It may be hard for some to believe, given the endless attacks on the Jewish state today, that in the not-too-distant past, Israel was as beloved as it is now widely reviled. More remarkable, it was especially loved on the left, where now it is scorned. The process by which Israel turned from paragon into pariah is the subject of Joshua Muravchik’s well-argued new book Making David into Goliath.
Muravchik sets the stage by describing the time when Israel was popular. One factor he cites was the reservoir of sympathy created after the Holocaust. For "progressives," Israel’s socialist leadership was another source of solidarity. The kibbutzim were particularly admired outside of Israel as successful experiments in communal living. In the state’s early years, leaders from around the world came to visit the kibbutzim and pay homage.
All this changed in the aftermath of the Six Day War. Muravchik documents the wide sympathy in Europe as well as in the United States—including in the media—which Israel enjoyed immediately prior to the war. At that time, it looked as if Israel might be annihilated by its Arab neighbors, who made no secret of their intention to rid the world of the Jewish State.
But when, to general amazement, Israel defeated the Arab armies and captured lands previously held by Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, it overnight became the ruler of millions of Arabs. The Arabs would take advantage of this, setting in motion a redefinition of the conflict. No longer was it tiny Israel against a vast Arab world. "Now it was Israel versus the homeless Palestinians. David had become Goliath," Muravchik states.
As those familiar with the conflict know, Palestinian peoplehood was not the first choice of identification for the Arabs living on the west bank of the Jordan River. They had viewed themselves as "Syrian," or as part of a pan-Arab world, in which all Arabs belong to a supra-national whole.
Indeed, the Arabs of Palestine resisted the label "Palestinian" for some time. It was only after 1967 that they began to see themselves as "Palestinian," and to be trumpeted as such by an Arab world cognizant of the propaganda value of doing so. As the Egyptian weekly Al Mussawar admitted in 1968: "The masses of the Palestinian people are only the advance-guard of the Arab nation … a plan for rousing world opinion in stages, as it would not be able to understand or accept a war by a hundred million Arabs against a small state."
Muravchik describes how, under Yasser Arafat’s leadership, the PLO joined the global revolutionary left. In 1962, with other Fatah party elites, Arafat visited Algeria’s new leaders, who had just waged a successful guerrilla war against France. Muravchik relates how Mohammed Yazid, Algeria’s Minister of Information, counseled them to "portray the enemy as not only Israel but also ‘world imperialism,’ … ‘present the Palestinian struggle as a struggle for liberation like the others.’"
By 1969, the journal Free Palestine could exult: "[Al Fatah] has certainly been able to achieve a breakthrough in what used to be a Zionist domain: the Western leftist movements. Al Fatah has become to many synonymous with freedom fighting and an expression of struggle against oppression everywhere."
Muravchik devotes an interesting section of this book to Bruno Kreisky, chancellor of Austria and vice president of the Socialist International, who set out to change Israel’s standing among socialists. Muravchik credits a summit Kreisky organized together with German Chancellor Willy Brandt, then president of the Socialist International, and to which Arafat was invited, as paving "the way for a shift in Europe’s relations with the PLO."
Kreisky was himself a Jew. Writes Muravchik: "Kreisky seemed to relish using his Jewish lineage as a shield allowing him to take on the Jewish world with a fierce pleasure that would have been impossible for a gentile politician." Using his Jewish heritage as cover, Kreisky set a pattern that many anti-Israel Jews would unfortunately follow.
There was another dimension to the change in attitude toward Israel: Successful Arab intimidation of the West. Muravchik notes: "They threatened those who crossed them with terrorism, oil cutoffs, and economic boycotts; and they rewarded those who appeased them with protection, economic favors, and the power of their diplomatic bloc." He describes how opponents of Israel took over the United Nations and human rights organizations, which, after reading Muravchik, the reader may feel should more correctly be called "Palestinian Rights Organizations."
Straightforward and persuasive in broad outlines, the book is not without its flaws. While Muravchik identifies the Six Day War as a watershed, he doesn’t point out that there were warning signs of flagging support for Israel even before. As the noose tightened around Israel in the days leading up to the war, American Jewish organizations and rabbis who had been active in interfaith programs turned to the churches for expressions of support. Liberal Protestant churches remained silent. Yet, immediately after Israel’s victory, the Executive Committee of the National Council of Churches was quick to find its voice. On July 7, 1967, it announced it "cannot condone by silence territorial expansion by armed force."
Muravchik also unfairly blames Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, faulting his policies, especially the Lebanon war, for the dramatic worsening of Israel’s image in the West. No question, the war did serious damage. But Muravchik puts the cart before the horse. The damage was done by the media’s over-the-top coverage of the war. "NBC’s War in Lebanon: The Distorting Mirror," a pamphlet written at the time by Professor Edward Alexander, demonstrates the falsity and naked partisanship of NBC’s coverage—and NBC was merely the worst offender. That coverage itself was a symptom of the turnaround in attitudes toward Israel.
But the most serious omission in Muravchik’s book—the elephant in the room—is the resurgent anti-Semitism without which the intensity of the charges against Israel—disproportionate and hysterical in tone—are inexplicable. Muravchik is aware of anti-Semitism’s role, but he refers to it only glancingly. To be sure, Muravchik’s stated purpose is not to look at root causes, but to describe the methodology by which Israel’s enemies have turned Israel into Goliath. However, no small part of their success is found in the well-tilled soil in which they work. Explicit anti-Semitism is still, says Muravchik, "a Western taboo." That, too, appears to be changing.
Muslims have made no effort to separate hatred of Jews and Israel (finding ample warrant for Jew-hatred in Islamic texts), but as historian Daniel Goldhagen has pointed out, substantial numbers of Muslims have now settled in Europe, where "they have replenished and emboldened the anti-Semitic human reservoir of many European countries, established new ones in countries where there had not been such a distinctive or powerful anti-Semitic presence, and resuscitated or created an unabashed anti-Semitic discourse that does all the harmful things such discourses do." Writer Gabriel Schoenfeld, too, has pointed out that anti-Semitism is resurgent not just in Europe, but also in the United States.
It’s not far-fetched to see a bald anti-Semitism replace the cloaked anti-Semitism still followed by Israel’s enemies in the West. The process may be gradual, but it is perceptible. One example of the changing attitudes Muravchik provides is the voice vote over the Democratic Party platform during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Previous platforms had referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Not this one. Sharp Republican attacks led Democrats to amend the wording. When the motion to change the text to something more pro-Israel was put to a voice vote, it was defeated twice. The third time the chairman rammed it through, although it hardly sounded like the "ayes" had it.
Muravchik’s conclusion is sharp and timely: Words do harm. Unceasing criticism leveled at Israel restricts its freedom to act, although its survival depends on its ability to use military force. Today, Israel is on the brink of a third war with Hamas—the first two were limited engagements. Having paid a high political price after the 2009 Gaza War thanks to the U.N.’s Goldstone Report, Israel is even less likely to do what needs to be done this time around. Recast as Goliath, blocked at every turn, the Jewish state may be reduced to a point where it’s worse off than tiny David—who at least shot his sling.