In this second of four articles on a recent crisis in Israeli state politics, we explore the role of Western states in creating regional strife in the Middle East, and the self-serving reasons for intervention that undermine any attempts to be honest brokers now.
Israel is a strange country—but then, what country isn’t? Canada is sometimes jokingly referred to as three mining companies in a trench coat. Nigeria only became formally independent in 1960, from the painfully divisive lines carved by British colonial rule at cost to a much older and more nuanced array of local nations. And the US… well, let’s stay on target, shall we?
In 1948, the state of Israel declared itself into being and the US affirmed its existence that day; the USSR, three days after. Seventy-five years on, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right wing government is undergoing a national crisis: a conflict between those who believe state security necessitates a consolidation of branches of power, and those who believe in another idea of Israeli democracy.
But understanding the crisis today requires reckoning not only with the complexity of Israeli state politics, but also a body of Western complicity in Middle Eastern trauma that impedes our ability to act as honest brokers. We have too many self-serving reasons for engaging in any discourse around Israel and Palestine, and not enough of a track record for seeing local residents as the full, complex humans they are.
In the first of four articles, I moved us through the “gloss” that Western discourse often places over differences between a spectrum of Jewish, Israeli, and Zionist identities. It was by no means comprehensive, but hopefully served to illustrate the importance of recognizing that no people is a monolith, no demographic a hivemind.
Now, we move on to the why behind this gloss. What are the Western biases that keep us from a more straightforward engagement with Israeli state politics, the same as we can more easily manage with any number of other global actors?
The answer is both simple and complex: to talk frankly about Israeli state politics would require us to address our self-interest, ongoing antisemitism, and grievous transgressions. It is much easier to lean into more self-serving allyship instead.
Even if that continues to make us less effective advocates for change.
Architectures of Western violence
On April 4 through 5, Israeli forces raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, or the Temple Mount compound, depending on who is talking about this space in the Old City of Jerusalem to which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim peoples all lay different claim. Muslim Palestinians were at prayer for Ramadan. Non-Muslims are not permitted to pray in the mosque, though some nationalists make a show of visiting, because habituated presence is key to laying claim to local sites. Israeli forces took some 400 Palestinians into custody, after an initial report of masked agitators having barricaded themselves within the mosque. Elsewhere, the Iron Dome, Israel’s air defence system, shot down five of nine retaliatory rockets and retaliated in turn by shelling Hamas training sites and related targets.
I summarize this latest news to highlight the way we usually talk about conflict in Israel. Who has the oldest and best claim to X site? Who is breaking the uneasy peace today? Who is retaliating, and how? Even the names matter: the words one chooses for the people, and the places, determine journalist allegiance and article bias.
But from the beginning of modern Israel, and long before it, there have been other architectures of regional violence, which don’t tend to show up in our reporting today.
Historical pushes for a reclamation of Israel were driven in part by persecution of Jewish peoples elsewhere in the world. But there are two facets of this drive: the belief among many Zionists that having their own nation-state would offer protection, and the desire among many Western countries to reduce local Jewish populations. A “hand in glove” scenario, in other words: other European groups made life so miserable for many Jewish peoples that the latter cultivated an urgency to return to divinely promised land, and the same European groups were often more than happy to expedite this exodus, instead of properly reckoning with prejudice at home.
As noted in the first article, British and French governments, along with the obvious German example, crafted resettlement plans intended either to destroy Jewish peoples, or to leverage their displacement for further Western colonial ambitions.
The British also famously constructed the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which has since become a deeply loaded document. It called for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, and its writers and related statesmen would for years thereafter emphasize a difference between a “national home” and a “state”, before Neville Chamberlain’s White Paper of 1939 found the British reversing policy to restrict Jewish immigration under conditions of Arab consent.
At the time of the Balfour Declaration, Palestine was under Ottoman Empire jurisdiction, and the British were at a standstill in World War I. The self-serving logic of this document was the hope that it would encourage more Jewish participation in the war effort. More recently, Britain admitted to failings in the original language to account for the rights of Palestinian Arab peoples, but this too is disingenuous. At the time, Britain had been writing multiple promises around the region, including to uphold Arab interests in exchange for internal rebellion against the Ottomans. The primary goal of British involvement in the Middle East was never altruistic.
Another country that made a significantly self-interested commitment to Zionism was Poland. Its strongly Christian contingent was happy to train Jewish paramilitary forces to do battle in British-run Mandatory Palestine in the early to late 1930s: what would become the Haganah, the Irgun Zeva’i Le’ummi (IZL), and Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Lehi). These mixed-gender groups are listed in ascending order of extremism, with the first becoming the core of the Israeli Defense Forces in 1948. The second dissented from “practical Zionism” (more on that in the next article) into a revisionist Zionism that its participants felt justified terrorist attacks like bombing British headquarters and the Deir Yassin Massacre of 1948.
