David E. Bernstein
David E. Bernstein

Israel’s Critics are Repulsed by Jewish Sovereignty and Military Power

After events like the recent Israel-Hamas war, people inevitably raise the question of why relatively minor skirmishes involving Israel capture so much of the world’s attention, while much bloodier and more geopolitically significant conflicts barely raise the world’s eyebrows.

I think the answer is obvious, though rarely provided: many people—including many Jewish and Christian Zionists, are captivated by Jews having a sovereign state and exercising military power. Many more people, however, are repulsed by Israel’s sovereignty and strength.

On the repulsion front, consider that traditional Catholic theology posited that Jews were doomed to wander the earth, stateless and homeless, as punishment for rejecting Jesus. To see the Jews exercising dominion over Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land is a hard theological pill to swallow, one that the Catholic Church itself took decades to resolve. While the Church has largely come around, many traditionalist Christians have not.

More liberal Christian theologies, meanwhile, remain wedded to the notion that martyrdom, as suffered by Jesus, is the highest form of virtue. These liberals acknowledge and regret the unjust suffering endured by Jews in the Christian world for centuries. However, they see this suffering as uplifting Jews, with Jews being the martyrs to Christian sin just as Jesus was for the world’s sins.

In the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, Jews’ role was to use their martyrdom to be a prophetic voice for peace, indeed pacifism, and to work for humankind’s redemption. It was emphatically their role not to build a powerful state with a powerful military capable of inflicting military horrors of its own. Jews refusing to be victims is, ironically, seen as a betrayal of Christian ideals. This is why Christian critics of Israel so often accuse Jews of not learning anything from the Holocaust; in their mind, the Holocaust is a story about Christian sin and possible redemption via the actions of the victims; the fate of the Jewish people as a people is at best irrelevant.

Interestingly, many Jewish far-leftists find themselves in a similar ideological boat as the Christian liberals, albeit with a Marxist rather than Christian ideological underpinnings. Ever since Karl Marx himself stated as much, there has been a significant strand of left-wing thought suggesting that Jews aren’t a legitimate ethnic group, but simply forlorn Asiatic/European nomads who came to exist as a group solely to serve the class interests first of feudal rulers and then of capitalists, possessing neither a legitimate religion (because no religion is legitimate) nor a legitimate culture (because Jews) nor any claim to self-determination.

Having no other legitimate reason for existence, the only way for Jews to justify themselves continuing to exist as a collective is if they use the Jewish experience of injustice as a rationale for contributing to various liberation movements—so long as it does not include the Jewish liberation movement of Zionism. Jewish nationalism is nothing but reactionary nationalism based on either foolish sentimentality or, worse, racist notions of Jewish superiority. Exactly why Jewish solidarity is racist, but not solidarity among other groups, is never clearly explained, but if nothing else it means that Israel has no claim to the legitimate use of force to defend itself, because Israel itself cannot be legitimate.

In the Muslim world, the dominant narrative is that Mohammed, after showing his military prowess by massacring local Arabian Jewish tribes, beneficently allowed Jews to live peacefully under Muslim sovereignty. According to accepted myth, Jews and Muslims then lived harmoniously under Muslim rule for the next twelve hundred-plus years, until disrupted by Zionism.

Israel’s independence and military might, by contrast, strike at two related myths. One is that Muslim rule over Jewish dhimmis was benevolent, and therefore Middle Eastern Jews had no reason to seek and maintain independence. The other is that Muslims, as the Divinely favored religious group, would always rule over Jews and not vice versa. To see a Jewish army consistently defeating Muslim opponents, in contrast to Mohammed’s victories over Jews in the Koran, destabilizes many Muslims’ worldview.

Moreover, Mohammed started his empire with limited territory and a small army, only to expand throughout the Middle East and North Africa. There is undoubtedly some latent fear that Israel is a camel’s nose under the tent for Jewish expansionism. This of course misunderstands Zionism and Judaism, but the average Muslim knows little about Judaism. It’s therefore natural for them to assume that Judaism is expansionist and universalist like Islam.

Finally, it bears noting that the anti-Israel ideas above did not arise spontaneously, but are products in part of state-sponsored antisemitic campaigns run over the decades by the Vatican Czarist Russia, Nazi Germany, the USSR, and various Arab and Muslim states. The USSR’s propaganda rejecting Israel as an illegitimate colonialist state founded by “Zionists” who have no claim to represent the Jewish people has had especially long-lasting impact on world opinion. Young leftists today repeat slogans from Soviet propaganda organs Izvestia and Pravda of fifty years ago without even being aware of their provenance.

The most important conclusion from all this is that criticism of Israel’s use of military force cannot easily be reduced by Israel “behaving” differently. It’s not how Israel uses force that is the primary source of criticism, but ideologically based repulsion at Jews collectively exercising military power via their sovereign state, at all. This is why, in my experience, when critics of Israel claim that Israel is using “disproportionate” force, one can never pin down what level of force these critics would accept. If the IDF’s very existence is repulsive to them, and Israel is deemed inherently illegitimate, no amount of force can be acceptable.

About the Author
David E. Bernstein is a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, where he teaches constitutional law and evidence. He is married to an Israeli and travels to Israel regularly.
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