It is impossible to determine all the sources of a hostility that is
out of proportion to any real offenses Israel may have committed.
These days it feels like Israel is the world’s punching bag.
Israel is not a perfect country. But a host of other countries routinely commit aggression and human rights abuses that are far worse than anything that can be attributed to Israel1.
Today’s shrill anti-Israel criticism is all out-of-proportion to Israel’s flaws. Those of us who know the history of Israel see this. So naturally we wonder. What is going on? Is it true that “everyone is against us”?
In this post I consider the reasons that various pundits have offered to explain Israel’s bad rap around the world. In compiling this list of accusations and explanations, I hope to find a common thread that will explain why Israel has become the world’s punching bag.
The prevailing anti-Israel narrative is that the Jews of Israel displaced a “native” Arab population. In this view, not only is this displacement unjust, it also has led to political instability in the Middle East and violence against Europeans by disaffected European Muslims.
Countries like France, Great Britain and Italy seem to have forgotten the brutal colonialism inflicted on Arabs by the European powers. Perhaps Great Britain has forgotten its violent suppression of the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936-1939. As late as the 1960s, France continued to be responsible for anti-Arab massacres in North Africa.
The Europeans prefer to blame the Jews for Muslim resentments that they themselves created.
Ireland is one of the European countries most hostile to Israel. It is a stronghold of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The Irish parliament is currently considering legislation to boycott goods made in the Israeli territories.
The Irish view Israelis as colonialists who have subjugated Palestinian Arabs. They draw parallels to their own history: The Israelis, they say, are like the British colonialists who invaded and stole Irish lands and oppressed the Irish people. The Arabs, on the other hand, play the same role the Irish played in their struggle against the British.
It is not surprising that the Irish would try to understand world events through the lens of their own experience. But this formula is odd. Both the Irish and the Jews fought against British imperialism. Jews were killed and imprisoned by the British in the years immediately before independence.
For many years the Swedes have been ruled by left-leaning governments. To the Swedes, Israel represents two historical culprits: nationalism and religion. Sweden has rejected both.
A prominent Swedish leader said recently that Sweden has no unique Swedish culture. Swedish liberals believe that strong national identities have led to aggression and war against other nationalities.
In this view, Israel is a bad actor because it promotes nationalism, an atavistic tendency that at its core is aggressive and intolerant.
Sweden, like other Western European countries, has experienced a precipitous drop in church attendance, at least among native Swedes. Today few Swedes attend church regularly. (Recent Muslim immigrants retain strong allegiance to their faith.)
Israel describes itself as a Jewish state. Thus, Swedes believe erroneously that Israel is a religious state. And in the Swedish view, religious states are a relic of the past and a current evil. Oddly, the current Swedish government does not seem to have a problem with the patently religious theocracies of Iran and the Gulf Arab states.
Iceland is an odd case of anti-Israel sentiment because few Jews have ever lived there. Today there is a tiny Jewish community of only a few hundred Jews. And yet Iceland’s politicians have been consistently and harshly anti-Israel. They practice a partial economic boycott of Israel and recently have threatened to boycott the 2019 Eurovision song contest to be held in Tel Aviv.
While Icelanders may believe they have taken the high moral road in siding with the “oppressed” Palestinians, it is possible that anti-Semitism has played a role in Icelanders’ views of Israel.
The vast majority of Icelanders today are Lutherans and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland is the official national church. The founder of the Lutheran Church, Martin Luther, was bitterly hostile to Jews. He wrote many influential anti-Semitic works. He advocated harsh measures against Jews such as burning of synagogues and Jewish schools; prohibiting rabbis from serving as teachers; destroying the homes of Jews; seizing Jewish religious writings, as well as cash, silver and gold; and banning Jews from safely travelling on highways.
Given the tiny size of today’s Jewish community, anti-Semitism has not been an issue in Iceland. But old attitudes linger. To this day, during Lent, the Icelandic State Broadcasting Service broadcasts hymns replete with anti-Semitic characterizations.
It is hard to believe that historically based hostility to Jews does not play a role in the anti-Israel attitude of today’s Icelanders.
Anti-Israel sentiment is baked into the culture of every Muslim country. It is an extension of an ancient animus towards Jews that is deeply rooted in fundamental Islamic history and belief. It is reinforced by many passages in the Koran that Muslims believe was transmitted directly from Allah to the Prophet Mohammed.
When Mohammed offered the “true” Muslim faith to the Jews of Medina in the seventh century, the Jews rejected the offer. Muslims believed this was contrary to the will of Allah, who had replaced Judaism with a new true faith, Islam. For their sin, the Jews suffered defeat at the hands of Mohammed’s army and were forced to live as dhimmi, or persons with limited rights and the obligation to pay a special dhimmi tax for the benefit of living under Islamic rule. This view of Jews as evil deniers and second class citizens continues to have currency in today’s Muslim world.
