Public discourse in Israel tends to ignore the increasingly positive feelings toward the Jews, claiming instead that the whole world hates us.
Several months ago I was sitting with a friend at a café in a European capital. An older man and woman were sitting at a nearby table. Suddenly they began looking at us and stopped talking. The man pricked up his ears and then stood up and approached us.
“You’re Israelis? Right?” he asked. We nodded. There was no point denying it in any event, even though I was sure of what was going to follow. And I was right.
With a highly important expression on his face, as if he were presiding over an important official ceremony, he said: “I wanted to tell you that I’m on your side. I support Israel and have since I’ve known anything about life. You’re an advanced country, cultured, surrounded by savages. What they’re doing to you is just scandalous. Hypocrisy. Don’t you think?”
We looked at him sheepishly. There was no point arguing. The forced conversation would continue. Our flush-faced neighbor, who had already had more than one drink, shifted his remarks to praise of Prime Minister Netanyahu. “If only we could have a leader like that,” he declared. “We also need to build a wall.” He even added that Netanyahu had solved the problem of traffic congestion on Israel’s roads. “I don’t miss a single speech of Netanyahu’s at the UN. Ask my wife how he fills me with pride,” the man said.
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We motioned to the waiter and quickly paid our bill to extract ourselves. What could we have done? Call the police? Complain to the Simon Wiesenthal Center?
The proper term for that type of unpleasant experience is a “philo-Semitic incident,” and they’ve become more and more common in recent years. I’m referring to expressions of love for Israel, the Israeli army or Netanyahu – forced on the listener against his will.
The incident described above is only moderate in severity, but there are worse. It’s even less pleasant to be stuck in a train cabin in India en route from Kolkata to Mumbai next to a nationalist software engineer who hates Muslims and is a fan of Netta Barzilai, or to argue with German leftists who are actually convinced that Israel embodies a classless communist utopia.
The Israeli traveling abroad is like a frightened animal. Everyone around him looks dangerous: the people, the places, the food. He is on guard, ready at any moment to call for reinforcements. Tourists from other countries who encounter Israelis are amazed. Why travel the world when your attitude toward foreigners is so wary? But from the Israeli standpoint, the world is a crazy place.
Travel warnings, reports of anti-Semitic incidents – all of this convinces the Israeli that the world is full of anti-Semites whose only interest is harassing Israelis like him. He makes no distinction among Muslim immigrants, left-wing BDS supporters and neo-Nazis. From his standpoint, they’re all the same, representing a primeval anti-Semitic impulse nesting in the souls of people around the world. Any comment or question is interpreted as deliberate harassment, just because he’s Israeli.
Actually, however, in many places in the world, an Israeli has a larger chance of encountering a philo-Semitie than an overt anti-Semite. It is true that the frequency and seriousness of anti-Semitic incidents have grown. The attack on a synagogue earlier this month in the German city of Halle is indeed a sign of a disturbing trend that threatens Jewish communities, but most of the victims of anti-Semitic attacks are not Israeli.
There is no point denying that Israelis are currently rather popular in extreme right-wing circles. Nationalists and xenophobes usually have no problem with Israel, and there is a high probability that they are even fans of the Mossad and of the Israeli army (as are two sons of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro). And in developing countries, in Asia or Africa, for example, many people spot Israelis and respond with a mischievous wink: “Israel – strong country!” It’s as if they were saying, “It’s nice how you’ve screwed the Arabs.”
Strangely, the public debate in Israel tends to ignore the affection for Israel, or at least minimize it. Both the left and the right prefer to claim that we are isolated and outcast. The right is interested in strengthening the feeling of persecution that unites the tribe, while the left aspires to prove that Israelis will be punished for their bullying actions. But in practice, many people around the world have no real problem with bullies, as long as they are on their side.
The admiration for the Jewish state is an ancient phenomenon, which reawakens every few generations throughout history. Often it is related to the Christian belief that Jews are the Chosen People whose revival will lead to human redemption. But its roots go back to even before Christianity: Greek philosophers described with great admiration the Laws of Moses and the Jewish state. In the present generation, philo-Semitism is tightly woven with Islamophobia and the hatred of Arabs.
By itself, philo-Semitism is not harmful. As opposed to anti-Semitism, no one has yet died as a result of a philo-Semitic incident. But philo-Semitism still has indirect victims. For example, in April the right-wing American magazine The Federalist published an article on Israel’s moral right to annex the West Bank. The author was Jason D. Hill, a professor of philosophy specializing in ethics at DePaul University in Chicago.
Pro-Israeli articles are not a rare sight, but Hill set a new record: He claimed that because of Jewish exceptionalism, the Jews are allowed to conduct any policy they want toward Palestinians: “Jewish exceptionalism and the exceptionalist nature of Jewish civilization require an unconditional space for the continued evolution of their civilization. What’s good for Jewish civilization is good for humanity at large. Jewish civilization is an international treasure trove that must be protected.”
Accordingly, he concludes that Palestinians may be stripped of their right to vote, expelled and destroyed as a political entity. This article might be an extreme example, but it serves as an example of a new form of murderous philo-Semitism that could even go as far as justification for genocide.
In any case, if someone near you recognizes your Israeli accent, there is no reason to think they plan to spit on you. There is a reasonable chance they actually want to sing Naomi Shemer songs.