream, to weep about what Israel is doing (or not doing). It’s about unleashing some visceral emotion, which means such petty things as facts count for little: the expression of the emotion is all that matters, and any old photo of a dead child from somewhere in the Middle East will suffice as a prop.
Why does opposition to Israeli militarism so often tip over into expressions of disgust with the Israeli people and even the Jews? It’s because, today, rage with Israel is not actually a considered political position. It is not a thought-through take on a conflict in the Middle East. Rather, it has become an outlet for the expression of a general feeling of fury and exhaustion with everything: with Western society, modernity, nationalism, militarism, humanity.
Israel has been turned into a conduit for the expression of Western self-loathing, colonial guilt, self-doubt. It has been elevated into the most explicit expression of what are now considered to be the outdated Western values of militaristic self-preservation and progressive nationhood, and it is railed against for embodying those values. It is hated for continuing to pursue virtues that we sensible folk in the rest of the West have apparently outgrown, and is consequently said to be the cause of war and terrorism not only in the Middle East but pretty much everywhere. A poll of Europeans discovered that most now consider Israel to be the key source of global instability.
This is where we can really see what the new anti-Zionism shares in common with the old anti-Semitism: both are about finding one thing in the world, whether it’s a wicked state or a warped people, against which the rest of us might rage and pin the blame for every political problem on earth.