Add to this the irredentism that characterizes the Muslim world today. If Allah replaced an inferior Judaism with a superior Muslim faith, it follows that any territory that has ever been under Muslim sovereignty must continue to be so. In the Muslim view, Israel is a usurper because it occupies what is rightfully Muslim land. This is not simply an historical injustice. It is viewed as a violation against Islam’s core beliefs and an affront to Allah. Land today ruled by Israel must, by right, be restored to Muslim rule.
In addition to these ancient historical factors, the current Israeli-Arab conflict, with its regular news reports of attacks, counter-attacks and killings, has added to a toxic mix of anger against Jews and Israel. Israel’s stunning economic and military successes, compared to the social and economic failures of Arab countries, also has added to Muslim resentment against Israel.
The end result is a nearly solid wall of Muslim opposition to Israel.
Israel’s close ties with the white nationalist government of South Africa ended with the fall of apartheid and the beginning of rule by the black African National Congress (ANC). Today the ANC-led government of South Africa is hostile to Israel. Recently it refused Israel’s offer to provide technical assistance to address South Africa’s severe water crisis. That South Africa rejected this offer in the midst of one of the world’s worst water crises is a measure of their hostility to Israel.
The most often-cited reason for this hostility is Israel’s support of the previous white apartheid government of South Africa. For many years Israel was a major supplier of military equipment to white-ruled South Africa. Today’s anti-Israel ANC leaders seem to have forgotten that many nations did the same. They also have overlooked the fact that Israel-provided sophisticated electronic equipment that was used for external defense, and not for suppression of black civil rights. These realities have not tempered South Africa’s anti-Israel stance, in the face of denunciations of Israel by popular South African leaders like Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Gone are the days when black American slaves identified with the Jews by adopting the Jewish biblical story of enslavement and liberation in Egypt. Todays’ black civil rights leaders have minimized and ignored the prominent roles played by Jews in the civil rights movement.
Instead, some prominent black leaders have rallied the black masses with patently false myths about Jews and Israel. These myths are among the most virulent and false anti-Semitic tropes of twenty-first century America.
One of these myths is that Israel trains US police how to shoot and kill blacks on America’s streets. Black Lives Matter (an organization founded as a result of police killings of unarmed black suspects), as well as black intellectuals like Columbia University Professor Marc Lamont Hill, traffic in these false accusations.
In reality, Israel is only one among many police departments around the world that sponsor foreign exchange training programs. Israel has not trained patrol officers, the only personnel who would be in a position to shoot ordinary citizens. Instead, Israel trains counter-terrorism units in US police departments. Police learn counter-terrorism strategies, such as how to deploy forces to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks. They also learn about constitutional rights. This training protects everyone in the US—that is, Americans of all races.
Black intellectuals have promoted other false accusations against Israel, such as charges of involuntary sterilization of black Ethiopian women.
These ideas are animated by the odd notion of intersectionality, popular among US progressives, who are not able to differentiate between a plausible and an implausible idea. Intersectionality teaches that Israel’s supposed oppression of Palestinians is the same as American oppression of black people. In this way, Israel always emerges as the villain, regardless of the facts.
The Far Left and the Far Right in the US
The far left believes that, just as indigenous people in North America are oppressed by the more powerful white majority, Arab Palestinians are oppressed by the more powerful Israelis. To unthinking Marxists, the Jews of Israel are capitalists and the Arabs, the proletariat.
In bizarre fashion, far left ideologues ignore centuries of anti-Jewish subjugation by Arabs. They also seem not to have noticed that Marxist ideas created to describe the early industrial revolution are not suited to describing the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This complex conflict has its roots in Middle Eastern history, immigration, European colonialism, Muslim resentment toward the west, Islam’s inferiority complex due to the West’s greater advancement, and other factors.
The far right takes a different route to the same anti-Israel animus. It draws on ancient anti-Semitic tropes and well-worn conspiracy theories. Thus, the far right marchers in Charlottesville last year chanted, “The Jews will not replace us.” To them, Jews are a sinister, secretive and powerful movement that controls the US government, other countries and the financial system. Jews do so in order to dominate the world and to expropriate wealth created by non-Jews. That these tropes are fantasy has not prevented them from being resurrected time and time again over centuries. In the far-right view, Israel is an embodiment of the malign power of “international” Jewry.
Today Israel’s many enemies use lies and distortions to demonize Israel.
Anti-Semitism is behind much of this. But other currents include historical resentments, religious beliefs and political expedience. It is impossible to determine all the sources of a hostility that is out of proportion to any real offenses Israel may have committed.
But no lie has to stand.
Reasoned argument, facts and repetition can be used to scrub the lies clean. There is no guarantee these remedies will work. But those who know the truth should make it known.
- For a discussion of human rights abuses around the world see my Times of Israel blog post of August 13, 2018: