The war in Lebanon triggered an explosion of invective against Israel that in its fury and its reach was unprecedented in the public discourse of this country. In the past, unambiguously venomous attacks on Israel had been confined to marginal sectors of American political culture like the Village Voice and the Nation on the far Left and their counterparts in such publications of the far Right as the Liberty Lobby’s Spotlight. Even when, as began happening with greater and greater frequency after the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel was attacked in more respectable quarters, care was often taken to mute the language or modulate the tone. Usually the attack would be delivered more in sorrow than in anger, and it would be accompanied by sweet protestations of sympathy. The writer would claim to be telling the Israelis harsh truths for their own good as a real friend should, on the evident assumption that he had a better idea than they did of how to insure their security, and even survival. In perhaps the most notable such piece, George W. Ball (of whom more later) explained to the readers of Foreign Affairs “How to Save Israel in Spite of Herself.” No matter that Ball warned the Israelis that unless they adopted policies they themselves considered too dangerous, he for one would recommend the adoption of other policies by the United States that would leave them naked unto their enemies; no matter that he thereby gave the Israelis a choice, as they saw it, between committing suicide and being murdered: he still represented himself as their loyal friend.
And so it was with a host of other commentators, including prominent columnists like Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, academic pundits like Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard, and former diplomatic functionaries like Harold Saunders. To others it might seem that their persistent hectoring of Israel was making a considerable contribution to the undermining of Israel’s case for American support and thereby endangering Israel’s very existence. Nevertheless they would have all the world know that they yielded to no one in their commitment to the survival of Israel. Indeed, it was they, and not Israel’s “uncritical” supporters, who were Israel’s best friends in this country. As a matter of fact, they were even better friends to Israel than most Israelis themselves who, alas, were their “own worst enemies” (an idea which recently prompted Conor Cruise O’Brien, the former editor of the London Observer, to remark: “Well, I suppose Israelis may be their own worst enemies, but if they are, they have had to overcome some pretty stiff competition for that coveted title”).
This kind of thing by no means disappeared from the public prints with the Israeli move into Lebanon. In the thick file of clippings I have before me there are many expressions of “anguish” and “sadness” over the damage Israel was doing to its “image” and to its “good name.” In a fairly typical effusion, Alfred Friendly wrote in the Washington Post (of which he was formerly the managing editor):
Perhaps it was expecting more than was possible—that Israel should remain the country with a conscience, a home for honor, a treasury for the values of mind and soul. At any rate, it is so no longer but merely a nation like any other, its unique splendor lost . . . its slaughters are on a par with . . . Trujillo’s Dominican Republic or Papa Doc’s Haiti. Still absent are the jackboots, the shoulder boards, and the bemedalled chests, but one can see them, figuratively, on the minister of defense. No doubt Israel is still an interesting country. But not for the reasons, the happy reasons, that made it such for me.
In addition to lamenting Israel’s loss of moral stature as a result of Lebanon, these great friends of Israel condemned the resort to “unselective and disproportionate violence” (Anthony Lewis) on the ground that it “cannot serve the spirit of Israel, or its true security.”
But the sympathetic protestations of this particular species of friend—including even Lewis, perhaps the most unctuous of them all—became more perfunctory and more mechanical in the weeks after the war began. One got the feeling that they were offered mainly for the record or to fend off criticism. And in any case, the preponderant emphasis was no longer on the putative damage Israel was doing to itself by its wicked or stupid policies. The focus was now unmistakably on the evils Israel was committing against others, as in this passage from a column by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post:
Maybe the ultimate tragedy of the seemingly nonstop war in the Middle East is that Israel has adopted the morality of its hostile neighbors. Now it bombs cities, killing combatants and non-combatants alike—men as well as women, women as well as children, Palestinians as well as Lebanese.
Israel’s “true friends,” then, were liberated by Lebanon to say much more straightforwardly and in more intemperate terms than before what they had all along felt: that Israeli intransigence and/or aggressiveness and/or expansionism are the main (and for some, the only) source of the Arab-Israeli conflict and therefore the main (or only) obstacle to a peaceful resolution of that conflict.
Even if this were all, it would have increased the volume and intensity of the attacks on Israel to an unprecedented level. But what made matters much worse was the proportionate escalation and increasing respectability of the attacks from quarters that had never pretended to friendly concern with Israel.
To be sure, apologists for the PLO who had always been ugly about Israel—Edward Said, Alexander Cockburn, and Nicholas von Hoffman, to mention three prominent names—had been getting a more and more deferential hearing in recent years. Books by Said like The Question of Palestine had been widely and sympathetically reviewed in the very media he indiscriminately denounces for being anti-Arab; Cockburn, whose weekly pieces in the Village Voice have set a new standard of gutter journalism in this country (and not merely in dealing with Israel), has been rewarded with regular columns in Harper’s and the Wall Street Journal (where in exchange for access to a respectable middle-class audience he watches his literary manners); and von Hoffman, who is only slightly less scurrilous than Cockburn, has also found a hospitable welcome in Harper’s and a host of other mainstream periodicals both here and abroad (not to mention the television networks). Writing to a British audience in the London Spectator (for which he does a regular column), von Hoffman exulted openly in this change:
Where before it was difficult to print or say something that was critical of Israeli policies and practices, the barriers are now coming down. Some writers used to believe—rightly or wrongly.—that to expound a Palestinian point of view was to risk blacklisting. Now many have become emboldened. . . .
But if they were becoming “emboldened” before Lebanon, their tongues now lost all restraint. Von Hoffman himself is a case in point, having been emboldened in another piece in the Spectator to compare Lebanon to Lidice and the Israelis to the Nazis: “Incident by incident, atrocity by atrocity, Americans are coming to see the Israel government as pounding the Star of David into a swastika.”
Whether von Hoffman published these words in the United States, I do not know, but by his own account he could easily have found an outlet. “Where once, among the daily press, only the Boston Globe could be counted on to print other points of view as a matter of consistent policy . . . now other voices are becoming somewhat more audible.”
