Israel at 62: A Year of Achievement

Yes, the country is not above criticism, but too often its accomplishments are ignored.

By Gil Troy, The Mark News, 4-26-10

Judging by the headlines, Israel’s 62nd anniversary comes at an ominous time. Iran is going nuclear and threatening to wipe Israel “off the map.” President Barack Obama is going ballistic, treating Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rudely. The peace process is going nowhere, as Palestinians increase their pre-conditions while many Europeans and intellectuals wantonly demonize Israel, validating the decades-long Arab campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Neither Iran’s threat nor Obama’s animus should be underestimated – nor should they be compared, of course.

If anyone doubted the Iranian Mullahs’ brutality, their recent slaughter of their own people for daring to dissent clearly displays their contempt for human life. This demonstration of the regime’s power – and willingness to use it – was all the more sobering for its timing, coming on the cusp of the country achieving nuclear status.

Moreover, Barack Obama’s initial silence when Iran’s dissidents and the world looked to him for inspiration is unforgivable. His hesitation in criticizing the killers in Tehran contrasts with his willingness to disappoint many traditional American allies, especially Israel. Still trying to distance himself from George W. Bush, Obama too frequently accommodates adversaries while neglecting friends. The result has been hurt feelings in Great Britain as Obama downgrades the historical Anglo-American “special relationship” to a mere alliance, a sense of betrayal in Eastern Europe after Obama canceled the anti-ballistic missile system slated for Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as consternation in Jerusalem.

Obama’s refusal even to be photographed with Netanyahu during their recent meeting, and the president’s zeal in exploiting Israel’s poorly-timed announcement regarding housing starts in a Jerusalem neighborhood have stung Israelis. This strategy is short sighted and counterproductive. Obama’s great accomplishment so far has been to raise Palestinian demands while strengthening the rejectionist front against Israel and against a two-state solution. This fits an historical pattern. Yasser Arafat only considered compromising with Israel when he was desperate, not when he was confident.

All of these strategic shifts feed the increasingly shrill attacks on Israel. The tone of the United Nations lynch mob, where Israel is singled out for disproportionate disapprobation, is increasingly becoming the international norm as the demonization derby goes global.

Only one country in the world seems to be on probation, with its legitimacy questioned repeatedly. Only one country in the world is repeatedly criticized for defending itself against terrorists. Only one country in the world is blamed when terrorists target it. Only one country in the world is consistently accused of committing the great international crimes of colonialism, racism, and apartheid.

Of course, Israel makes mistakes that can be criticized. But the essentialism looming behind so many condemnations – jumping from disapproving of particular policies to delegitimizing the state itself – is the mark of the bullying bigot, not the thoughtful critic. Just as many Catholics justifiably resent critics who gleefully delegitimize an entire Church and religion based on the perversions of a few, Israel’s supporters are justified for bristling at how Zionism is considered the only illegitimate nationalism in the modern world and democratic Israel is singled out as an outlaw state.

Nevertheless, on this Independence Day, Israelis have much to celebrate. This year their economy was spared much of the financial devastation so many other countries endured. This year, the country distinguished itself as an upstanding member of the world community when Israeli soldiers were dispatched to help Haitians recover from that country’s devastating earthquake. This year, an Israeli scientist, Professor Ada Yonath, become the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry since 1964, and Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place, advanced his green vision of a practical electric car with replaceable car batteries. Also this year, the international best-seller by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start-Up Nation, explained how Israel’s unique mix of informality, creativity, adaptability, and audacity facilitates such world-class innovation and entrepreneurship.

These achievements are particularly striking considering how young the state is, how hostile a neighborhood the Middle East has proven to be, and how formidable the challenges Israel has faced.

Sixty-two years ago, in 1948, the Jewish people were still reeling from the mass murder of six million, boldly illustrating the need for the state Zionists had been building for decades in the homeland Jews had lived in, been exiled from, and for millennia dreamed about. Fifty-two years ago, in 1958, Israel was trying to cope with the influx of nearly a million Jews expelled from Muslim lands, welcoming these refugees as future citizens even as Israel’s Arab neighbours treated Palestinians as perpetual political props. Forty-two years ago, in 1968, Israelis were still trying to process the enormity of their victory in the Six Day War and the rapid turnaround from being targeted for mass slaughter to having defeated powerful enemies.

