Beware of biblical analogies

By Robert Philpot, July 24, 2014

The media finds its love of Biblical analogies near-irresistible when it comes to the Middle East. So it wasn't very surprising to find a Guardian editorial last week describing the current conflict between Israel and Hamas as "another David and Goliath encounter".

This has been the defining narrative of much of the commentary on Operation Protective Edge. Two days into it, the Guardian's Owen Jones objected to a BBC headline – "Israel under renewed Hamas attack" – calling it "as perverse as Mike Tyson punching a toddler, followed by a headline claiming that the child spat at him". A week later, his fellow columnist Seamus Milne began his paean to Hamas's "defiance and resistance" with the line: "For the third time in five years, the world's fourth largest military power has launched a full-scale armed onslaught on one of its most deprived and overcrowded territories."

Forget Milne's factual inaccuracies - Israel's military might doesn't even figure in the world's top ten - and ignore his stomach-churning conclusion that the Israeli "occupation" will only end when the Palestinians and their supporters are "able to raise its price to the occupier". Israel is losing the war of words. In the eyes of much of the world, it has become Goliath to the Palestinians' David.

This is, however, not a new development. For the left – which, viewing Israel as the plucky underdog, once contained some of the fledgling Jewish state's strongest supporters – it is a transformation which has occurred over the past four decades. In the United States, it was liberals most closely associated with opposition to the Vietnam War – Professor John Kenneth Galbraith and Senators George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy and Wayne Morse – who were most vociferous in their backing for Israel, even calling for US military intervention if necessary. In Britain, polls suggested support for Israel was even stronger than it was in the US. Editorials in the Guardian and the Observer backed Israel, while a "solidarity with Israel" rally in Trafalgar Square drew a crowd of 10,000.

The outcome of the 1967 war began the process of redefining the conflict. The threat to Israel from its neighbours – still very apparent in 1973 – was now downplayed. Israel instead became the "occupier" and the "oppresser" of the dispossessed Palestinian people.

The left is being led down a moral cul-de-sac

Sympathy for the world's Davids is one of the left's more attractive characteristics. And there is much to be sympathetic to the Palestinian people about. However, imposing a Manichean David versus Goliath frame upon the conflict has led some of the left down a moral and intellectual cul-de-sac. It blinds them to the fact that Israel remains a liberal oasis in a desert of deeply conservative, hostile neighbours, some of whom openly proclaim their support for its destruction. It leads them to ignore the fact that on the values supposedly closest to the left's heart – tolerance, equality, support for freedom and democracy – Israel ranks among the world's best and its enemies among the worst.

Two examples highlight where such thinking leads. In 2013, Stephen Hawking withdrew from a conference in Israel "to respect the boycott".

But in 2006 the renowned physicist seemed to have no such qualms about delivering a keynote speech in Beijing's Great Hall of the People – the seat of the Chinese government – or, the following year, addressing a conference in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran. And while few would deny the need for human rights groups to exercise vigilance in the Palestinian territories, can it really be justifiable for Human Rights Watch to have produced more reports on Israel than on Syria and Libya combined?

The danger to Israel of viewing current events as a struggle between David and Goliath is obvious, imperilling as it does its legitimate right to self-defence against terrorism.

But, for the Palestinians, too, biblical analogies pose a danger: seeing the conflict as a religious one fuelled by ancient hatreds makes the prospect of compromise, negotiation and a man-made political solution even harder to envisage than it does in these dark days for both peoples of the Holy Land.

Robert Philpot is editor of Progress magazine

Last updated: 2:00pm, July 24 2014