Published: August 28, 2010
What does it mean to be a "friend of Israel"?
For the mass of Zionist opinion, a true friend of the Jewish state regards it as a beacon of Western civilization that, while having no choice but to be on a permanent war footing in order to repel Islamic enemies bent on its destruction, boasts the "most moral army in the world."
Such a "friend" turns a blind eye to observable reality, to the fact that Israel's noble pretensions are empty and that it increasingly operates not as an ethical nation but as a brutal occupying power, displaying flagrant contempt for international law and world opinion as it perpetuates the systematic oppression of the Palestinian people at whose expense it was created.
The issue of what it means to be on Israel's side is thrown into sharp relief by the career of the redoubtable Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, who has been touring Britain to promote his excoriating new book, "The Punishment of Gaza". The veteran columnist for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz writes as one for whom the righteous claims his country makes are so belied by its psychotic conduct as to be an insult to the brain. What makes Levy such an impressive figure is that he has no hesitation in voicing unqualified dismay at the kind of country Israel has become. He believes that it is candor not uncritical sycophancy that is the hallmark of one who truly cares about a country or about a fellow human being.
Addressing a packed meeting in London the other day, Levy used a brilliant analogy. If you know a drug addict, he said, and wish to show you are his friend, what do you do? Do you give him money to enable him to satisfy his craving or do you get him admitted to a rehabilitation center, in the hope that he will be weaned off his habit? Levy's point is that Israel, as addicted to the occupation of Palestinian land as it is to its self-image of eternal victimhood, is not being helped by Western countries and well wishers who persist in adopting an indulgent attitude towards it. "Friends" of this stamp ensure that Israel remains utterly blind to the disastrous consequences of abandoning all sense of moral restraint.
Levy's rhetorical gifts, his flair for translating his savage indignation into words even a child could grasp, make him an exceptional commentator. But it is more outside than inside Israel that his work is admired, albeit that there is no shortage of Diaspora Jews who regard him as a merchant of anti-Semitic lies. To the Israeli political establishment and to much of Israeli society alike, Levy is an object of contempt. As Israeli politics and public opinion have lurched to the right, his unrelenting criticism of Israel's actions has proved damaging to his newspaper's circulation, with many canceling their subscriptions in protest at what they consider to be his poisonous opinions. Israeli politicians like to point to Haaretz as testimony to Israel's democratic vibrancy, but they do so knowing that the dissenting views the paper publishes are wholly untypical of Israel's prevailing moral and intellectual climate.
A source of profound torment to him, the 2009 Gaza war convinced Levy that Israel was more divorced from moral decency and more embroiled in delusions of military omnipotence than ever before. An "evil spirit" had descended on the country, he felt. How else to explain how a supposedly enlightened columnist could describe the smoke billowing out of Gaza as a "spectacular picture"; or how Israel's deputy prime minister could say that the many funerals taking place in Gaza were proof of Israel's "achievements"; or how a newspaper could run a banner headline, "Wounds in Gaza", that referred only to wounded Israeli soldiers while ignoring thousands of blood-stained Palestinian men, women and children who could not be treated in Gaza's overflowing hospitals?
Levy recalls that after the massacres of the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut in 1982 - for which the Israeli military and the then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon bore responsibility, even though the slaughter was carried out by Christian Maronite militia - great numbers of Israelis took to the streets to proclaim their horror at what had happened. Today, by contrast, many Israelis seem desensitized, indifferent to their country's violence and wanton destructiveness; there was no public outcry against the Gaza war. Levy observes that it is not when a baby is howling that you conclude it is in urgent need of medical attention but rather when the expression on its face betrays no emotion. He fears that Israel, sunk in cynicism and apathy, is losing what remains of its humanity.
If Levy places no faith in the latest peace talks in Washington, it is partly because he suspects they are designed to appease Washington in the run-up to November's mid-term US elections. Above all, it is because he believes Israel has made no meaningful effort to freeze its illegal settlement building as a demonstration that it is earnest about peace; you do not, he says, show your commitment to demolishing a building by adding an extra story to it. Only, he maintains, when Israel forgoes its occupation and makes concessions that address fundamental Palestinian grievances is the Palestine-Israel conflict likely to be resolved. Yet Levy does not see how its inner moral decay can bode anything but ill for Israel's future. Remarking that today's hegemonic Jewish state may not endure, he ended his London appearance with the reflection that few ever imagined how suddenly Soviet communism and apartheid South Africa would collapse.
Brimming with moral urgency in person and on the page, Gideon Levy is a fresh incarnation of an ancient Jewish type: The prophet without honor in his own land.
— Neil Berry is a commentator based in London. He can be contacted at: