March 24, 2006

Oh Israel, when did you go wrong?

This is a good article in the Guardian. Written by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, it argues that Israel didn't simply go wrong.
There has, indeed, been a dramatic turn in opinion. It's very hard to recall the esteem and goodwill in which Israel once basked, not least on the broad liberal left, where there is now a received view that Israel has deserved this change in affections: that Israel and Zionism are vicious now, having been virtuous once. The view may be almost universal - but is it true?You can hear echoes of the shift in these pages. It might be a columnist recalling the early 1960s, when progressive young friends (mine too) would go from London to spend the summer on a kibbutz in that heroic land. Or it might be Sir Gerald Kaufman bitterly denouncing the present Israeli government by comparison with "the beautiful democratic Israel" that he first knew in the 1950s.

In the age of Jenin, and now Jericho, of "targeted killings" and F-16s blasting refugee camps, that turn in Israel's reputation might seem natural enough. And yet there is a contrary case to be made, that Israel has in some ways been criticised too harshly over the past 20 years, having been judged too leniently in its first 20.

It is really very hard to explain to anyone under the age of 50 just how popular Israel once was, notably among European social democrats and our own Labour party. In the 50s, newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian and the Observer (for all the trauma of Suez) accepted axiomatically that Zionism was a force for good, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, would be profiled in the New Statesman in what were frankly rhapsodic terms.

There were several reasons for this, from traditional liberal philosemitism to horror and shame at the fate of the European Jews. Besides that, in the nearly three decades after 1948, when Israel was run by Labour, it was widely, if myopically, seen as a model social democracy. The change began with the 1967 war, when Israel's former admirers began to condemn the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and was accelerated when Likud took over as the dominant party.

And yet those admirers missed some salient truths. That beautiful democratic Israel of 50 years ago was founded on ethnic cleansing. The later expansion of Israel was actually less brutal: after 1967 a number of Palestinians were uprooted, but there was nothing to compare with the wholesale expulsion of three-quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948 - an event to which the right-thinking liberal west closed its eyes at the time.

Even the settlements in the occupied territories, which Israel almost light-heartedly (and in the end hubristically) began in the 1970s, were often set up on empty land, a contrast indeed to the settling of Palestine in earlier generations. "Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages," Moshe Dayan briskly admitted about the creation of his country: "There is not one single place that did not have a former Arab population."
It began wrong.

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