You can’t sell Israeli liberalism


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post

The IDF spokesman’s office created a stir in early June by releasing a photo of two ostensibly homosexual soldiers holdings hands. But the great gay photo-op turned into a flop when it was outed as a fake. The hasbara (public diplomacy) message “did you know the IDF treats all its soldiers equally?” was lost in the commentary. The packaging of the photo may not have been as ill-conceived as the 2007 ad campaign the government helped arrange in which former female soldiers were used as models by Maxim magazine. CNN paraphrased the story as “soldiers show skin for PR campaign.”

Two Israeli soldiers hold hands

Two Israeli soldiers hold hands

These campaigns are ham handed, but behind them is an important issue. They are designed to show off the liberal, open-minded side of Israel and to present to those either critical of Israel or who don’t care about the country a positive image of it as a free-spirited nation. Great efforts are also made to show the West that Israel has a tradition of free debate, and intense self-criticism in movies, academia and the media is held up as a sign of how vibrant the country is.

THE PROBLEM is that this assumes Israel is hated by Western leftists primarily because it is not open-minded enough. Let’s test this assumption by taking it to its logical extreme. If every soldier in the IDF carried a rainbow-colored gun and the checkpoints were made of gingerbread, would Israel’s image among those who critique it change? No.

That there even exists something as ill-conceived as the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a group of international “judges” who have accused Israel of being more apartheid than Apartheid South Africa, sheds light on this issue. Would Alice Walker, one of the “judges,” who has refused to have her book rereleased in Hebrew because of her hatred of Israel, be convinced to change her mind because Israel tolerates gays? Why? Because Israel’s negative image is not predicated on it not being Western enough, but rather on it being too Western. Let’s take this premise to its logical extreme, as well. If the entire country converted to Islam, wouldn’t its image in the West improve? Israel’s hasbara misfits falsely assume the country is on the same playing field as Ramallah, Khartoum or Timbuktu. But it isn’t.

When one looks at what Samuel Huntington described as the “fault line” between civilizations, it doesn’t only delineate cultural differences, but differences in Western value judgments. Whatever is on the “Western” side of the line is held to a progressive, leftist standard. Whatever falls on the other side of the line is judged according to the post-colonial “resistance” model, in which no moral judgments can be made.

One can test this pretty simply by considering how certain values translate abroad. In March, a 16-year-old girl, Amina Filali, was forced to marry her rapist because of Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code. Will one less hippy tourist who “loves Morocco” not go to that land of rape and honey next year because of this outrage? Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are cesspools of religious fanaticism and intolerance, but one wouldn’t know it because of the way their values are translated to us. The fact that the threat of riots forced Lady Gaga and Erykah Badu to cancel performances in those countries, due to “offensive” material in their shows, should have symbolized the dark fanaticism of these countries. But Gaga and Badu came and went, and the Indo-Malaysian reputation remains unscathed.

AFTER MONA Eltahawy penned an essay in Foreign Policy about Arab women’s rights, daring to suggest that Arab women were suffering due to religio-cultural discrimination against them, the multi-culture lobby was outraged. Max Fischer in the Atlantic noted that “Arabs have endured centuries of brutal, authoritarian rule, and this could also play a role [in the culture’s misogyny]. A Western female journalist who spent years in the region, where she endured some of the region’s infamous street harassment, told me that she sensed her harassers may have been acting in part out of misery, anger, and their own emasculation.”

See, sexual harassment is due to dictatorship: “Enduring the daily torments and humiliations of life… might make an Arab man more likely to reassert his lost manhood by taking it out on women.” Except the men under the Soviet dictatorship or living under the Chinese boot in Tibet aren’t known to harass women in the streets.

But this isn’t the issue. The problem is we aren’t dealing with a value system capable of simply condemning sexual harassment (i.e. sexual harassment = bad, period), we are dealing with a value system that first asks “what is the offenders’ race/ethnicity/religion” and only then, depending on the answer, decides whether the offense is excusable or not. Everything can be tolerated under this mindset: rape, honor killing, slavery, female genital mutilation, murder, genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, discrimination, the death penalty, abortion rights, gay rights, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, etc.

An Egyptian poster against harassment

An Egyptian poster against harassment

THE WEST’s attitude toward Israel is part of the West’s understanding of it as part of the “self.” Palestine is part of the “other.” Even those sectors of Israeli society that seem to be “other,” like Mea She’arim’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, for example, are subsumed into the Western “self.” I remember one non-Jewish Croatian woman who worked for the UN and who used to bash the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population every time she got the chance. Yet she used to travel to Gaza often, and enjoyed the “culture” she found there. She explained her hatred for the haredim by saying, “I expect more from the Jews.”

Confronting this mentality is impossible because there is no common ground between the enlightenment philosophy of the equal rights of man (and woman) and a worldview in which people are judged differently based on what culture they claim to have come from. With regard to Israel’s conflict it is thus impossible, short of mass conversion to Islam, to join the “other,” and it is impossible to drag Palestine onto the side of the “self.” No matter how much Israel loves gay rights and bikinis, nothing will change, because when it looks at Israel, the West sees itself. The modern Western boiling down of actions to “self/other” represents a post-enlightenment philosophy according to which there are no absolute human rights, or absolute standards of morality. In this conception, even though Israel’s support for gay rights and its robust culture of critique are correct and moral, they will never gain it points abroad. 

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