Sophistication and illusion

By Oliver Kamm, July 31, 2014

Norman Finkelstein, the American far-left activist, was interviewed a couple of months ago on Al-Jazeera's Head to Head. I was one of the pundits cross-examining him. We didn't get on. I criticised the quality of his historiography and he compared me to the dust beneath his feet. Yet there was one point on which, to some of the audience's discomfort, Finkelstein was cogent.

This veteran anti-Israel campaigner criticises the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. He supports boycotts of Israeli institutions as a tactic, yet maintains that a movement pressing for Palestinian national rights needs to have unequivocally just goals in international law in order to win public opinion. These must include recognition of Israel.

On that point, he's right. Arguing about historical responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to me very much a second-order question compared with the goal of a two-state solution in something approximating the pre-1967 borders. Among the most dispiriting features of the debate in Europe is how rapidly the political left is divorcing itself from that stance.

The Times, for which I write, summed this up in a leader column last week. It's a legitimate if debatable criticism that Israel has taken too little care in avoiding civilian casualties in its military strikes against Hamas in Gaza. It's another matter to compare Israel to Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa. That's a calumny with potentially lethal consequences.

As a Europhile liberal, I'm not one to overstress the darkness of modern European society. The continent has never been freer and more tolerant than it is today. In public debates with Melanie Phillips, my fellow JC contributor, I'm like a tape on continuous loop when arguing how much more civilised Western societies are owing to the social ferment of the 1960s.

Europe has never been freer than it is today, really

Yet there's something atavistic and disturbing in a political culture when an imperfect democracy such as Israel is routinely castigated as a colonialist and racist state. It's common these days on the left to hear comments such as those of Alexi Sayle, a comedian, who described Israel as "the Jimmy Savile of nation-states" this month.

This sort of invective unfortunately does need to be confronted. I do what I can to argue these propositions.

Israel has many faults, inequalities and sins. Some were historically inescapable, because the Jewish state came into existence tragically late in the great 20th-century wave of national self-determination. Yet that is the movement that Israel belongs to: its roots are in the internationalist idealism espoused by President Woodrow Wilson a century ago.

It's a venture that ought to command the sympathies of liberals and left-wingers. Crucially, the state's founders showed themselves willing to face down and disarm their own extremists. When there is a sovereign Palestine alongside a secure Israel, that will be a fulfilment of the pluralism of the Zionist ideal, for it will extend national self-determination.

Secularism is not as strong as it should be in Israel but it is the closest thing the Middle East has to the principle that there should be no religious test for public office. It's a culture in which science rather than superstition predominates.

Myths about the Jews spread even among sophisticated political thinkers. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt preposterously maintained that "German Jews belonged not to the German people, but at most to its bourgeoisie". It's a myth that appears to be gathering momentum among the politically sophisticated that the Jewish state is a colonialist enterprise.

Last updated: 1:15pm, July 31 2014