The symbolic Jew

BY JONATHAN GOTTFRIED

Some Americans wonder why so much ink and U.S. government time is spent on Israel. Their sentiments echo the remarks the French ambassador to the U.K. reportedly made at a London Party: “Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people” and their “shitty little country Israel?” While the question’s wording suffers from a characteristic European attitude towards Israel, it raises a good point that I would like to address from a slightly different angle. Why does Israel incite emotions that are disproportionate to that country’s actions?

Islamic extremist hatred of Jews cannot be satisfactorily explained by alleged Israeli or Jewish aggression. When American-Jewish congressmen and commentators led the campaign for U.S. intervention to save the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo, why did no one in the Muslim world complain about a Jewish conspiracy? When Israeli forces target a Palestinian terrorist, all hell breaks lose. Yet when Muslims die at the hands of Hindus in India, the Middle East does not buzz with talk of jihad.

For bin Laden’s World Islamic Front Against Jews and Crusaders as well as for Islamic extremists around the globe, Jews are despised as symbols of liberal, Western culture. Daniel Pearl was the perfect example. An American citizen with Israeli parents and a French wife, he worked for the Wall Street Journal. The very name of his employer invoked the image of a Western marketplace where, in theory, religion, gender and ethnicity matter less than elsewhere, where any immigrant or minority should, ideally, be able to better his or her fortunes through business. And neither Pearl’s religion nor his multinational heritage prevented him from being an American citizen — an indication that U.S. citizenship is a political construct, tied neither to religious creeds nor to strict ideological conceptions of purity. In reality, his persecutors murdered a devoted journalist and husband who happened to be Jewish. But, as is indicated by their statements against America together with the last words that they forced Pearl to utter (“My father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew, and I am a Jew.”), they imagined themselves to be performing a ritual slaughter of the West’s token, the Jew.

A different Western symbolism of Jews explains a portion of the American and European antagonism towards Israel that is often cloaked under the garb of human rights. For the American and European left, the United States is the world’s rich, selfish and deceitful bully. Any group that attacks the U.S. or Europe’s imperial forces is categorized as “oppressed” and its agenda is co-opted, with little regard to its adherents’ bloody tactics. When adherents of the left hear that Iraqis have used murder, fear and poison gas to eliminate generations of Muslims, they turn a blind eye and complain about U.S.-sponsored sanctions. Yet when there is no Western imperial power to cast as the bad guy, the left abandons Muslims and any other group to fate. The lives of the Afghan people received little attention until their guests attacked New York and Washington.

For the non-Jewish Left, Israel and its Jewish inhabitants are tainted by association with the West. Hackles are raised and lawsuits have been brought against Sharon for his non-feasance in 1982 when Lebanese militias massacred 1,000 Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila. Yet no one cares anymore about another event that same year — Hama, in which 10,000 Muslim adults and children were butchered by the Syrian government. Even if Israelis began today indiscriminately to murder Arabs, they could never come close to the suffering that Arab governments have inflicted on their own people.

The left’s efforts to cast Israel in America’s image are mistaken. Ramallah, 2002, is not Birmingham, 1960’s. Nor, for that matter, is Yasser Arafat a clone of Nelson Mandela. Viewing the conflict only in terms of Palestinians and Israelis, instead of in the larger terms of Arabs and Israelis, is an effort to push reality into a pat framework of Western imperial power versus oppressed people.

In reality, the conflict in Israel is a battle between refugees: between Jews — who have suffered practically every nation’s and civilization’s animosity at one point or another in history and many of whom have found sanctuary in Israel after having been driven from secular or Muslim countries — and displaced Palestinians. These groups are struggling against two irreconcilable visions of independent statehood. Yet for certain Arabs and Westerners on the sidelines, Israel is a battle over fundamental values and against the mythical Jew of their imaginations.

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