The Paranoid Style in Israeli Politics

February 23, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: Israel

The Paranoid Style in Israeli Politics

There has been a perceptible decline in the standards of conduct of the Israeli political class. One major culprit is the Americanization of the Jewish state’s political life.  

Of course, one only has to listen to the Nixon tapes to be reminded that most politicians talk less circumspectly in private than in public. Still, I could not imagine Chaim Weizmann (Israel’s first president) or David Ben Gurion receiving a visitor with such sovereign indifference. Anyone possessing a cursory knowledge of the Israeli political scene and the current prime minister’s ménage will know that this episode was par for the course. One cannot blame Netanyahu alone for the undoubted coarsening of Israeli political culture in recent years, but as the country’s longest-serving prime minister other than Ben Gurion, he bears his due share of responsibility. The founders of Israel may have been puritans, but they were not boors, not philistines and not on the take.

Perhaps most perilous is the lack of any sense of proportion on the part of several prominent figures in the political and security establishment. Ben Gurion, for all his hawkishness, understood the limits to what can be achieved purely by the application of military might. Now Netanyahu and others toy with the idea that Israel, unaided, could eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat with a conventional military onslaught. Nor is this all. That the U.S. Congress should voluntarily submit to a hellfire sermon on the subject by this swaggering braggart, leader of a pint-sized country smaller than Vermont, beggars belief. Fortunately, in both houses of Congress a few members whose pro-Israeli credentials are not in doubt have expressed their distaste for Netanyahu’s breach of protocol and of manners.


AT LUNCHTIME one day, someone says to me, better corrupt, vulgar self-seekers than messianists. Perhaps—if that were really the Hobson’s choice before Israel. But the country’s outgoing government might most accurately be described as a coalition that incorporates both those camps. The problem runs much deeper than the personal deficiencies of the country’s rulers. Israeli society has changed dramatically in recent years. A semisocialist welfare state has been transformed into an acquisitive society with one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in any advanced economy. Along the way, many of the values that sustained, or were supposed to sustain, Zionism in its early days have been completely jettisoned. The kibbutzim have morphed into private holding companies. Once the advance guard of a militant young generation, they have dwindled into little more than garden suburbs for those retreating from the urban jungle.

Israelis are still almost obsessively concerned with what other people think of them. But in the place of the U.S. (and Israeli) founders’ “decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” the country seems to be possessed by a gnawing dread that “the whole world’s against us.” As Menachem Lorberbaum, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Tel Aviv University, points out, no Israeli leader has exploited the idea of victimhood as shamelessly as Netanyahu. Much argumentative energy is expended denying any equation of Israel’s occupation regime with apartheid-era South Africa—as if disposing of that alleged libel would, in and of itself, solve Israel’s problem of how to come to terms with the Palestinians.

One evening in January I attended a public meeting at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, convened by the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, donated by the British-born hair designer. (It’s just down the corridor from the Emanuel Streisand Building for Jewish Studies, donated by his daughter Barbra, and across the way from the Frank Sinatra International Student Center.) The Sassoon Center, which has existed since 1982, documents anti-Semitism worldwide. The meeting took place a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. The audience, consisting mainly of elderly people, many wearing yarmulkes, heard three speakers.

The first, Irwin Cotler, is a Canadian Liberal member of Parliament and former federal justice minister who likes to present himself as a spokesman for humanitarian causes, having served as counsel to Nelson Mandela, Natan Sharansky and others. When it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, he focuses mainly on what he calls “state-sponsored incitement” and “hate speech” (meaning attacks on Israel by Palestinians and their supporters). He devoted his remarks mainly to denouncing the United Nations and its agencies for what he sees as their “systematic bias” against Israel. He views all this as part of a “global anti-Semitism” that is working to promote the “delegitimization and demonization of Israel.” This was not the first time that I had heard Cotler speak. Nor was it the first time that I had heard him deliver a nearly identical speech. On this occasion, as in the past, he came across as not much more than a blowhard for Israeli hasbara (which literally means “explanation” but has turned into a euphemism for the country’s propaganda machine).

