From Underdog to Scapegoat

Joshua Muravchik’s two recent books are about defending democracy in the one place in the Middle East where it thrives

Books Israel
Unfairly blamed: Menachem Begin

Tell a liberal there’s a country that guarantees freedom of expression and religious liberties for its diverse population; that has absorbed more immigrants and refugees relative to its size than any other; that was the second to elect a woman prime minister in the modern era (and she was the first of the few who were not a widow or daughter of a male statesman); that permitted gays to serve openly in the military even before the United States instituted its “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, let alone before it revoked it; that has the second highest percentage in the world of homes that heat their water using solar energy; where the desert is not expanding but receding; and that alone in its neighbourhood is ranked “free” by Freedom House — ought not the liberal to be delighted?

For some reason, when that country turns out to be Israel, that delight turns to disgust. It is this anomaly that interests Joshua Muravchik in his two recent books, Liberal Oasis: The Truth About Israel and Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, released in tandem. Muravchik, a longtime fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and now at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is a leading neoconservative voice on foreign policy in Washington DC, with a particular focus on democracy promotion. These new books, though, are less about promoting democracy where it is lacking than defending it in the one place in the Middle East where it thrives.

Liberal Oasis, a short ebook readable in a single sitting, opens by quoting Daniel Bernard, a former French ambassador to the UK memorable only for insulting Israel in 2001 as “that shitty little country.” Muravchik concedes on the point of Israel’s size, but not on its calibre, which he briefly shows can compete even with that of France. Israel is on a trajectory to become wealthier than France in a matter of years, and is already ahead in health and education, in Nobel prizes and patented inventions per capita, in absolute numbers of chess grandmasters, and so on. Apparently Americans are as inclined to France-baiting as the British.

Behind the facetiousness, though, lies Muravchik’s point: Israel scores highly in comparison even with France, which is “one of the world’s great civilisations”; relative to its Arab neighbours, it is in a different league altogether. The book proceeds by examining Israel against the ideals of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité that France bequeathed to the global Left and finds that when it comes to these “values . . . that Israel’s leftist and liberal detractors claim to hold dear,” the Jewish state’s record is “downright overwhelming”.

The book relies heavily on statistics but remains easy reading, and, in addition to proving its claim, provides an excellent introduction to Israeli society in general. What is especially impressive, moreover, is how Muravchik justifies Israel’s few apparent shortcomings or uses them to demonstrate the opposite of what they appear to indicate. For example, although inordinately freer than its Arab neighbours, Muravchik reports that Israel is only in the “second tier” of Freedom House’s scale of “freedom”, along with the likes of Italy and Japan. But he does not leave it at that. Observing how many liberal democracies impose infringements in wartime (think of Franklin Roosevelt interning Japanese Americans or Winston Churchill interning refugees from Nazi Germany), he tells how Israel has been fighting an existential war since (even before) its inception, and therefore its comparatively high freedom score should be cause not for criticism but for celebration.

Meanwhile, though Israel has struggled in recent years with a deluge of non-Jewish African migrants, and has sought — through legal means — to deter, detain and remove them, the very fact that they risk their lives travelling through perilously hostile countries to reach Israel illustrates how “they heard rightly that they would face little threat to their persons in Israel, and stand a chance of making a life there, whereas in nearer countries, mostly populated by their co-religionists and people of cognate ethnic stock, they were likely to be mistreated or killed.”

There is also a nod to neoconservative democracy promotion: Muravchik notes that some sceptics of that doctrine argue that it is unrealistic to expect democracy to grow where there is no democratic culture or tradition. While disputing the veracity of this argument, he argues that if it is generally true then democracy in Israel is even more astounding, since most of Israel’s immigrants have been from undemocratic places, be they Arab and other Muslim countries or, in the case of most of Israel’s founders, Central and Eastern Europe.

Muravchik does gloss over some areas where Israel does not satisfy liberal ideals (such as divorce law), but this is understandable. All countries do so in some way or another, and there is enough literature out there focused on Israel’s real or supposed failures to make a book that does not do so a refreshing variation. Moreover, liberal ideals are not the only ones, and Israel’s deviations are usually ascribable to equally valid conservative impulses, which any genuine democracy should exhibit as well.

Whereas Liberal Oasis makes the case that Israel is a liberal haven in a totalitarian desert, Making David Into Goliath tries to explain why Western leftists do not recognise it as such. Just as David, the Israelite youth, faced the giant Philistine warrior, Goliath, so Israel was, in its early years, perceived by those Western leftists as a young country confronting the formidable forces of the Arab world bent on its destruction. Eventually, though, Israel came to be seen as the Goliath — erroneously, in Muravchik’s view.