Somewhat? According to one estimate, of the first 19 pieces on the war in Lebanon to appear on the New York Times Op-Ed page, 17 were hostile to Israel and only two (one of them by me) were sympathetic. I have not made a statistical survey of the Washington Post Op-Ed page, but my impression is that the balance there was roughly the same. In short, not only did the kind of virulent pieces formerly confined to the Village Voice and other yellow journals of the Left and Right increase in number and intensity; such pieces now also began appearing regularly in reputable papers and magazines.
Thus no sooner had the Israelis set foot in Lebanon than Edward Said was to be found on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times declaring that Sidon and Tyre had been “laid waste, their civilian inhabitants killed or made destitute by Israeli carpet bombing,” and accusing Israel of pursuing “an apocalyptic logic of exterminism.” The comparison of Israel with the Nazis here was less brazen than in von Hoffman’s piece, but William Pfaff more than made up for it in the International Herald Tribune: “Hitler’s work goes on,” he began, and concluded with the prediction that Hitler might soon “find rest in Hell” through “the knowledge that the Jews themselves, in Israel, have finally . . . accepted his own way of looking at things.” The famous spy novelist John le Carré was imported from England by the Boston Globe to deliver himself of similar sentiments:
Too many Israelis, in their claustrophobia, have persuaded themselves that every Palestinian man and woman and child is by definition a military target, and that Israel will not be safe until the pack of them are swept away. It is the most savage irony that Begin and his generals cannot see how close they are to inflicting upon another people the disgraceful criteria once inflicted upon themselves.
Finally, the syndicated cartoonist Oliphant, like Cockburn in the Wall Street Journal, portrayed besieged west Beirut as another Warsaw ghetto, with the PLO in the role of the Jews and the Israelis in the role of the Nazis.
Many other writers were also “emboldened” by Lebanon, but not quite enough to compare the Israelis with the Nazis. Alfred Friendly, in the passage quoted above, only compared them to Trujillo and Duvalier. Hodding Carter, in the Wall Street Journal, invoked Sparta (though his use of language like “Several Lebanese towns have been pulverized by the tactics of total war [and] tens of thousands of Lebanese have been killed or injured since the blitzkrieg was launched” suggested that Sparta was not really the state he had in mind). And Joseph C. Harsch, in the Christian Science Monitor, brought up Communist Vietnam: “Vietnam is imperial. It dominate[s] its neighbors Laos and Cambodia. In that same sense Israel is now the dominant power in its own area.” Extending this ingenious comparison, Harsch wrote:
Israel’s major weapons come from the U.S. Israel’s economy is sustained by subsidies from the U.S. . . . It depends on Washington, just as Vietnam depends for major arms and for economic survival on Moscow. Neither Israel nor Vietnam could dominate their neighborhoods if the support of their major patrons were withdrawn.
But the prize for the most startling comparison of all goes to Mary McGrory of the Washington Post, who was reminded of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More startling still, Miss McGrory said that in her opinion what the Israelis were doing in Lebanon was worse. Addressing Begin directly she wrote:
You were trying to save your own troops. We understand that. We are, after all, the country that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. . . . But grant us that we were up against a mighty, if weakened, war machine and a totally mobilized nation. You were punishing a wretched country that reluctantly shelters factions, which, while hostile to you, could not wipe you off the face of the earth, however much they might want to.
What are we to make of words and images like these? How are we to explain them? How are we to understand what they portend?
There are well-wishers of Israel, among them a number of Jews, who recoil in horror from the idea that the Israelis are no better than Nazis, but who believe that Israel under Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon has brought all this violent abuse on itself. Even though the degree of condemnation is excessive, say these anxious well-wishers, the Israelis have only themselves to blame for besmirching their “good name.” Yet I would suggest that the beginning of wisdom in thinking about this issue is to recognize that the vilification of Israel is the phenomenon to be addressed, and not the Israeli behavior that supposedly provoked it. I say supposedly because when a reaction is as. wildly disproportionate to an event as this one was, it is clearly being fed by sources other than the event itself.
But what am I or anyone else to say to those for whom there is nothing obvious about the assertion that in this particular case the reaction was disproportionate? From such people one is tempted to turn away in disgust. Yet difficult as it may be to entertain, even for as long as it takes to refute it, the loathsome idea that Israel is to the Palestinians as the Nazis were to the Jews, the world evidently still needs to be reminded of the differences.
To begin with, then, the Nazis set out to murder every Jew on the face of the earth, and wherever they had the power to do so, they systematically pursued this objective. Is this what the Israelis have tried to do to the Palestinians? If so, they have gone about it in a most peculiar way.
In Germany under the Nazis, the Jews were first stripped of their civil and political rights and then sent to concentration camps where virtually all of them were put to death. For more than thirty-five years, by contrast, Palestinian Arabs living in the state of Israel have enjoyed Israeli citizenship and along with it a degree of civil and political liberty, not to mention prosperity, unknown to Arabs living in any country under Arab sovereignty.
For fifteen years, moreover, about a million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza have been in the power of Israel under military occupation. Have squads of gunmen been dispatched to shoot them down in the fashion of the Einsatzgruppen who murdered an approximately equal number of Jews in those parts of the Soviet Union occupied by the Nazis? Have the West Bank Palestinians been rounded up and deported to concentration camps in preparation for being gassed, as happened to some three million Jews living in other countries occupied by Nazi Germany? The Nazis in less than six years managed to kill more than five million Jews in occupied territory. How many Palestinian Arabs have been killed by the Israelis in fifteen years? A hundred? And if even that many, has a single civilian been killed as a matter of policy? Again, the fact is that the Palestinians living even under Israeli military occupation, and even since the recent political offensive against PLO influence on the West Bank, have enjoyed a greater degree of civil and political liberty than any of their brother Arabs living anywhere else except in Israel as Israeli citizens.
