An interesting question is whether it is right and proper to disapprove of Israel. (One may squirm and say that one means “the Israeli government”, but frankly the support for the Israeli government (which is not identifiable as a single party) and its Zionist practices are so universal in Israel that it is foolish to distinguish it and say that there could be an Israel as it is now, without the kind of government it has enjoyed since its foundation.)
Israel is a democracy, in that it allows opposition parties to win elections. However, it is a democracy which discriminates quite severely against a large minority of its electorate (in much the same way that the USSR discriminated against its own minorities). This is, of course, the Palestinian Israelis, who are made to know that they are not true citizens because they are not Jews. Meanwhile, foreign Jews are not given such a second-class treatment. This is bad, but not appalling.
What is appalling is the treatment of the other Palestinians in territories either occupied or surrounded by the Israeli army, who make up roughly half the population of Israel-plus-occupied-territories, and who have no rights whatsoever as Israeli citizens, because they are so numerous. The long-term Israeli goal appears to be to drive these Palestinians off the arable land which they occupy. (The Israelis abandoned Gaza because it is not truly arable.)
Not only are these Palestinians denied the democratic rights enjoyed by Jewish and (partly) by Arab Israelis. They are also subject to extraordinary treatment, which includes detention without trial, collective punishment, torture and political assassinations, often explicitly carried out by terroristic bombing. The behaviour of the Israeli state in this regard is conspicuously bad because it is so generous towards Jewish Israelis’ civil and political rights. Indeed, this is what makes people draw parallels between the Israeli state and the South African apartheid state.
Very well; but in the present world, are the Israelis so very bad? They hold thousands of Palestinians in detention, they kill hundreds every year, and they have placed millions of Palestinians in subjection. How does this behaviour stand up against other states? It seems to me to be comparable with the behaviour of Turks towards the Kurds, and the treatment of the inhabitants of Darfur by the Sudanese government is probably worse than that of the Israelis. While there is no minority being ill-treated there, the terrorism and undemocratic brutality of the Colombian government is, arguably, comparable with the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis. Burma treats its minorities at least as badly as the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Central Asia is a human calamity about which I know very little, but it is possible that some of the kleptocracies there are worse than Israel.
That’s interesting. Of the states mentioned, Sudan is an official demon of the West, while Burma is a sort of petty whining-point of the West, while Turkey, Tadzikistan and Colombia are valued allies. (Iraq might also have been mentioned, but since its vicious and tyrannical government is kept in power only by foreign occupation it is not fair to do so.) In other words, Israel is a pretty bad state in world terms.
There are countries which do not even have minority democracies, such as Saudi Arabia or Equatorial Guinea. Many of these countries are extremely repressive, and indeed most of the countries in the vicinity of Israel are governed along these lines. However, by and large these states manage to survive without the kind of tyranny which Israel imposes on its colonial territories. In short, these states’ governments do not arouse the kind of resistance to their authority which Israeli rule does, and so these states do not have to use so much force — although, as in the case of Syria, they are quite capable of doing it on occasion.
So on the whole it does seem that Israel is one of the worst countries in the world, in terms of human rights, and the democracy and justice which it bestows on its Jewish population merely serves to throw a virulent light on this fact. Indeed, a helpful term for this kind of state, much disliked by Zionist scholars for obvious reasons, is “herrenvolk democracy” — like South Africa under apartheid, or the Confederate state during the Civil War.
What is omitted from this is the argument that Israelis and Zionists invariably present; that Israel is obliged to maintain tyrannous rule because of the implacable nature of their enemies. This is omitted because it is extremely silly. As is well known, Israel has nuclear weapons, which none of its neighbours possess, and this alone makes Israel invulnerable, even setting aside its gigantic military. In addition, Israel has a peace treaty with two of its major neighbours, namely Jordan and Egypt. Saudi Arabia has not attacked Israel in sixty years. This leaves only Syria and the Lebanon, neither of which is particularly powerful. Israel is, in short, one of the most secure states in the world. The only challenge which it faces is internal terrorism, which is extremely spasmodic, ill-led, ill-trained and disorganised, and besides is riddled with informers controlled by one of the most powerful and ruthless secret police in the world, the Mossad/Shin Bet alliance. The idea that this poses a threat to Israel is an absurdity. Israeli tyranny is not justified by circumstances.
Now all this is true and must be acknowledged by anyone who is reasonably well-informed about the situation. The fact that it is so rarely acknowledged is, very largely, because so many people in positions of power are absurdly dishonest when it comes to Israel. This dishonesty is very difficult to account for; it is hard to believe that there is a gigantic Zionist conspiracy which pays off so many non-Jews. Instead, it is worth looking at the record of the Western and world attitude towards Israel.
