July 31, 2001

The Chosen Pariah

Israel's Complaint

Life in the Israel is so difficult – and it's not just because of the hot and humid summer. No, it's the neighbours, they are the real trouble. It's so hard to be the only democracy in the Middle East, surrounded by all those bloodthirsty Arab dictatorships.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres (Nobel Prize Winner for Peace) said it all back in 1996: "In a Middle Eastern feast you have a simple choice: either you are one of the diners, or you end up as the dinner itself." He said it when he sent the Israeli army to bomb Lebanon (known as Operation Grapes of Wrath), killing hundreds and forcing half a million civilians to flee from their homes. You cannot blame Peres: blame the Middle East.

Luckily, there are better places on earth. Benjamin Netanyahu was very aware of that. Asked whether he believed in peace in the Middle East, Bibi always answered: "We are not in Scandinavia." Scandinavia is different. There, people are polite, peaceful and friendly. They don't smoke the hookah and they don't stab you in the back. And they don't fight each other. Never in history was there a war in Scandinavia. Trust Netanyahu on that: his father, whom he is said to consult daily, is a well-known historian. He should know.

Ask every Israeli: Israel's geographic location is a historic mistake. One old theory blamed Moses' bad ears: God told him to go to Canada, but he heard Canaan instead. But nowadays, most Israelis would be more than satisfied with a location in the North Sea, next to Scandinavia. Good neighbours, plenty of room in the ocean, lots of oil underneath. Culturally speaking, this is the right place for peaceful, civilised, modern Israel – not in the midst of those warlike, barbaric and primitive Arabs. If we were there, we would have no troubles whatsoever.

But now the world is going crazy. Israel sends a new ambassador to its natural environment, Scandinavia – and not to Norway, cursed forever for its capital Oslo; and not to the suspiciously neutral Sweden; but to Denmark (to wonderful Copenhagen), the only Scandinavian country that bravely saved all its Jews from the Nazis. It's Scandinavian, it's peaceful, it's not anti-Semitic – the ideal place for an Israeli. But those silly Danes, what do they do? Instead of giving Ambassador Carmi Gillon the warmest welcome, as the lost son who returns from the backward Levant to his true home in the civilised West, the Danes warn him that he may be arrested upon arrival and put on trial for the crime of torture!

Janus Face

Israel seems to be extremely embarrassed by those accusations. So embarrassed, that little has been written about it. Eitan Haber, journalist and Rabin's mythological spokesman, came out with a column (in Hebrew only) claiming more-or-less that Gillon was just obeying orders. Sounds suspiciously familiar from another context. Haaretz (27.7) – an extremely nationalistic newspaper with the very opposite image – published a uniquely confused editorial, trying to anchor Haber's embarrassing argument to the principle of state sovereignty. Interesting: a so-called "liberal" newspaper, committed to undermining the State's politico-economic sovereignty in favour of globalism, patriotically defends its legal sovereignty when Human Rights are at stake. Not protecting Human Rights: protecting torturers and war criminals who breach them.

Such poor arguments can almost be forgiven, considering the intensity of Israel's shock. Imagine: on the one hand, the country's long-cultivated, arrogant self-image as Western, modern and just, with the implied mirror-image of the Arabs as primitive, untrustworthy and evil: Edward Said's Orientalism is Israel's manual. On the other hand, Israel's growing notoriety in the West: Prime Minister Sharon is facing a war crimes trial in Belgium for his part in the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. Carmi Gillon, former head of Israel's security service, may be arrested in Denmark for torture. Haaretz (26.7) also reports that Israel's Foreign Ministry "has begun "mapping" the criminal justice systems of European countries, trying to identify "problematic states" where prominent officials in the Israeli security services might face legal action because of wide-ranging local authority to prosecute suspected human rights violations.

How can Israel cope with the cognitive dissonance caused by this contradictory image?


In a way, the tension has always existed. The Jews saw themselves as God's Chosen People, but were treated by the Christians as pariah. Imputations of "anti-Semitism" are therefore one of the very first weapons invoked.

Sometimes it's utterly absurd. Elderly relatives of mine were in the Netherlands several months ago, when Israel captured a boat carrying weapons from Lebanon to Gaza. The Israeli army organised a solemn press conference, exhibiting all the weapons in Haifa's seaport with the captured boat in the background, like an open-air museum. The Israeli media celebrated the occasion for weeks. The Dutch media seems to have been less impressed. "Anti-Semites!" my relatives said. "They did mention it, but showed pictures of a tiny dinghy!" One can only wonder: Did Dutch television really cut out the actual boat from the film, putting a 17th century Ruisdael dinghy instead? Or had the Israeli propaganda-machine turned the actual dinghy into a formidable destroyer, in my relatives' minds?

