The Israel Rorschach test: Real democracy or bogeyman?

Center Field: Too many treat Israel as a monster nation, wherein each misstep proves its illegitimacy.

Israeli flags 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israeli flags 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
From Israel’s perspective, 2010 ended as it began, with much of the world spending far too much time obsessing about it, failing the Israel Rorschach test. Despite being a democracy, Israel, like all other collective human endeavors called countries, is imperfect. Some view its missteps in that context, understanding that liberal democracies are better than dictatorships not only because they give their citizens freedoms and dignity but because those freedoms sharpen their government’s and society’s self-correcting mechanisms. Too many others treat Israel as the international bogeyman, a monster nation, wherein each misstep proves its illegitimacy.
THE YEAR began with Israel still smarting from the Goldstone Report’s censure of its war of selfdefense against Hamas rockets in Gaza. In many ways, it was nothing new. Only one nation is regularly censured by the UN’s so-called Human Rights Council. And only one country has its right to selfdefense so scrutinized and constricted by the international community.
We did not need this year’s revelations of the massive casualties that resulted from American firepower in Iraq to know that modern armies cause much damage. To be frank, given Gaza’s density and volatility, it is a tribute to IDF discipline that thousands more people did not die.
Nevertheless, intelligent defenders of the real Israel were honest enough to admit that the IDF, like all armies, inevitably erred occasionally, and should learn from its mistakes. There is a reason why William Tecumseh Sherman said “war is hell” – even a century before our age of hi-tech weaponry that kills en masse, and immoral enemies who hide behind mosques and hospitals, behind the skirts of old ladies and the uniforms of schoolgirls.
But the Goldstone Report treated Israel as bogeyman, ignoring the context, minimizing the years of rocket fire it endured and the harshness of Hamas’s Islamist, anti-Semitic exterminationist ideology. In fact, critics could argue that Israel failed to fulfill its basic obligation to defend its own citizens by waiting so long before attacking.
Once again, its enemies forgot that in a democracy criticism in context is often absorbed and taken seriously, but extreme, unreasonable criticism overrides a democracy’s self-corrective mechanism, triggering an equally essential self-protective response.
THE YEAR ended with the stench of former president Moshe Katsav’s rape and sexual harassment conviction, again proving that Israel is a real democracy – with real problems balanced by an admirable ability to confront and correct them. These episodes frequently have their ambiguities and politics does intrude. A recently released tape suggests the relationship between Katsav and his accuser “A” was more layered.
And yes, voices on the far Left again proved their hypocrisy by delighting in his conviction but laughing off the sex crimes of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange – the documentarian Michael Moore dismissed those accusations as “a bunch of hooey,” prompting Katha Pollitt of the leftist periodical The Nation to complain that “when it comes to rape, the left still doesn’t get it.”
Yet, the fact that Katsav was found unanimously guilty by a three-person court headed by an Arab, Judge George Kara, proved that Israel is a pluralistic democracy with rule of law, and the “boys-will-be-boys” locker room ethos of yesteryear will not pass muster today.
Nevertheless, this Christmas season brought the usual condemnations – including some egregious extremes. In uncovering too many leftists’ blind spot regarding the serious charges against Assange, Pollitt discovered that the accusation that the Assange case’s “Miss A” is a CIA “honey trap,” came from one Israel Shamir, who also peddles anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist canards willynilly. Shamir claims Jews control the media and the banks, charging that “Palestine is not the ultimate goal of the Jews; the world is.”
Pollitt laments: “We have now produced on the Left an echo chamber like that on the far right, where the scurrilous charges of marginal fanatics are disseminated through electronic media and end up, cleansed of their original associations, as respectable opinion.”
IN QUEBEC, a different manifestation of anti-Israel absurdity played, courtesy of the increasingly marginal, ridiculous BDS movement – they call it boycott, divestment, sanctions, we call it blacklist, demonization and slander. Anti-Israel activists targeted one family-owned shoe store, Le Marcheur on Montreal’s fashionable St. Denis Street, for selling Israeli-made Beautifeel shoes. A member of Quebec’s National Assembly, Amir Khadir, joined the protests. Uncowed, the simple store owner Yves Archambault stood up to Khadir, one of Quebec’s most popular politicians, and won.
The Quebec media mocked Khadir as le fanatique, unfairly picking on a family-owned business in his own district, whose interests he is supposed to represent. Most Quebec opinion-makers dismissed Khadir’s tired claim to be protesting “apartheid” as poppycock. Jewish and non-Jewish Quebecois responded with their own, informal “buycott,” swarming the store, buying many more shoes, Israeli and otherwise, from the Archambault family thanks to the protesters.
A Rorschach test exposes the viewer more than the object. The real Israel is not a fragile state. It is a robust democracy living in a tough neighborhood, thriving on the historical stage, sometimes acting nobly, sometimes brutishly, but impressively capable of self-criticism and self-correction. Democrats can recognize their own countries’ strengths and weaknesses in its reflection.
The phantom Israel is conjured up by extreme critics in an overwrought state who make wild accusations and are so blinded by hatred they ride roughshod over innocents, principles, their own obligations, their own self-interest. And they jump from criticizing particular actions to making gross generalizations about a group. We call that bigotry. And when directed against Jews, we call that anti-Semitism.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.