August 30, 2012
A Dozen (or so) GENUINE Anti-Israel Myths
Typically, something claiming to refute "anti-Israel myths" tracks these lines: a) “no, Israel doesn’t run an apartheid system towards Palestinians”, b) “no, Israel was not a state built on ethnic cleansing, aggressive expansion, and colonial oppression,” and c) “no, the current occupation of Palestinian Arabs is not abusive of international law, human rights, and basic decency.” My entry here, however, doesn't echo those points. It can't, because those "myths” happen to be pretty much, kinda, sorta, ya know, true. (Shhhhhhh.) Nevertheless, there do persist in widespread circulation other, lesser, anti-Israel myths which are indeed myths. Those are my target today.
The areas where a few junior myths are circulated include American-oriented discussions of the subject. So as a result I will include some issues -- like the first myth below -- that hit emotionally especially within American circles. That will probably irk our site’s lead blogger as being a distraction from purely MENA matters, but they are nevertheless useful to address since they are part of the general debate inside a place with a huge say in the Israel-Arab disputes..
But since we aren't publishing anyway pretty much, why not take up the Israel-Palestine thing? Those issues usually generate readership. Of course, given the irrational passions evoked by the conflict, reader response, if any, is sure to remind us that quality does not win over quantity where some things are concerned.
So anyway, in no particular order, to some genuine anti-Israel myths.
And we start, as noted, with a rather narrow America-centric one and then move to greater substance.
Myth #1: The American intelligence ship, the USS Liberty, was “deliberately” attacked by Israel in 1967.
Not likely at all, actually.
A challenge to that myth by yours truly appears here. Let's just say that where there was or has been a) no clearly established motive for Israel to attack a rather friendly superpower after mostly winning a war, b) no completion of the attack despite no significant counterattack, c) over decades, no damning leaks or revelations by aging Israeli veterans of the incident, and d) a situation where very classic risk for a military misidentification could happen (war, distance, tired fighters, dangerous location, uncertain identities, etc.), there is no great likelihood the attack was a willful hit on a known American target.
And remember also: false statements by Israel about the ship looking like a specific Egyptian ship, or false allegations of failure of the Liberty to fly a US flag, etc., or the much-later hearsay buzz about confused intercepted radio reports of an American flag, don’t make it a deliberate act. It just shows it was a messy confused screwup with a need by Israel to fabricate fast excuses. And that as always in such things, memories and records are hazy and contradictory.
The case for Israel's relative non-guilt in the incident of course isn’t helped by the sweeping of the event under a rug in official American circles, as has been done. But that’s what happens with embarrassing errors and a politically sensitive relationship. The USS Liberty event is a tragedy still deserving of a congressional-level airing and honoring.
But a "deliberate" assault? Most probably not.
Myth #2: Israel is an illegal state.
Utter hogwash. Not even close. Piffledoody.
Israel was admitted to the UN in 1949. The United Nations Charter in its preamble and opening articles clearly unambiguously, emphatically, conclusively -- if not outright nastily -- asserts and defends the unchallengeable sovereign integrity of its members. The UN charter is pre-eminent international treaty law. Whatever insincerities Israel may have committed to get in, it’s in.
The problems of Israel's founding are profound and continuing, especially in regard to representations made to deal with the Palestinian refugee issue and representations NOT made in regard to its own initial territorial limits. But that does not mean the state is illegal. In fact, threatening Israel's sustained sovereignty almost certainly constitutes clear aggression, at least when done by a nation-state, as a violation of international law and the UN Charter. One can always debate the wisdom and morality of international law, and Israel's UN membership, but not the fact that it is the law.
Israel is unambiguously a lawful state like any other.
Myth #3: The refugee Palestinians have a legal right of return under international law.
Not definitively, or unambiguously, no, not at all.
The right of refugees to return to their homeland is a customary international legal principle built on the general ill-defined premise that individuals have a default right to leave and enter their own country. That’s a broad principle but it is always situational and case by case -- for example (and this is NOT a direct analogy, so don't get offended): do convicted criminals have a right to leave their country? Obviously then, the principle applies differently depending on the specific facts of the situation.
