Israel’s backers have no moral case

10 June 2024
Emma Norton
Israeli soldiers in East Jerusalem, 27 October 2023 PHOTO: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Western governments are struggling to imbue Israel with any moral legitimacy. They’re on the back foot ideologically, and they know it. Beyond empty platitudes, slander and hysterical attacks, they cannot muster a convincing moral argument for their ongoing support for Israel.

Western governments have a long tradition of masking their imperialist adventures in fine moral sentiments to help bring their populations along for the ride. The Afghanistan war was sold as a campaign to liberate women and girls. The Iraq war was promoted, though less successfully, as a war to spread democracy. Unconvincing though they often are, at least some effort is usually made to appeal to humanitarian and liberal principles when the West is carrying out or supporting mass killing.

Israel and its advocates used to manufacture plenty of moral justifications for the country’s existence. We were told Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East, a beacon of enlightened values in a sea of Islamist reaction. We were told that Israel was a haven for Jews to escape the horrors of antisemitism. And, more recently, we were told that Israel upholds the rights of LGBTI people and women, unlike the Arabs.

The credibility of these claims is today in tatters.

The Gaza war has been a major turning point, but the discrediting of Israel began long before that. Media coverage of Israel’s 2008 assault on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, damaged Israel’s reputation among millions of people. It drew criticism from a range of human rights organisations, a UN report describing the war as “collective punishment” of the Palestinians that amounted to “war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity”.

Where it was once seen as scandalous or antisemitic to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as apartheid, most human rights organisations had conceded the legitimacy of this description well before the current war. This includes the UN, Yesh Din, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Now, Israel is widely accepted to be committing genocide, an arrest warrant has been recommended for its highest ranking politicians, and there continues to be barely a peep of concern from its allies.

All this has weakened Israel’s claim to be a democracy upholding liberal values, a claim that was a fraud from the start. When Israel took control of the whole of Palestine in 1967, its leaders deliberately excluded Palestinians from citizenship. This meant millions of people were denied basic rights based on their ethnicity. Israel also maintains illegal occupations of Palestinian land, where it controls every aspect of life for the Palestinians, contrary to international law.

Israel can hardly be described as a haven for Jews either. Jews living in America, France, Canada and Australia are a lot safer than those in Israel, a country that throughout most of its existence has been in a nearly permanent state of war with its neighbours. Jews in Israel are also subject to attacks by Palestinians legitimately resisting the occupation of their homes and villages. And Israel compulsorily recruits young people into military service, frequently sending them to war. The number of active military personnel per capita in Israel is the highest in the advanced capitalist world. As a strategy to combat antisemitism and keep Jews safe, the wholesale slaughter and ethnic cleansing of another population was never going to be effective. It only serves to perpetuate new forms of bigotry and violence.

The “pink-washing” of Israel as a defender of gay and women’s rights has also been washed away. It’s obvious how shallow this is when equal rights apply only to the Jewish population, and Palestinian women and LGBTI people are subjected to the same discrimination, dispossession and mass murder as all Palestinians. It is little comfort to them that Israelis enjoy a large gay pride march each year. And it only functions to discredit the cause of gay rights when Israeli soldiers pose with rainbow flags on the rubble of destroyed Palestinian homes and hospitals.

At the same time as these liberal defences of Israel have unravelled, the logic of permanent war against the Palestinians in the occupied territories has pushed Israeli society further and further to the right. State policy has fostered a growing settler population that terrorises and displaces Palestinian communities in the West Bank and has helped to toxify Israeli politics, pushing the government to proclaim the genocidal logic of its project more openly, dropping traditional liberal Zionist justifications.

At least nine new far-right parties entered Israeli politics in the past 20 years, and older parties like Netanyahu’s Likud have raced rightwards to meet them. The result is that Israeli politics looks like a right-wing lunatic asylum, with politicians from all parties calling openly for genocide, torture and ethnic cleansing, and promoting ideas of Jewish supremacy and ethnic purity.

A study released in January this year by Law for Palestine detailed more than 500 genocidal public statements made by Israeli legislators, journalists and army personnel since 7 October. These include a statement by the Education Minister Yoav Kitsch, who said of Palestinians: “Those are animals, they have no right to exist. I am not debating the way it will happen, but they need to be exterminated”. Israel’s Minister of Communications Shlomo Karhi encouraged Israeli soldiers to cut the foreskins off the “accursed ... Nazi terrorists”. Such statements provide only a glimpse into the sorts of attitudes towards Palestinians that are commonplace in Israel. Add to this Netanyahu’s power grab against the Supreme Court last year and the government’s criminalisation of Al Jazeera, and the place starts to seem very illiberal.

Israel is increasingly seen for what it is: a religious fundamentalist state on a mission to wipe out another group and dominate its region. The genocide in Gaza leaves no doubt about that.

This presents something of a problem for Israel’s Western allies, who no longer have a credible moral reason for their ongoing material and political support for Israel. There was never anything noble about this support. It was never about protecting Jews or cherishing democracy and freedom; it was always about power, money and protecting their place in the imperial pecking order. The honeyed lies about liberal democratic Israel no longer work to conceal that fact. University vice-chancellors can’t argue that their partnerships with Israeli universities are about shared enlightenment values, or that they are undertaking humanitarian research with Israeli weapons companies like Elbit Systems. They simply refuse to defend their innumerable ties to Israel, instead playing the victim and threatening students with expulsion or arrest for objecting to them.

Penny Wong can no longer sing the praises of the “only democracy in the Middle East”. Instead, she blathers vacuous platitudes about our “friend and ally” Israel, with little justification for the alliance. The establishment has increasingly had to rely on the principle of might is right—silencing critics with vicious repression and accusations of bigotry and violence. Israel embodies this principle: it unapologetically continues massacring people in Gaza regardless of moral hand-wringing by the UN or ICC, denouncing all criticism as antisemitic.

This slanderous charge of antisemitism is perhaps the most infuriating aspect of the campaign against pro-Palestine activists. It is deeply Orwellian that a movement against bigotry and apartheid is being accused of bigotry by infamous bigots like Peter Dutton. But the frantic campaign to discredit Palestine activism should reassure us that the strong moral case against Israel is becoming increasingly obvious to wide layers of people, a fact that scares the ruling classes of the West.

Liberal Zionism, which for a long time inducted new generations of liberal politicians into unquestioning support for Israel, is struggling to hide its internal contradictions. As Abba Soloman and Norman Soloman wrote for Mondoweiss, “the dream of humanistic Zionism is collapsing”.

Liberal Zionist groups like J Street have no ideological answer to this problem. Instead, they present Netanyahu and his far-right allies as the only source of Israeli extremism, while conveniently ignoring the nearly unanimous support for the annihilation of Gaza among Israel’s parties and population. They continue to advocate a two-state solution long after Israel’s actions have made a Palestinian state an impossibility.

Trump is now positioning himself to wealthy Zionists as the solution to this ideological dilemma: abandon liberal Zionist fantasies, back the Republicans, and in return he will crack down hard on Palestine activism. To a room full of donors in May, Trump promised to throw student protesters out of the country and to “set that movement back 25 or 30 years”.

As Western support for Israel is being questioned, so too is the legitimacy of the parties, politicians and governments that have funded and backed this apartheid state for decades. In the 1970s, when the moral case for the Vietnam War collapsed, parties like the Democrats were discredited in the eyes of millions of young people, many of whom began to question the entire system. We are not at that stage, but with crisis piled upon crisis, from racial injustice to climate change to the rising cost of living, the ruling classes are worried that their ideological hold over the population may be weakening. They themselves sense this ideological frailty and are lashing out at Palestine supporters with increasing venom and desperation. This should bring succour to all those fighting for justice for Palestine: we’re right, and they know it.

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