Goliath, Who Aspires to be David
This image, shared by early-to-mid 2010s Comedy Central star Amy Schumer, is strange on a variety of dimensions, but naturally my principle objection is to the concept that Amy Schumer stands alone because she is a Jew.
This meme conflates the modern state of Israel with the Jewish people, which is of course the central rhetorical move of contemporary Zionism. As has been pointed out for a long time, this equivalence embraces the exact logic that is rightly decried when violence against Jews is justified by reference to the actions of Israel’s government; if it’s wrong for an innocent Jew to be killed by Hamas because of things Israel has done, then it must follow, should follow, and does follow that criticism of Israel cannot constitute criticism of the Jewish people. (I would also suggest that if you justify Palestinian civilian deaths through reference to Hamas, you justify Israeli civilian deaths through reference to the actions of the IDF; you should do neither.) All of this is bound up with a flagrantly false concept of Zionism that people who know better allow to spread because it’s politically convenient. I frequently encounter people who think that the history of the Jews simply is the history of Zionism - that since 70 AD, when the Romans destroyed the second temple, all of worldwide Jewry has been involved in an effort to rebuild a Jewish state in Palestine. This is flatly, historically, factually false. For much of the past 2000 years, there was no reason to assume that any given Jews would be supporters of a return to a Israeli state, and the historical record of the Jewish people is full of ambivalence or hostility to the idea. (See Bundism or the Satmar, for more recent examples.) It simply is not the case that Zionism has historically been an assumed part of Jewish identity, anti-Zionist Jews have always been common, and the modern Zionist project is perhaps 150 years old.
But, OK - let’s accept the conflation of the Israeli state with the Jewish people for now. The immediate question is, on what planet does Israel stand alone? There is such a powerful urge among Israel’s defenders to make the country out to be an underdog, but there is absolutely no rational basis for doing so. Israel enjoys one of the most powerful and advanced militaries on earth. Despite the conflict, Israeli citizens are actually remarkably safe from violence compared to most of the countries on the globe. Vision of Humanity’s “Peace Index” ranks the country poorly given its nuclear arsenal, weapons dealing, and antagonistic neighbors, but in terms of overall criminality, violent crime, homicides, risks from external conflict, and overall safety and security score, Israel enjoys remarkable internal security. This is in part due to the fact that Israel is widely believed to have the most effective intelligence apparatus on the planet. Israel is one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries on Earth. It has a world-class medical system and infrastructure that’s the envy of most of the world. And, most relevant to our discussion here, Israel enjoys absolute military supremacy and coercive control over the Palestinians. (The fact that the IDF could immediately shut down water, food, energy, and telecommunications in Gaza in response to the attack tells you a lot.)
All of that would perhaps be jeopardized if Israel did in fact stand alone. But it doesn’t! Indeed, it’s hard to name nation states that enjoy more diplomatic protection than Israel. In absolutely dominant majorities, the establishment governments of the world have supported Israel through wave after wave of conflict, for my entire lifetime. The pro-Israel bloc at the United Nations is powerful, despite how often you hear that the UN is somehow anti-Israel. And of course no country’s support means more, or is more certain and limitless and predictable, than that of the United States. Amy Schumer and people like her insist that Israel stands alone while their country continues its decades-long status as Israel’s steadfast patron. Both parties of this deeply polarized country are rabidly pro-Israel; the Democratic Senate Majority Leader is currently working to ensure that we support Israel’s government no matter what it does, certainly including the effort to ethnically cleanse Gaza that’s currently gaining steam. There is no branch or department or unit of American government that does not support Israel to the detriment of Palestinians. We give them billions in cash despite their wealth, we give them arms, we give them intelligence, we give them unprecedented access to our overall defense apparatus, and we give them a vast penumbra of blanket support diplomatically, ensuring that smaller countries feel that they have no choice but to back Israel at all times. No one stands with you? Really? The most powerful country on earth stands with you!
The subhead of this piece for the Free Press reads “after the worldwide celebration of our people’s slaughter, my hope for peace is dead.” What? Worldwide celebration? There have been shows of support and solidarity with Israel throughout the world. What is the evidence of such “worldwide celebration?” A few dozen dopey college kids at a handful of small rallies? Those college kids have been the subject of dozens of pieces in recent days, while critical considerations of the “special relationship” are few. As of four days ago, at least forty-four countries expressed support for Israel in this conflict. How many will officially express support for the people dying by the droves in Gaza? Even the establishment governments of the greater Middle East (almost universally corrupt, theocratic, or both) don’t offer any real support to Palestinians. How much more help do you need, exactly, before you stop pretending like everyone is out to get you? The US military and State Department have been rigidly in Israel’s corner since before I was born, but the Latin Club at Cornell held a pro-Palestine rally in the quad, so that makes you the underdog? When you say no one stands with Israel, what the fuck are you talking about? I cannot fathom how anyone, even the most dedicated Zionist and supporter of the Netanyahu government, could believe that Israel is the vulnerable party in this exchange.