The Irgun was joined in this latter attack by the breakaway group Lehi, which was so extreme, so committed to fighting the British to wrest Palestine from its control, that operatives even initially collaborated with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Though fiercely criticized by other Jewish political groups for this reason, Lehi’s leader initially thought that Germany was less of a threat than Britain, and that Germany could even be made an ally in the creation of Israel:
It is clear that if we cannot reach an accord with the Germans, the Jews of Europe will be exterminated! We must analyze the problem clearly: who are our enemies? What good is the war to us, and whom is it worth it to fight for the liberation of our land, for the salvation of our land, for the salvation of the million in Europe? It is clear to me: the enemy is Britain. Saving millions was within its grasp, but she did not do it! On the contrary, she is interested in their extermination, so that she may preserve the Arab dominion in the land, which is the British dominion. There is not much worth to our helping the Allies. What good does it do us? Less than zero. That is why the only option left is for us to reach an agreement with Germans, to save the Jews of Europe by transferring them to Eretz Israel. Germany will do this in exchange for our war with the British. We cannot declare war against Germany while the Jewish people is prisoner in German hands.Avraham Stern (Yair) of Lehi
After the death of Lehi’s leader in 1942, the group swung hard-Bolshevik, allying itself with Soviet Union ideology and adopting a grand vision of both Jewish and Arab struggle. Its ideas formed part of the first state elections, though they fared poorly therein. Members of Lehi were inducted into the IDF that same year.
Myths of noble Western struggle
After World War II, Poland was not alone in wanting Jewish people to relocate. Plenty of other European citizens had moved into Jewish properties fled during Holocaust, and they were not inclined to return them and other stolen items to their original owners. Worse still, myths of wandering Jews preying on gentile children (joined with other toxic beliefs about the Roma) stirred up antisemitic mobs in parts of Europe well after the West was informed of the Holocaust’s extent.
These parts of WWII history aren’t commonly known, though, because the West is inundated with war films and literature that instead prop up myths of a docile Jewish people led meekly to slaughter until valiant gentiles stepped in to save the day. Can you name a Jewish resistance fighter? Identify key battles in their struggle? As easily as you can name French, British, and North American activities in the war?
History of the era is often given to Westerners as if antisemitism were a uniquely German trait. “Polite” antisemitism then rears its head in how Jewish people are depicted as helpless victims, denied the full agency of any other demographic.
In my Canadian education, we were only ever given one counter-fact: the story of how the US and Canada turned away a ship of over 900 Jewish refugees, many of whom would die in concentration camps. But the real history was much more shameful: leading up to the Holocaust, fascism and antisemitism flourished in Western politics and culture. Coco Chanel’s ultimate work as a Nazi spy began with a life of common Catholic tutelage in “Christ killer” and “blood libel” rhetoric, which would engender a lifelong hatred of Jewish people that met with little resistance in her British and French circles. Aryanism and calls for insurrection informed a strongly pro-German movement in 1930s US politics and popular culture. Canada in the 1940s still had signs up designating certain areas as unwelcome to Jews.
World War II and the Holocaust allowed Westerners to reframe themselves as justice warriors in contrast to the depth of depravity made manifest in Nazi concentration camps. Our media flattened the complex array of Zionist military and political forces in conflict with British and Arab groups in the Middle East, as well as against Nazis all throughout the Holocaust, to zero in on our heroism instead.
And it gets worse.
Because after World War II, the US leveraged Europe’s weakness to expand its own political holdings. The Marshall Plan was (in)famously used to seed CIA operatives across Europe in conjunction with the rising Cold War, and to deepen US control and investment in Middle Eastern and North African petroleum operations. Both the US and the USSR had a vested interest in the shape of Zionism in Israel, because each had different ideas about how Israel would fit into their respective global agendas.
Nevertheless, it was France that would primarily supply arms to Israel until 1962, when it withdrew from the region after the Algerian War. (Prior to that point, Israel had seemed a common ally against Egypt.) President Charles de Gaulle would then set an arms embargo, centrally affecting Israel. This was ostensibly done out of moral outrage over the violence of Israeli forces in the Six Day War, but not without other elements: Israeli forces had attacked French holdings, and France at the time was pursuing a stronger alliance with the Soviets over shared Arab interests.
Antisemitism and Evangelical Christianity
De Gaulle’s language at the time also complicated the value and potency of external critique of Israeli government actions. He wasn’t the first, by any measure, to invoke another insidious Jewish stereotype, but the timing of his remarks offered strategic value to others interested in leveraging Israel to their own gain. At the time of the embargo, he notoriously called “the Jews … an elite people, sure of itself and domineering”, which stoked fires and fears of antisemitism.
