This may seem trivial to many. Of course Israel is a nation, they will respond. What does that have to do with anything? But on taking a closer look we can see rather plainly that this is not the way Israel is presented and re-presented in the media and in much public discourse. Instead, the polysemous signifier "Israel" conflates:
- The Jews. It is a formidable task to separate out these two identities, for a number of reasons that I have noted in a previous post. But it is essential, if we are to confine ourselves to geopolitics in our analysis of the Middle East, and not wander into essentialist metaphysics, that we attempt to do so. Israel is not “the Jews,” regardless of the natural affinity that many Jews may have for a self-defined Jewish state. Whatever its unique features, it needs to be seen through the same lens, and weighed by the same standards, as any other nation.
- The Israeli people. As I have stated before, there is always a separation that needs to be made between a state and the subjects of that state. Criticizing George W. Bush is not—and should not be seen as—directed towards Americans in general; taking on Stephen Harper is to be distinguished from criticizing Canadians. But being critical of the Israeli state is too often taken as an attack on its people and, by further extension, upon Jews as a homogeneous group, whether they are Israeli citizens or not.
- The incarnation of a higher morality. Machiavelli teaches us that nation-states act in their own interests and strategize precisely along those lines. Morality is a false front that has its own propagandistic uses, but not the force that drives nations. This is not to say that moral arguments have no worth, or that morality is not an individual consideration: only that such discourses are not the dominant ones in the war-rooms. Israel, however, has not been seen in this way by many commentators, including Rex Murphy and other transmitters of the "Israel has the decency to be tormented by civilian deaths" meme. As is the case with every other country in the world, Israel as a state doesn't have feelings of any kind. That is not to say that individual Israelis do not suffer that torment (although the Lebanese, I suspect, suffer rather more), just that such anguish is not a consideration in strategic military planning and not generally a factor in how states behave.
The human costs, for example, of the US intervention in Vietnam were catastrophic: two million dead, many cluster-bombed, flechette-gunned, burned alive with napalm and white phosphorus, or poisoned with Agent Orange, a defoliant that is still killing and maiming new generations. The transmission of the gruesome details of this war on civilians, for such it clearly was, helped eventually to put an end to the war. The Globe & Mail stated a few days ago that "Democratic countries like Israel accidentally kill civilians when they respond, and regret it profoundly," but Vietnam stands as a particularly stark and bloody counter-example. States kill: and they do it without compunction to achieve their aims.
- The implicit voice of the West. Israel is represented as an oasis of Western values planted in the heart of Otherness, our beachhead in the clash of civilizations. One cannot deny that in many respects Israel is a repository of the familiar. Lifting the veil on the West Bank, and Gaza and Lebanon has shown it in a somewhat different light, at least to some; but too many others remain in a state of denial. Israel is civilized, runs their mantra, Israel is moral, Israel must have reasons for doing the gut-wrenching things it does, Hezbollah is to blame, never stop cheering. The notion that those who actually do the killing of civilians might somehow be to blame for it never enters their minds.
What we must realize is that Israel may speak to us in a reassuringly Western voice, but it is a Middle Eastern state that is not above using terror for its own ends, and human shields into the bargain. If we are to judge the actions of nation-states, whether morally, or geopolitically, or strategically, we need to use one weight and one measure. That many of us so signally fail to do so in the case of Israel is due in no small part to the fallacies and conflations noted above, the latter cheerfully exploited, of course, by those whose own considerations are in fact geopolitical and strategic.
It would clear the air to develop a discourse in which Israel as a state is confined to the same dimensions as those of other states. And hence the title of this article is not at all meant to be sarcastic. If we are to progress beyond the current falsification of the debate, punctuated as it is with periodic cries of "anti-Semitism" and "holding Israel to a higher standard" and "democratic states don't deliberately kill civilians" and "everything the IDF does is Hezbollah's fault" we need to talk differently. Unpacking the complex notion of "Israel" is an urgent task, and the sooner we begin, the better.