When people reach the age of 65, they often look backward to assess what they have accomplished, and forward in anticipation of their uncertain future. So too should the nation of Israel on its 65th birthday as an independent state.
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An honest review will produce a paradox: Despite its imperfections and mistakes, Israel has done more good for its own citizens and for humanity in its 65 years of existence than any country in history during a comparable timeframe. Israel has helped to save more Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other lives—through its extraordinary medical, pharmaceutical, environmental, agricultural and other scientific contributions—than any nation of comparable size and then most that are far larger. It has added to the culture of the world through its literary, musical, dance and religious works. It has taught the world how to fight terrorism within the rule of law and without unduly compromising basic human rights.
Yet during that same period of time, the Jewish nation has been the target of more condemnation, hatred, and enmity than any nation in the world.
Why this paradox? Is it because Israel is the Jew among nations, and therefore follows the pattern of Jewish history: Over-accomplishment accompanied by undue hatred? Is it because the Jewish nation, like the Jewish people, is perceived as stiff-necked, arrogant and “chosen”?
It is certainly not entirely because of the policies, misguided as some have been, that Israel has pursued over the past decades. These policies provide an excuse, or in the minds of some, a justification, for the hatred and enmity, but any rational assessment will quickly demonstrate to any reasonable observer that the hatred and enmity directed at Israel is so disproportionate to its faults, even viewed in the worst possible light, that there must be other explanations. To be sure the Arab-Israeli conflict is highly emotional and the arguments presented by all sides are often irrational or exaggerated.
But even this doesn’t fully explain the difference in kind—not in degree—between the demonization of Israel and the criticisms directed against other less than perfect democratic and even tyrannical regimes. I recall the efforts to delegitimize Apartheid South Africa, to condemn the Soviet Union, to isolate Communist Cuba, to focus attention on despotic Argentina, but none of those even came close to the raw hatred directed against the Jewish State by so many—non-Jews and Jews alike.
And it is getting worse. The number of irrational haters is increasing, as is the nature of the demonization. Several years ago, most of the haters were extremists of both the hard right and the hard left. Today they include many from the center-left and even the center, especially in Western and Northern Europe, Canada, Australia and to a lesser degree, the United States. Moreover, the delegitimation has expanded from the occupation of the West Bank to the “occupation” of all of Palestine “from the river to the sea.”
The Divestment, Boycott, Sanction Movement (BDS) achieved traction first by protesting the occupation, by which it meant the West Bank settlement policies, the security barrier and the check points. But once this movement began to receive widespread support, particularly in academia, its Palestinian leaders subtly shifted from the 1967 lines, to the 1948 lines, to the very existence of a Jewish state in Palestine. Were Israel to return to the 1967 borders, with land swaps, some supporters of BDS would probably drop out, but many would continue to single out Israel for academic, cultural and other boycotts and sanctions. The movement now “has legs,” and will continue to expand both in numbers and in scope.
As the demonization of Israel becomes more extreme, the demonizers justify their rhetoric by invoking Jewish and Israeli anti-Zionists in support of their claims. This classic fallacious argument—by ethnic association and admission—goes something like this: “if Jews and Israelis say such terrible things about their own people, they surely must be true.”
The end result is not only to demonize the nation of Israel, but also its supporters, even its moderate supporters. On many of today’s university campuses, supporters of the two-state solution who oppose Israel’s settlement policies are labeled “Zio-fascists,” “neo-cons,” “Israel firsters” and “hawks,” while those who favor replacing Israel with a binational or Palestinian state are deemed politically correct.
So how should Israel confront this paradox as it looks toward its 70th and other birthdays? It should not try to recreate or rebrand itself in the internationally popular liberal-socialist image of the 1940s and 1950s. It must recognize the reality that the Zionist dream of bringing a million Soviet Jews to Israel has tilted the nation permanently to the right. That is the nature of Zionist in-gathering and democratic voting. And if Israelis want to change the result, they must do so through education, advocacy and political activism.
Israel is, of course, not the only country that has moved rightward over the past several decades but it is the only country that has been demonized for doing so. Israel must resolve its conflict with the Palestinians on the West Bank, not because this will change the minds or words of its enemies but because it is the right thing to do. Israel must continue to fight terrorism within the rule of law. It must not lose the competitive advantage it now holds by its educational system, which is currently suffering from economic starvation and a resulting brain drain.
Most of all, Israel must continue to become self-reliant, not only militarily but economically, scientifically, culturally and in every other way. The long lesson of Jewish history is that Jews cannot depend on others. Israel was born from that realization. Its isolation may well grow worse in the years to come, regardless of what it does. Hopefully its strength and its self-reliance will also grow. So Happy Birthday, Israel. May you go from strength to strength.
Alan M. Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, is a practicing criminal and constitutional lawyer and the author, most recently, of The Trials of Zion. Follow him on Twitter @AlanDersh.