It is a principle especially hard to clear up in a situation like Palestine where the refugees’ designated representatives and champions had continuously refused for a long time, and some still, to acknowledge the legal country that ruled the homes from which they fled or were expelled, and thus have denied the underlying premise of a return to one's own country. Note is does not necessarily allow for return to one's house or village.
The closest to an agreed direct statement on the issue is in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948), whose principles were agreed at one point by Israel as a basis for settlement. But that resolution, not binding in itself, only allows for those Arab refugees willing to live at peace with their neighbors (how that is to be decided is not said) to return with others to be compensated. And it doesn’t spell out if that right is passes to kids. (Do adult kids of refugees have a right to "return" to where he or she never was? Sounds like Zionism to me!).
Further, acquiring another nationality, as many Palestinians have done, pretty much erodes or destroys one’s status as a refugee, under conventional status law understanding anyway. This may be even more the case when one’s "own country" -- the one where one has that traditional right to come and go - has changed.
It’s a mess legally and not at all clear cut as to who or when it applies. The moral and emotional case is powerful but the legal one is …at best so-so and imperfect, and subject to qualifications on a large scale.
Myth #4: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and Golan is illegal.
This claim is not established at all.
It is belied by the fact that UN Security Council resolutions addressing the issue, which are binding international law, do not assert any raw illegality of the occupation, when they could do so if it were indeed the case. As Mr. Gore once said famously on another issue, here, there is no controlling legal authority.
Any General Assembly resolutions declaring the occupation illegal are merely opinions.
All this does not preclude the fact that the occupation may be (and is, in my opinion) wrong in principle, design, policy, practice, and morality. And it certainly does not preclude the fact that Israel does indeed perform occupation measures that are unambiguously determined to be violations of international law – e.g.,settlement construction, many regular violations of the 4th Geneva Convention against abusive mistreatment of a population or their property, and, the purported and clearly illegal annexations of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
But the whole thing as being illegal? Not established at all.
Myth #5: Mordechai Vanunu is an unvarnished hero.
Granted, this is more opinion than a factual myth but the points should be made.
Vanunu is the Israeli nuclear program deserter who divulged details of Israel’s nuclear program publicly. Here’s someone who betrayed a committed a and voluntarily assumed public trust to his employer and fellow citizens for no real benefit to anyone, arguably even himself.
Everyone knows and knew Israel has nuclear weapons. Further, it has no legal obligation not to have them, not being a non-proliferation agreement signatory. And it is not confiscating Palestinian land and shooting demonstrators with radioactive uranium. And if a legal state has no right to have nuclear weapons because it does bad things and partly to please a religious constituency, then attacking or harassing Iran makes sense.
Vanunu betrayed his secrecy commitment for no clear moral purpose, arguably aiding Israel's strategic ambiguity in fact. He confirmed credibly and publicly what they do not want to officially admit to but do want known through indirect confirmation, which he graciously provided.
I suppose the possibility that such confirmation as he revealed might have triggered a stoppage of US aid to Israel under a provision in US law against funding nuclear-weapon developer nations might make his case to be one of sounder principle in purpose, assuming indeed that that was his motive which I am not certain was the case. (And assuming as I do here that a stoppage of aid is good thing.)
(I doubt any conclusive revelation would make a difference anyway, as aid stoppage hasn’t yet happened despite the Israeli nuclear program's public certainty. Meanwhile nuclear-weaponed Pakistan is receiving US aid by the truckload, and doing so even without a mass domestic US fan club to lobby for it. This thereby suggests that any US legal limitation is easy to get around or ignore.)
Vanunu’s getting seduced into capture by a female agent afterward, even as he knew he was a target, is also not particularly recommending. Nevertheless, he does seem to have a sense of character and conscience. But to admire people who give away voluntarily-assumed public fiduciary duties of trust and confidentiality for no practical moral purpose should not elicit uninhibited admiration. (And, yes, that does mean Bradley Manning too.)