It is or ought to be obvious, then, that any comparison between the way Israel has treated the Palestinians and the way the Nazis dealt with the Jews is from a rational perspective, let alone morally, disproportionate to a monstrous degree. Anyone who makes such a comparison cannot possibly be responding to the facts of the case and must be driven by some other impulse.
But what about the comparisons of Israel with Sparta, or Haiti, or Communist Vietnam? Are they any the less disproportionate? If so, it is only because nothing could match the intellectual and moral excess of equating Jews with Nazis. Still, these comparisons are sufficiently outlandish in their own right.
Sparta, to start with the least repellent of them, was a police state so dedicated to war and so single-mindedly devoted to the martial values that any male child deemed unfit to become a soldier was taken to the mountains and abandoned to his death. Israel is a democracy with an army made up largely of civilian reservists to whom nothing is more distasteful than going to war and to whom peace is the highest value. As for Haiti or the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, they have so little in common with Israel in any respect that bringing their names into the discussion can only be seen as an effort to sneak by with the absurd charge that Israel is no longer a democratic country.
Apparently, though, not even this charge was too absurd to surface openly in the public prints. Thus, Douglas S. Crow, Professor of Religion, no less, at Columbia University, wrote in a letter to the New York Times of Israel’s “posturing as a bastion of democracy.” But if Israel, where all citizens, including Arabs, have the right to vote and where all individuals and parties, including the Communists, enjoy a full range of liberties—speech, press, assembly, and so on—is not a bastion of democracy, where shall such a bastion be found?
The same point can be made of the analogy with Communist Vietnam, where there is even greater repression than in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic and perhaps even greater economic misery than in Haiti. To compare Israel—which can indeed be described as a bastion of democracy—with what is by all accounts one of the most Stalinist regimes in the entire Communist world, is a sufficiently gross travesty. But is the comparison Joseph C. Harsch makes between the behavior of the two states toward their respective neighbors any more justifiable?
Both, says Mr. Harsch, are “imperial” states using military forces to dominate the countries of the region. That this is an apt characterization of Communist Vietnam very few will nowadays contest. Two years after signing a peace treaty with South Vietnam, the Communist regime of the North invaded and conquered the South. Not content with that, Vietnam proceeded to invade Cambodia where it installed another puppet regime, while keeping some 40,000 troops in Laos to insure its domination over the Communist regime there. Nor could Vietnam claim to be acting defensively: neither South Vietnam nor Cambodia nor Laos posed any threat to Hanoi.
If we now ask what this set of relationships has in common with the relations between Israel and its neighbors, the answer can only be: nothing whatever. One grows weary of reciting the facts of the Arab-Israeli conflict over and over again. But the controversy generated by Lebanon demonstrates that far from being tiresomely familiar, they are still unknown by some and forgotten or deliberately ignored by others for whom they are politically inconvenient.
In 1947, then, the United Nations adopted a partition plan for Palestine, dividing it into a Jewish state and a Palestinian one. The Jews accepted the plan; the Arabs rejected it. The form this rejection took was a war against the new Jewish state of Israel launched by the armies of five neighboring Arab states, with the aid and encouragement of all the others. Israel successfully fended off this assault and begged its neighbors to make peace with it. But they all refused, rededicating themselves instead to the elimination of any trace of a sovereign Jewish state from the region.
Living in consequence under siege, with a coalition of nineteen nations pledged to its destruction, Israel maneuvered as best it could. In 1956, it joined forces with the British and the French in an attack on Egypt which left the Israelis in control of a stretch of the Sinai desert. But in response to American pressure, all three parties soon withdrew, and Israel in particular returned the Sinai to Egypt (without any quid pro quo). So much for the first instance of Israeli “expansionism” or “imperialism” and the only one to which these epithets have so much as a remotely plausible claim.
The next episode occurred in 1967, when Egypt took a series of actions clearly spelling an intention to resort once again to military force whose explicit objective was—as its then leader, Nasser, put it—“the destruction of Israel.” After waiting for about two weeks while the United States and others worked unsuccessfully to avert a war in which they might be “wiped off the map” (Nasser’s language again) if the Arabs struck the first blow, the Israelis launched a preemptive attack. Six days later, thanks to a brilliant campaign, they found themselves in possession of territory formerly belonging to or occupied by Egypt (the Sinai), Syria (the Golan Heights), and Jordan (the West Bank).
To the Arabs and their apologists, this was another instance of expansionism and imperialism. But since virtually no one doubts that Nasser provoked the 1967 war or believes that there would have been a war at all if not for his closing of the Straits of Tiran (among other actions he took), how can it be regarded as an imperialistic operation by Israel? In any case, Israel begged King Hussein of Jordan to stay out of the war once it started, and if he had agreed, the Israelis would not have been obliged to respond to his attack and they would not have ended the war in control of the West Bank.
Even so, Israel once again, as it had been doing since the day of its birth, asked only for recognition and face-to-face negotiations with its Arab neighbors. Such negotiations would have resulted in the return of occupied territories with whatever minor boundary adjustments security might dictate. Yet once again, as they had from the beginning, the Arab states refused, responding this time with the famous three No’s of Khartoum: No recognition, No negotiation, No peace.
Finally, seven years later and after yet another war—this one unambiguously started by Egypt in a surprise attack—Anwar Sadat (Nasser’s successor) called what had been universally regarded in the Arab world as Israel’s “bluff” by offering recognition and face-to-face negotiations. Almost overnight, Israel responded by agreeing to return every inch of Egyptian territory and then honored the agreement. So much for imperialism.
Now comes Lebanon. To show that Israel is behaving toward Lebanon as Vietnam has behaved toward Cambodia, Joseph C. Harsch writes:
Israel has now decreed that there must be no more “foreign” military forces in Lebanon. That means that Israel wants all Palestinian and Syrian armed units out of Lebanon, leaving Lebanon in the hands of elements which would be sympathetic to Israel and to its interests.
