If America's Civil War Were Today, Netanyahu's Israel Would Side With the South

There was a time when Israelis joked, half in hope and half in reservation, that this country was becoming the 51st Of the United States. No longer. Now it feels more like the 12th state - of the Confederacy

Bradley Burston
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A counter-protester steps on a piece of a mock Confederate flag during a demonstration in Durham, North Carolina, U.S., August 18, 2017. REUTERS/Michael Galinsky
A counter-protester steps on a piece of a mock Confederate flag during a demonstration in Durham, North Carolina, U.S., August 18, 2017. REUTERS/Michael GalinskyCredit: STRINGER/REUTERS
Bradley Burston

If the American Civil War were being fought today, there's every chance that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu would side with the South.

I don't say this because of Israel's critics, who have often and persuasively pointed to the similarities between Israeli policies and those of the segregated Jim Crow South. Nor because of the many ways in which official treatment of the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank bears points of resemblance to the administration of slave states in the antebellum period.

I reached this conclusion independent of photographs showing white supremacists displaying the flag of the state of Israel alongside the Confederate battle flag or the mail-order sales of lapel pins with the Star of David alongside the Southern Cross.

No. It was none of these. It was Israel Hayom.

On Monday, Israel's largest-circulation daily newspaper and the authoritative house organ of the prime minister himself, published an opinion piece by Likud elder statesman Zalman Shoval, one of Netanyahu's lieutenants of the longest and most loyal standing. 

There was no point in Shoval wasting a column on defending the prime minister's son Yair for having posted a meme composed of obscenely anti-Semitic images – the Monday paper had already done that in a front-page editorial by a columnist who was at one time on the payrolls of both Israel Hayom and the Prime Minister's Office.

Yair Netanyahu's meme.
Yair Netanyahu's meme.Credit: Screenshot from Facebook

So Shoval, Netanyahu's onetime ambassador to Washington and a staple of Likud's all-powerful Central Committee, turned his attention to a somewhat more unexpected topic: defending the honor and image of the Confederate States of America and of the commander of the South's main field army, Gen. Robert E. Lee.

In a jewel of revisionist history worthy of the authors of sentimental pro-South fiction and Dixiecrat segregationists, Shoval wrote: "Even though the American Civil War is usually presented as a righteous struggle to free the slaves, the reasons and motivations for the war were much more complicated, including an economic struggle between the agrarian South and the industrial North."

Here's where we begin to see how Netanyahu's Israel might see itself identifying with the sensibility and sensitivities of southern whites, the shadows of victimhood, the unacknowledged trials and virtues of the much maligned and the wholly misunderstood.

"Moreover," Shoval continues, "the war was one of principles, a struggle between two basic political views: Is the U.S. a confederacy of sovereign states as the South maintained, or is it the union itself that is sovereign, with policy being formulated by the executive, legislative and judicial branches in Washington, D.C.?"

Now it all begins to swing into view – the Israel we have come to know, the Old South we have come to resemble: a society obsessed by myth, animated by a lifeblood of slights real and imagined, rotted with denial over its oppression of minorities, unable to curb the violently racist fanatics its own side has spawned, living in mortal, paralyzing terror of a rebellion by the millions deprived of the most basic of human rights.

Criticism of Israel? Just whose side do you think God is on? Look at how the other side lives, thinks, sins. Our critics carp and lie about the occupation and its brutality, the settlements and their lavishly subsidized lawlessness, the anti-democratic legislative agenda, the racist pronouncements from the very top down. The fact is that they would criticize us no matter what. The critics are jealous. They can't begin to understand us, nor do they try. There are the misapprehensions of hatred – not ours.

What side would Netanyahu's Israel have chosen in the war? Shoval does not raise the question, but early on, his op-ed hints at an answer. 

Referring to the Charlottesville, Virginia, "Unite the Right" violence, Shoval notes that "thousands of Jews fought in the ranks of the Southern army during the American Civil War. They even earned the friendship and support of Lee, as opposed to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the commander of the Northern army and later the 18th American president. Grant happened to be an anti-Semite who issued General Order No. 11, which expelled all Jews from the military district under his control in late 1862."

In a statement which says more about Shoval, and Netanyahu's Israel, than it does about the flesh-and-blood Lee, Shoval declares: "Ironically, Lee was not at all a racist." 

Shoval cites as proof a letter Lee wrote to The New York Times two years before the Civil War, which implied that Lee might free his own slaves within five years.

Nonetheless, in practice, "documents show Lee was cruel to his slaves and encouraged his overseers to severely beat slaves captured after trying to escape," The Associated Press wrote last month. 

In a passage worthy of study – and foreshadowing hardline contemporary hasbara, Lee wrote in an 1856 letter to his wife that while "slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country ... The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

To put Shoval's account into perspective, Georgia-born Lee biographer Roy Blount Jr. wrote in 2003 that after Lee's death in 1870, "Southerners adopted 'The Lost Cause' revisionist narrative about the Civil War and placed Lee as its central figure. The Lost Cause argued the South knew it was fighting a losing war and decided to fight it anyway on principle. It also tried to argue that the war was not about slavery but high constitutional ideals."

In Netanyahu's Israel there is something very akin to the Confederate-friendly vision of the Lost Cause. In place of a rose-hued vision of the sweet antebellum South, there is a sharp longing for a lost Greater Israel, an ante-Intifada, pre-Gaza Disengagement mythical land of unfettered settlement, happy Palestinian neighbors, minimal demands for democracy and equality, and permanent, in fact, eternal, Occupation – without resort to the O word.

Recalling the plight and the politics of disadvantaged whites in the slavery-era  and Jim Crow south, today's Israel is also a markedly classist society, with restricted upward economic mobility for generations of those who have enthusiastically provided the electoral and popular backbone for Netanyahu's rule – working-class Jews.

There was a time when Israelis joked, half in hope and half in reservation, that this country was becoming the 51st Of the United States. No longer. Now it feels more like the 12th state – of the Confederacy.