Friday, August 22, 2008
Israel's crisis of legitimacy posted by Richard SeymourThe decline in Israel's legitimacy among previously supportive populations in Europe and (to a much lesser extent) America was always going to be a syncopated and drawn out affair. The French Left followed Charles de Gaulle in supporting a two-state settlement after 1967. The British Left first decisively broke with Israel during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The American Left has been gradually adopting Palestine as a serious cause and the first time Palestinian flags made a significant appearance in American streets was as part of the antiwar movement. (Of course there remains an intransigent liberal bloc who are stridently supportive of Israel). And that's just the Left. It has taken much longer for public opinion as a whole to become hostile to Israel. That crisis would be significant enough, but one aspect of it that ought to be drawn out and looked at more is the extent of Jewish disaffection with Israel.
Gary Younge, writing in The Guardian some years back, cited research by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research from as long ago as 1995 which found that 20% of British Jews held hostile feelings toward Israel. Not to a policy or a particular leader such as Netanyahu - and this in the middle of the so-called Oslo peace negotiations. A 1999 research draft by Stephen Cohen of The Hebrew University suggested that among American Jews there was "a gradual and nearly uniform slippage in Israel attachment as we descend the age ladder, from older, to middle-aged, to younger Jews." He reviewed survey data that showed that just over a quarter of American Jews would say they were "very attached" to Israel. Conforming to this trend was a general decline in "involvement in Jewish life", by which he seems to mean involvement in the religious traditions of Judaism. It is worth noting at the same time that a scholarly essay published in 2000 by Moshe and Harriet Hartman noted that among American Jews, a denominational difference was also evident, with Orthodox Jews far more attached to Israel than Reform Jews. Various measures to combat this, such as arranging trips to Israel for Jewish students, have only limited impact since those most willing to visit the country are those more likely to identify with it in some way already. Other research data presented by Steven Cohen and Charles Liebman found that "more Jews identify Judaism with a commitment to social equality than with support for Israel or religious observance". Further research from 2002 by the American Jewish Committee confirmed all of these trends, despite a brief surge in support for Israel after 9/11 and during the early months of the second Intifada. It also documented a steep rise in support for a Palestinian state, which had reached almost 70% by 2002.
The reasons for this growing disaffection are discussed by Steven Rosenthal in his 2003 book, Irreconcilable Differences? The Waning of the American Jewish Love Affair With Israel. Discussing findings that show only a third of American Jews see Israel as being important to their sense of Jewishness, while almost a third evince no attachment to Israel at all and a mere 20% thought it essential for a good Jew to support Israel, he offers three key explanations. They are: defeats inflicted on Israel after its 1967 triumph; the rightward drift of the Israeli mainstream since the late 1970s and particularly the enduring militarism of Israeli life; and the increasing harshness of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories and also in Lebanon. American Jews, having been extremely supportive of Israel thus far, were revolted by the idea of being associated with the right-wing elements in Israel, from Ariel Sharon to the lunatics of the Orthodox fringe. Unsurprisingly, given the relationship between liberal or left-wing views and hostility to Israeli policy, by far the biggest supporters of Israel in American public opinion surveys on all questions, from the future of the West Bank to US government support for Israel, are the Christian fundamentalists. This is one of the reasons why various Jewish organisations which have themselves warned against the antisemitism of the Christian Right in the past have subsequently become their staunch allies in American politics.
This is not an uncomplicated matter, and it is important to put these findings in perspective. In the case of American Jews particularly, there is still vastly more support for Israel than there is for the Palestinians. The Palestinian struggle carries overwhelmingly negative connotations, while Israel is generally perceived as desiring peace and security. This is true of American public opinion in general, of course, but this story is about Israel's relative success and failure in maintaining Jewish support. Notwithstanding such qualifications, there is clearly a crisis brewing in Israel's global legitimacy particularly with respect to its most desired constitency, Jewish people themselves. A crucial argument of Zionism, which is not a recent innovation but has been with it since its inception, is that Jewish people in particular owe support to the Zionist movement and to Israel. It is their homeland and as such, the failure to support it can be seen as self-hating assimilationism among the Diaspora. Much of the research I've cited above is given over to bemoaning the emerging situation and trying to find ways to reverse it. Retaining the basic ideological attachment of non-Israeli Jews is seen as crucial for sustaining support among Western political classes. To that extent, this puts Israel and its apologists on the defensive. That is why, when Jewish people organise in support of the Palestinians and protest against Israeli aggression, the usual unpleasant and vindictive voices are raised in denunciation. It is why they are admonished in the terms of authoritarian communalism: "Do not separate yourself from the community". It is why some of Israel's supporters are increasingly estranged from reality, looking more and more demented as they struggle to defend the indefensible.