This attitude is instructive. Israel was a colonial project; European Jews paid the Turkish colonial power in Palestine to allow them onto Arab ground. Later they did the same thing with the British colonial power in Palestine. When the Arabs rebelled, the British hired Jewish mercenaries to police the Arabs; the blowback from this British practice was that the ruthless force the British set up, which practised appalling atrocities against the Arab population, eventually became the terrorist organisation which drove the British to flee from Palestine in 1947.
In 1947 a tiny minority of the population of Palestine was Jewish people who wished to stay in a country called Israel. This minority was given half the territory by the United Nations, acting out of post-Holocaust guilt, anti-Arab racism and American imperialism. The Arabs disliked this, but having been crushed and disarmed for ten years they had no capacity to defend themselves when the Israelis moved out of their enclaves and began seizing the whole of Palestine. Neighbouring Arab states tried to grab territory, but half-heartedly, and were (except for Jordan) defeated. However, the Israelis concealed all the crimes they committed against the Arabs, claimed that they had been the victims of a huge nefarious aggression, and thus painted themselves as the heroes of the piece.
The Israelis continued to present themselves as heroes for thirty-five years. During this period there was scarcely a single honest piece printed about Israeli-Arab relations in a Western newspaper. The Arabs were bad, the Israelis were good. One could tell this because when the Egyptians nationalised the Suez Canal, the Israelis helped the British and French take it back by force. One could also tell this because when the Egyptians pretended to close the straits of Sharm el Sheikh and (without mobilising their forces) threatened Israel on the radio, the Israelis proceeded to attack Egypt, Jordan and Syria and defeat them all, seizing the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank of the Jordan, killing huge numbers of Arabs and expelling vast numbers of Palestinians. Nobody said anything about the absence of any pretext for this aggression. It was enough that the Israelis said that the Arabs were about to attack and so they attacked in “self-defence”. The fact that this was exactly what the Nazis had said when they invaded Poland, and that it had approximately the truth-content of what the Nazis had said when they invaded Poland, was not mentioned by anyone. Instead the emphasis was on the bravery of the Israelis and their skill in killing so many Arabs while suffering so few casualties.
The “Yom Kippur” war of 1973 was different. This was the first occasion when the Arabs attacked the Israelis, but since the Israelis had pretended otherwise in every previous war, they were not able to pretend that this was unusual. On the other hand, the Egyptians initially scored some successes while the Syrians held their own briefly and then defended themselves energetically — in other words, while the Arabs did not win, they did far better than the racist West had pretended. What followed, even more interestingly, was the American decision to align itself with Egypt, which eventually made the Israelis withdraw from the Sinai, a tacit admission that they had been wrong to seize it in the first place. Public opinion was no longer unquestioningly on the side of the Israelis.
The big change, however, surely came in 1982, with the invasion of the Lebanon. One rather ironic point is that any newspaper map showing the Lebanon had to be fairly detailed, so that all the maps showed a huge Israel attacking a tiny Lebanon. Moreover, Israel’s attack was unprovoked and was aimed at Palestinians rather than threatening Arabs; nobody had been able to claim that the Lebanon, still wracked by civil war, posed a threat to Israel. Israel’s invasion was also much less successful than earlier blitzkriegs; the “plucky little” trope here passed to the Palestinians, who defended Beirut with determination. Finally, the war crimes committed by Israel’s Falangist allies at Sabra and Shatila, all too obviously facilitated by the Israeli commander Ariel Sharon, made it very difficult for Israeli apologists to focus attention on the alleged crimes of Palestinian terrorists.
This, of course, set the stage for the 1987 Intifada, which seems to have finally wrecked the automatic public assumption in the West that Israel was always right in everything. The “break their bones” strategy, the massacres of children, the mass detention camps, and the relatively reasonable response of the PLO and its internal allies — coupled with the simultaneous anti-apartheid campaign which showed striking parallels between Israeli and apartheid tactics (unsurprising since Israel was the chief intelligence and military ally of apartheid South Africa) — all shattered the facade of Israeli decency.
It took time. Also, the appalling misconduct of the PLO did its little best to prevent the Palestinians from taking advantage of the Israeli behaviour. For a brief period, indeed, the Oslo Accord and the great betrayal of the Palestinian people it entailed left the Israelis in a very strong position. However, the Israelis gradually threw this away. Eventually, by the new millennium, the Israelis were one of the lest popular nations among Western intellectuals. The way that the U.S. right wing embraced the Israeli world-view after 9/11 merely reinforced this, as did the demonisation of Palestinian resistance by the new anti-Muslim and anti-Arab right.
So, basically, there are grounds for disapproving of Israel. (The country is morally on a par with the worst in the world, even though numerically it kills, tortures and jails fewer than most of those which promote comparable conduct.) Disliking Israel has also become acceptable in the West — and is, if anything, made stronger by the long history of excessive endorsement of Israel, something which Western political leaders still promote. Also, Israel is seen as linked with the excesses of the modern neoliberal reactionary politics in the West. It’s a no-brainer — perhaps unfortunately so, but inevitably so.