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Cambridge Journal: What Explains Fashionable Hostility Toward Israel?

We live in a world in which the contagion of anti-Semitism is spreading once again. Indeed, the profusion of hostility to Israel is the proof that hatred of Jews is now quite alright, thank you. But, whatever individual and isolated wrongs Israel commits, there are comparisons to be drawn. And the comparisons are to the Arab states and to Palestinian Arab society, in which oppression has flourished since the early years of the last century. And has not stopped flourishing yet.

There must be a certain frisson that attaches to the loathing of Jews and of Israel by the chic folk who express it and cotton to it, like those who carried around Mao’s “Little Red Book” in a previous generation or wore a Che Guevara sweatshirt long after everyone knew he was a murderer. In the last few months and around the Cannes movie festival season, the world was treated to notable outbursts of malignance targeting the Jewish people and its polity. From the first generation of the new cinema to its most recent fashionable eminence came declarations of revulsion against the nation designated for hate: the first from Jean-Luc Godard and the last from Lars von Trier. At just about the same time, the idolized Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis pronounced his wisdom: “Everything that happens in the world today has to do with the Zionists,” including the Greek financial catastrophe. And, of course, John Galliano, poor John Galliano who worked in the schmata trade. This is actually something of an epidemic. In Europe, the epidemic has also infected both the political and journalistic congregations—although in somewhat, but only somewhat, less hateful language. Western Europe does not especially like Jews or Israelis, but it also doesn’t want Arabs or Muslims as neighbors.

America is not alone in the world in its friendship for Israel or in its historical hospitality to Jews. Already, in the days of the early Jewish migration to the United States, the new arrivals grasped that this was di goldene medinah, the golden country. The American people are allies of the state of Israel, however much its prime minister irritates Barack Obama. More to the point: The relationship between America and Israel is about historic and strategic ties, not about whether Obama is offended by Bibi’s rhetorical style. But why is he so offended? Is he as offended by President Chavez of Venezuela?

Right-wing anti-Semitism in the country is now fundamentally a bad memory. Yes, of course, Pat Buchanan! And who else? But left-wing anti-Semitism is now an advancing reality, one that traces its past to the scheissjuden of Karl Marx. Still, essential anti-Semitism is hard to express except in jokes about the garish Jewish rich, which itself is an expiring phenomenon. The timorous Jew no longer exists: He has been replaced by the skilled and defiant Israeli soldier. Perhaps because of this soldier, Israel has become the vehicle for anti-Semitism as well as its target. Some feel this soldier is more than a bit uppity, reversing the sacred cerebral role of the Jew in history. (You can tell that to the Jewish Nobelists and to the scientists and scientific entrepreneurs who have made Israel the most fertile intellectual soil in the world, maybe excluding California.)

NOT EVERYONE ON the left who is bothered by this is an anti-Semite. Many are simply Jews who cannot reconcile themselves to the notion of a strong Israel. Consider Roger Cohen, the International Herald Tribune columnist, who told us about the happy state of the Jews of Iran and who virtually non-stop tells us about the sins of the Jewish state, almost like I do about its virtues. He has also told us, poor man, that he was called a “Yid” at Westminster, “one of Britain’s top private schools, an inspiring place hard by Westminster Abbey,” and suffered other minor indignities that American Jews ordinarily do not. Anyway, he now fits in quite comfily, and, when he writes about Israel, he follows the model of The Guardian, which is known to, well, sort of improvise. He doesn’t much appear in The New York Times, the IHT’s blood relative. But this is hardly because the Times editors don’t like his opinions, like the ones they turned down when Richard Goldstone wrote about the colossal errors of his own report. The judge’s confession was subsequently published by The Washington Post.

In the same category, are some of the writers at The New Yorker. Frankly, I don’t usually read the magazine (although it has come to me gratis for years), which sometimes makes me sit dumb-faced at Cambridge dinner parties where its opinions are the last word. And I’ve completely sworn off some of its writers. I don’t believe a single word Seymour Hersh writes: His last report, I’m told, informed his readers that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear device and is not close to having one, and he was informed of this by a man wearing a raincoat on a bench in Dupont Circle. (Actually, my allergy to Hersh goes back to 1968 when he quit the McCarthy campaign in New Hampshire, charging that “clean for Gene” was actually a racist.) Every time The New Yorker,which is now moving to the World Trade Center site perhaps because it wants to be close to the mosque that may or may not be built, picks off a TNR staffer like Ryan Lizza or James Wood , I do look for them in its pages. (The New Yorker was thrilled about Cordoba House, the mosque’s name for about five minutes. Alas, the history of pre-Inquisition Cordoba and Spain was not a charmed-life narrative. Still, The New Yorker’s fact-checkers didn’t catch the blooper. Its name was changed to Park51, no historic resonance. It’s also in financial troubles which means not even one Saudi princeling has come to its rescue.)

