A few months ago Daniel Bernard, the French Ambassador to Britain, caused a storm when he was quoted as saying that the problems thrown up by the Middle East were the fault of “that shitty little country, Israel”. It now appears that his alleged opinion is shared by a global coalition incorporating governments, intellectuals and everybody else from Islamic fundamentalists to anti-capitalist protesters and poets.
As one who has long sympathised with the Palestinian cause, I feel increasingly suspicious of what is behind the anti-Israeli turn in Western opinion. The newfound discomfort with Israeli aggression looks less like a response to events in the Middle East than a symptom of the West’s loss of conviction in itself.
It is becoming clear that, while the Israelis stand accused of a brutal crackdown in the Palestinian refugee camp at Jenin, there was no massacre of civilians. Yet last week leading institutions and commentators were quick to give credence to the wilder claims of war crimes and secret mass graves. Those who suggest that the horrors of Jenin are unique in the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict have short memories. Instead, Israel is now being widely condemned for the sort of “anti-terrorist” action that might have been tacitly condoned in the past. The new mood is strongest in Europe. Yet even in America the Israeli lobby is on the defensive, its columnists and Congressmen making shrill demands for support that would once have been unnecessary. Jewish groups boycotted the LA Times last week after an article compared Ariel Sharon to Slobodan Milosevic.
The reaction against Israel is not old-fashioned anti-Semitism, Even prominent Jews are coming out as anti-Israeli. The leading Labour MP Gerald Kaufman — a veteran Zionist — has branded Israel a pariah state and suggested that Sharon might be a war criminal. “Every Jew needs to sob their heart out,” says a spokeswoman for one Washington peace group: “We need to build healing mechanisms.”
In the eyes of many today, Israel’s crime is to be the most forceful expression of Western values. The Israeli state is seen as a beachhead of Western civilisation in a hostile world. That used to be its greatest asset. Today, however, Western civilisation has fallen into disrepute even within its own heartlands, and Israel’s image has suffered accordingly.
Israel has never been able to accept completely such trends as political correctness, relativism and self-doubt. If it did so, the Israeli state would be finished. Today, however, Israel’s unambiguous attitude of “we’re right and you’re wrong”, and defence of national sovereignty against the intrusions of international bodies, are embarrassing reminders of the kind of conviction that Western elites no longer feel able to express. The Israeli defence of its actions in Jenin — “at least we sent our men in to fight, instead of flattening everything from 50,000ft” — is likely to have touched a raw nerve in Washington and Whitehall.
In Britain, the Chief Rabbi has expressed shock at commentators questioning the right of Israel to exist. These people are not rerunning legitimate historical debates about sovereignty. They are indulging a contemporary fantasy that, if only Israel could somehow be made to disappear, everything would be all right, since surely nobody would have reason to hate the West.
While Western leaders turn their backs on their old ally, their enemies turn on Israel as a scapegoat for the world’s ills. Israel and the Jews have become the targets of a sort of ersatz anti-imperialism. A global consensus against Israel has taken shape among all those who hate the values of Western society, an unholy alliance of Islamic fundamentalists with fashionable anti-capitalists. The 50 Western demonstrators who turned up at Yassir Arafat’s besieged Ramallah compound bizarrely included Jose Bove, the French farmer famous for smashing up a McDonald’s.
A century ago the German socialist August Bebel denounced attacks on “Jewish capitalism” as “the socialism of fools”. By the same token, many of the criticisms of Israel today look like the anti- imperialism of idiots. Attacking the Israelis has become a way to vindicate any petty prejudice. It unites my German friend’s right-wing grandmother, who has waited 50 years for an excuse to criticise “the Jews”, with left-wing protesters who imagine that the Palestinian struggle is on a par with them vandalising a burger bar.
Sympathy with the terrible plight of Jenin is no reason to endorse the anti-imperialism of idiots. Populist anti-Israeli rhetoric is cheap, but offers no solutions to the long-suffering peoples of the Middle East. And climbing on the backs of the victims to strike moralistic postures is just, as the diplomatic French might say, merde.