The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel is gaining steam on U.S. campuses, and a major New York Times article this week described how the Jewish state has become a bitter divide between Jewish and minority students. So it might be helpful to step back and explore how it is that Jerusalem, the former darling of the international community, has become its pariah.
That’s just what Joshua Muravchik has done in his timely, clear and comprehensive new book, “Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel” (Encounter Books). Muravchik, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, traces the evolution of the moral failure of much of the world, which has gone from championing Israel’s struggle to establish a democracy in a hostile Mideast to condemning it as a racist, oppressive, colonial state.
“I think this is a sober book,” the 67-year-old, soft-spoken author explained during an interview at The Jewish Week the other day. “It’s an attempt to present strong arguments in a logical way — not to presume the reader starts out agreeing with me.”
Once a national chairman of the Young People’s Socialist League (1968-1973), Muravchik’s politics shifted gradually, but dramatically. He acknowledges that he is frustrated at being labeled a neoconservative, albeit a “serious” one, based in part on his defense of George W. Bush’s foreign policy positions. “I’m perceived as a kind of bogie man,” he said, “preaching to the converted.” He notes that his latest book — it’s his 11th — has been reviewed favorably in conservative publications, described as being honest and forthright, while being criticized on the left for failing to blame Israel for displacing and occupying the Palestinians.
He said he would like to bring his message to liberal campuses, where Israel is more readily denounced than understood. But invitations can be hard to come by for someone with his Mideast views.
While many Zionist supporters assert that the world’s bias against Israel can be attributed to anti-Semitism, Muravchik feels that response is insufficient. He points out that many of the countries now so critical of Jerusalem once widely admired its courage and resilience. Indeed, his book opens with a description of the enormous popularity of “Exodus,” as both a best-selling 1958 Leon Uris novel that described Israel’s battle for statehood in heroic terms, and then as a popular movie two years later, with Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan, the sabra freedom fighter with the firepower and looks to kill.
The Conflict, Redefined
If all the world loves an underdog, Israel was a prime example, a tiny state forged from the ashes of the Holocaust, asserting the right of the Jewish people to return to the land of their biblical roots after centuries of displacement and persecution. Support for Israel peaked after the Six-Day War of 1967 when Israel, after being threatened with extinction by Egypt, joined by Syria and Jordan, thoroughly defeated the Arab armies, though vastly outnumbered. Ever since, as Muravchik notes, support for Israel has never been the same because the war redefined the conflict. “No longer was it Israel versus Arabs,” he writes. “Now it was Israel versus the homeless Palestinians. David had become Goliath.”
He goes on to show how a combination of Arab oil wealth and the violent actions of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s turned the United Nations, which created the Zionist state, into a one-sided adversary, and transformed the PLO into a “progressive” liberation movement.
PLO leader Yasir Arafat, reinforced by intellectual supporters like the late Columbia University professor Edward Said and influential world leaders like Bruno Kreisky of Austria, turned the Marxist notion of class struggle into a story of white, imperialist racism against minorities like the Palestinians. This was the New Left, and Israel was a primary target.
Were Israeli policies to blame for this dramatic shift? Muravchik acknowledges that they were, focusing on Menachem Begin, whose years in office as prime minister solidified and justified the settlement movement and alienated many former allies of Zion, including Jews here and in Israel.
“I admire his courage,” Muravchik told me, “but his war in Lebanon [which began in 1982] was a debacle, and his justification for his nationalism — ‘God gave us the land, end of discussion’ — was widely viewed as “unyielding.”
In our interview, Muravchik noted that he is “not a supporter of expanding settlements,” but he says “it is unfair of Israel’s detractors to say that settlements are the main stumbling block to peace. Really, it’s the other way around.
“The thrust of my argument,” he continues, “is not that Israel is blameless, but that treatment of Israel is unfair.”
‘Desperately Afraid Of Iran’
He points to President Obama as an example of someone who “seems to blame Israel first,” noting, for example, that after the president was turned down in seeking concessions from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, “we never heard a word about it.” Not so in the case of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was publicly blamed by the White House for the lack of Mideast peace progress.
Muravchik says he is “desperately afraid of Iran having the [nuclear] bomb, which would change the whole Mideast equation, just their having it.” He believes the U.S. has been a weak negotiator — “we’re moving backward” — because Obama wants a deal more than Iran does, and “a deal won’t stop” the Iranians from achieving their nuclear goal.
In a Washington Post opinion piece in March, Murachvik suggested, in effect, that “we give war a chance.” He wrote that war with Iran is America’s “best option” because tighter sanctions won’t be enough to dissuade its leaders from fulfilling their revolutionary goals to rule the Mideast, for starters. “Only military actions,” like those taken by Israel against Iraq and Syria, “have halted nuclear programs,” he observed. “Sanctions have never stopped a nuclear drive anywhere.”
Muravchik concedes that airstrikes might have limited effect and that Iran would strike back. “I full-out confess that Iran would do something nasty back at us, and could unleash Hezbollah on Israel. We have vulnerabilities and they would exploit them. Americans would be killed.”
But “the real choice,” he believes, is “to attack Iran and suffer some consequences, or let them be a nuclear power” and risk America being attacked in a full-scale war. “It’s not out of the question, though it’s more likely they’ll ‘just’ be more aggressive in the region, leading to a bigger regional war.”
Muravchik notes that America’s stake in the Iran issue “is not existential, but a nuclear Iran will lead to a violent chain of events with a big cost for the U.S.”
As to what role Israel should play, he points out that his field is U.S. policy. But it seems clear he would support Israel taking whatever steps it deemed necessary to bolster its security. And on the Palestinian peace front he would like to see Israel “continue to support a two-state solution,” ready to cede land, if necessary — but only when the Palestinians “are ready to lay to rest their insistence on the right of return” and to make a deal “that would end the conflict.”
Despite Israel’s military might, Muravchik still views it as David, a small state in an increasingly hostile neighborhood. And as he asserts in the last sentence of his book, “The relentless campaign to recast it instead as a malevolent Goliath places it in grave peril.”