Hastings’s case against Israel is flawed

In his Guardian article, ‘Why I fell out of love with Israel’, Max Hastings chooses his facts selectively

By Alex Brummer, May 14, 2009

Max Hastings is among Britain’s most distinguished and honoured journalists and an exemplary military historian. His years as editor of the London Evening Standard look like a golden age, given what has followed.

He is now a prolific commentator writing regularly in my own paper, the Daily Mail, as well as the Guardian. Bridging the gap between these two very different titles might be regarded as an achievement in itself.

Last Saturday, Hastings wrote a savage essay in the Mail on “the stink of decay seeping forth from Brown’s Downing Street”. Over at the Guardian he published an equally trenchant commentary under the title “How I fell out of love with Israel.”

The article was an abridged version of his ‘Leonard Stein’ talk and traced Hastings’s journey from a young and impressed reporter who camped out under the stars with Israel’s soldiers in the 1973 Yom Kippur War to a fierce critic of the 21st-century Jewish state.

Hastings, like other former friends of Israel, regards the country’s behaviour — most recently in Gaza — as tragic. In his Guardian article, Hastings writes: “Morally, if not militarily, it is a shadow of the force which fought in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973.” However, in making his case against modern Israeli policies towards the Palestinians and the failings of Israel, he appears to choose his sources selectively.

What may be most disappointing to the many people who hold Hastings in high esteem is his observation that “The Holocaust card has been played for more than 60 years.” He writes that in Europe there is not the “slightest danger that the unspeakable fate of the Jews in the 1940s will be forgotten”. Hopefully Hastings is right and industrial-scale killing of Jews is a thing of the past. But we know from data collected by the CST that antisemitism is alive and well in Britain and across Europe and saw an upsurge in the first months of 2009, during the Gaza operation.

In support of the case that the Jewish state has gone off the rails, the writer quotes the academic Avi Shlaim and Rabbi David Goldberg. Both are respected critics of Israel. Hastings has strong respect for Shlaim, who he regards as one of the best historians of the Middle East. But there is no escaping the fact that Shlaim and Goldberg are not mainstream Jewish voices on the Middle East.

Hastings argues that today few Western Jews now want to fulfil the Zionist ideal and live in Israel. Sure, there are 14 million diaspora Jews. But there is little doubt that they still regard Israel as a safety valve, with the French Jewish community among those decamping to Jerusalem amid concerns about Islamic extremism.

The article praises the moral vision of Israel’s founders in 1948. But in an apparent contradiction, it also quotes historian Benny Morris to support allegations of “ethnic cleansing” in 1948. Hastings argues that the historic myth that Palestinians voluntarily abandoned their homes is unsustainable. Morris has subsequently revisited some of his earlier findings, but there is no acknowledgement of this.

Hastings writes that Israel deliberately wrecked the economic base of Palestinian society. The evidence would suggest, however, that the Palestinians contributed to this through the first and second intifada.

As one would expect of a journalist of Hastings’s standing, he writes with great vim and passion and obviously cares deeply about the future of Israel and its Palestinian neighbours. However, the polemical tone and his visceral distrust of Bibi Netanyahu will disturb some of Israel’s supporters.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 12:25pm, May 14 2009