Israel Need not to Remain a Pariah
By Yakov M Rabkin
A chasm has opened between public opinion and government policies over the State of Israel. Israel is often supported as “the lone democracy in the Middle East.” But this policy appears to lack democratic base in most Western nations. This is what transpires in a survey conducted on behalf of the BBC, which shows that Israel has become a pariah in public opinion. It finds itself in the company of Iran and North Korea, whose influence on the world is deemed particularly negative.
Only 41 percent of Americans view Israel positively. Most citizens in countries whose governments are also staunchly pro-Israel – Australia, Britain, Canada – are negative about Israel. While German governments have been particularly favourable towards Israel to atone for the country’s Nazi past, a strong majority of Germans also believe Israel’s impact on the world is negative. Apparently, political manipulation of the collective guilt for the Holocaust has outlived its usefulness in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
At the same time, the Israel Lobby in the United States and Canada has harnessed solid backing from all major political parties. The annual galas it holds in Washington and Ottawa attract leading politicians. But Israel is losing the support of influential elder statesmen, such as Jimmy Carter and James Baker, who do not depend on election funds.
Universities exhibit the same trend. While university presidents make pro-Israel statements, often for fear of offending Zionists among the donors, faculty and students remain largely independent. Several Zionist organizations try to control criticism of Israel on campuses, but these efforts have been less productive than elsewhere, and have occasionally backfired, largely due to the tradition of academic freedom. The authors of a recent book decrying the inordinate political influence of the Israel Lobby teach at Harvard and Chicago. Universities also produce most informed critics of Israel and Zionism, many of whom are Jews.
Most people do not hold Jews and Judaism responsible for what Israel is and does. In the words of the resolutely anti-Zionist President Ahmadinejad of Iran, “vigilant and just human beings will not blame the Jews for the crimes committed by the Zionist regime and its supporters in the occupied territories.” At the same time, many organizations that claim to represent Jews are in fact engaged in Israel advocacy. Attitudes to Israel and Zionism have split Jews more sharply than any other issue in recent centuries. The outcome of this schism may be crucial for Jews and Judaism but perhaps less so for the state of Israel since Evangelical Christians, not Jews, constitute the backbone of its public support nowadays. They are motivated by a belief that the ingathering of Jews in the Holy Land will accelerate the Second Coming of Christ. Israeli officials successfully cultivate these groups, and, through the Christian Allies Caucus in the Knesset, have established pro-Israel parliamentary coalitions in several countries.
Many Israelis are appalled by the way it is perceived in the world. Rightfully proud of their country’s economic, cultural and scientific achievements, they long to break a vicious circle of violence. Some recognize that Ben Gurion may have erred in 1948 by declaring the state of Israel against the will of most Palestinians (Muslims, Christians and quite a few Jews) and antagonizing all the people in the region. But they are paralyzed by fear and ideology: Zionism postulates that the state of Israel is a state of the Jewish people rather than a normal state beholden to its citizens. This turns Israel into a ghetto, and an armed ghetto is invariably dangerous.
Most Diaspora Jews worry about the safety of their Israeli brethren. Many are deeply concerned that Israel’s reliance on force has turned the Promised Land into a bloody trap. Aware that the birth of modern Israel caused an injustice – dispossession and displacement of Palestinians – they call on the government of Israel to acknowledge this injustice and to seek ways to redress it. These Jews know that there can be no peace without justice. They believe that Israel can espouse justice and need not remain a pariah forever.
Yakov M. Rabkin, author of “A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism,” is professor of history and associate of the Centre for International Studies at the University of Montreal.