No country is perfect, no state ideal. We have to grade all governments on a curve. The quest to improve and the freedom to criticize are critical components in the success of any democracy. But Israelis and their friends worldwide can take pride in this old-new land’s accomplishments. Like all anniversaries, Israel’s Independence Day is an opportunity to compare what was and what is, appreciate the accomplishments, while still dreaming about what might be.

Creeping of Anti-Semitism

By Gil Troy, The Mark, 12-1-09
American history author; Professor, history, McGill University.

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When it comes to Israel, there is plenty of legitimate criticism. The problem is that there is so much illegitimate criticism rooted in hatred as well.

Gil Troy on how to keep criticism of Israel kosher

In a recent article for The Mark, John Baglow complains that “the word ‘anti-Semitism’ has lost its original meaning almost entirely, and has become code for criticism of Israel and too-vocal support for the Palestinian people. ”

Alleging that human rights activists fighting Jew-hatred are somehow McCarthyites squelching debate is absurd considering how frequently Israel is criticized, in Israel and abroad, by both Jews and non-Jews. I just wish so much of the criticism of Israel was not distorted, and intensified by anti-Semitic tropes.

The Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism has not launched some pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian witch-hunt, as Baglow alleges – without evidence. In fact, it’s very easy to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and illegitimate criticism rooted in a hatred of Jews.

Let’s start with the easiest case – and a moral test to Israel’s critics. Much Arab criticism of Israel and far too much Palestinian nationalism is interlaced with crass anti-Semitism. Too many Arabs and Palestinians conflate “Israel” and “the Jews.” Hamas’s charter could condemn Israel without invoking a classic, I am sorry to say it, Islamic phrase in Article 7, among other places, quoting “the Prophet” Muhammad saying:

“The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”

Cartoons in the Arab media could caricature Israeli leaders without giving them the hook-noses, fangs, and Shylock sidelocks of Nazi propagandists. And protesters against Israel could make their point without signs lamenting that Hitler did not finish the job. Then there are the attacks on synagogues and Jews in Europe.

Alas, Canada has not been immune from this. Jews did not concoct the charge that the April 2004 firebombing of a Montreal Jewish elementary school was connected to pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel forces. The criminals themselves made the link.

Israel’s critics could distance themselves from these vile expressions but rarely do. And we have learned from the civil rights movement, feminism, and gay liberation, that the moral onus is not on the victim to parse who is criticizing legitimately and who is perpetuating prejudice. If more critics of Israel denounced the anti-Semitism poisoning so much of the Palestinian movement, fueling so much criticism of Israel, there would be no need for Parliamentary inquiries.

More subtly, it is quite easy to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism, or criticism propelled by anti-Semitic tropes. Every day in synagogues throughout the world, in Israeli newspapers, and, these days, in the halls of power in Washington, DC, Jews and non-Jews, presidents and regular folk, criticize Israeli actions without delegitimizing Israel – which is the clearest red-line to draw. The fact that Israel is singled out for disproportionate criticism, that Israel, alone among the 192 UN member states, has its existence challenged, that so much of the world’s attention is focused on such a small conflict, does not make sense.

Describing the national conflict between Israel and Palestinians as a racial conflict, or claiming that Israel is like South Africa or, even worse, like the Nazis, also does not make sense. Unless, that is, you acknowledge the anti-Semitism that treats Israel, the Jewish state, as the Jew among nations, accused of disproportionate but secret power, undue influence in squelching debate, and nefarious aims and methods in what is a complicated, tragic conflict, then tarred with accusations of “racism,” “apartheid,” and “genocide,” when other countries whose actions would fit those damning indictments far, far better escape notice.

Finally, note another way too many Israel critics reveal an ugly anti-Semitism. We see gays overlooking Muslim homophobia, feminists overlooking Arab sexism, and liberals overlooking Israeli libertarianism in their zeal to bash Israel. We see academics overriding their primary professional obligation to tell the truth and acknowledge the world’s complexity in their rush to caricature Israel in simplistic terms. When (some, not all!) gay activists, feminists, liberals, academics, and others violate their core identities and defining values to malign Israel, they are doing what bigots do – leaving the realm of the logical for the pathological, and only diminishing themselves.