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Israel declared its independence from British control on May 14, 1948, and in subsequent fighting against Arab armies made brave words a reality. Two-thirds of a century later, though, Israel has never seemed more lonely. The Obama administration is openly hostile to the tiny country’s willingness to fight back against foes who have vowed its destruction. Many Israelis have the sense that they’re slammed if they do, dead if they don’t.
Joshua Muravchik, also 67 and with 11 books under his belt, is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Before an audience of Patrick Henry College students I asked him about his new book, Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel.
Let’s start with the Six-Day War in 1967, when the world largely cheered Israel’s astounding victory against huge odds. But you write that beneath the surface new trends were developing. The outcome of the war led to the emergence of Palestinian nationalism, which had not existed before then. Before that the hot idea was pan-Arabism, with all the Arabs in one omnibus state that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to lead.
Why him? Nasser was then, and remains to this day, the most popular leader ever in the Arab world. But Nasser’s war in 1967 was a devastating humiliation, and pan-Arabism collapsed. Palestinian nationalism became a new thing, put on the global map by spectacular acts of terrorism by Palestinian radical groups: airplane hijackings, bombings, and then the murder of Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. That was the first punch: International terrorism intimidated Europeans and moderate Arabs to the point when these terrorists were captured in the midst of one of these acts, governments would release them. They feared that, if they kept these people in prison, their comrades would stage another hijacking and demand their release.
Then came the oil embargo in 1973. The second punch. European leaders in that period said openly, “We need their oil. We have to adjust our policies so that they won’t be so angry at us.” Later there came to be a whole ideology that went along with this, but initially it was just raw intimidation that started to change things.
And the depiction changes: No longer tiny Israel versus this huge opponent in terms of land and population, but Israel versus the Palestinians. Yes: Israel suddenly seemed the larger party and the Palestinians the ones deserving sympathy. In the West Bank and in Gaza, Israel rules a couple of million Palestinian Arabs, and Palestinians are saying, “We want self-determination. We want our national liberation.” Israel was occupying territory the Palestinians wanted for their own and standing in the way of the national aspirations of the Palestinians to have a state of their own. I can understand why people would sympathize with that. What is harder to understand and requires that we go further in seeking an explanation, is why the world has gotten so exercised about this.
The world has many occupations and many thwarted aspirations. When was the last time you saw an angry demonstration on a college campus over the brutal occupation of Tibet? If the government of China would offer to the Tibetans the kinds of terms of settlement that Israel has offered the Palestinians, the Dali Lama would dance for joy. Think of the Kurds: five times more numerous than the Palestinians, with a sense of national identity that is 5,000 years old, not 50 as with the Palestinians. As far as I can see, no one except the Kurds themselves gets upset that Kurdish national aspirations have been brutally thwarted.
The Chinese authorities don’t allow a lot of media cameras in Tibet, but there could be a lot of interest in the Kurds. Why isn’t there? Partly because of raw pressure because of oil and terrorism, but also because of an intellectual transformation not specific to the Middle East. For 100 years the core idea in leftist thought was economic: class struggle, poor against rich, workers against capitalists. After World War II ethnic, racial, or national struggles became dominant, growing out of anti-colonial movements. People of color against the white man, a great redemptive struggle, and in the Arab-Israel conflict the Israelis are the Western, white guys and the Arabs/Palestinians are the anti-colonial people of color. The people who used to be down are now fighting to be up and that’s what’s important. You’re on their side regardless of how many bombs they put in pizza parlors.
One of your chapters describes how the Communist bloc starting in 1950 was very hostile to Israel, but Socialist International parties were friendly toward Israel, governed by the Labor Party. But that changed. By the 1970s the European social democrats were feeling very guilty that they were part of the Western white world and not in tune with these militant third world peoples. They began to forget their commitment to democracy and embraced military dictatorships and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
‘[European social democrats] began to forget their commitment to democracy and embraced military dictatorships and the Palestine Liberation Organization.’
What about the condemnation of Bernard Lewis and what became known as “Orientalism” by Edward Said, whose books are required reading in hundreds of classes? The Guardian in London described Said as arguably the most influential intellectual in the 20th century. He symbolizes this new leftist idea that it’s all about race and not about class, and that the great moral drama is the history of the oppression of people of color by white people, and the rebellion of the people of color against this repression. Said’s thick book, Orientalism, takes this core idea and puts it in fancy but fraudulent intellectual jargon. It impresses many professors and students because it’s hard to understand, with sentences that go on for 250 words, words that send you running to the dictionary to look them up, sometimes words he invented.
A lot about racism. The whole idea here is that white people are inherently racist. This itself, if you stop and look at it, is a racist assertion, but taking this simple indictment of white people and putting it in fancy academic language seemed to give it a weight and a respectability that gained tremendous prestige. It took a schoolyard insult and made it seem like profound social analysis.