Another illustration: Non-Israel-loving people in the US (and many Israel fans as well) bash the spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard for doing much the same thing essentially as Vanunu did. They excoriate Pollard and want to leave him in jail permanently for his betrayal, and they do so with some justice.
I don’t dispute Vanunu may be a hero of sorts and in his own conscience, it is just that promiscuous betrayal of voluntarily-accepted entrusted confidences, even a bad government's ones, is always an ethical problem, or should be.
Myth #6: Israel attacked the Arabs without provocation in 1948.
This is a myth with a lot of truth, but it gets overdone.
This myth is the mirror image of the silly pro-Israel myth that the newborn state of Israel was attacked without provocation by the Arabs, thereby overlooking actions by the pre-state Israeli forces which dispossessed large numbers of Arabs, perpetuated sustained atrocities, and conspicuously indicated an expansionism of the then legally uncertain new state.
That being said, the more belligerent among the founders of Israel found their opportunity to act militarily as a result of the Arab states’ early pre-Israel independence injections in December 1947 and after of reckless guerrilla fighters into Palestine whose actions -- both violent and semi-competent --helped fan the flames and avert compromise.
Also, public uncompromising rejection of a Jewish state by Arab authorities inside and outside Palestine despite an international consensus in favor, and a significant Jewish population within Palestine did not help create a peaceful atmosphere. Occasional bellicose threats to the Jewish population did not help either. That also encouraged attacks on Jewish communities which served as provocations for aggressive counteradvances.
All that does not necessarily make the Arab side the aggressors, or at least in full, but there was sufficient Arab provocation to make the situation worsen and frustrate possibilities to find a compromise.
Myth #7: Israel went to war unprovoked in 1967.
Again, this is a partially correct countermyth to the bloviating Israeli propaganda that the Arab side was closing a vise on Israel’s survival in 1967, when Israel launched the June 1967 Six Day war. Today, it is overwhelmingly clear that back then Israel was militarily unthreatened in a major way by the actions of the Arab states during May-June 1967. What happened was that they chose the opportunity – with the Israeli military pressuring the reluctant civilian leadership -- to destroy Arab military potential as it deployed openly and to expand the territory of the state by force.
But provocation there indeed was from the Arab side. Sabotage by Palestinians led by an organization (the PLO - whose charter called illegally for the termination of the state of Israel) provoked an exchange of threats that impelled Egypt's Nasser to unilaterally remove Sinai peacekeepers, and block an international waterway. Then Nasser's ambiguous (yes, they were ambiguous but close enough to count) talk of destroying Israel (illegal for a head of state), as well as the amplifications of that by predictions of genocide made by Shuqeiry the PLO leader of the day, created a serious set of legal provocations to escalate the situation to war.
Myth #8: Israel was founded to be an arm of western imperialism and its domination of the resources of the Middle East.
Not really, though at times it could look that way.
While early Zionists sometimes explicitly saw advantage in joining with a Western power to achieve a Jewish state in Palestine, it was a marketing means to an end. Zionism’s founder Herzl was quite willing to deal also through non-Western Turkey if it would work. Zionism has its own raison d’etre, specific to Jewish history, and that is the key point that is lost in assertions of this type.
ZIonism actually arose for non-imperialistic reasons, out of the increased national and racial targeting of Jews -- alongside more traditional religious targeting -- around the end of the 19th century, most commonly in Eastern and Central Europe. The idea of Zionism focused on an ancient romantic homeland in Palestine, aka Israel today and in ancient times. This happened before and independent of anyone, East, West, North or South, knowing or caring about Middle East regional petroleum.