There are so many astonishing features in these two sentences that one hardly knows where to begin. In the first place, why the quotation marks around the word foreign? Is Harsch trying to suggest that the “Palestinian and Syrian armed units” are indigenous or native to Lebanon? In the second place, what is illegitimate about Israel’s desire to leave Lebanon “in the hands of elements which would be sympathetic to Israel and its interests”? In view of the fact that those “elements” would be the Lebanese people themselves, there can be nothing wrong in leaving Lebanon in their hands; and in view of the fact that before Lebanon was taken over by the PLO and the Syrians it was sufficiently “sympathetic to Israel and its interests” to live peacefully alongside Israel, a more accurate way of putting the case would be to say that Israel hopes to free Lebanon from the domination of foreign forces who have turned an unwilling Lebanon into a battlefield of their war against Israel.
But of course putting it that way would defeat the purpose of portraying Israel as an imperialistic power imposing its will upon a helpless neighbor. And it would also show the falsity of describing the war as an invasion of Lebanon. Yes, the Israelis did invade Lebanon in the sense of sending military forces across the Lebanese border. But if we are looking for analogies, a better one than any fished up in recent weeks would be the invasion of France by allied troops in World War II. The purpose was not to conquer France but to liberate it from its German conquerors, just as the purpose of the Israelis in 1982 was to liberate Lebanon from the PLO.
Harsch and many of his colleagues may not know this, but the Lebanese people do. In spite of the sufferings inflicted upon them by the war, and in spite of the fact that they have no love for Israel, they have greeted the Israelis as liberators. Representative Charles Wilson, a Texas Democrat who is so far from being reflexively pro-Israel that he voted for the AWACS sale and intends to vote for the Jordanian arms sale, testified after a visit to Lebanon in July to
the universal enthusiasm with which the Lebanese welcomed the Israeli army. . . . I mean it’s almost like a liberating army. . . . It was astonishing. I expected this, somewhat, from the Christian population. But I didn’t expect it from the Muslim population. . . . And in talking to a group of people, some of whom had lost their homes, some of whom had lost relatives, they said it was awful. But they said that all in all, to be free of the PLO it was worth it.
One can see why. According to a news story by David K. Shipler in the New York Times, the PLO, whose “major tool of persuasion was the gun,” ruled over a large part of Lebanon, terrifying and terrorizing the local populace, Christian and Muslim alike. It took over land and houses, it confiscated automobiles, it stole at will from the shops, and anyone who complained was likely to be shot. Operating as a state within a state, the PLO humiliated local Lebanese officials and displaced them with its own police and “people’s committees.”
On top of all this, writes Shipler, the PLO “brought mercenaries in from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and North African countries. By all accounts the outsiders were crude, undisciplined thugs.” And then there were the killings. “Before the PLO,” one Lebanese woman told Shipler, “we used to be pro-Palestinian. . . . [But] when we saw the Palestinians were killing us and threatening us and having barricades and shooting innocent people, then came the hatred.”
Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, whose column has always been notorious for its pro-Arab bias, arrived at the same assessment: “Once incorruptible, its extraordinary success in accumulating arms and money . . . had made the PLO itself an occupying power . . . permeated by thugs and adventurers.”
If this disposes of the idea that a Vietnam-like Israel was imposing its imperial will upon Lebanon, it does not dispose of the charge that the war in Lebanon was imperialistic in a different sense—that Israel’s purpose, as Anthony Lewis (among many others) charges, was “to exterminate Palestinian nationalism” in preparation for annexing the West Bank.
Here again, before taking up the substance, one is forced to begin by pointing to the form in which the charge is expressed. By using the word “exterminate”—a word which is inescapably associated with what the Nazis did to the Jews—Lewis contrives to evoke the comparison while covering himself by designating “Palestinian nationalism” rather than the Palestinian people as the victim. But even in this form the charge is an outlandish misrepresentation. For the maximum objective of the Begin government is to establish Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank while allowing to the Palestinians living there a degree of control over their own civil and political affairs far greater—once more the point must be stressed—than they have ever enjoyed in the past, or than Arabs enjoy in any country under Arab sovereignty. This is “to exterminate Palestinian nationalism”?
And even this—to repeat, Begin’s maximum objective—is subject by Begin’s own commitment to negotiation. That is, in signing the Camp David agreement, Begin has obligated the state of Israel to settle the question of sovereignty after five years by negotiations among all the interested parties, including the West Bank Palestinians. This means that whether Begin and Sharon like it or not, they or their successors might well find themselves turning over the West Bank to Jordan or to a new Palestinian leadership willing, unlike the PLO, to live in peace both with Israel and Jordan.
It is precisely the hope of encouraging such a leadership to emerge that lies behind the two-sided strategy of destroying the PLO as a military force in Lebanon and as a political force on the West Bank. I urge anyone who doubts this to read “How to Make Peace with the Palestinians” by Menahem Milson.1 In that article Milson said that Israeli policy on the West Bank had in the past inadvertently led to the strengthening of the PLO’s influence there. He therefore advocated a new policy aimed at weakening the PLO so that the “silenced majority”—which in his judgment wished to live in peace with Israel—could make itself heard. The end result was to be a demand by the Palestinians on the West Bank that King Hussein repudiate the PLO as “the sole representative of the Palestinian people” and resume his old role as their spokesman.
After reading that article, Begin and Sharon appointed Milson (then a professor of Arabic literature at the Hebrew University) to the post of civil administrator of the West Bank, from which position he has been putting the policy outlined in the article into practice. The PLO and its apologists have naturally done everything in their power to sabotage and discredit Milson. But the political war against the PLO was proceeding on the West Bank as the military campaign against the PLO in Lebanon was being launched.