Why did this transformation take place? Muravchik highlights as critical factors “on the one hand, the raw power in Muslim numbers and Arab oil wealth, and, on the other hand, the moral claims of the Palestinians and the latter-day ideology of the Left”. Though contradictory, in practice these two forms of suasion, he writes, reinforced each other.

The semantic shift is particularly fascinating. Gradually, the “Arab-Israeli conflict”, which pitted the vast Arab world against the small, beleaguered Jewish state, became the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, which was more suggestive of some oppression visited upon this defenceless Arab minority by Israel and its mighty military. This development, however, was decidedly cynical and opportunistic, as Muravchik expertly documents. In Israel’s early years, the Arabs, whose leadership had previously been allied with Nazi Germany, routinely employed genocidal rhetoric against the Jews (“no Jew will remain alive,” it was forecasted of the coming Arab onslaught in 1967). But they eventually realised such talk was winning them few friends in the post-war West. Consequently, they innovated the more sympathetic and “progressive” cause of the “Palestinians”.

Although their language underwent a change, their aim of building a pan-Arab alliance against the Jewish State did not. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was founded in 1964 — three years before the Six Day War, when the West Bank and Gaza fell into Israeli hands — indicating that the objective of this movement has never been solely about the disputed territories but about Israel entire. Moreover, the organisation’s first chairman was not some leading figure in the “Palestinian cause” but Ahmad Shukeiri, a diplomat who had served multiple Arab governments and was “the very personification of pan-Arabism”. Even Yasser Arafat, who eventually took over the PLO, was not interested in a “Palestinian state” per se, but rather “to build an independent Palestinian fighting organisation to spearhead the Arab struggle.” According to Arafat, writes Muravchik, “The pan-Arabists . . . who claimed that Arab unity was the route to liberating Palestine had it backward: the liberation of Palestine would pave the way to Arab unity. The exact configuration of Arab rule over the area could be determined once the Zionist interlopers had been expelled.

Arafat’s exploitation of this new terminology to cultivate Western leftist sympathies was masterful. Following the Six Day War, he looked to Algeria, which had wrested independence from France, to learn how to portray the enemy as “world imperialism” and the goal of his terroristic campaign as “liberation”. As leader of the PLO and its dominant constituent, Fatah, Arafat went to visit China, North Vietnam, Cuba and eventually the USSR, embedding his struggle in the international movement of “progressive” forces. By January 1969, Fatah’s central committee was declaring: “The struggle of the Palestinian people, like that of the Vietnamese people and other peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, is part of the historic process of the liberation of the oppressed peoples from colonialism and imperialism.”

This mentality permeated every aspect of the PLO’s operations: notorious terrorist Leila Khaled hijacked an aeroplane in 1969 as part of a group that styled itself the “Che Guevara Brigade”; a group of adolescent hijackers were christened the “Tiger Cubs” of the “Ho Chi Minh Division”; Khaled’s second hijacking was assisted by a Nicaraguan Sandinista; and, in 1972, members of the Japanese Red Army massacred passengers at Israel’s Lod Airport in “revolutionary solidarity” with the PLO. As recently as 2010, Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, on a visit to Vietnam, averred: “. . . when people mention the Palestinian struggle they recall the struggle of the Vietnamese people. We have both suffered occupation, colonisation and oppression, but you eventually prevailed, and we are certain that, thanks to your position and your support, we shall prevail as well.” Thus although the Arabs’ aspirations have not changed, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara are certainly more chic than Hitler and Goebbels.

The book goes on to consider Arab terrorism in more detail, the oil embargo, the Non-Aligned Movement’s domination of the United Nations; and other significant developments. In two chapters, Muravchik concentrates on a relevant personality to trace the evolution of broader movements and institutions — Bruno Kreisky vis-à-vis the European socialists and, for academia, Edward Said. This is inevitably simplistic but it does make the text accessible; Muravchik is an engrossing storyteller.

There are a few minor disappointments in the book. Muravchik is unduly harsh toward Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin, blaming him for confirming elements of the Western leftist critique, even though most of the book is spent underscoring the dubiousness of that critique in the first place. There is also little analysis of leftist ideology as a whole: Muravchik does not, for instance, explore why the Left seems reflexively to prefer the underdog, which is (not unreasonably) his underlying assumption. Nor does he explicate in detail how these various developments influenced that ideology. For example, he writes that the oil embargo revealed the Arabs to be the “masters of the global economy”. While it is clear why this prompted Western countries to turn on Israel, should not such a perception have turned the Arabs back into Goliath again in the eyes of the Left?

Perhaps, though, this is a question better aimed at Israel’s liberal detractors themselves, who would surely gain the most from examining these two intriguing publications with genuine liberality.