Middle Israel: Israel’s image war comes of age

For Israel, the best defense might be a good offense.

FRANCE’S LATE president Charles de Gaulle meets with the late German leader, Konrad Adenauer, in 1961. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
FRANCE’S LATE president Charles de Gaulle meets with the late German leader, Konrad Adenauer, in 1961.
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Seated regally under the chandeliers of the Élysée Palace’s Salle des Fêtes ballroom, President Charles de Gaulle stunned the 900 journalists and 200 diplomats at hand with a statement the like of which a European leader had not made since 1945:
“The Jews,” he said, are “an elite people, domineering and sure of themselves,” a nation that – once gathered in its own state – was prone to display a “burning and conquering ambition,” and a state that had indeed become “warlike” and “determined to expand.”
Delivered in November 1967, when Western elites still saw Israel’s war the previous June as both just and inspiring, the statement sparked a public outcry, crowned by a Le Monde cartoon that depicted a skeletal Jew climbing a concentration camp’s fence under the caption: “Domineering, confident.”
Even so, de Gaulle’s exhortation would emerge as a turning point in the war on Israel’s image, an assault whose damage Israel would take decades to understand and which to this day it has yet to defeat.
THE EFFORT to deface Israel was transformed in 1967, but it was launched soon after Israel’s establishment.
At a loss to explain their defeat by a minuscule rival in a war that they started, Arab leaders set out to change the subject from their competence to Israel’s character.
The way to do that was to deploy classic antisemitism. The Arabic publication in 1951 of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Cairo was followed by countless editions, including one that Saudi King Faisal routinely presented to his guests.
As recounted by historian Bernard Lewis in his Semites and Anti-Semites, demonizing the Jews became common throughout the Arab world since the early 1950s.
Faisal’s charges that “the Jews” conspired to rule the world, plotted the Crusades, and mixed Muslim children’s blood in their bread were joined by a Saudi diplomat’s claim in a UN conference that the Talmud commands every Jew to drink a non-Jew’s blood every year.
Such fantastic charges of ridicule outside the Arab world made Israelis dismiss them as anecdotes, even when the Egyptian Information Department distributed in 1965 throughout Africa a pamphlet titled “Israel, the Enemy of Africa” which described the Jews as cheats, thieves and murderers.
That pamphlet’s failure to disrupt Israel’s developmental activity in Africa at the time reinforced the impression that the effort to deface Israel was a bizarre exoticism.
The Six Day War would change that.
ALONGSIDE its more famous military and diplomatic results, the unplanned war also reinvented the elusive realm of public relations. Now the Arab effort to deface Israel would be globalized.
Israel’s new assailants had varied motivations.
De Gaulle’s problem was that Israel had to dared fight despite his prewar order, and that it had dared to win despite his postwar plans. This was besides his own image problem, following his betrayal of Israel while it came under siege, an embarrassment that fueled his quest to shift moral blame from himself to Israel.
The conservative Frenchman’s other remark in that gathering, that Israel enjoyed “vast help in money, influence and propaganda” from “Jewish circles in America and Europe,” was designed to ingratiate Arab governments and also to excuse his miscalculation; it wasn’t that he bet on the wrong horse, only that the horse was doped by Henry Ford’s International Jew.
In its time de Gaulle’s attack was dismissed as part of an aging statesman’s twilight, but in fact it showed Western elites how to attack Israel from the rear while its neighbors attack it from the front.
Meanwhile, out in Moscow, Israel’s victory triggered a different frustration.
The IDF’s victorious weaponry was Western, while its enemies’ defeated arms were mostly Soviet. That entailed a blow to the East Bloc’s diplomatic sway and industrial prestige, particularly the arms industry, which was a major source of cash for the Soviet economy.
Soviet panic surfaced already before the war ended, when the Kremlin’s ambassador to the UN, Nikolai Fedorenko, charged that “Israel’s military gangs are following in the bloody footsteps of Hitler’s hangmen.” The main Soviet organ, Pravda, then redefined Israel’s war of defense as a war of aggression, a canard that underpins anti-Israeli propaganda to this day.
Incidentally, the Soviets’ quest to change the subject from their weapons’ inferiority to Israel’s morality failed, as the biggest buyer of Soviet arms, Egypt, still switched to American arms by the following decade. Yet in terms of the war on Israel’s image, the Soviets’ imprint was crucial. By telling the Arabs that they were “victims” and Israel was an “aggressor,” the USSR helped shape much of the subsequent discourse the way it is conducted in the free world to this day.
The Soviets showed the way from the Middle Eastern Jewsare- pigs rhetoric to the intellectual attacks on Israel that would soon become fashionable in the West.
The Soviet press did not depict Israel as a pig, an ape or a knife-wielding rabbi, as Arab newspapers did, but it did portray the Jewish state as a Nazi storm trooper with hobnailed boots, and condemned the Zionist enterprise as exploitative, oppressive, imperialist, and practically every other adjective that nauseated Western liberals.
Following June ’67, newspapers throughout the East Bloc defaced Israel, obviously by orders from above. In Kishinev, for instance, the Sovietskaya Moldavia depicted Israel as a knife-wielding warmonger wearing a helmet dominated by a Jewish star; in Almaty the Kazakhstanya Pravda portrayed Israel as a pistol-bearing bully succeeding Adolf Hitler, and in East Berlin the Berliner Zeitung sketched Israel as a machine gunner clutching Jerusalem and Gaza while accepting praise from Hitler.
And so, in addition to being moralized by the Frenchman who had just betrayed them in broad daylight, Israelis were now also being fingered by the empire that jailed thinkers, built gulags and occupied foreign lands from Lithuania through Georgia to northern Japan.
Bashing Israel thus emerged as a temptation for anyone trying to divert attention from anything.
In Warsaw, for instance, the government used the newly fashionable Israeli scapegoat in 1968 in the face of campus protests it faced at the time. Polish students and professors are restless, it claimed, because “international Zionism” was agitating them.
This trend persisted in subsequent decades, at times reaching complete absurdity, for instance when Zimbabwe’s despot Robert Mugabe stated in 2006 – a year after he bulldozed shanty towns and displaced 700,000 people in the country he had already led to 80% unemployment, malnutrition, hyperinflation and a life expectancy of 44 years – that “the Zionist regime is performing hateful crimes.”
ISRAELIS became used to their post-’67 abuse and refused to define it as a strategic problem, insisting that, as David Ben-Gurion put it, what matters is not what the gentiles say but what the Jews do.
That the East Bloc’s assault on Israel was followed within one generation by its collapse vindicated those who had argued that Israel’s libeling must ultimately fail, and that ignoring it is wiser than wasting energy and treasure on fighting it.
This attitude began changing in fall 2001 when, two weeks after a suicide bomber murdered 15 in Jerusalem’s Sbarro pizzeria, thousands marched in Durban, South Africa, calling Israel “racist,” while 3,000 NGOs charged Israel with “systematic perpetration of genocide.”
Mainstream Israelis now became both annoyed with, and alarmed by, the war on their image. They realized that their libeling deployed not only crude caricaturists but also culture heroes such as Irish peace activist Mairead Corrigan, British rocker Roger Waters and the late Portuguese novelist José Saramago.
The culture heroes all proved shallow and inconsistent.
Corrigan could not explain to a journalist why she had so much against Israel’s leaders and nothing against China’s. Waters could not explain why he canceled a concert in Israel in protest of the West Bank’s occupation, but held one in Istanbul despite Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus.
Saramago emerged in Ramallah in March 2002 – a month when 92 Israelis were murdered in 12 suicide attacks – and accused Israel of fighting “in the spirit of Auschwitz.” The journalist who then rose and asked him “Where are the gas chambers?” was veteran anti-occupation crusader Amira Hass of Haaretz.
The war on Israel’s image thus emerged in all its fundamentals: obsessive, irrational, targeting Israel regardless of its actions or inactions, and revolting all Israelis regardless of their views.
There is, therefore, reason to suspect this scourge will continue to haunt the Jewish state even after a future peace agreement, unless Israel does on this front what it has done on others: attack.