No one can say what the eventual disposition of the West Bank will be. What one can say with complete assurance, however, is that so long as the only alternative to Israeli occupation is a Palestinian state ruled over by radical forces pledged to the destruction of Israel, then no Israeli government—no matter who might be its prime minister—will be permitted by Israeli public opinion to withdraw. But one can also say, though with less assurance, that if an alternative should present itself, then no Israeli government, including one headed by Ariel Sharon, would be permitted by Israeli public opinion to absorb the West Bank.
Israelis have different reasons for wanting to rid themselves of the West Bank. Some fear the effects of continued occupation on the character of Israel as a democratic society; others fear the effects on the character of Israel as a Jewish state of adding so many Arabs to its demographic mix; still others are convinced that continued occupation is a formula for continued war.
But whatever their motives, many or (as I read Israeli public opinion) most Israelis would favor a withdrawal from the West Bank provided they were reasonably confident that the successor regime would be willing to live in peace with a neighboring Jewish state (and provided also, probably, that Jews who wished to go on living in Judea and Samaria would have the same right to do so as Arabs have in Israel). Elimination of the radical rejectionist Palestinians—whether or not they call themselves the PLO—is a precondition for any such resolution of the Palestinian problem. Consequently if Begin and Sharon succeed in their objective of destroying the PLO, they may well make it impossibly difficult for Israel to annex or absorb the West Bank—not because of pressures coming from Washington but because of pressures coming from within Israel itself.
All this, however, is for the future. Returning to the present and to the war in Lebanon, we still have to face the charge that Israel was waging a wanton and indiscriminate campaign against defenseless civilians.
In the early days of the war, words like “holocaust” and even “genocide” freely circulated in the media, along with horrendous estimates of the number of civilians killed or rendered homeless by Israeli arms. At first it was said that 10,000 people had been “slaughtered” in southern Lebanon and 600,000 turned into refugees. But no sooner had these figures been imprinted on the public mind than it was revealed that the local Lebanese authorities themselves put the total population of the area in question at 510,000—almost 100,000 fewer than were supposedly driven out of their homes. Israel claimed that there were 20,000 refugees and perhaps 2,000 casualties, of whom more than half were only wounded. Correspondents and other visitors to Lebanon soon confirmed that the original figures were “extreme exaggerations” (Shipler), while casting evenhanded doubt on the much lower Israeli figures. Even though “discussions with local officials and residents of the cities tend to reinforce the Israeli estimates of casualties there,” wrote Shipler, “the Israeli figures exclude a lot.”
Thus arose what came to be called “the numbers game.” But the damage to Israel had already been done. In any case, what did it matter, asked Mary McGrory, what the exact figures were? Whatever the precise number, “it is already too many.” In her open letter to Begin, she asked:
Does Israel’s security have to be purchased by the slaughter of innocents? . . . We have been seeing every night pictures of wounded babies and old men. We read about people standing outside devastated apartment buildings, wearing masks against the stench of corpses, waiting to go in to claim their dead. They were a threat to you? Yes, we know, your planes dropped leaflets before they dropped the bombs. But why did you have to bomb their cities at all? People in apartment buildings may be PLO sympathizers or even devoted adherents of Yasir Arafat. But they were unarmed civilians.
Indeed they were, but Miss McGrory’s letter might better have been directed to Arafat than to Begin. For (in Shipler’s words):
The huge sums of money the PLO received from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries seem to have been spent primarily on weapons and ammunition, which were placed strategically in densely populated civilian areas in the hope that this would either deter Israeli attacks or exact a price from Israel in world opinion for killing civilians. Towns and camps were turned into vast armories as crates of ammunition were stacked in underground shelters and antiaircraft guns were emplaced in schoolyards, among apartment houses, next to churches and hospitals. The remains could be seen soon after the fighting, and Palestinians and Lebanese can still point out the sites.
This strategy of hiding behind civilians was entirely natural for the terrorist organization whose greatest exploits in the past invariably involved hijackings and the killing of innocent bystanders. Having held airplanes and buildings hostage, the PLO—as the American Lebanese League declared in a newspaper advertisement—was now holding much of Lebanon itself hostage, and especially west Beirut. Who, the League asked, gave “the PLO authority to insist that Lebanese civilians die with them?” Certainly not the Lebanese civilians themselves.
It is also important to note that under international law (specifically Article 28 of the Geneva Convention of 1948), “the presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations,” and the responsibility for civilian casualties or damage rests on the party, in this case the PLO, who thus uses protected persons or areas. What the other side, in this instance Israel, is required to do is exactly the kind of thing Miss McGrory derides in her reference to the dropping of leaflets: that is, warn the civilians so that they have a chance to leave the area or otherwise protect themselves.
While scrupulously observing this requirement, the Israelis also took other steps to minimize civilian casualties, some of which led to an increase in their own casualties. This is why Miss McGrory’s citation of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is so bizarre. As it happens, I myself agree with her in thinking that the United States was justified in that action (because the result was to shorten the war and to save many more lives than were lost in the two raids). But the whole point of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to wreak indiscriminate damage which would terrorize the Japanese into surrendering. The Israelis were doing almost exactly the opposite in Lebanon. Their strikes were so careful and discriminating that whole areas of southern Lebanon were left untouched. If they really had been carpet bombing, both the levels of destruction and the number of casualties would have been far greater.
That a left-wing liberal like Mary McGrory should be driven into comparing Israel’s military tactics in Lebanon with the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is demented enough. But that she should go on to defend the use of the atom bomb by the United States (which in any other context she would surely condemn) in order to score an invidious point against Israel is a measure of how far her animus extends. It literally knows no bounds.
Obviously a reaction like this can no more have been provoked by the facts of Israel’s behavior than the comparisons of Israel with Nazi Germany. Nor can the relatively milder denunciations of Israel as comparable to Sparta or Haiti or Vietnam be taken as a rational response to what Israel has done. What then can explain them?
