Tony Judt uses Israel Independence Day as a foil for an interesting rhetorical conceit: like any person at the age of 58, Israel should’ve learned a few lessons from life by now. It should’ve learned a little humility in facing the obstacles that life throws one’s way. It should’ve learned that no one’s perfect and it most of all. But instead, Israel is still the teenager seeing itself as victim, Israel is the adolescent who does no wrong and who is invincible:
By the age of 58 a country – like a man – should have achieved a certain maturity. After nearly six decades of existence we know, for good and for bad, who we are, what we have done and how we appear to others, warts and all. We acknowledge, however reluctantly and privately, our mistakes and our shortcomings. And though we still harbor the occasional illusion about ourselves and our prospects, we are wise enough to recognize that these are indeed for the most part just that: illusions. In short, we are adults.
But the State of Israel remains curiously (and among Western-style democracies, uniquely) immature. The social transformations of the country – and its many economic achievements – have not brought the political wisdom that usually accompanies age. Seen from the outside, Israel still comports itself like an adolescent: consumed by a brittle confidence in its own uniqueness; certain that no one “understands” it and everyone is “against” it; full of wounded self-esteem, quick to take offense and quick to give it. Like many adolescents Israel is convinced – and makes a point of aggressively and repeatedly asserting – that it can do as it wishes, that its actions carry no consequences and that it is immortal. Appropriately enough, this country that has somehow failed to grow up was until very recently still in the hands of a generation of men who were prominent in its public affairs 40 years ago: an Israeli Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in, say, 1967 would be surprised indeed to awake in 2006 and find Shimon Peres and General Ariel Sharon still hovering over the affairs of the country – the latter albeit only in spirit.
The author appropriates a common Palestinian term, the Nakba (“The Disaster”), and turns it inside out by using it to refer to Israel’s own moral predicament in the wake of its military “victories”:
We can see, in retrospect, that the victory of Israel in June 1967 and its continuing occupation of the territories it conquered then have been the Jewish state’s very own nakba: a moral and political catastrophe. Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza have magnified…the country’s shortcomings and displayed them to a watching world. Curfews, checkpoints, bulldozers, public humiliations, home destructions, land seizures, shootings, “targeted assassinations,” the separation fence: All of these routines of occupation and repression were once familiar only to an informed minority of specialists and activists. Today they can be watched, in real time, by anyone with a computer or a satellite dish – which means that Israel’s behavior is under daily scrutiny by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The result has been a complete transformation in the international view of Israel. Until very recently the carefully burnished image of an ultra-modern society – built by survivors and pioneers and peopled by peace-loving democrats – still held sway over international opinion. But today? What is the universal shorthand symbol for Israel, reproduced worldwide in thousands of newspaper editorials and political cartoons? The Star of David emblazoned upon a tank.
Judt portrays a transformation that’s taken place over the past forty years (since the 1967 War) in the minds of the rest of the world regarding Israel. What was once a tiny, beleaguered country beset on all sides by vengeful enemies out to destroy it–has now become a nuclear power with a huge ego, a huge sense of entitlement, and one which brooks no opposition from its neighbors. Israel has gone from a country worthy of the world’s empathy and support to a pariah who can count only on the support of a single all-important nation: the U.S.
The NYU professor notes that America’s obsession with Israel and its willingness to support her unerringly cannot be counted on forever. He urges Israel to use this time, when it has almost unconditional American support, wisely in a genuine search for peace. If not, there may come “a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” on the American scene. The winds of fortune may at some point no longer blow favorably on Israel. If it hasn’t used the time is has wisely to sue for an honorable peace with its enemies, it will have only itself to blame.
Judt’s argument is, in some ways, a logical extension of the debate begun by Walt and Mearsheimer’s provocative The Israel Lobby:
…The disastrous Iraq invasion and its aftermath are beginning to engineer a sea-change in foreign policy debate here in the U.S. It is becoming clear to prominent thinkers across the political spectrum – from erstwhile neo-conservative interventionists like Francis Fukuyama to hard-nosed realists like Mearsheimer – that in recent years the United States has suffered a catastrophic loss of international political influence and an unprecedented degradation of its moral image. The country’s foreign undertakings have been self-defeating and even irrational. There is going to be a long job of repair ahead, above all in Washington’s dealings with economically and strategically vital communities and regions from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. And this reconstruction of the country’s foreign image and influence cannot hope to succeed while U.S. foreign policy is tied by an umbilical cord to the needs and interests (if that is what they are) of one small Middle Eastern country of very little relevance to America’s long-term concerns – a country that is, in the words of the Mearsheimer/Walt essay, a strategic burden: “A liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states.”
That essay is thus a straw in the wind – an indication of the likely direction of future domestic debate here in the U.S. about the country’s peculiar ties to Israel. Of course it has been met by a firestorm of criticism from the usual suspects – and, just as they anticipated, the authors have been charged with anti-Semitism (or with advancing the interests of anti-Semitism: “objective anti-Semitism,” as it might be). But it is striking to me how few people with whom I have spoken take that accusation seriously, so predictable has it become. This is bad for Jews – since it means that genuine anti-Semitism may also in time cease to be taken seriously, thanks to the Israel lobby’s abuse of the term. But it is worse for Israel.