The abduction in June of three Israeli teenagers by West Bank Islamists placed the world’s top two human-rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in an awkward spot. Both groups are committed partisans of the anti-Israel cause, yet the kidnapping of minors called for some form of condemnation.
Amnesty on June 17 released a statement running to 19 paragraphs. Of these, only four could reasonably be construed as expressions of concern for the fate of the three teenagers, whose bodies Israeli authorities eventually discovered buried in shallow graves. The rest of the statement was devoted to castigating Israel for a litany abuses and to discouraging the Jewish state from defending itself.
HRW’s response was more coldblooded. “Attending school at illegal settlement doesn’t legitimize apparent kidnapping of #Israel teens,” Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, tweeted on June 14. “They should be freed.”
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Both organizations, in other words, treated the abduction as an inconvenient fact that required a minimal level of moral throat-clearing before they could resume the routine business of attacking Israel. Sixty-six years after its founding, this was the sum total of compassion the Jewish state could elicit from the leading lights of the human-rights movement.
Why did so many progressives abandon Israel and Zionism? That’s the question Joshua Muravchik sets out to answer in “Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel.” Part polemic, part intellectual history, this thoughtful and timely study explores Zionism’s shifting position in the progressive imagination, “from a redemptive refuge from two thousand years of persecution to the very embodiment of white supremacy,” as Mr. Muravchik puts it.
The author, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, recalls how during its first two decades of existence the Jewish state attracted sympathy from broad swaths of the Western left. That support reached its apogee during the Six Day War, when some 3,700 academics signed a letter in the New York Times NYT +3.17% calling on the U.S. to militarily intervene in the conflict—on Israel’s side. At the height of the war, the cause of Israel’s survival united Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, Ralph Ellison, Martin Luther King, Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre, among other progressive luminaries.
Yet 1967 would also prove to be a turning point. Around the same time, the Palestinians launched a war of ideas against Israel’s legitimacy that persists to this day. Having redefined themselves as a nation separate from the Arabs, the Palestinians thenceforth articulated their struggle as one for national self-determination against a colonial power.
This strategic reframing of the Palestinian cause coincided with momentous transformations then taking place within the international left. Having exhausted its energies, the old Marxist ideal, based on class struggle and collectivism, gave way in the late 1960s and early ’70s to a “paradigm in which the central drama of our time is the conflict of the ‘West against the rest,'” Mr. Muravchik writes.
The Arab cause, once seen as reactionary and rejectionist, was hitched to this new paradigm in no small part thanks to the efforts of Edward Said, according to the author. Well-versed in the obscurantist lexicon of postmodern academe, the late Palestinian-American literary theorist persuaded a generation of Middle East scholars that “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was . . . a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric,” as Said wrote. Said’s own people, the Palestinians, became the emblematic victims of all this racism.
Reinforcing the dialectic of mutual alienation between the left and Israel was the Jewish state’s movement, starting with Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government, away from its founding socialist ethos. For many leftists, a Jewish state that no longer stood for collectivism wasn’t worth defending. In Israel, the disappointment of the socialist camp led to the creation of a domestic anti-Zionist culture that, as Mr. Muravchik writes, lent “an indigenous imprimatur to the most jaundiced interpretations of the country’s actions and motives.”
Mr. Muravchik provides a nuanced and illuminating guide to the ideological developments that have led many on the left to detest Israel. Yet those developments, without more, don’t fully account for why many progressives turned against the Middle East’s only liberal democracy while embracing Islamist terror groups as “social movements that are progressive,” as the feminist theorist Judith Butler described Hamas and Hezbollah in 2006.
The other main factor was a pathological self-hatred.
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