In thinking about this question while reading through dozens of vitriolic attacks on Israel, I have resisted the answer that nevertheless leaps irresistibly into the mind. This answer, of course, is that we are dealing here with an eruption of anti-Semitism. I have resisted because I believe that loose or promiscuous use of the term anti-Semitism can only rob it of force and meaning (which is what has happened to the term racism). In my judgment, therefore, it should be invoked only when the case for doing so is clear and precise. When that condition is met, however, I also believe that one has a duty to call the offending idea by its proper name.
Not everyone agrees, not even Meg Greenfield, who in Newsweek happily endorses “plain talk about Israel” and who as editor of the Washington Post editorial page has certainly done a lot of plain talking herself. Miss Greenfield sees it as a “good thing” that the “resentful, frustrated, expedient silences” Americans have maintained over Israel have now been “interrupted by outraged, emotional condemnations of what Israel is doing.” Some of this, she acknowledges, is excessive: “The comparison [of the Israeli invasion] to Nazi policy, for instance, has been as disproportionate in its way as the military violence it complains of.” But the rest is understandable, and is anyway not to be confused with being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Indeed these very accusations have intensified the pent-up resentments which are now exploding into what Miss Greenfield calls “no-holds-barred attacks on the Israeli action.”
In other words, though we are to have “plain talk about Israel,” and though such talk is healthy when directed against Israel, we are not to have equally plain talk about the attacks on Israel. To say that such “no-holds-barred attacks on Israel” are anti-Israel is unhealthy, and to say that they are anti-Semitic is even worse.
George W. Ball also rules out any use of the term anti-Semitism:
I long ago made it a practice not to answer any letter questioning my position on Middle East problems that contains the assertion or implication that I have said or written anything anti-Semitic. That accusation, in my view, is a denial—I might even say an evasion—of rational argument.
Yet when he goes on to explain why it is absurd to accuse him of anti-Semitism, he brings forth so shallow a conception of what the term means that it can only be described as historically illiterate. Anti-Semitism, according to Ball, is the dislike of Jews; it is therefore a sufficient refutation to point out that some of his best friends are Jewish, and that all his life he has admired the Jews for their contribution to the arts, to intellectual life, and to liberal political causes.
That a man of George Ball’s experience and education should regard this as an adequate account of anti-Semitism reveals an astonishing blind spot. But this blindness is an advantage, enabling Ball to accuse American Jews of dual loyalty—a classic anti-Semitic canard that also surfaced in the debate over the AWACS—and then indignantly and self-righteously to deny that this makes him an anti-Semite.
Unlike Ball, Conor Cruise O’Brien, who has a habit of speaking plainly on all subjects, does believe that some critics of Israel are “motivated by some kind of anti-Semitic feeling, possibly unconscious.” In some instances, he concedes, it may be that what is at work is “genuine compassion for suffering Arabs, expressing itself in terms of a generous hyperbole.” But in most others “there are indications to the contrary.” These indications include the absence of any concern for the civilian casualties in the war between Iraq and Iran, and the silence that greeted the killing of an estimated 20,000 Sunni Muslims recently by President Assad of Syria in the city of Hama. (To O’Brien’s examples may be added the indifference to the 100,000 people killed in internecine strife in Lebanon since 1975 on the part of virtually all those who have wept over the civilian casualties in Lebanon since the Israelis went in.) O’Brien suggests, however, that a term other than anti-Semitic is needed because “the people in question are . . . extravagantly philo-Semitic these days, in their feelings for the Arabic-speaking branch of the Semitic linguistic family.” He proposes “anti-Jewism,” and he offers a test by which it can be detected in the discussion of Israel: “If your interlocutor can’t keep Hitler out of the conversation, . . . feverishly turning Jews into Nazis and Arabs into Jews—why then, I think, you may well be talking to an anti-Jewist.”
The trouble is that the term “anti-Jewist” cannot be applied to those like George Ball who are loud in their protestations of friendship for the Jewish people, and who might even agree that comparing the Israelis with the Nazis deserves to be called anti-Semitic.
Let me therefore propose that we retain the historically sanctioned term anti-Semitism and let me outline a more general criterion for identifying it than the one O’Brien suggests. Historically anti-Semitism has taken the form of labeling certain vices and failings as specifically Jewish when they are in fact common to all humanity: Jews are greedy, Jews are tricky, Jews are ambitious, Jews are clannish—as though Jews were uniquely or disproportionately guilty of all those sins. Correlatively, Jews are condemned when they claim or exercise the right to do things that all other people are accorded an unchallengeable right to do.
As applied to the Jewish state, this tradition has been transmuted into the double standard by which Israel is invariably judged. The most egregious illustration is the UN resolution condemning Zionism as a form of racism. According to the thinking of this resolution, all other people are entitled to national self-determination, but when the Jews exercise this right, they are committing the crimes of racism and imperialism. Similarly, all other nations have a right to insure the security of their borders; when Israel exercises this right, it is committing the crime of aggression. So too, only Israel of all the states in the world is required to prove that its very existence—not merely its interests or the security of its borders, but its very existence—is in immediate peril before it can justify the resort to force. For example, whereas the possibility of a future threat to its borders was (rightly in my opinion) deemed a sufficient justification by the United States under John F. Kennedy to go to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the immense caches of arms discovered in PLO dumps in southern Lebanon have not persuaded many of the very people who participated in or applauded Kennedy’s decision that the Israelis were at least equally justified in taking action against the PLO in Lebanon.
Criticisms of Israel based on a double standard deserve to be called anti-Semitic. Conversely, criticisms of Israel based on universally applied principles and tempered by a sense of balance in the distribution of blame cannot and should not be stigmatized as anti-Semitic, however mistaken or dangerous to Israel one might consider them to be. A good example can be found in the editorials published in the New York Times on Lebanon. Unlike the consistently superb editorials on Lebanon in the Wall Street Journal, the ones in the Times have been harsh on Israel, they have often been unfair, and they have pointed toward policies that would jeopardize Israel’s security. But they have not been guided by the usual double standard, and therefore cannot and should not be stigmatized as anti-Semitic.
