Terra Incognita: You can’t sell Israeli liberalism
Israel’s negative image is not predicated on it not being Western enough, but rather on it being too western.
Two male soldiers holding hands in TA Photo: IDF
The IDF spokesman’s office created a stir in early June by releasing a photo of
two ostensibly homosexual soldiers holdings hands. But the great gay photo-op
turned into a flop when it was outed as a fake. The hasbara (public diplomacy)
message “did you know the IDF treats all its soldiers equally?” was lost in the
commentary. The packaging of the photo may not have been as ill-conceived as the
2007 ad campaign the government helped arrange in which former female soldiers
were used as models by Maxim magazine. CNN paraphrased the story as “soldiers
show skin for PR campaign.”
These campaigns are ham handed, but behind
them is an important issue. They are designed to show off the liberal,
open-minded side of Israel and to present to those either critical of Israel or
who don’t care about the country a positive image of it as a free-spirited
nation. Great efforts are also made to show the West that Israel has a tradition
of free debate, and intense self-criticism in movies, academia and the media is
held up as a sign of how vibrant the country is.
THE PROBLEM is that this
assumes Israel is hated by Western leftists primarily because it is not
open-minded enough. Let’s test this assumption by taking it to its logical
extreme. If every soldier in the IDF carried a rainbow-colored gun and the
checkpoints were made of gingerbread, would Israel’s image among those who
critique it change? No.
That there even exists something as ill-conceived
as the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a group of international “judges” who have
accused Israel of being more apartheid than Apartheid South Africa, sheds light
on this issue. Would Alice Walker, one of the “judges,” who has refused to have
her book rereleased in Hebrew because of her hatred of Israel, be convinced to
change her mind because Israel tolerates gays? Why? Because Israel’s negative
image is not predicated on it not being Western enough, but rather on it being
too Western. Let’s take this premise to its logical extreme, as well. If the
entire country converted to Islam, wouldn’t its image in the West improve?
Israel’s hasbara misfits falsely assume the country is on the same playing field
as Ramallah, Khartoum or Timbuktu. But it isn’t.
When one looks at what
Samuel Huntington described as the “fault line” between civilizations, it
doesn’t only delineate cultural differences, but differences in Western value
judgments. Whatever is on the “Western” side of the line is held to a
progressive, leftist standard. Whatever falls on the other side of the line is
judged according to the post-colonial “resistance” model, in which no moral
judgments can be made.
One can test this pretty simply by considering how
certain values translate abroad. In March, a 16-year-old girl, Amina Filali, was
forced to marry her rapist because of Article 475 of the Moroccan penal
Will one less hippy tourist who “loves Morocco” not go to that land
of rape and honey next year because of this outrage? Countries like Indonesia
and Malaysia are cesspools of religious fanaticism and intolerance, but one
wouldn’t know it because of the way their values are translated to us. The fact
that the threat of riots forced Lady Gaga and Erykah Badu to cancel performances
in those countries, due to “offensive” material in their shows, should have
symbolized the dark fanaticism of these countries. But Gaga and Badu came and
went, and the Indo-Malaysian reputation remains unscathed.
Eltahawy penned an essay in Foreign Policy about Arab women’s rights, daring to
suggest that Arab women were suffering due to religio-cultural discrimination
against them, the multi-culture lobby was outraged.
Max Fischer in the
Atlantic noted that “Arabs have endured centuries of brutal, authoritarian rule,
and this could also play a role [in the culture’s misogyny].
female journalist who spent years in the region, where she endured some of the
region’s infamous street harassment, told me that she sensed her harassers may
have been acting in part out of misery, anger, and their own
See, sexual harassment is due to dictatorship: “Enduring
the daily torments and humiliations of life... might make an Arab man more
likely to reassert his lost manhood by taking it out on women.”
the men under the Soviet dictatorship or living under the Chinese boot in Tibet
aren’t known to harass women in the streets.
But this isn’t the issue.
The problem is we aren’t dealing with a value system capable of simply
condemning sexual harassment (i.e. sexual harassment = bad, period), we are
dealing with a value system that first asks “what is the offenders’
race/ethnicity/religion” and only then, depending on the answer, decides whether
the offense is excusable or not.
Everything can be tolerated under this
mindset: rape, honor killing, slavery, female genital mutilation, murder,
genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, discrimination, the death penalty, abortion
rights, gay rights, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, etc.
WEST’s attitude toward Israel is part of the West’s understanding of it as part
of the “self.” Palestine is part of the “other.” Even those sectors of Israeli
society that seem to be “other,” like Mea She’arim’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, for
example, are subsumed into the Western “self.”
I remember one non-Jewish
Croatian woman who worked for the UN and who used to bash the haredi
(ultra-Orthodox) population every time she got the chance. Yet she used to
travel to Gaza often, and enjoyed the “culture” she found there. She explained
her hatred for the haredim by saying, “I expect more from the
Confronting this mentality is impossible because there is no
common ground between the enlightenment philosophy of the equal rights of man
(and woman) and a worldview in which people are judged differently based on what
culture they claim to have come from.
With regard to Israel’s conflict it
is thus impossible, short of mass conversion to Islam, to join the “other,” and
it is impossible to drag Palestine onto the side of the “self.” No matter how
much Israel loves gay rights and bikinis, nothing will change, because when it
looks at Israel, the West sees itself.
The modern Western boiling down of
actions to “self/other” represents a post-enlightenment philosophy according to
which there are no absolute human rights, or absolute standards of morality. In
this conception, even though Israel’s support for gay rights and its robust
culture of critique are correct and moral, they will never gain it points