So­phis­ti­ca­tion and il­lu­sion

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Oliver Kamm

NOR­MAN FINKEL­STEIN, THE Amer­i­can far-left ac­tivist, was in­ter­viewed a cou­ple of months ago on Al-Jazeera’s Head to Head. I was one of the pun­dits cross-ex­am­in­ing him. We didn’t get on. I crit­i­cised the qual­ity of his his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and he com­pared me to the dust be­neath his feet. Yet there was one point on which, to some of the au­di­ence’s dis­com­fort, Finkel­stein was co­gent.

This vet­eran anti-Is­rael cam­paigner crit­i­cises the BDS (Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment, Sanc­tions) move­ment. He sup­ports boy­cotts of Is­raeli in­sti­tu­tions as a tac­tic, yet main­tains that a move­ment press­ing for Pales­tinian na­tional rights needs to have unequiv­o­cally just goals in in­ter­na­tional law in order to win pub­lic opinion. These must in­clude recog­ni­tion of Is­rael.

On that point, he’s right. Ar­gu­ing about his­tor­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity for the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict seems to me very much a sec­ond-order ques­tion com­pared with the goal of a two-state so­lu­tion in some­thing ap­prox­i­mat­ing the pre-1967 bor­ders. Among the most dispir­it­ing fea­tures of the de­bate in Europe is how rapidly the po­lit­i­cal left is di­vorc­ing it­self from that stance.

The Times, for which I write, summed this up in a leader col­umn last week. It’s a le­git­i­mate if de­bat­able crit­i­cism that Is­rael has taken too lit­tle care in avoid­ing civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in its mil­i­tary strikes against Ha­mas in Gaza. It’s another mat­ter to com­pare Is­rael to Nazi Ger­many or apartheid South Africa. That’s a calumny with po­ten­tially lethal con­se­quences.

As a Europhile lib­eral, I’m not one to over­stress the dark­ness of mod­ern Euro­pean so­ci­ety. The con­ti­nent has never been freer and more tol­er­ant than it is to­day. In pub­lic de­bates with Me­lanie Phillips, my fel­low JC con­trib­u­tor, I’m like a tape on con­tin­u­ous loop when ar­gu­ing how much more civilised Western so­ci­eties are ow­ing to the so­cial fer­ment of the 1960s.

Yet there’s some­thing atavis­tic and dis­turb­ing in a po­lit­i­cal cul­ture when an im­per­fect democ­racy such as Is­rael is rou­tinely cas­ti­gated as a colo­nial­ist and racist state. It’s com­mon these days on the left to hear com­ments such as those of Alexi Sayle, a comedian, who de­scribed Is­rael as “the Jimmy Sav­ile of na­tion-states” this month.

This sort of in­vec­tive un­for­tu­nately

Europe has never been freer than it is to­day, re­ally

does need to be con­fronted. I do what I can to ar­gue these propo­si­tions.

Is­rael has many faults, in­equal­i­ties and sins. Some were his­tor­i­cally in­escapable, be­cause the Jewish state came into ex­is­tence trag­i­cally late in the great 20th-cen­tury wave of na­tional self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. Yet that is the move­ment that Is­rael be­longs to: its roots are in the in­ter­na­tion­al­ist ide­al­ism es­poused by Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son a cen­tury ago.

It’s a ven­ture that ought to com­mand the sym­pa­thies of lib­er­als and left-wingers. Cru­cially, the state’s founders showed them­selves will­ing to face down and dis­arm their own ex­trem­ists. When there is a sov­er­eign Pales­tine along­side a se­cure Is­rael, that will be a ful­fil­ment of the plu­ral­ism of the Zion­ist ideal, for it will ex­tend na­tional self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.

Sec­u­lar­ism is not as strong as it should be in Is­rael but it is the clos­est thing the Mid­dle East has to the prin­ci­ple that there should be no re­li­gious test for pub­lic of­fice. It’s a cul­ture in which science rather than su­per­sti­tion pre­dom­i­nates.

Myths about the Jews spread even among so­phis­ti­cated po­lit­i­cal thinkers. In her book The Ori­gins of To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, Han­nah Arendt pre­pos­ter­ously main­tained that “Ger­man Jews be­longed not to the Ger­man peo­ple, but at most to its bour­geoisie”. It’s a myth that ap­pears to be gath­er­ing mo­men­tum among the po­lit­i­cally so­phis­ti­cated that the Jewish state is a colo­nial­ist en­ter­prise.

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