Criticisms of Israel that are informed by a double standard, on the other hand, deserve to be called anti-Semitic even when they are mouthed by Jews or, for that matter, Israelis. That being Jewish or possessing Israeli citizenship guarantees, immunity from anti-Semitic ideas may seem a plausible proposition, but it is not, alas, borne out by experience. Like all other human beings, Jews are influenced by the currents of thought around them; and like all other minority groups, they often come to see themselves through the eyes of an unsympathetic or hostile majority. Jews are of course the majority in Israel, but the state itself is isolated among the nations, and subjected to a constant barrage of moral abuse aimed at its delegitimation. This seems finally to be taking the inevitable psychological toll in the appearance among Israelis of the term fascist in talking about their own society, when by any universal standard it is among the two or three countries in the world least deserving of this epithet.
To be sure, very few Israelis have reached the point of blaming the Arab-Israeli conflict largely on Israel or Menachem Begin or Ariel Sharon. But a number of American Jews have been adding their own special note to the whining chorus of anti-Israel columnists, State Department Arabists, and corporate sycophants of Saudi Arabia which has grown more raucous over Lebanon than ever before. The misleading impression has been created that these “dissenters” reveal a serious split within the American Jewish community over Israel. In fact, however, with a few notable exceptions they represent the same minority of roughly 10 or 15 percent which has all along either opposed Israel (because as socialists they considered Zionism a form of reactionary bourgeois nationalism or because as Reform Jews they disliked nationalism for other reasons), or else came to support Israel grudgingly and only on condition that it comport itself in accordance with their political ideas. It is these people who have lately been congratulating themselves on their courage in “speaking out” against Israel. A few of them—those who live and work within the Jewish community—are actually dissenting. But most of the rest live in milieux like the university or work in professions like journalism in which defending Israel takes far more courage than attacking it.
Not only do these people invoke a double standard in judging Israel: they proudly proclaim that they do. “Yes, there is a double standard. From its birth Israel asked to be judged as a light among the nations.” These words come from one of the endless series of columns Anthony Lewis has written on the war in Lebanon. Lewis is Jewish, and even though he makes no public point of it, I single him out here because his thinking is typical of the way Jewish “dissenters” who have been signing ads and giving interviews see not only the war in Lebanon but the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole.
Thus while he usually pays his rhetorical respects to the Arab refusal to recognize Israel, Lewis’s emphasis is always on the sins of Israel, whether real or imaginary.2 And while piously proclaiming his great friendship for Israel, he harasses it relentlessly and obsessively, justifying himself in this by hiding behind the political opposition in Israel or behind Zionist heroes of the past like Justice Brandeis. (Others use the Bible for these purposes, humbly comparing themselves to the prophets of old: “[The] biblical tradition of criticism and dissent should now guide public practice,” two young Jewish academics declared on the Op-Ed page of the Times. “Jeremiah’s polemics indicate that a government’s foreign and security policies, as well as societal inequity and immorality, are grounds for legitimate dissent.”)
But is it true that “From its birth Israel asked to be judged as a light among the nations,” or even as the socialist paradise dreamed of by so many of Israel’s Jewish “friends” on the Left? No doubt there have been Zionist enthusiasts who indulged in such rhetoric, but it is a historical travesty to claim that this was the animating idea behind the Jewish state. If perfection had been the requirement, it would have been tantamount to saying that an imperfect Israel had no right to exist; and since imperfection in human beings is unavoidable, Israel would have been sentencing itself to an early death from the day of its birth.
In any event, the opposite is more nearly true: that the purpose of Israel was to normalize the Jewish people, not to perfect them. The Jewish state was to create not a utopia but a refuge from persecution and a haven of security in which Jews who chose or were forced to settle there could live a peaceful and normal life. Thanks to the refusal of the Arab world to agree to this, the Jews of Israel have instead had to live in a constant state of siege. It would have been fully understandable if under those conditions Israel had become a garrison state or a military dictatorship. Yet no such development occurred. Founded as a democracy, it has remained a democracy, a particularly vital variant of the species—the only one in the Middle East and one of the few on the face of the earth.
In reminding ourselves of that enormous and wondrous fact, we come to the greatest irony of this entire debate. Although Israel is no more required than any other state to justify its existence through what Anthony Lewis or anyone else, myself included, considers good behavior; and although elementary fairness dictates that Israel not be condemned for doing things that all other nations are permitted to do as a matter of course; even so, even judged by the higher standard that Lewis and his ilk demand, the truth is that Israel has become a light unto the nations.
Thus, in remaining a free democratic society while surrounded by enemies and forced to devote an enormous share of its resources to defense, Israel has demonstrated that external threats do not necessarily justify the repression of internal liberties. For casting this light, in whose glare the majority of the nations of the world stand exposed, Israel not surprisingly wins no friends at the UN.
If its persistence in democratic ways under the most unpromising circumstances has helped win Israel the enmity of the Third World, the fierceness of its will to live is what has made it a scandal and a reproach to its fellow democracies in the Western world. For in the glare of that light, the current political complexion of the Western democracies takes on a sickly, sallow, even decadent look. We in the West confront in the Soviet Union a deadly enemy sworn to our destruction, just as Israel does in the Arab world. But whereas the Israelis have faced the reality of their peril and have willingly borne the sacrifices essential to coping with it, we in the West have increasingly fallen into the habit of denial, and we have shown ourselves reluctant to do what the survival of our civilization requires. We tell ourselves that the danger comes from our own misunderstanding and misperception; we castigate ourselves for being the main cause of the conflict; we urge unilateral actions upon ourselves in the hope of appeasing the enemy.
