Rethinking the Antiwar Movement’s Israel Campaign

Opposing Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians has been a central tenet of antiwar politics for so long that what I am about to say will probably come as a shock to readers of Antiwar.com. But it needs to be said. 

Antiwar activists and thinkers – those who are concerned about the destructive impact of Western intervention around the world – must start challenging fashionable anti-Israel sentiment. Because today, such sentiment is increasingly being used to rehabilitate Western moral authority in the Middle East and on the international stage more broadly. 

Once, Western governments, in particular Washington, pursued their interests in the Middle East by backing Israel to the hilt. Now there has been a subtle shift: Western governments try to salvage their international reputations and whitewash their own colonial, imperialist pasts by posturing against what is increasingly perceived to be a wicked, criminal, out-of-control state: Israel. 

The most striking thing about today’s antiwar activism in relation to Israel is how heavily it borrows from the language of Western imperialism. Far from expressing a coherent opposition to militarism and meddling, too often anti-Israel commentary and protesting is, at root, an expression of Western imperial prejudice against a disobedient state. It reproduces Washington’s criminalization of a country like Iraq, only in relation to Israel. 

So, serious antiwar writers frequently use the term "rogue state" to describe Israel. Following Israel’s foolish assault on the Gaza-bound flotilla in May, John Pilger said the answer to the question "Is Israel a rogue state?" is "an unequivocal yes." In fact, says Pilger, "rogue is too soft: Israel is a criminal state." Israel is "the real rogue state in the Middle East," says one antiwar publication. There are online petitions calling on powerful governments to "Declare Israel A Rogue State." 

This is striking because the term "rogue state" was invented in that beating heart of contemporary imperialism – Washington – as a way of expressing the superiority of the West over insane governments Over There. 

The US State Department first started drawing up lists of "bad states" in 1979: Libya, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Sudan and so on. In 1994, the Clinton Administration first introduced the catch-all term "rogue state" to describe these countries’ alleged alien nature and inherent wickedness. However, even the Clinton Administration eventually became uncomfortable with the criminalizing connotations of the word "rogue," and in the year 2000 it introduced the more neutral "states of concern" instead. 

Yet now, radical anti-Israel campaigners want to rehabilitate the r-word and apply it to Israel, creating a powerful sense that there is a respectable world (here in the West) and an unrespectable one (there in Israel.) In borrowing Western imperialist terminology, and explicitly demanding that Western governments stop dealing with the "rogue state" of Israel, antiwar activists implicitly bolster the idea that the West should be the moral arbiter of events in the Middle East and of world affairs more broadly. After all, if we accept the authority of Washington, London or Paris to say, "Okay, you’re right, Israel is a rogue state," then how can we challenge them when they say Iraq, Iran or Sudan are also "rogue states" and must be bombed? 

One of the central ideas behind Washington’s listing of "criminal states" and "rogue states" from the 1970s to today is that these foreign regimes are insane – literally. They are unhinged, unpredictable, driven by pathology more than political ideology. Jasper Becker, in his 2005 book on North Korea, Rogue Regime, captured this well: being labeled a "rogue state" was a "certificate of dangerous insanity in the diplomatic world," he said. 

And now, many use the same terminology in relation to Israel. Seemingly incapable of political nuance, unable to understand the complex dynamics behind recent outbursts of conflict in the Middle East, they simply denounce Israel as demented. Israel is a "state of insanity," says one writer. "Insanity, Israel-style," said the headline to a recent newspaper editorial. An American journalist has described Israel as "increasingly paranoid" and "dangerously erratic." This is not an independently-minded critique of the state of Israel – it is a screech of moralism against Israel which relies very heavily on Western imperialist ideas about foreign regimes being psychological basket cases. 

Indeed, some antiwar writers have simply taken the prejudices of the Bush Administration and cut-and-pasted them on to the debate about Israel. Writing in Alternet in June, Robert Parry described Israel as being "dominated by fundamentalists and armed with over 200 nukes." It is "becoming like North Korea," he said, "except qualitatively more dangerous because it has an advanced nuclear arsenal and sits in a more strategic part of the world." Here, the mad ideas that fueled the Bush Administration’s military ventures – concerning WMD, fundamentalism, erratic foreign governments – are reproduced under the radical guise of opposing the Zionist state. This is an attempt to harness the apparent moral authority of Bush-style international fearmongering in the name of slamming Israel. 

If this was simply a case of antiwar activists using the wrong kind of language – the sort of Washington-invented words and fears that they should actually be critiquing rather than borrowing – that would be bad enough. But it’s worse than that. The antiwar lobby’s use of this terminology, their demand that "our" governments chastise Israel or punish it with sanctions, demonstrates two very problematic things. 

First, it shows that they have fallen for the idea that the West is fundamentally an honest, decent broker in world affairs. Why else would they so frequently call upon it to punish or re-educate Israel? And second, it suggests that they are trying to achieve through their activism on Israel what Bush tried to achieve with his criminalization of Iraq: that is, the creation of a simplistic black-and-white framework in which they get to pose as decent, morally unimpeachable citizens against the evilness of that demented rogue, Israel. Like Bush’s Iraq venture, this is about creating a self-serving morality tale, with evil on one side (Israel) and good on the other (us), rather than being a serious critique or coherent campaign. One anti-war writer says that with its recent military outrages Israel has crossed the "boundary of civilization," and argues that "a moral and economic price should be imposed [on Israel] by the world." The civilized world against Israel? Isn’t this just a radical rehash of Bush’s civilization vs Iraq nonsense, an antiwar spin on the "with us or against us" guff of the early 2000s? 

What’s more, antiwar activists are unwittingly providing Western governments with a stunning opportunity to rehabilitate their reputations post-Iraq and Afghanistan. The constant demand that our governments over here, being apparently un-roguish and completely morally upstanding, should lecture or enforce sanctions against Israel allows Washington, London and others to present themselves as Good Guys. This is increasingly difficult for them to do, especially following the disastrous wars they unleashed post-9/11, and they are no doubt very grateful for the opportunity handed to them on a silver platter by anti-Israel activists. 

In Europe in particular, governments are increasingly openly critical of Israel. The Liberal-Conservative government here in the UK slammed Israel following the flotilla attack, and during a recent visit to Turkey the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, upset Jerusalem by labeling Gaza a "prison camp." Anti-Israel sentiment is widespread in polite society in Europe, as captured by a French diplomat’s description of Israel as a "sh*tty little country." Is this because European governments, based in countries whose long and dishonorable history of colonialism and warmongering makes Israel’s actions look minor by comparison, care about the Palestinians? Of course not. It’s because posturing against Israel is one of the few ways they can win favor with the liberal classes and influential commentators, for whom Israel is now the worst "rogue state" in the world. 

Things are different in America, of course. But even President Obama has voiced criticisms of Israel, representing a fairly significant shift from America’s unquestioning support for the Zionists during the Cold War era. Obama knows which way the wind is blowing. 

Some will ask: How can you say the West is turning on Israel when it still pumps billions of dollars into that state and provides it with arms? Yes, things are complicated. Militarily, some Western governments still back Israel – but morally, they are increasingly hostile to it. On the one hand, they help to prop up the Jewish state, yet on the other hand they prop up their own moral authority by joining in the chorus of criticism of the Jewish state. This at the very least means that antiwar activists should rethink the nature of their campaigning on Israel, lest they end up encouraging yet more Western intervention in the Middle East and around the world. Only this time, that intervention might be undertaken in the name of tackling "former Western allies turned rogue states." 

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Author: Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill is editor of Spiked in London.