This is because the notion of an “elite people” (as a flat, uniform group) is the fuel of an abiding stereotype of “Jews running the world”, which not only abundantly persists in Israel’s greatest modern ally, the US, but also notably deflects from Western responsibility for making Israel such a critical site of international strife. How can Western countries be at fault, the logic goes, if it’s secretly “the Jews” making otherwise gentile-driven regions so focused on Middle Eastern crises?
Which brings us to the US and its own complex uses of Israel. As noted, President Harry Truman famously supported Israel’s Declaration of Independence the same day: a fact routinely used to suggest a more uncomplicated relationship between the US and Israel than actually exists. In reality, US Jewish citizens did not have the same history of Zionist politics found in Europe, and were not overwhelmingly “for” a Jewish state in Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Widespread support took deeper root after the creation of Israel, in part through Zionist advocacy tours and state-backed “birthright” trips to the region. Still, the “Jewish vote” was deemed important, so advisor Clark Clifford pushed Truman to support this outcome of the UN partition proposal quickly and decisively.
Even after the 1948 endorsement, though, the US remained a supporter of the UN Neutrality Act. A few US citizens sent arms (illegally, and at times facing prosecution), but the government itself did not supply weapons until 1964. While Israel had disappointed the USSR by not allying with their cause (bringing it to invest in other Arab countries instead), Israel and the US also entered a chilly relationship after the Suez Crisis, when Israel was pressured to leave the region they had just secured alongside France and England. This tension related to the US and Europe’s much more complicated trade wars, but for our purposes it meant that there was nothing inevitable about the US stepping up when France stopped arming Israel.
Nevertheless, collaboration between Palestinian Jews and US operatives over the acquisition of a Soviet aircraft helped melt the ice in the 1960s, and from this Cold War utility grew a larger opportunity. Even up to the Six Day War, the US was not a strong supporter of Israel, but the wartime impression made by Israeli forces transformed local sentiment among US citizens. In keeping with increased interest in the Middle East for oil and Cold War purposes, mutual benefit arose from the US stepping in to supply Israel with arms and military financing.
On the US home front, support for Israel also became easier to sell with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, which configures Judaism as a precursor to Christianity and often views the struggle of Jewish peoples in the region as a key step toward Armageddon (to say nothing of the role of anti-Arab sentiment, which we will explore in the next piece). This is a deeply patronizing treatment of Jewish peoples, but it came with support for Israel from some 50 million US Evangelicals, to the tune of $158 billion US (unadjusted for inflation) in state aid up to March 2023.
Which is where, as with Western narratives around the Holocaust, a delicate sleight of hand also came into play. All one had to be was less antisemitic than other traders in Jewish stereotypes, or at least to perpetuate antisemitic stereotypes while continuing to finance the Israeli government, to feel righteous in whatever self-serving business one also had in the Middle East. This compromise, however, could yield other problems, as the US has seen with the resurgence of Christian nationalism.
Just as some Jewish people voted for Hitler, often convincing themselves that his antisemitic rhetoric was part of merely temporary sloganeering to make Germany “great” again, so too do US right wing movements count prominent Jewish-descended people among their number. These are pundits and politicians who have aligned themselves with messaging driven by the Christian right, and who feel secure in doing so because such extremists are still pro-Israel.
The cost of this alignment, though, is having to downplay even open antisemitism on the part of fellow right wing celebrities and politicians. When Ye (Kanye West) was finally de-platformed last year for his antisemitic remarks, the criticism at least set a line in the sand, but it’s one that conservatives still push with the tacit backing of prominent right wing Jewish voices.
In the next piece, we will explore modern political, military, and civic groups in Israel, along with cause for alarm in Netanyahu’s proposed consolidation-of-power policies.
But there can be no honest accounting of Israeli state politics today that does not first do away with Western myths about how and why Israel is important to us. Britain, France, Poland, the US, Russia: not one among us is without fault in forging the current state of trauma in the Middle East. Out of overt antisemitism. Out of “polite” and patronizing antisemitisms, too. Out of anti-Arab sentiment, and from self-serving, routinely flip-flopping war and economic interests most of all.
Whatever happens in Israel today is serious, and will have serious consequences especially for all human beings in the region.
As such, the crisis merits greater honesty and introspection from its international brokers than we’ve all been granted in the West for quite some time.
Israel and the West
Part 1: How we lost nuance with Jewish state politics
Part 2: Western complicity in Middle Eastern trauma
Part 3: Netanyahu and Israeli national politics