Michael Saenger

Scolding Israel

These are important times, and these are strange times. In academia, to which I belong, the orthodoxy is simple. Israel is bad. In every way, at every turn, even people who know very little about the Middle East think that the question is simple: why does Israel insist on behaving so terribly?

The ritual of scolding Israel has become an unthinking affirmation of humanity; it is felt to be an affirmation of the self-affirmed courageous humanity of the anti-Israel community and it is felt to be an affirmation of the humanity of the Palestinians.

Let’s leave aside, for the present, that this doesn’t make any sense. The suffering of the Palestinians is caused by Hamas. Not by Israel. Try being a Jew in Palestine and see how it compares to being a Muslim in Israel. So far this week, Israel has accepted two cease-fires, and Hamas has rejected them. Hamas is practicing a dark mathematics, where death in Israel is a victory, and death in Gaza is equally their goal. Whether death in Gaza produces more extremists, or more violent images that horrify the world, it strengthens Hamas. So for them to use schools, mosques and hospitals as firing sites for rockets makes a very dark kind of sense: they win if there is no response, and they win if there is a response. None of that is really very hard to understand.

But what I want to focus on, for a moment, is the fact that the conventional position of academia is one shared by Iran and Hamas. The heroine of the liberal Left, Hillary Clinton, has forcefully rejected this kind of thinking, and Obama himself, though more sympathetic than many to the situation of the Palestinians, has been remarkably consistent about the fundamental rights of Israel to exist and to defend itself.

There has long been a strain on the Left that has sought to minimize the danger of terrorism, and the unholy meeting point between this kind of sentimental naïveté and more overt manifestations of anti-semitism has never really been that hard to spot. The media often is simply so drawn to sensationalism, and repelled from analysis, that it often unwittingly supplies images that feed the machine of anti-Israel sentiment. We are told that Gaza is a jail but we are not told that Hamas holds the keys.

The Right has long contended that American university culture is fundamentalist, and one of the by-products of this latest crisis in Gaza is that it has become clear that that accusation is justified. And like all fundamentalisms, academic fundamentalism has found itself in a strange place. Many in academia find the position of Obama and Hillary Clinton not only unacceptable but actually obscene, inhuman, unspeakable. How can we reconcile this with our long-held bond with these two individuals, let alone our purported bond with freedom, information and history?

We can’t. It’s one of many aspects of the debate that we, on the Left, simply do not process, any more than we are willing to process the idea that if you want to find one country in the Middle East that actually demonstrates the kind of ideals, freedom and compassion that we so cherish, you can only point to Israel.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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