The thick-with-ads, oh-so gracefully written weekly is a model of fashionable views on Israel. David Remnick, its editor, whose work on Russia I do really greatly admire, recently published a spate of his own articles about Israel, which I read. My judgment is that he knows squat about Israel, maybe because the only reportage he seems to read about the Jewish state is from Ha’aretz, which is to Israel what PM used to be for the United States. Well, you don’t know what PM was? All I can say is that it was not quite the Daily Worker. But let me confess: Ha’aretz is my home page. I am a masochist, and I like to see how far journalists can stray from the facts. Very far. Every day, actually.

Then, there is Rick Hertzberg, who was my student at Harvard. I made him editor of TNR twice. We are friends—I would even say loving friends—but with a deep undercurrent of testy ideological distrust. His hero is Mahatma Gandhi. Mine is George Washington. Maybe there’s the difference in a nutshell, one a nutcase and a pretentious nutcase at that, the other a hard nut.

The mahatma and his cause, the freedom of India from the British empire, were real ideological items just before mid-century. For Rick, Gandhi is an inheritance from his father, Sidney, who was a journalist and a professional activist in a range of “good causes,” from socialism to isolationism to consumerism to internationalism to ... well, India. One of Gandhi’s more obtuse ideas was that the Jews of Europe should wage passive resistance against Hitler. This suggestion (and his general opposition to Zionism) did not much affect his status as a holy man. Still, it was responded to here and there, most notably, by the sober Jewish intellectual Hayim Greenberg in an essay simply titled “An Answer to Gandhi.” Sidney was not alone in his American infatuation with satyagraha. It was a serious fashion on the intellectual left and especially appealed to “emancipated” Jews. Dorothy Norman was paradigmatic: She shared Sidney’s enthusiasm for the Liberal Party in New York and, a Philadelphia Sears Roebuck heiress, was a leading figure in the artistic stirrings around Alfred Stieglitz. She wrote a biography of Gandhi’s political heir, Pandit Nehru. OK, no more free association.

When Sidney died, Rick bequeathed to me his whole library of well-paged and even side-noted Zionist books. Two of them are relevant to Rick’s present obsessions with Israel. One is called Jewish Villages in Israel, published by the Jewish National Fund in 1949, a year after independence. It covers 373 communities established before the State was. One is, sort of, “my kibbutz,” founded in 1937 by pioneers from Czechoslovakia who saw the handwriting on the wall. Immediately upon the Declaration of Independence, “Shaar Hagolan’s position became untenable following the Syrian, Iraqi and Trans-Jordanian invasion. ... Together with nearby Massada, the kibbutz had to be completely abandoned. ... The two settlements were found to be completely destroyed.” The second book, A Stiff-Necked People: Palestine in Jewish History, by Berl Locker, is knowledgeable but not especially scholarly. But it is truthful. Perhaps Rick will read it. I can send it back to him.

Rick’s contribution to this controversy is a “Talk of the Town” piece titled “O’Bama vs. Netanyahoo.” Maybe the placement and the headline are a tip-off that this is not serious. But Rick’s frivolity—he is congenitally but congenially frivolous—doesn’t disguise the fact that he is writing about deadly serious matters. One by one, he ticks off the rhetorical contentions between Israel and the Palestinians about which, he basically says, the Palestinians win hands down. I am afraid that the way he examines the first contention is so simple-minded that I’ll have to repeat myself or send Rick back to school.

He quotes Netanyahu as saying in his speech to Congress that, in any agreement, “Israel will be ‘required to give up parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland.’” So Rick responds on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas, “Yes, but the Palestinians have already been required to give up parts of an ancestral Arab homeland.” Actually, the greatest part of Palestine is Jordan, where most Palestinians live. So, in a very real sense, they already have a country, except that it is ruled by an authoritarian monarchy that was imposed on them by the British. That the Arabs of eastern Palestine don’t live under democratic rule is the fault of neither David Ben-Gurion nor Netanyahu. It is a result of a deeply ingrained, political and social structure that, across the huge swath of land from Morocco to Iraq, has been imposed, without a single exception, by dictators. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want Israel to operate or control or, for heaven’s sake, absorb the West Bank. Let the Arabs on the east and west banks of the Jordan River team up and see what they can make of their soon-to-be one country. I don’t think it will be pretty. You do? Good luck.

I also don’t believe that the Arabs of Palestine want to retire this conflict and certainly not in a reasonable way. A reasonable way means no right of return, and it also means that Israel needs, for its own elementary security, for its densest population strip to be wider than ten miles. So it demands with the insistent backing of the citizenry—except some (and only some) of the local Arabs and Remnick’s coterie of friends at Ha’aretz—that border adjustments in its favor be made. Please do remember that Israel also won two wars to turn back invasions of its tiny turf, which many, most Palestinians would deny it. With the Arab world in tumultuous flux, and the tumult now spreading and intensifying in Jordan, it is possible, even likely that the kingdom will be no longer. And then, you will have perhaps 75 percent to 80 percent of historic Palestine under Palestinian control. A civil society it will not be.

Hertzberg goes tit for tat. Netanyahu: “Israel will be ‘required to give up parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland.’” And now, for Abbas: “Yes, but the Palestinians have already been required to give up parts of an ancestral Arab homeland.” Actually, the core ancestral Arab homeland centers on the Arabian Desert where various tribes converted to Islam. The Arabs claim from Morocco to Babylon as their ancestral homeland. There is no room for compromise, as the Berbers and Kurds know. The Jews—who lived in Baghdad for more than two-and-a-half millennia and were thrown out after 1948 as part of the conflict over the partition of Palestine—constituted a plurality and maybe a majority of the city. Should they be demanding “return” or, maybe, as a compromise gesture, financial compensation?

Hertzberg accuses Netanyahu of having, in his speech, “laid down maximal demands.” This first of these is a precondition: “recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.” This goes back to November 29, 1947, when the General Assembly passed the Partition Plan for Palestine for a “Jewish state” and an “Arab state.” The Jewish Agency, which was the democratically elected proto-government of Zionism in Palestine, accepted partition, even though the territory allotted to the new state was tiny and not contiguous. (By the way, Obama promised the Palestinians contiguity. Nifty. So how, then, will Israel remain contiguous? Oh, so finicky and so careless, Mr. President. During the campaign, I testified in Florida day after day to Obama’s savvy about and commitment to Israel’s security. I no longer think he cares much. And contiguity would only deepen the ongoing civil war between Fatah and Hamas, with which the administration will surely soon begin talks, like the drawn-out talks with Syria of which doubtless the president is proud and unrepentant. Oops! As of last week, the president and Hillary Clinton no longer think Assad possesses legitimacy.)

Each for their own geographical interests, five Arab states began a war on May 14, 1948, the morrow of Jewish independence. And the Palestinians? Some few of them joined up with the certified Nazi, Haj Amin al-Husseini who, from Cairo, called for resistance. Most of the fighters (and they weren’t legion) teamed up with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, which had their own categorical territorial designs, none of which translated into an independent Palestine. The Palestinian Arab fighters were not fighting for an Arab Palestine. In the end, what they won was the West Bank for Jordan and the Gaza Strip for Egypt. This is a national history of which to be proud, is it not?

“Nearly as appalling as Netanyahu’s intransigence was the mindlessness of the senators and representatives, Republican and Democratic, who rewarded him with ovation after ovation.” Rick attributes this response to “certain Jewish and evangelical constituencies.” Of course, why didn’t I think of this? After all, the Jewish population of the United States ranges from 1.4 percent to 2.5 percent, depending on who does the counting. But all Jews are rich. So that balances out their small numbers. And they are also covert and crafty. Besides, given their cunning, they’ve teamed up with evangelicals who are certainly not covert and crafty but frank and folksy. It’s an unbeatable combination, these two ends of the social structure. One thing Rick knows from his own experience is that the widespread, but much exaggerated, ownership of the media by Jews does not explain America’s support for Israel. Take his own magazine, owned by the Newhouse family. Hardly a kind word has been printed about Israel since 1963, when Hannah Arendt assailed the Jewish state for putting Adolf Eichmann on trial. And what about The New York Times? Nuf said. Anyway, it’s now owned by its creditors.

Let me go back to those senators and congressmen who so offended Hertzberg. And how dare they so offend Obama! One conclusion I draw is that J-Street is a flop, a complete flop. It has spent millions of dollars—much of it George Soros’s, I presume—and can’t get more than a handful of politicians to sit on their hands as all of their other colleagues rise to enthusiasm and applause.

But there is this persistent coterie, influential among the elites, and especially the smart-ass Jewish elites, who do not rise and are not enthusiastic. And so, despite all the true evil in the world, the designated target of the chic progressives, including alienated Jews, is the Jewish state. There are many predecessors of the type in history.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.