Saturday, February 25, 2012

On "moral responsibility" to Israel

Mulling over a jaw-dropping assertion by Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit that the United States has a "moral responsibility" to guarantee Israel that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon, Jeffrey Goldberg drops an aside that I find revealing:
(And a small digression: Isn't it Europe, and Germany in particular, that should be considered to have greater moral responsibility here? Israel exists mainly because of European moral failure).
Israel exists mainly because of European moral failure? As a factual statement, that is doubtless at least partially true in more than one sense. If Jews were not treated as second class citizens and hateful outcasts by Europeans over the centuries, the romantic-religious dream of return would probably not have gained critical mass.  And certainly, European guilt in the wake of the Holocaust, and horror at the condition of surviving European Jews, put the drive for a Jewish state over the top in the war's near aftermath -- though who's to say that the Jewish settlers in Palestine wouldn't have achieved their aim somewhat later in the unimaginable no-Hitler counterfactual?

I wonder, though, if Goldberg didn't mean "Israel exists mainly because of European moral failure" in some kind of existential-moral sense: Israel became a global moral necessity because of the Holocaust.  If so, he's playing directly into a central Arab anti-Zionist myth: that Arabs were forced to pay with their land for the sins of Europeans.  The notion that that Israel's existence is justified by Jewish suffering in the Holocaust is fiercely rejected in the Muslim world -- and rightly so, I think.

To my mind, Israel's existence can be justified only on the basis of facts on the ground in the region. First, Jews' mainly peaceful and lawful settlement over the course of sixty years prior to the founding of the state achieved the scale to make the state plausible. Jews in Palestine had no power to take land prior to the attack of the newborn state by all its neighbors in 1948. Second, Jews were an oppressed minority throughout the Arab world; the formation of a Jewish state became the functional equivalent of giving African Americans a slice of Arizona to settle. Israel's existence was further retroactively justified by the expulsion of some million Arab Jews from their homelands in the wake of Israel's founding.  Claims founded on ancient texts, or Jews' residence in the land prior to their expulsion by the Romans two thousand years ago, have zero moral force for those not in the grip of religious fever dreams (or in the grip of different religious fever dreams). Nor did the horrendous crimes of the Nazis justify the ratification of statehood in a distant region. Does Goldberg think otherwise?

All that is a digression from the horrendous premise voiced by Shavit, which Goldberg rebuts only tentatively:
The Netanyahu-Obama meeting in two weeks will be definitive. If the U.S. president wants to prevent a disaster, he must give Netanyahu iron-clad guarantees that the United States will stop Iran in any way necessary and at any price, after the 2012 elections. If Obama doesn't do this, he will obligate Netanyahu to act before the 2012 elections.

The moral responsibility for what may happen does not lie with the heirs of Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion. The moral responsibility will be borne by the man sitting in the chair that was once Franklin Roosevelt's.
Leaving aside the fathomless arrogance of this claim, any American not besotted by tribalism or religious fantasies should be deeply disturbed by the power distribution assumed here, which I fear is all too accurate. To any other country in the world that put this kind of gun to an American president's head, the message would be clear: start a war against our will, and we will cut you dead -- no material support, no aid of any kind going forward, alliance broken.  And of course, the very Republicans screaming about Obama's alleged weakness overseas have undercut American leverage by loudly proclaiming that they would unconditionally support Israel no matter what it does -- fueled by the essentially religious conviction of some 50 million evangelicals that Israel can literally do no wrong (until God sees fit to destroy it in the runup to Armageddon).

Has any great power in the history of the world ever bound itself over thus to the demands of a small "ally"?


  1. Has any great power in the history of the world ever bound itself over thus to the demands of a small "ally"?

    Russia to Serbia
    Germany to Austria

  2. Good point, drew! And how did that work out for them?