It is a rough rule of thumb that the more deeply this complex of attitudes is rooted in an individual or a group or a nation, the more hostility it will feel toward Israel. I readily admit that other factors also come into play. Anxiety over oil or business connections in the Arab world often turn people against Israel who might otherwise admire it precisely for setting the kind of example of realism and courage they would wish the West to follow. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger is perhaps one such case and there are others scattered through the Defense Department, the State Department, and the White House. There are also so-called hardliners where the Soviet Union is concerned (Evans and Novak come to mind) who have always believed that a tilt away from Israel and a more “evenhanded” policy in the Middle East is necessary if we are to contain the spread of Soviet power and influence in that region. This idea dies so hard that it may even survive the tremendous blow it has suffered in Lebanon.
On the other side, one can find many American Jews and liberal politicians concerned about Jewish support who back Israel even though in most other situations they tend to sympathize with forces comparable to the PLO (such as the guerrillas in El Salvador) and even though they are great believers in the idea that all disputes can and should be settled through negotiation.
Even allowing for these complications, however, one can still say that the more committed to appeasement of the Soviet Union a given party is, and the more it opposes “military solutions to political problems,” the more hostile it will be to Israel. Thus the West European governments—the very governments which are so eager to prop up the Soviet economy, to ignore Afghanistan and Poland, and to ratify Soviet military superiority in Europe through arms-control negotiations—are far less friendly to Israel than is the American government. And within the United States itself, the people who are most sympathetic to the European point of view on the issue of the Soviet threat are among those least friendly to Israel.
These are the same Americans who also tend to pride themselves on having learned “the lessons of Vietnam”—lessons which, as Terry Krieger points out in a brilliant piece in the Washington Times, Israel has now dramatically refuted. For Israel has shown that military force is sometimes necessary; that the use of military force may also be beneficial; and that a Soviet client, “whether it be a guerrilla force or a terrorist organization,” can be defeated by an American ally. This, Krieger thinks, is why such people have turned on Israel with vitriolic fury: “Those Americans who have denounced Israel’s invasion of Lebanon eventually may forgive Israel for defending itself, but they may never forgive Israel for illuminating our own confusion and cowardice.”
Again Anthony Lewis offers himself as a good illustration. Indeed, the terms in which he has denounced Israel’s invasion of Lebanon are strongly reminiscent of the hysterical abuse he used to heap on the United States in Vietnam. This being so, it is worth remembering that Lewis called the Christmas 1972 bombing of Hanoi—in which by the estimate of the North Vietnamese themselves no more than 1,600 were killed—“The most terrible destruction in the history of man” and a “crime against humanity.” It is worth recalling too that only days before the Khmer Rouge Communists would stake a claim to precisely that description by turning their own country into the Auschwitz of Asia, Lewis greeted their imminent seizure of power with the question: “What future possibility could be more terrible than the reality of what is happening to Cambodia now?” Yet with that record of political sagacity and moral sensitivity behind him, Lewis has the effrontery to instruct Israel on how to insure its security, and he has the shamelessness to pronounce moral judgment upon the things Israel does to protect itself from the kind of fate at the hands of the Arabs that has been visited by the Communists upon South Vietnam and Cambodia.
The Bible tells us that God commanded the ancient Israelites to “choose life,” and it also suggests to us that for a nation, the choice of life often involves choosing the sacrifices and horrors of war. The people of contemporary Israel are still guided by that commandment and its accompanying demands. This is why Israel is a light unto other peoples who have come to believe that nothing is worth fighting or dying for.
But there is more. In the past, anti-Semitism has been a barometer of the health of democratic societies, rising in times of social or national despair, falling in periods of self-confidence. It is the same today with attitudes toward Israel. Hostility toward Israel is a sure sign of failing faith in and support for the virtues and values of Western civilization in general and of America in particular. How else are we to interpret a political position that, in a conflict between a democracy and its anti-democratic enemies, is so dead set against the democratic side?
Even on the narrower issue of American interests, George Ball, Anthony Lewis, and those who share their perspective are so driven by their animus against Israel as to think that (in Lewis’s astonishing words) “Looking at the wreckage in Lebanon, the only people who can smile are the radicals and the Russians.” Yet consider: Israel, an American ally, and armed with American weapons, has defeated the Syrians and the PLO, both of them tied to and armed by America’s enemy, the Soviet Union. Are the Russians insane that this should cause them to smile? The military power of the PLO, representing the forces of radicalism and anti-Americanism in the Middle East, has been crushed; and (unless Ball and the others, who are so desperate to save it, should work their will) its power to terrorize and intimidate may also be destroyed, leaving the way open for such forces of moderation as may exist in the Arab world to come forward. How should this make the radicals smile and the United States weep? Egypt, America’s best friend in the Arab world, has been strengthened and the policy of accommodation it has pursued toward Israel has been vindicated in comparison with the rejectionist policies of Syria and the PLO. Can this be good for the Russians and damaging to American interests?
George Ball says that it can be and that it is. But this is so palpably absurd that it cannot be taken as the considered judgment of an informed and objective mind. Therefore if it is proper to indict anyone in this debate for bias and insufficient concern for American interests, it is Ball who should be put in the dock and not the Jewish defenders of Israel against whom he himself has been pleased to file this very indictment.
In the broadside from which I have borrowed the title of this essay, Emile Zola charged that the persecutors of Dreyfus were using anti-Semitism as a screen for their reactionary political designs. I charge here that the anti-Semitic attacks on Israel which have erupted in recent weeks are also a cover. They are a cover for a loss of American nerve. They are a cover for acquiescence in terrorism. They are a cover for the appeasement of totalitarianism. And I accuse all those who have joined in these attacks not merely of anti-Semitism but of the broader sin of faithlessness to the interests of the United States and indeed to the values of Western civilization as a whole.
1 COMMENTARY, May 1981.
2 For an example of the latter, see Ruth R. Wisse’s discussion in “The Delegitimation of Israel,” in the July COMMENTARY. The case in point was a false allegation of censorship against the Israeli authorities on the West Bank, combined with complete silence about the repression of free speech on the East Bank—that is, in Jordan.