Commentary Magazine


Tony Judt’s Specious Clichés About Israel

Once again today the New York Times devoted the largest share of its op-ed page to an attack on Israel, as author and academic Tony Judt attempted to set the paper’s readers straight on what he considers the tired clichés of the Middle East. But as was the case with previous occupiers of this space, such as Michael Chabon, Judt flies under false colors. He affects a pose of Olympian detachment while treating both anti-Israel and pro-Israel arguments with equal disdain. This “plague on both your houses” approach seems reasonable on its face but it is utterly disingenuous.

That’s because of Judt’s own views on Israel and Zionism, about which he is less than candid in this article. Judt has written at length in the New York Review of Books, his usual literary home, about his opposition to Zionism. He is entitled to this belief, however hateful it might be, but such a stance ought to disqualify him from writing pieces in a mainstream newspaper that purport to take an objective stance on the subject.

As for his six clichés, they are all specious points of discussion and contain numerous false arguments. Here are a few:

* The anti-Israel arguments that he dismisses as merely absurd and worthy of being ignored are, while specious, widely disseminated around the world by a rising tide of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic incitement. But Judt, as do other critics of Israel, asserts that friends of Israel treat all criticisms of the state as being intended to delegitimize it. True. But it is a fact that all too many of these critics actually do intend to do just that. To point this out is not “self-defeating” on Israel’s part. To ignore the widespread attacks on Zionism that are now commonplace in Europe and on American college campuses would be to abandon the field to Israel’s foes.

* He acknowledges that Israel is a working democracy but then claims “the expression of strong dissent from official policy is increasingly discouraged,” as if those who oppose the Netanyahu government must only do so in private. This is absurd as not only is there an open season on Netanyahu in the Israeli media but also Arabs openly disparage Zionism on the floor of the Knesset. Even worse, Judt goes on to claim that Hamas’s regime in Gaza is a democracy too. It is true that Hamas won an election in 2006 — but it seized total power there in a bloody coup. Not only is there no hope of another election in which Gazans might hold Hamas accountable for its misrule — a typical example of Third World Democracy, which means “one man, one vote, one time” — but the result of that coup has been the imposition of Islamist practices on secular Palestinians and a tyrannical suppression of all opposing views. If that is Judt’s idea of democracy, it is no wonder he doesn’t value the concept very highly.

* He disparages the idea that not Israel and the Palestinians are to blame. He simply dismisses “the failure of negotiations in 2000” as having reinforced the Israeli belief that “there is no one to talk to.” But Camp David in 2000 didn’t prove that Israelis couldn’t talk to Palestinians. They can, even to Hamas. But it did prove — as did Mahmoud Abbas’s similar refusal in 2008 of an offer of a state in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem — that the Palestinians aren’t interested in or capable of making peace under any circumstances. The Palestinians may be weak but they could be living in their own state with a signed peace treaty guaranteeing their independence if their political culture didn’t prohibit them from acknowledging the legitimacy of a Jewish state within any borders.

* His inclusion of a cliché about an “Israel lobby,” which is “disproportionately influential,” is a tip-off of his bias. The “Israel lobby” has influence in this country not because the people at AIPAC are geniuses but because the vast majority of Americans support Israel.

* Last, and perhaps most important, he claims that the debate about the link between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is a cliché. But his attempt to dismiss anti-Semitic attacks on Israel depends on the reader being ignorant of the nature of most such attacks in international forums these days. The fact that for anti-Zionists the only alleged injustices in the world worth protesting are those committed by the one Jewish state in the world — the only country the legitimacy of whose existence is a matter of debate — betrays the prejudice behind such sentiments. Judt’s claim that one can “acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and still be an anti-Zionist” is a contradiction in terms but I suppose that’s how he rationalizes his own beliefs. The idea that you can be a foe of a besieged country’s founding ideology and basis of legitimacy yet avoid being branded as someone who would like to see it destroyed is mere sophistry. But when you are an American Jewish academic who despises Israel but doesn’t wish to be associated with the vulgar Jew-haters who act on their beliefs, I suppose that’s the only stance you can take when you write in the New York Times.

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