The Most Common Mistakes People Make About Israel
"It is not Israel that is the weak link in the chain. It is almost everybody else."
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Britain’s Douglas Murray, a writer and author, has been traveling around and reporting from Israel since the October 7th Palestinian terror attacks.
Admittedly, I had never heard of him prior, so when I saw Murray give a very “pro-Israel” TV interview from the Israel-Gaza border a few weeks ago, I instinctively thought he was Jewish. Turns out, he’s not, and his connection to Israel is minimal at best.
This makes Murray the ideal candidate to objectively and accurately cover Israel these days. He has no skin in the game, no emotional connections, no political or social agenda.
I’ve watched many of Murray’s interviews, and he could write a playbook on how to think about, analyze, and judge Israel.
For example, he doesn’t compare Israel to his home country, the UK. Certainly it’s natural for people to judge other countries through the lens of their own, but Murray understands that each country is unique, a combination of their own history, timeline, and regional nuances. When he discusses Israel, Murray always frames it within the context of the Middle East, a predominantly Arab and Muslim region.
“It is not a matter of opinion, but a simple matter of observation, to point out that Muslims are in the main subdued when their fellow Muslims are killed by other Muslims,” he wrote. “There has been no significant unrest in the West over the hundreds of thousands of Muslims killed in Syria or Yemen. Jews must be involved for Islam’s oldest hatred to rear its head.”1
What’s more, Murray doesn’t fall prey to “presentism” — judging past actions by today’s standards, or uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts. We all too often color history with our current prejudices, but attitudes and cultural values have changed over time.
In literary and historical analysis, presentism is the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Hence why “colonialism” and “oppressor” are mostly recent terms used by some to describe Israel, especially in leftist and progressive circles.
Fifty years ago, Israel was not a big issue for the Left. Why? Because it was perceived as weak. But after the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel achieved a stunning military victory, this changed. Israel became strong, so Israel became bad. And the Palestinians were weak, so they became good.
No matter how much terror Palestinians engage in — hijacking airplanes, murdering eleven Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics, blowing up Israelis in pizza parlors and at weddings, October 7th — the Left’s position hasn’t changed since the late 1960s: Palestinians are good, Israelis are bad. Because the Palestinians are “weak.” And Israel is “strong.”
This is kind of like judging two restaurants, one that is packed and another that is empty. Would you go to the empty restaurant just because it is empty, or would you use other parameters to make your decision? Perhaps it’s time to use other parameters in judging Israel as well.
The more apt way to assess Israel is to look at its potential versus the reality. As Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, said just a few weeks ago, Israel is only using 10 percent of its air force capacity. The percentage of Israeli troops in Gaza is likely along the same lines.
A White House spokesperson even suggested that the steps Israel’s military has taken to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza might go further than what the U.S. would have done if it was in Israel’s place.
“There are very few modern militaries in the world that would do that,” said John Kirby. “I don’t know that we would do that.”
As Murray pointed out, the first tendency of international observers, both friendly and unfriendly to Israel, is to offer the country advice on how it should — or should not — conduct its military responses.
“For Israel seems to be the only country in the world never allowed to win a conflict,” wrote Murray. “It is allowed to fight a conflict to a draw, but rarely to a win. Which is one reason why the wars keep occurring.”
But what credentials do any of us have to make such recommendations? Just like you wouldn’t advise a close friend on the type of brain surgery they should have, why are we so sure about Israel’s military endeavors?
As one person recently commented to me: “The Israeli attacks are anything but surgical. They are total, indiscriminate, and often inhumane.”
How does she possibly know, and why is she so possibly sure? Is she in Gaza? Does she receive briefings from the Israeli chief of staff and his commanders?
When I speak about what the IDF should or shouldn’t do, it’s always based on in-depth conversations that I’ve had with my Israeli friends who served and, in the current case, are serving in reserves. I ask them a myriad of open-ended questions, do a lot of listening, and encourage them to validate or invalidate my theories. These are the people who know best, not news anchors or journalists who sit in luxury, air-conditioned offices thousands of kilometers away from the conflict.
Lastly, Murray doesn’t conflate his country’s social problems and those of Israel. You won’t hear him comparing Brexit to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because, while there may be some similarities on the surface, the UK and Israel are two completely different sociopolitical entities.
Why, then, do so many Americans paint the Black or Native American struggle with the same brush as the Palestinians’ plight, the same way that so many Australians do with the Aboriginals?
I get it, these analogies are designed to bridge gaps and encourage empathy, but the role of analogy here in fact paints an erroneous picture of symmetrical relations, strengthens victimhood that denies responsibility, instigates competition between “victims,” and often leads to “empty empathy.”2
Analogies can also create a willfully deceptive understanding of the other, while actually maintaining a narcissistic superior stance, a sort of “moral imperialism.” As long as the Palestinians are marginalized in the media and the narrative centers around Israel’s might, analogy and empathy indeed point to Israel’s moral failings, but fail to promote an ethical understanding and responsibility for the other.
Shortly after the Israel-Hamas war broke out, for instance, one progressive American wrote me that Israel seems to be using “the same Republican talking points” that got the U.S. into two wars in the Middle East.
This is a classic case of heuristics — mental shortcuts that simplify problems to help us avoid cognitive overload, so we can quickly reach conclusions to complex concepts. If we were to dissect 9/11 and America’s subsequent wars in the Middle East, and then October 7th and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war, we’d rather quickly realize that the two episodes are as different as Indonesia and Hawaii (even though they are both islands).
Yet there is one place where a worthy comparison between Israel and other countries is warranted.
“It seems to me that Israel can look after itself. Even when it struggles in doing so, one thing can be said with absolute certainty: The Israeli government and authorities wish to prioritize the well-being of their own people,” wrote Murray. “The same thing cannot be said of other governments and authorities across the West. Obviously the problem is more or less extreme from country to country. In some countries — such as America — the top level of politics maintains its support of the Jewish state. But on the ground, not least on the nation’s campuses, the foundations are rotten.”
“In other countries, there is a rot almost all the way through,” added Murray. “To its shame, Britain seems to have become one such nation. But it is a reminder that when it comes to the question of security in the Western alliance, it is not Israel that is the weak link in the chain. It is almost everybody else.”
“The Easy Politics of Criticizing Israel.” Sapir.
“The Fallacy of Analogy and the Risk of Moral Imperialism: Israeli Literature and the Palestinian Other.” Ethics and Literary Practice.