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Tony Judt's Trojan Gift Horse

Tony Judt's boldly titled New York Times Op-Ed, "Israel Without Clichés" (June 9, 2010), is a wolf in sheep's clothing if ever there was one.

The essay advertises itself as "cleaning house" with respect to the "tired accusations and ritual defenses" typical of Middle-East discussions, as if, in effect, it will even-handedly take on the "clichés" of both sides. In fact it merely reasserts all the "tired accusations" against Israel and dismisses all the "ritual defenses."

No. 1: Israel is being/should be delegitimized

Judt begins: "Israel is a state like any other, long-established and internationally recognized."

True, except for the fact that it isn't recognized by most of its immediate and nearby neighbors, including those explicitly committed to, and continuously working towards, its destruction. That would make Israel a state rather unlike any other, in ways essential for understanding its behavior.

Judt continues: "The bad behavior of [Israel's] governments does not 'delegitimize' it..."

Here Judt appears to be critiquing one of the "tired accusations," except that in reality he is making that same accusation in a deeper way. For he unquestioningly asserts that Israeli governments are (regularly) responsible for "bad behavior" -- and seeing that behavior as bad, as unjustified, is, in most cases, precisely what it means to "delegitimize" Israel. The fact that Israel is in the unique position of being surrounded by hostile forces means it must regularly take measures of self-defense; and seeing essentially every such measure as "bad behavior" is precisely to deny Israel the right to self-defense which every other "legitimate" nation unquestionably enjoys.

No. 2: Israel is/is not a democracy

Here Judt first grants that Israel is "largely" a democracy; and second, he argues that that fact is no guarantee of "good behavior."

With the first point, he apparently defuses the "tired accusation" that Israel is not a democracy. How useful that would be, if only that were an accusation that Israel's many dictator-ruled enemies were actually in the habit of raising! In fact, the real purpose of Judt's points here is to dismiss Israel's "ritual defense" of itself as a democracy.

But defenders of Israel cite its democratic status not to defend any particular behaviors, but rather as part of a larger argument for Westerners, primarily, to see Israel as largely sharing their values, and thus being worth defending, in general. And there is no question that Israeli democracy reflects "Western" values far better than do the governments of any of its neighbors. It certainly does so more than the Gaza "democracy" Judt invokes, reminding us of Hamas's 2005 election victories -- while conveniently leaving out their bloody 2007 coup, their iron-fisted rule since then, and the fact that they've overlooked the scheduling of any subsequent elections.

No. 3: Israel is/is not to blame

Here Judt's primary points seem to be that Israel is not responsible for the fact that many of its neighbors "long denied" its right to exist, and that therefore we must not underestimate Israel's subsequent "sense of siege" in understanding its pronouncements and actions.

These points appear initially framed as a sympathetic defense of Israel. But in fact Judt applies them only towards a critique of Israel.

His first point is in the past tense, as if the denial of Israel's right to exist is an historical artifact; he then uses his second point only to emphasize the "delusional" quality of many Israeli pronouncements and the "pathological" nature of many Israeli actions. But again, if the threat to Israel's existence is not historical but actually ongoing, then those pronouncements are hardly "delusional." And to see most of those actions as "pathological" is precisely to deny a legitimate Israel's right to self-defense.

As an example of the "pathology," Judt invokes Israel's "habitual resort to force." This is an odd charge to make against a nation which has repeatedly offered numerous concessions at the bargaining table, which after winning wars which it did not start subsequently, and unprecedently, yielded enormous tracts of the conquered land in order to obtain peace - and which in 2005 unilaterally withdrew from Gaza all its settlers and soldiers, at enormous expense to itself in every sense.

To simply ignore all that (and more) is again to perpetrate the delegitimization that Judt pretends he is challenging.

No. 4: The Palestinians are/are not to blame

On the surface Judt is more "even-handed" here, by apportioning some "blame" to the Palestinians for "missing opportunities" and by acknowledging Israel's demand that Hamas both recognize it and forswear terrorism.

And yet the bulk here focuses, again, on criticism of Israel. Israel's self-defensive measures are equated with the long-standing Arab/Palestinian negationism. (Indeed the "Three Nos" of the 1967 Khartoum Resolution - no peace, no recognition, no negotiation -- still largely characterize the mindset of most of Israel's enemies.) Judt then ostensibly criticizes Palestinian terrorism only, subtly, to justify it in his next paragraph, by suggesting that it is the only tool the oppressed Palestinians have for dealing with Israel. How convenient: earlier he ignored Israel's persistent efforts to negotiate and complained it "habitually" resorts to force, while here he ignores the possibility of Palestinians resorting to negotiations and instead defends their habitual use of force!

Or rather he rejects the possibility of Palestinian negotiation - for if they "pre-concede every Israeli demand -- abjurance of violence, acceptance of Israel, acknowledgment of all their losses -- what do they bring to the negotiating table?" Abjuring violence and accepting Israel are Israeli "demands"; Israel is somehow assigned the blame here, in effect, for having the nerve to ask the Palestinians to give up terrorism and accept Israel's existence, and actually negotiate something.

No. 5: The Israel lobby is/is not to blame

Here Judt "defends" the Israel lobby from the unfair charges of being "too influential." How even-handed! Except that he then asserts that "the lobby" is "disproportionally influential. Why else do an overwhelming majority of congressmen roll over for every pro-Israel motion?" He then returns to his "even-handed" criticism of those who go too far and accuse Jews of "running the country."

Well, at least Judt agrees that Jews don't run the country, even if they do apparently manage to control the minds of the people who do run the country. What's especially pernicious about Judt's approach here is that he simply dismisses the possibility that genuinely reasonable people might come to the reasonable conclusions that Israel has a right to exist, and to defend itself in the various ways it often has, and that alliance with Israel is justifiable. Anyone who accepts those conclusions has simply been manipulated by the mysterious mind-controlling "Israel lobby."

No. 6: Criticism of Israel is/is not linked to anti-Semitism

Sigh. This one is too big to do it justice here. Let me be brief. Of course one can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. And of course there can be a very fine line between criticism of Israel that is in fact motivated by anti-Semitism and that which is not.

But a few points are clear.

When Israel is held to standards that no other country is held to, something is wrong; when Israel is singled out for rebuke while other nations do far worse things, then something is wrong; when Israel's actions engage the attention and emotions of the world while worse actions elsewhere are overlooked, then something is wrong; and when, in discussing Israel, one ignores all the counter-evidence to one's claims, one ignores or falsely denies important facts, one leaves out all the relevant context, and one proceeds as if Arab hostile actions have absolutely no role to play in Israel's behavior, then something is wrong too.

Tony Judt advertises himself as offering a discussion of Israel "without clichés," as offering to "clean house" in the disorderly and dirty world of Middle East debate. But this generous offer is, clearly, one gift horse whose mouth should be looked into.