Nowadays many pro-Israel people think it is a good strategy to link Western interests or “values” (whatever that means) with Israel so as to get Western support in dealing with Israel’s rather Eastern enemies. But Israel and Zionism nevertheless came out of the specific case of the nationalism of an isolated group with genuine physical and sentimental roots in the Near East. And Israel’s existence and actions have at times impeded, and more often been irrelevant to, any “protection” of Western access to Middle East oil or any dealings with the governments of Arab allies and foes of the United States or other Western powers.
Myth #9. The Israel Lobby is a super-slick force with an iron grip on US policy.
This one is only true in a sort of default way.
Since nobody bothers to seriously fight them – yes, I am glaring at you, ye Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans – they do win the battles. But the organized Israel Fan Club is neither especially smart nor intrinsically strong, despite those accurate but exaggerated scare stories in a Paul Findley book.
Nor is the lobby the object of monumental unquestioning support from within either of its base communities -- American Jews and American Christian Zionists. (Many of the former are uncomfortable with the lobby’s robotic nationalism and many of the latter don’t like its suspiciously Jesus-averse relative moderation.) It says alot that the lobby can’t entirely put out the USS Liberty controversy fire, despite Israel’s having a strong case (see Myth 1 above), simply because a handful of angry sailors are persistent.
When a determined opposition exists – think George Bush senior and the 1992-era loans, Eisenhower and the 1956 Sinai invasion – the Israel Lobby can be impotent and found rolling over whimpering. (I recall seeing relatively up close in D.C. a failure of this type happen quietly about 1990 when many American legislators did not back off on opposing closures of Palestinians schools, co-sponsoring a resolution in Congress condemning it in large numbers. Schools reopened. )
Factual information and clearcut sustained confrontation hit them like sun on a vampire. Even the relative pittances being spent in recent weeks on ads opposing aid to Israel is causing noticeable visible discomfort.
The brutal reality is that a sensible sustained counterforce to the Israel lobby barely exists, mostly because of the unfamiliarity, fear, and lack of effort among immigrant Arabs in the direction of public activism and political philanthropy. So the Israel lobby wins, and wins again, most of the time.
But there is no superpowerful force of Jewish megapower going on. It’s just the usual path of committed believers towards political success -- energy, money donations, plus hard work. Those are combined with a political sophistication that incorporates disseminating politically effective falsehoods, character assassination (e.g. baseless accusations of anti-Semitism), and bullying. Bullying and slander work magnificently in normal politics, in fact they pretty much are normal politics, but they work very well when there is near complete absence of sustained opposition.
Myth #10. Israel was the key real reason and engineer behind the 2003 Iraq war.
Nope. Humbug. Sheer garbage. (Folks, don’t believe everything you read in Mearsheimer and Walt. )
The neoconservatives made it happen, mostly, and politicians then approved it for rather obvious statecraft and self-promotion reasons (and no, not especially for the oil). So while Israel is a fetishized darling of the neocons -- and to a degree, most American politicians -- and while protecting it might have been a strong "plus" factor for the neocons, the neocons' motives was ultimately US-centered. They have a mystical faith that global military domination by America is a mystical force of liberation.
The cruder and even more real goal from the politicians who made the war happen was the sustaining of their incumbency by an act demonstrating raw, but home-audience-reassuring, tribal military power post- 9/11 and the fear and anger it generated.
The invasion was envisioned to intimidate the locals, revalidate American power, and even more to reassure and energize the domestic political base with continuous streaming image of pummeled and humiliated "camel jockeys" (who are, after all, the folks who did 9/11 and then danced about it).
Meanwhile, however, Israel was outright hostile to the Iraq war. The less imperially idealistic leaders of Israel were far more than hesitant when the Iraq war drums grew in 2001-2003. Rather than initiators or even cheerleaders of an Iraq invasion, they saw Saddam Hussein as a worthwhile barrier against Iranian regional advances, and were uncomfortable with the drive to war by the USA. As one sound investigation notes: “Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department at the time of the Iraq war (and a sharp critic of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration), later stated in an interview that 'The Israelis tried their best to persuade us that we were focused on the wrong enemy [in Iraq], and that they were very leery of destroying the balance of power in the Middle East' ’’.
