Let's reframe the Israel debate

It seems every Jew is a foot-soldier in the war against delegitimization.

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According to the Reut Institute, Israel’s legitimacy in the West is under assault in politics, academia, trade unions, the media and churches. There is a worrying disconnect between Israel’s excellent relations at government level with its European allies, while grassroots public opinion is increasingly alienated. Israel’s advocates never tire of repeating how much Israel wants peace, and what a boon this tiny country is to the world in technology, science, agriculture, ecology, immigrant absorption - if only the media would cease focusing on bad news from Israel, holding up its microscope to every blemish and imperfection.

But are we putting across the right message? The argument will be won or lost on the liberal Left, which dominates the West’s opinion-forming class.

We need to explode the misconception, commonly held on the Left, that Israel is an outpost of western colonialism and imperialism. Jews were indigenous to the region 1,000 years before the Islamic conquest, with an uninterrupted presence not just in Palestine, but all over the ‘Arab’ world. The Arab invasion turned native Jews and Christians into minorities in their own lands, converting them to Islam, appropriating their shrines and erasing their history. Jews ‘stealing Arab land’ is an offensive inversion of reality. Jews in 10 Arab countries were stripped of their rights and in most cases dispossessed of their property.

The terms we use undermine Jewish rights to our ancestral homeland. ‘Settlements’ and ‘West Bank’ reinforce a sense that the land has always been Arab, and paint Israelis as colonialist imposters. Yet, until their ethnic cleansing in 1948, Jews had always lived beyond the Green line. Yet it must be said that to talk of Judea and Samaria, and Israeli ‘communities’, not settlements, in no way precludes an Israeli withdrawal as part of a peace deal.

We need to restore a vital context to the discussion: the conflict is not between the Israeli Goliath and the Palestinian David. It pits six million Israelis against 300 million Arabs. In terms of values, the battle is between pluralistic, democratic Israel and the jihadists of Islam. The Palestinians are not independent agents. Economically they are propped up by international aid; strategically, they represent a pan-Arab, and increasingly pan-Islamic cause; politically, they are controlled by external regional forces.

We need to emphasize that half the Jews of Israel never left the region - they were uprooted from the Arab and Muslim world to a tiny sliver of land on the Mediterranean. If these Jews are now full and free Israeli citizens, it is largely because Israel offered them unconditional refuge from pre-existing Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism.

This anti-Semitism takes the form of an ancient religious contempt for ‘dhimmi’ Jews, on the one hand, and a modern, Nazi-inspired, genocidal Jew-hatred on the other. The former accounts for a deep religious and cultural resistance to the idea of a Jewish state. The latter drove out almost a million Jews from Arab states, and still drives the conflict with Israel. The violence and abuse suffered by these Jews constitute an unresolved human rights issue.

There is a reckoning to be made between Israel and Arab states cleansed of their Jews. At every turn, Israel should be demanding justice for its own wronged refugees. Palestinian losses and any territorial adjustments Israel may make in the future pale in comparison to the deeded land and assets forfeited by Jews forced from Arab countries.

Refugees are the single most important issue on the Middle East agenda. Borders can be agreed to and Jerusalem can be divided, but the Palestinians are adamant in their insistence on their 'right of return'. Only if they can be made aware of the suffering and the losses of a larger number of Jewish refugees, can we hope to break the deadlock.

You only have to witness the sorry plight of the region’s persecuted and uprooted non-Muslim and non-Arab peoples to understand that the so-called ‘Arab world’ leaves no room for myriad ethnicities and religions. All have suffered at the hands of totalitarian autocracies, whether nationalist or Islamist. Regrettably, the Arab Spring bodes more repression to come. There are twice as many Copts as Palestinians, but where are the leftists protesting against violations of their human rights? There are three times as many Kurds as Palestinians, but where are the calls for their cultural and political rights? As one of the few Middle East minorities to exercise sovereignty, Israel must fly the flag for minority rights. As one of the only democracies, it must make common cause with the secular liberals of the Middle East and North Africa.

We must convince western libertarians to see the self-determination of a small, indigenous Middle Eastern people – the Jews – as a progressive cause. Rejectionism of Israel is rooted in a religious and cultural view of ‘dhimmi’ Jews and Christians as inferior, forced to surrender their rights to the Muslim overlord. For a non-Muslim people to rule itself, still less non-Arab Muslims, is anathema. By supporting the Palestinian campaign against Israel – deceptively cloaked in the language of human rights - western liberals have become unwitting agents for the re-establishment of Arab and Muslim supremacy over a ‘dhimmi’ people.

Israel represents the national liberation of the Jews, one of the most ancient of native Middle Eastern peoples. If we are to win hearts and minds, we must reframe the debate.

The writer is a co-founder of Harif, a UK group representing Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.