Is Israel a Normal Country?

The old anti-Semitic slogan, promoted by the Nazi newspaper Der Stuermer, that 'the Jews are our misfortune' has been given new currency by the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians.

Ian Buruma
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Ian Buruma

Israel's decision in May to drop commandos onto a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists was brutal. The killing of nine civilians by those commandos was a terrible consequence. Israel's blockade of Gaza and occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank, not to mention the road blocks, destruction of homes and other daily torments of the Palestinians, are also a form of institutionalized inhumanity.

Nevertheless, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's description of the Israeli raid on the activists' boat as "an attack on the conscience of humanity" which "deserves every kind of curse," and as a "turning point in history" after which "nothing will be the same," seems hysterical. Whatever one thinks of various Israeli governments (and I don't think much of the current one ), reactions to Israeli government-sponsored violence tend to be much fiercer - not just in Turkey - than reactions to crimes committed by the leaders of other countries, with the exception perhaps of the United States. But then, in the minds of many critics, the two countries are often conflated.

Israel has never done anything comparable to the late Syrian leader Hafez Assad's 1982 massacre of more than 20,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama. Far more Muslims are still being murdered by fellow Muslims than by Israelis, or indeed by Americans. And if one thinks of the death toll wreaked by the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo - more than 4 million - talking of turning points in history, after the killing of nine people, sounds a little absurd.

But none of that seems to count as much as what Israel does.

So is it true, as many defenders of Israel claim, that the Jewish state is judged by different standards than other countries? I believe that it is. But, while anti-Semitism certainly plays a part, it may not be the main reason.

Especially after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, many Europeans, I suspect, sighed with relief that Jews could be aggressors, too. Jewish brutality relieved the burden of wartime guilt. Eagerness to overcome this guilt might even have prompted some people to exaggerate Israeli aggression. The old anti-Semitic slogan, promoted by the Nazi newspaper Der Stuermer, that "the Jews are our misfortune," has been given new currency by the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians.

There are other reasons, however, for the double standard directed at Israel. One is what the liberal Israeli philosopher and peace activist Avishai Margalit has termed "moral racism." The bloodlust of an African or Asian people is not taken as seriously that of a European - or other white - people. After all, some might say (and many more might think ), what can one expect from savages? They don't know any better.

This is, of course, a deeply colonial sentiment, and the legacy of colonialism works against Israel in another way, too. As was true of apartheid-era South Africa, Israel reminds people of the sins of Western imperialism. Israel is regarded in the Middle East, as well as by many people in the West, as a colony led by white people (despite the fact that many prominent Israelis have their roots in Tehran, Fez or Baghdad ). The Palestinians are seen as colonial subjects, and the longer Israel continues to occupy Arab territories, the more this perception will be confirmed.

Finally, Israel is still a democracy, and as such should not be judged by the same standards as dictatorships. We must expect more of Benjamin Netanyahu's government than of, say, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime in Iran - not because Jews are morally superior to Persians, but because Netanyahu was freely elected and is subject to the rule of law, whereas Ahmadinejad has helped to destroy whatever was democratic about Iran. In a sense, to hold Israel to the highest standards is to pay it the compliment of being treated like a normal democracy.

If some critics of Israel refuse to treat it as a normal country, however, the same is true of some of Israel's staunchest defenders. Special pleading for Israel as a nation of victims - the natural heirs of the targets of Nazi mass murder - is another way to apply a double standard. The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was right to criticize Erdogan for overreacting to the raid on the "Gaza freedom flotilla." But, by adding that Hitler's "Mein Kampf" is a best-seller in Turkey, he implied that Erdogan's Turks are modern-day Nazis.

Israel as a nation of victims is, in fact, contrary to its founders' creed. They wanted to create a new nation, a normal nation, a nation of good Jewish soldiers and farmers, different from the powerless Jews who fell victim to European persecution. It was only later, starting perhaps with the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961, that the Holocaust became a staple of state propaganda. Later still, under such leaders as Menachem Begin, military enterprises were justified by references to the Nazi genocide.

That all Jews, including Israeli Jews, should remain haunted by a horrible past is understandable. But it must never be used to justify aggression against others. Israel is an immensely powerful country - freer, richer and better armed than all of its neighbors. Holding its leaders to account for their actions is essential, not only to protect Palestinians from brutality, but to preserve the freedom of Israelis. Allowing the past to cloud our critical faculties undermines Israeli democracy, and will have further dangerous consequences in the future.

Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College. His latest book is "Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents."

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010



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