If we define the left as broadly and loosely as possible, we can say that one thing the left has certainly accomplished this past half-century is to associate moral superiority with the underdog. This is by turns both deeply misguided and an expression of an essential truth. Either way, that supporters of the Israeli state are pretending that Goliath is David tells you the extent to which this folk morality, maybe righteous, maybe misguided, most likely both, has become the default ethical firmament of modern politics. Sometimes Israel’s defenders argue that being the more powerful force does not make you wrong; that’s true, but still their hearts never appear to be in it. They seem to feel the tug of powerlessness, the desire to wear the sad but comfortable cloak of a refugee people, a natural and sympathetic impulse for a culture still touched by the hand of diaspora.
Since this all started, I have been accosted by readers and writers and friends and foes and told that I must denounce Hamas’s attack. Freddie, you must denounce Hamas and this attack. (I’ll cancel my subscription!) This is troublesome, given that one of my most sacred political beliefs is that anytime people are demanding that you take a loyalty oath, the demand itself is the best reason not to take it. Every time the Israel-Palestine conflict heats up again, certain elements within the pro-Israel coalition use creepy rhetoric to insist that everyone must be fully committed to Israel, that siding against Israel should not be within the sphere of legitimate debate. This takes place against a backdrop where principled supporters of the Palestinians argue that there’s a chilling effect created by pro-Israel hardliners which squelches legitimate debate, and where anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists claim that Jews pull the strings behind the scenes. All this loose talk about what we must do and must say does nothing to rebut the former and just plays into the propaganda of the latter. I wish people would stop doing it.
I need make no grand loyalty statements. I have no such requirement because my views on this conflict have been plain for many years: the moral imperative is that we create total legal and political equality for all people in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, as basic democratic principles demand, and that all people in that land enjoy safety and prosperity. Hamas’s attack has put a dent in both, for Israel, and destroyed them in Gaza; clearly, this is contrary to my demands. We must have freedom and safety for all, which of course includes Israeli Jews as well as Palestinian Arabs as well as African migrant workers as well as various Christians and Druze and every other kind of person, again due to absolutely bedrock democratic principles. Hamas is a theocratic body, and I am opposed to theocracy, and whatever your perspective on political violence, they have harmed the interests of Gazans and all Palestinians. They killed innocent people, which I can’t ever countenance, and by the way they’re contributing to terrible outcomes for their own side in doing so. The attack made greater Palestine more violent and less free. I don’t need to denounce the attack because it comes pre-denounced by my moral values.
The fact remains, though - and it is a fact, an objective fact, an empirical fact, no matter how mad it makes people - that Hamas has always been empowered by Israel’s violence and oppression. Forgive the cliché, but each side’s extremists are a gift to each other. I’m sorry if this is hard to accept, but Palestine is a Chinese finger trap; the more forcefully Israel acts, the more tightly the conflict will grip the country. The only way out is through de-escalation and the only permanent de-escalation is through formal legal recognition of Palestinians in the territories as full citizens in a democratic system. This might come from the establishment of a Palestinian state, or it might come with the absorption of the territories into a secular state of Israel-Palestine that extends perfectly equal legal and political rights to all people within it, as liberal values require. Permanent statelessness and dispossession for the Palestinians will ensure violence for generations. Only freedom for Palestinians can bring peace, and that’s the most hardheaded, ruthlessly pragmatic point anyone can make about this horrid crisis. And if Israel’s defenders feel put upon, othered, alone, it’s because Israel and Israel alone has the power to make Palestinians free. I’m sorry, but it’s not a moral principle that says that Israel must bear responsibility for achieving peace and freedom. It’s a purely pragmatic statement of the reality of Israel’s overwhelming power in the region. Choosing sides has nothing do with it.
Or, I suppose, they could go through with the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, as a disturbing number of people are calling for. I doubt the world would stop them; that’s the upside of being Goliath. But such an act would destroy whatever hope there is left for Israel as a democratic state, a symbol of human rights, however tarnished that symbol stands now. And I think that if you love Israel, the idea of Israel, you should fight like hell to stop that from happening. Because afterwards you’ll never be the same again.