Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech this week to AIPAC was like Havdalah. It was about separation. “The line I want to draw today,” he announced early in his remarks, “is the line between life and death, between right and wrong, between the blessings of a brilliant future and the curses of a dark past…between decency and depravity, between compassion and cruelty.” That moral line, he explained, runs along the border between Israel and Syria and it divides Israel from Hezbollah and Iran.
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It got me thinking about Theodor Herzl. Herzl was also interested in moral lines. His utopian novel "Altneuland" consists largely of a campaign between two parties in an imaginary Jewish state. One party sees Arabs as full citizens and the other wants to restrict the right to vote to Jews alone. “My associates and I make no distinctions between one man and another. We do not ask to what race or religion a man belongs,” declares Herzl’s hero, David Littwak. But, Littwak admits, “there are other views among us as well.”
It’s a very different way of thinking about morality. For Netanyahu, there are moral regimes—like Israel and America’s—and immoral ones, like those in Syria and Iran. If you live in one of the moral ones, the important thing is never to lose confidence in your own superiority, and to fight relentlessly against the evil that resides outside your borders and outside yourself. For Herzl, by contrast, moral lines cut through movements, countries, and even individuals. Even as he sketched the Jewish state of his dreams, Herzl envisioned that state wrestling with illiberal, racist currents within Zionism itself.
It’s a debate with strong echoes inside the United States. Since the dawn of the Cold War, the nationalistic right has accused the American left of not believing enough in America’s moral supremacy: of launching “apology tours” and “blaming America first” and “practicing moral relativism.” Liberals have responded that it is only by recognizing that everyone—Americans included—can be corrupted by power that democracies can avoid the abuses of their tyrannical foes. “All power,” argued the liberal Cold War theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “is a peril to justice” and the “pride and self-righteousness of powerful nations are a greater hazard to their success than the machinations of their foes.”
That’s what Bibi, and his ideological kinfolk like Dick Cheney, don’t understand. Yes, of course, Israel has a better human rights record than Syria and Iran. But there’s nothing inevitable about that. It’s not because of something inherent in Jewish culture; it’s not because we are created that way by God. On the contrary: the Bible is filled with stories of Jewish leaders succumbing to moral and theological corruption. What makes the Israel of today different from its neighbors is the principle that no group of people—no matter how powerful or certain of their own virtue—are beyond the law.
Yet that principle barely operates in the West Bank. While Israeli law theoretically binds Jewish settlers, their Palestinian neighbors—being non-citizens—have little capacity to make the State of Israel enforce it. Between 2005 and 2013, according to a report by the non-governmental organization, Yesh Din, only eight percent of the investigations into settler attacks on Palestinians even resulted in an indictment.
In the words of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, “When Palestinians harm Israeli citizens, the Israeli authorities use all means to arrest suspects and prosecute them, including measures that do not comport with international law and that flagrantly breach human rights…However, when Israelis harm Palestinians, the authorities implement an undeclared policy of forgiveness, compromise, and leniency in punishment.”
The point isn’t that settlers are bad people. It’s that whenever a democracy liberates an individual, or set of individuals, from legal constraint, it becomes more like its dictatorial foes. That was true in the segregated south, where the police and courts were not accountable to blacks, and so white vigilantes assaulted them with impunity. It was true in the federal government, where FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover operated outside the law, and thus for decades harassed and threatened critics of government policy. And it is true today in the West Bank, where, as Haaretz once editorialized, “For all practical purposes, the law is not the law, the settlers are the sovereign.”
Of course Israelis should condemn tyrannical regimes like those in Syria and Iran. Niebuhr himself was a passionate critic of the Soviet Union. But the Israeli government cannot effectively do so—it cannot successfully draw the distinctions Netanyahu is so keen to draw—unless it struggles against its own moral corruption in the West Bank. The best cold warriors were those Americans who struggled to make America different from its Soviet foe. And the Israelis most likely to build genuine solidarity with Iranians and Syrians struggling for democracy and human rights are those struggling for democracy and human rights in Israel, often in opposition to the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu. One of these years, maybe they’ll be invited to speak at AIPAC.