Myth #11. Jewish presence historically in Palestine was brief and barely memorable.
Back to an historical issue. This one has stupid written all over it. Granted, that historic presence should be totally or mostly irrelevant to the rights and wrongs of today, but that is no excuse for stupid.
Generally you hear the above mythfrom Arabs and other Easterners; few Westerners are so silly on this subject because of their better familiarity with the folklore. Look, folks, just as Schlitz was "the beer that made Milwaukee famous”, the Jews/Hebrews are the folks that made Palestine famous.
Some Jews may not like the fact that that escalation of fame of ancient Israel/Judah/Palestine from mere land strip to holy megafame came mainly via the Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth, but nevertheless the reason that Mark Twain in Missouri in the 1800s dreamed of the rushing Jordan River when a kid was not because of the ancient Jebusites, nor because of the post-medieval Palestinian Arab presence. It was because of Jews like Jesus, his followers, and the Hebrews' long heritage of indigenous cultural and religious presence.
The spiritual epic of European civilization -- the Bible -- and even the spiritual heritage of Islamic Arab tradition, rooted and centered mostly in the hills of Judea, is as Jewish as Levy’s Rye bread. More in fact. A good part of the West's spiritual epic is the national epic of the tribes of Israel. The romantic vision of Palestine is not of Philistine or Cannanite or Byzantine or Arab civilizationsn. King David, the prophets, Moses, the city of Jerusalem and its temple, Solomon, then down through Jesus, the Apostles, and New Testament author St. Paul -- the key fame-makers of Palesitne -- were even more Jewish/Israelite than a Catskills mountain comedy club in the 1950s and the William Morris Agency combined.
Saladin, the only globally vaguely known Arab-like person connected with the place, was not even a Palestinian Arab, but an Iraqi Kurd. Diminishing the significance and even primacy of Jewish history to the area is an anti-Zionism for fools or ignoramuses.
Myth #12. Israel is a religious state.
Despite religious constituents, ideological identity components, and local overaccomodations, Israel is a secular state.
Yes, there is an obvious religious component to Jewishness and hence to Zionism and Israelness. (Though, judging by the religious views of many modern Jews,one might wonder if there is a religious component to much of Judaism these days, outside the growing very religious.) And yes, there is a strong deference to religious sensibility in official Israel, including explicit religious law in Israel’s legal system and policies – not just Jewish law, but also Shariah law used in personal status cases for Muslims. And yes, religious conversion to Judaism or some of its forms is also path to Israeli civil identity.
But despite these things, it is not a religious state.
Law is determined through elections, parliamentary vote, a civil court system, along with a military rule system. Citizenship is not coercive about religious practice or membership. Citizenship is religiously irrelevant (minus, agreed, the point that expelled Palestinian Arabs can’t return, but maybe could if they converted to Judaism because Jewish nationality indeed has a religious component to identity.) But just as there are official churches in liberal democracies like Britain, Sweden and Germany, there will be deference, and even over-deference to religion and religious rules (including gender segregation in some areas) in a state that has a non-religious constitution of majority society, but has a strong religious electoral constituency.
And face it: historically, the country of Israel was founded largely by people who were rather hostile to religion, including Judaism. Religious identity being associated with but subordinated to the national one is common in many other East European-originated secular-to-atheist national and cultural sensibilities today (see for example ex-Yugoslavia’s ethnic identities revolving around unpracticed Orthodoxy (Serb), Catholicism(Croat) and Islam (Bosnian). Not to mention other nationalistically saturated places like Northern Ireland.)
But a religious state? Not really, no. No clergy officially chooses or vets candidates or validates the governing system which, again, was founded primarily by militantly secular lefties not all that long ago. And still maintained by fervently secular citizens (quite a few being atheist) and even army (religious people are exempt if they choose) in large numbers.
Additional note: an implication of this "charge" is that if a state is religious, it is somehow less legitimate. One has to take that up with the State of the Vatican CIty, or the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. But measuring on such a scale as those two, Israel emerges as a rather secular state with an influential religious population, like the United States.