Then there was the historian Robert S. Wistrich, a professor at the Hebrew University and head of the Sassoon Center. He was the author, early in his career, of some well-received works on European Jewish history. In recent years he has become concerned, or, to use his own term, obsessed, with what he sees as the universal danger of anti-Semitism. In 2010, he published A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. The title tells you all you need to know, without the exquisite pain of having to wade through the 1,184 pages of the book. In his speech Wistrich traced a similar trajectory, suggesting that what lies behind anti-Israel attitudes today, especially in Europe, is an inexpugnable “exterminationist” anti-Semitism. Indeed, in anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism “we are talking about a distinction without a difference.” He thus interprets the Arab-Jewish struggle less as a rational conflict over territorial and other interests than as a product of inveterate “toxic fantasies” of Jew-hatred that have infected the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Wistrich particularly objected to statements by German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron in the wake of the Paris attacks. Both these leaders drew a distinction between radical Islamists, who claim falsely to act in the name of their religion, and what Cameron called “true Islam.” Wistrich depicted such remarks as a “preemptive cringe.” As for the danger, in the wake of the attacks, of a backlash of Islamophobia, he considered that term “a very questionable concept.” He urges Jews in Europe to heed his “wake-up call” and mobilize against the hydra-like monster that threatens them. Otherwise they will succumb to a “suicidal charge into the abyss.”

As if Wistrich had not terrified us enough, we were then subjected to a tirade from Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, an Orthodox Jewish institution “based on the belief in the centrality of Israel to the Jewish world as its national homeland.” Steinberg addressed what he insists are the systematic anti-Israeli attitudes of NGOs such as Amnesty International and Oxfam. He seemed particularly exercised about a small anti-Israeli Dutch organization that he sees as embodying this pan-European vice. Steinberg has vociferously denounced European funding for human-rights organizations active in Israel.

What all three speakers had in common, and what evidently appealed to the majority of their audience, was a deep sense of grievance against those they regard as misguided international do-gooders at best, and, more fundamentally, against a broad international climate of anti-Israelism fueled (so the three think) by pervasive anti-Semitism. They view the world in a Manichaean framework that leads into the politics of fear peddled by the Israeli Right in general and Netanyahu in particular. Seizing, for example, on a momentary blip in the number of Jews emigrating to Israel from France, such people imagine that the greater part of the remaining Jewish community there, and indeed in Europe as a whole, is busily packing its bags to depart for the Jewish state.

Unfortunately, such fanciful notions are shared by a sizable segment of American public opinion. These are the sort who view “old Europe” as overrun by Muslim immigrants, sliding toward a new kind of fascism, incorrigibly anti-Semitic and a dangerous place for Jews. As a resident of Amsterdam (an infinitely safer city, by any reckoning, than my previous abode, Chicago), I sometimes wonder whether these folks are talking about the same continent I now live in or somewhere on another planet. Richard Hofstadter once wrote a brilliant essay about American populism called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” That evening, I felt I had come face to face with the paranoid style in Israeli politics.


THE NEXT day, a refreshing corrective: I attended a meeting of the Rainbow Circle, a Christian-Jewish discussion group in Jerusalem. This is a semiprivate society, founded in 1965, with admission by invitation, though it seems admirably open in its outlook. Participants included a number of Catholic and Protestant clergymen and theologians, Orthodox and Reform rabbis, as well as lay intellectuals. I also encountered the American-born Jerusalem representative of the Baha’i International Community. (There were not, so far as I could gather, any Arab Christians, nor any Muslims present.)

An old and valued friend, the late Geoffrey Wigoder, editor in chief of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, was a moving spirit in the group, which works quietly to foster interfaith relations in this most contentious of religious environments. Wigoder used to claim, with endearing optimism, that the circle’s “still, small voice” could have an outsize impact. The theme of this evening’s discussion was “Last Supper/First Passover” and the participants ruminated learnedly and fascinatingly on the chronology, nature and degree of the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity. Later I had an illuminating conversation with Raymond Cohen, another Hebrew University professor, who is writing a book on Christian-Jewish relations. He concedes that Christian anti-Semitism remains. But he maintains that since the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI’s watershed declaration in 1965 on the relations of the church with non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, there has been a fundamental change. Yes, there are still anti-Semites in the church. But now there are authoritative documents condemning anti-Semitism that their opponents can appeal to. But where anti-Semites are non-Christian (I think he means secular or pagan, rather than Muslim)—as many in Europe now are—there is nothing to appeal to. Cohen also said that since Nostra Aetate and Pope John Paul II’s millennial prayer to God for forgiveness for anti-Semitism, “it is our [the Jews’] problem now.” The church feels that it has done what it had to, but Jews who can’t forgive remain weighed down with a burden of bitterness.