Implications of Israel's Fraying Image

Israel's weakening international position is a danger to its own existence.

Editor’s Note: This piece is based on remarks delivered on May 22, when the Center for the National Interest hosted a symposium on Jacob Heilbrunn’s “Israel’s Fraying Image” from the May/June issue of The National Interest. An additional response by Peter Berkowitz will be published tomorrow.

It is a privilege to have been asked to join this discussion of Jacob Heilbrunn’s account of Israel’s Fraying Image.” His article seems to me implicitly to raise two grim questions.

The first question is how long Israel can survive as a democracy or at all. The Jewish state has left the humane vision of early Zionism and its own beginnings far behind it. Israel now rules over a disenfranchised Muslim and Christian majority whom it would like to expel and a significant minority of disrespected secular and progressive Jews who are stealing away to the safer and more tolerant environs of the United States and other Western countries. Israel has befriended none of its Arab neighbors. It has spurned or subverted all their offers to accept and make peace with it except when compelled to address these by American diplomacy. The Jewish state has now largely alienated its former friends and supporters in Europe. Its all-important American patron and protector suffers from budgetary bloat, political constipation, diplomatic enervation, and strategic myopia.

The second question is what difference Israel’s increasing international isolation or withering away might make to Americans, including but not limited to Jewish Americans.

Let me very briefly speak to some of the issues that create these questions.

For a large majority of those over whom the Israeli state rules directly or indirectly, Israel is already not a democracy. It consists of four categories of residents: Jewish Israelis who, as the ruling caste, are full participants in its political economy; Palestinian Arab Israelis, who are citizens with restricted rights and reduced benefits; Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, who are treated as stateless prisoners in their own land; and Palestinian Arabs in the Gaza ghetto, who are an urban proletariat besieged and tormented at will by the Israeli armed forces. The operational demands of this multi-layered, militarily-enforced system of ethno-religious separation have resulted in the steady contraction of freedoms in Israel proper.

Judaism is a religion distinguished by its emphasis on justice and humanity. American Jews, in particular, have a well-deserved reputation as reliable champions of the oppressed, opponents of racial discrimination, and advocates of the rule of law. But far from exhibiting these traditional Jewish values—which are also those of contemporary America—Israel increasingly exemplifies their opposites. Israel is now known around the world for the Kafkaesque tyranny of its checkpoint army in the Occupied Territories, its periodic maiming and slaughter of Lebanese and Gazan civilians, its blatant racial and religious bigotry, the zealotry and scofflaw behavior of its settlers, its theology of ethnic cleansing, and its exclusionary religious dogmatism.

Despite an ever more extensive effort at hasbara—the very sophisticated Israeli art of narrative control and propaganda—it is hardly surprising that Israel’s formerly positive image is, as Mr. Heilbrunn reports, badly “fraying.” The gap between Israeli realities and the image projected byhasbara has grown beyond the capacity of hypocrisy to bridge it. Israel’s self-destructive approach to the existential issues it faces challenges the consciences of growing numbers of Americans—both Jewish and non-Jewish—and raises serious questions about the extent to which Israel supports, ignores, or undermines American interests in its region. Many have come to see the United States less as the protector of the Jewish state than as the enabler of its most self-injurious behavior and the endower of the many forms of moral hazard from which it has come to suffer.