Myth #13. Jewishness is not a nationality.
Related to the other historical/religious myths is the above common one. What the hell is anyone thinking who asserts that? To the extent that nationality ought to matter in terms of human civil legal and political arrangements (I don’t think it should enter at all actually), if any aggregation of humans has had a national sense, it’s Jews.
Jews were raising national rebellions demanding restorations of yet older states back when Anglo-Saxons weren’t even in Britain much less in America. Arab identity for example arose with modern nationalism in the 19th century around a language group. Germans and Italians didn’t become nations until the same period.
Meanwhile, in modern times, Jews in Europe mostly spoke the same unique language, lived under a common government (local community rules under the Russian Empire), had the same romanticized Golden Age homeland, a traditional written customary legal system, an additional unique ceremonial and liturgical common language, common trades, folklore, dress, jokes, and sentimentalized music, towns, cities, schools, dynasties, and neighborhoods.
The PLO’s original charter attempted to justify its initial illegal denial of Israeli statehood legitimacy by alleging that Jews were not a nationality. Well, isn't that special? There's nothing like telling other people who they are, which is a problem Palestiinians of all people especially should know not to do. And by any standard of common sense, if Jews aren’t a "nationality", no one is.
That may be ok in the sense that "nationality" should not be as important as individual humanity in determining rights but if one wants to factor the issue in, the myth is a really really dumb one. Jews had nationalism and national awareness with steroids since the age of Nebuchadnezzar of Mesopotamia at least. Long before modern Zionism reared its head.
Heck, long before Rome fell. This is one of those "you say it's so so I just say the opposite" kind of myths.
So there you have them. Genuine anti-Israel myths.
Of course, none of these add up to denying the core problem which is not a myth: a colonial power in the past having held a land too without the locals' consent who then force into the land aliens with typically only a folkloric relationship to it. Then all that is followed by the newbies claiming all or most of the land as their own. The the newcomers throw out most of the locals and keep their properties, while expanding further and further, oppressing and slowly dispossessing most of the remaining locals.
But that core problem is not an excuse for making up stuff, or for being gullible to arguments that have little basis in reality simply because they reflect your worldview.
The above myths should disappear quickly from discourse, just as injustice to Palestinians -- and all others including Israelis -- should disappear.
Posted by Matthew Hogan at August 30, 2012 07:31 PM
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The establishment of Israel as a state is every bit as legal under international law as were the French rule of Algeria or the British rule of India, both of which were on-going at the time of that UN vote (_illegally_ opposed by independence movements). Legality under international law does not and should not imply legitimacy, and at the time the PLO was quite right to ignore it.
There is a reason why Arabs should consider acknowledging Israel as a legitimate state, but it has nothing to do with international law; it's more like:
"We're not in 1918 or 1948 any more. By now quite a lot of Israelis weren't personally involved in the original colonisation project, don't have any other citizenship to take up, and obviously do not get along well with Arabs. If you ever do manage to terminate Israel (and that project doesn't seem to have gone well so far), where are you gonna put them if not in a state of their own?"
That said, it would be poetic justice if someday a conquering Arab League stuck Israelis with a Jewish equivalent of the Palestinian Authority...
Posted by: L at September 13, 2012 09:21 AM
In a strict sense no, to your assertions of Algeria and India, India was an independent member or UN by 1949, so it doesn't apply.
And no decision by Security Council existed on Algeria, so nothing decided. At its founding, Israel's legality was not clear wither, the UN partition resolution in 1947 did not decide it. Nor its declaration of independence in 1948. Membership in 1949 did.
The morality and wisdom of such things is debatable but the international law on UN membership is bright-line clear.
Posted by: mathew h at September 13, 2012 04:05 PM
Your entire article happens to be pretty much, kinda, sorta, ya know, a blatant lie.
Posted by: Bashar at January 10, 2013 10:57 AM