Review: A State Beyond the Pale

Robin Shepherd brilliantly dissects the increasingly hostile criticism of Israel from Europe


By Robin Shepherd
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99

The Middle East conflict is being played out in two theatres. One is on the ground, where territory is won or ceded, lives lost and bodies wounded and maimed. The other is in the air-waves and in print, in university lecture theatres and trade union congresses. Here, it is minds that are lost and won.

However well Israel has managed in the former, recent years have seen it steadily losing ground in the latter in the face of a mounting campaign of vilification from a growing and ever more audible chorus.

Virulently antisemitic hostility towards Israel is rife throughout the Arab world. Through mosque, madrassa and the internet, it has spread across the Muslim world, including Europe where Muslims have increasing presence and voice.

It is, however, between western non-Muslims that the decisive battle of ideas is currently being waged and where Israel is doing so badly. And it is the increasing size and influence of antipathy towards Israel among European opinion-formers with which Shepherd is principally concerned in his meticulously documented, cogently argued, and brilliantly illuminating book.

This conflict of opinion is said to date from 1967, and Israel’s crushing victory in the Six-Day War. Its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, still necessary because of continuing Arab “rejectionism”, transmuted Israel in the eyes of European commentators from plucky anti-colonial underdog to oppressor.

Enmity has grown since the second intifida and now poses, according to Shepherd, an existential threat to Israel, despite European political leaders and most American commentators hitherto being immune to it. Shepherd explains why:

“In Europe… hostility to Israel is nowhere near as striking at the peaks of the political landscape as in the subterranean caverns below. But at some point, the tectonic movements of cultural change must inevitably push peaks, caverns and everything else together… forg[ing] anew the look and feel of political life…”

To demonstrate its extent and virulence, readers are taken through those subterranean caverns. Here, Israel is regularly described as “shit”, and likened to Nazi Germany and to South Africa under apartheid. It is being accused of all manner of war crimes and human-rights violations, from disproportionate force, through racism and ethnic cleansing, to genocide.

All grounds for such disparagement are shown by Shepherd to be spurious. Only by ignoring the context in which Israel must act have European bien pensants made their antipathy seem warranted.

What, then, explains it, if it has no genuine basis? It is said partly to stem from European loss of self-belief. Europe cannot relate to Israel’s nationalism, religious identity and willingness to use force against threat. Partly, too, it stems from residual attachment among European chattering classes to the world-view of the radical left, with which so many were once associated. Israel offers them a pretext to vent anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-apartheid and anti-American sentiment. “It helps them feel alive again.”

This is the best book on the Middle East conflict to appear in years, albeit one deeply disquieting for friends of Israel. It should be compulsory reading for all professing interest or expertise on the subject.

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