Anti-Semitism certainly exists – on the right, on the left and in the centre. It must be fought wherever it is found. But this does not mean that Anti-Semitism causes every criticism of Israel. Using accusations of Anti-Semitism as a fig-leaf is morally and politically wrong. Europeans (and the West in general) may indeed like to find faults with Israel, to clear a bad conscience for two millennia of dubious hospitality towards Jews, culminating in the Holocaust. But these "special relations" between the West and Israel have more than one side. The West may be looking for opportunities to cast Israel as pariah, but it also treats it as a nation of Chosen People – and is encouraged to do so by smug Israel itself.

Why can Israeli teams play – and win – in the European Basketball League? Why can Israel participate in – and win – the European Song Contest? Why can Israel join the European block in the United Nations? Because Israel is in the Middle East, in Asia, just by mistake? Did Israel – Netanyahu especially – ever reject millions of dollars and political support given by European and, especially, American fundamentalist Christian sects that believe that the Jews are God's Chosen People and that once all Jews return to the Holy Land, Jesus will come (and christianise us all, Alleluia)? If Israel claims to be European, it cannot bargain for a Middle-Eastern discount. If it willingly enjoys privileges as a nation of God's Chosen People, it cannot complain when treated like a pariah. This sword is double-edged.

Text-only printable version of this article

Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and has grown up in Israel. He has B.A. in Computer Science, M.A. in Comparative Literature and he presently works on his PhD thesis. He lives in Tel-Aviv, teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature in Tel-Aviv University. He also works as literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. His work has been published widely in Israel. His column appears occasionally at Antiwar.com.

Archived columns

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Mideast War Really Imminent?

The State of the Army, Part Two

Building Settlements, Killing Peace

The State of the Army, Part 1

Israeli Left Sells Out Peace

Barak's Legacy


Fortunately, "anti-Semitism" is not (yet?) used too often in Israel's diplomatic discourse. Official Israel prefers to accuse the Europeans of "hypocrisy"; this term is echoed in each and every reference to the issue. In Israel's new Book of Law, the capital vice of Hypocrisy seems to dwarf such minor faults as Torture or War Crimes.

It's not always clear what Israelis mean by "hypocrisy." President Katzav (Haaretz, 26.7), for example, explained that "the Danish government hadn't touched off an international outcry in the wake of recent incidents in which Palestinians [...] beat Israeli soldiers to death in a Ramallah 'lynching'." Not very convincing: the Palestinians held responsible for the lynching have meanwhile been kidnapped by Israel and sent to jail, not to a fjord cruise. One can hardly blame the Danes for not arresting them.

"Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem" quoted in Haaretz (27.7) also say that "focusing on Gillon is hypocritical. Denmark, said sources in the Foreign Ministry, never took action against two former heads of organisations that conducted torture: Yasser Arafat and Vladimir Putin."

This argument is true and valid. Justice – nationally, and even more so internationally – is selective. Decisions always involve political considerations, which may be termed "hypocrisy." The West cannot treat a superpower the way it treats a smaller country. Sometimes it's wise realpolitik (do we really want a nuclear world war for Tibet?), sometimes it's hypocrisy informed by political and financial interests.

The Gulf War was such a case. Its noble cause was ostensibly to protect Kuwait's sovereignty, but was President Bush senior truly blind to the oil-fields in the region? Why didn't the United States attack Indonesia when it invaded East Timor, not to mention Israel and all its occupied territories? Where was the Israeli outcry when the US hypocritically attacked Iraq? There was none. Israel supported Operation Desert Storm – and for pure, moral reasons, of course.

It is true: Europe and the West are full of double-standards and hypocrisy. Dutch people are outraged when Sharon's responsibility for the 1982 massacre of Sabra and Shatila is compared with that of their own former Defence Minister, Joris Voorhoeve, whose "peacekeeping" troops failed to protect Muslims in Srebenica (Bosnia) in 1995. I wonder when Americans responsible for bombing Iraq and the Balkans with depleted uranium will be brought to trial for radioactively polluting the environment for decades. But hypocrisy seems to be inherent to politics, and Israel is no exception.

In the Name of the Victims

We now know that many of the ideals of the Enlightenment were contaminated by Eurocentrism, by white racism, by colonialist interests and you name it. Does this mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and do away with Human Rights and International Law altogether? For my part, I would rather live in a world where some war criminals are punished and others – alas – get away with it, than in a world where all war criminals enjoy immunity.

So go for Sharon, Belgium. Go for Gillon, Denmark. Go for each and every Israeli official, officer, pilot, soldier, and secret service agent. Go for Arafat if you like, go for Putin if you can, and don't forget your own European and American war criminals. Make the world a hell for anyone responsible for murder and torture.

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