Paul Pillar

Surrendering Values in Israel

The argument that, more than any other, Israel and its self-declared friends have repeatedly relied upon to justify to American audiences the extraordinary relationship with the United States that Israel enjoys is the idea that Israel, unlike other Middle Eastern states, shares with Americans liberal democratic values. The argument always has had a  protest-too-much quality, because for a long time it has not been necessary to scratch very far beneath the surface to see a major divergence of values. There is the fact that a state that is defined in terms of religious affiliation, and in which rights of citizenship vary according to religious or ethnic identity, is quite different from the American concept of liberal democracy. And more blatantly, there is the indefinite deprivation of fundamental political rights for a subject population under Israeli occupation and control.

The Arab Spring has shown a brighter light on the divergence in values, which is one of the reasons the Israeli government has been very nervous about this region-wide phenomenon. Not only have the demands for popular sovereignty in Arab countries highlighted the deprivation of popular sovereignty for Palestinian Arabs; to the extent that democracy emerges in any Arab countries, it undercuts the old we're-the-only-democracy-in-the-Middle-East argument that repeatedly gets served up to Americans.

Amid these events, the Israeli government and its defenders have displayed increased rhetorical desperation, such as in promoting the notion that the world is full of people out to “delegitimize” Israel—a notion that, as Henry Siegman points out, is groundless. The desperation is now extending beyond rhetoric to laws and actions, and in an ultimately ironic and tragic way that undermines whatever commonality of values with America Israel otherwise could still honestly claim. Recently there was the exclusion of foreign activists (who were coming through Israel only because the West Bank doesn't have its own airport) who gave every indication that their intention was peaceful expression of dissent in the occupied territory.

Much more stunning is the enactment by the rightist majority in the Knesset of a law that bans, as a punishable offense, any public call for a boycott of either Israel or its West Bank settlements. This not only is a major blow against free expression on a wide range of issues. It also takes to a new extreme the conflation—which permeates the “delegitimization” notion—of attitudes toward Israel (and its right to exist) with attitudes toward Israeli occupation policies, including especially the colonization of the West Bank with settlements. It is now illegal for anyone within the reach of Israeli law to recommend exercising free choice in buying or not buying certain goods and services, and to make that choice in a way that expresses disapproval of those occupation policies. It is hard to imagine a step any more directly antithetical to American concepts of liberal democracy and political and economic freedom.

In the ever-lengthening record of self-destructive Israeli policies, this is one of the more destructive ones. It ought to make even Israel's more reflexive defenders in the United States wince. And even if the old reliable elements of political power and non-value affinities come through again to keep the extraordinary relationship in place, there is even more direct damage inside Israel to the values that many Israelis—including liberals who are criticizing the action the Knesset took Monday—thought their country stood for.

Image by Joshua Paquin