Choosing Sides: the Arab-Israel Conflict in U.S. Eyes
An editor of the Cambridge Histories once remarked that when a nonspecialist reads history he can only choose arbitrarily from among conflicting versions of events. This is obviously true. The general reader, unequipped to evaluate or verify what he is reading, will naturally be influenced by the quality of the writing, maybe even by the biography of the writer or his photo on the dust jacket. It is a little like voting for a political candidate. All this is true when the subject is neutral. When it isn't, an additional factor comes into play, and that is the bias of the reader. In what pertains, for example, to the historical enmity between the French and the English, it is natural for a Frenchman to be pro-French and an Englishman to be pro-English. Likewise, it is also natural, in the Arab-Israel conflict, for a Jew to be pro-Israel and an Arab to be pro-Arab or pro-Palestinian. Conversely, it is unnatural for a Jew to be pro-Arab and for an Arab to be pro-Israel. Among non-Jews and non-Arabs, on the other hand, one would be inclined to say that it is unnatural to take sides at all, unless one has a special bias. In America, in fact, until ten years ago, 40 percent of the population did not take sides. Since that time, however, the "no opinion" vote has dropped, first to 30 percent and now to 20 percent (62 percent for Israel, 18 percent for the Arabs in 2014).
One should of course take poll results with a grain of salt. The fact that 80 percent of Americans "take sides" in the conflict does not mean that they really have an opinion about it. Asked to think about something that they may not really have thought about before, they come down on one side of the issue or the other on the spur of the moment, influenced perhaps by recent events or even giving what they think is the "correct" answer. A 2011 poll looking for the "happiest" American state, for example, found that 62 percent (West Virginia) to 70 percent (Hawaii) of Americans claim that they are happy (in a country where 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, a third of the population is hovering around the poverty line and a quarter of the population suffers from some form of mental illness). Even anonymously, I think, Americans find it very hard to admit that they have failed to achieve the American Dream.
With regard to the Arab-Israel conflict, "no opinion" is what you might expect from not just 20 or 40 percent of Americans but even from 80 percent of Americans. After all, Americans have never been particularly concerned or informed about what was going on in the rest of the world. I doubt very much if one percent of Americans would have had anything to say, for example, about the old Greek-Turkish conflict in Cyprus or the wars between Pakistan and India or between the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. One reason why so many Americans have opinions about the Arab-Israel conflict is obviously because it is played up in the media, though that in itself would not produce partisanship or advocacy without contributing factors. One of these factors is the perception of Israel as an ally of America. Another is a certain fundamentalist bias in its favor on theological grounds. Still another is the special feelings of sympathy and guilt that Christians may have toward Jews against the background of the Holocaust (in an environment where antisemitism has significantly declined in the last 50 years). The Arabs, on the other hand, are perceived as an enemy, or a threat, at least in their radical mode. Partly, too, the anti-Arab bias is a throwback to America's old anti-Asian bigotry (Chinks, Japs, gooks, ragheads, slopeheads, etc.). The anti-Israel bias, such as it is, is partly a throwback to classic antisemitism (though many Americans make a certain distinction between Israelis and Diaspora Jews) and partly, on the left, an expression of anti-American feeling insofar as Israel is perceived as a client of America.
The animosity of the left toward Israel is a special case, as is the animosity of certain Jews toward Israel (and Arabs toward Arabs). To the extent that left-wing Israel hatred is tied to anti-Americanism, it is logically understandable. However, anti-Americanism among Americans, like Israel hatred among Jews, is in itself so unnatural that one is tempted to seek its causes not so much in the realm of ideology as in the realm of abnormal psychology. Politics, after all, comes from the belly, and all of us recognize that familial hatred, hatred of what is closest to oneself, is an aberration. The alienation of the left from national aspirations and its deep-seated resentment of the established order was epitomized very shrewdly by John Dos Passos with reference to the Old Left: "Can those men have hated their fathers that much?" The resentment of all forms of authority that characterizes the left, not to mention its self-involvement, does in fact seem to reflect a child's rebellion against whatever threatens to crush him. In this respect, the Vietnam War was a godsend for the American left, giving it a focus and, in Lyndon Johnson--the archetypal father figure--an object of hatred.
Often, though, together with the anti-Americanism, and sometimes independently of it, especially in Europe, one finds an undercurrent of Jew hatred too on the left, disguised as the more respectable Israel hatred in a time when vocal Jew hatred has become unfashionable. Criticism of Israel is by no means the same thing as Jew hatred. One need only look at the language of the anti-Israel blogs to understand the difference. What should be clear is that Israel would not be hated by these people if it wasn't Jewish. If Israel was an Arab country and the Palestinians were indigenous non-Muslim Sudanese, let us say, and you had the same conflict and the same occupation and the same "ethnic cleansing," hardly an eyebrow would be raised. Just as the Vietnam war was a godsend for America haters, so the Six-Day War was a godsend for Jew haters, a fertile breeding ground where an ingrained aversion to Jews could blossom into undisguised enmity. Ironically, Arab or Muslim hatred of Israel, however fanatical, at least has the virtue of being the by-product of a national conflict and is therefore comprehensible in conventional historic terms, unlike such hatred among Israel haters in the West, which is the outgrowth of a scarred and twisted psyche.
Among Jews who hate Israel, generally also on the left and sharing the same anti-Americanism and the same pathology as non-Jews who hate Israel, Israel itself becomes the emblematic father figure. It is the fact of Israel's existence that threatens and intimidates them because it challenges something very insecure in them, and that is their identity, for Jews who are hostile to Israel see it viscerally as something that is alien to their idea of themselves and resent it deeply for the implied demand it makes on them to assert themselves as Jews. In Israel itself, on the left, because its ideals are hollow, masking resentment rather than reflecting compassion, and precisely because the spoiled children of the Israeli left have no ties to or sympathy for the downtrodden and dispossessed of the Other Israel, it resents the established order on behalf of the Palestinians.
The phenomenon of Israel hatred thus has less to do with the Palestinians as victims than with Israel (and America) as culprits. The will to criminalize and delegitimize Israel has bred an army of blog crawlers who spend their days combing the Internet for incriminating evidence which they then cut and paste or "reference" in their vicious comments on anti-Israel blogs like Richard Falk's or Mondoweiss. Remove Israel and America from the equation and these people couldn't care less how many Arabs or Africans or Asians or Slavs are slaughtered in local wars. As Norman Mailer once noted, two blacks in the ring just don't do it for fight fans, but when a white boy goes up against a black boy, the juices really start flowing. Israel hatred is of course a little more complex than ringside hysteria. When Americans take sides in foreign conflicts, you can be sure there is a lot going on under the surface.
Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He is also the author of The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011), an epic novel depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history. His second novel, Death, was published by Spuyten Duyvil in 2015. His stories and essays have appeared in around 200 journals, including TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Montréal Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Word Riot, The Recusant, and Polluto. A selection of his fiction called Americans & Other Stories was recently published by Fomite Press. His poetry has appeared in Word Riot, Oak Bend Review, Free Verse, Boston Literary Review and Hacksaw. Under a pen name, he also published two novels in 2014: Rafi's World (Fomite) and The Links in the Chain (CCLaP).
The above essay originally appeared on the Arutz Sheva website: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/15005