Criticizing Israel: What It Really Means by Bob Yermus

by Bob Yermus
Jerusalem, Israel

Criticism of Israel is a common subject for discussion, predominantly because that criticism is so prevalent. Its prevalence is matched by the supply of sources of that criticism – the U.N., heads of state, news outlet editorials, journalists, entertainers, student activist groups. The focus of the criticism is, of course, directed at Israel’s policy toward the Arabs – in Israel proper, where the term “apartheid” is used to describe us; in what are known as “the occupied territories”, where “settlements” and “settlers” are the “main obstacle to peace”; and, of course, Israel’s behaviour in the Gaza Strip, in its ongoing war with terrorists. These critics – friend and foe alike – maintain that one can be anti-Israel without being antisemitic, or that anti-Zionist and antisemitic are not synonymous. I would suggest that this is patently false. In fact, I would argue that any criticism of Israel, in the context of the conflict with the Arabs, is antisemitism.
To be clear, this does not mean that one who engages in this criticism is an antisemite. There are staunch supporters of Israel – Jew as well as non-Jew – who actually engage in this form of anti-Israel bias. The fact is, however, that criticism of this kind is antisemitic.
The prevailing position among politicians, pundits and political scientists is that this conflict has complex issues, that there is no military solution, and that only a negotiated settlement will end the conflict. The truth is, however, that there is nothing complex about this conflict. As in any conflict, two sides fought a war. One side was victorious, the other was vanquished. The proof that Israel won the war is the fact that it still exists. This is not a situation like what went on in Angola, where for almost thirty years a war raged and people died, only to have the two sides realize they were getting nowhere, and so they decided to sit down and hash out an agreement they could both accept. Here there is a clear winner and a clear loser. Pretty simple.
There is, however, a complication: Israel won. This fact appears to be the only difference when one compares this conflict with any other. The side that wins will insist on unconditional surrender, and the side that loses either immediately agrees, or continues to fight. And to lose.
When Israel won the War of Independence in 1948, they did not declare victory. They did not insist on unconditional surrender. The war ended with a call for a ceasefire. Israel, anxious to end the fighting, agreed. Each war since has ended the same way: Israel overpowers its enemy, who calls for a ceasefire, and Israel agrees. What has happened each time is that it is then expected that Israel make concessions to the Arabs so that the war can end.
The question is why is Israel not allowed to win? From where does the expectation – requirement – that Israel satisfy the demands of the loser come? Is Israel not worthy of military a victory? Are Jews not good enough in the eyes of the world to warrant success on the battlefield? Is it possible that the opposite the case – that the world expects better of Israel than would be expected of lesser nations – that after a military victory, Israel will magnanimously grant the enemy its demands in return for an end to hostilities? Is it that, as Margaret Thatcher said when Israel was at war with the PLO in Lebanon, that Israel is expected to maintain a higher moral standard?
Both these positions are blatant antisemitism. Being better than, or not as good as, is a clear and unadulterated bias. Furthermore, they perpetuate the conflict. Despite having been defeated in war, the Arabs continue the “armed struggle” using terror, diplomacy, economics and public opinion to continue the fight, encouraged by international pressure on Israel to compromise and concede.
Anyone reading this far has surely been thinking that Israel itself is guilty of the same response to victory in war. This is, of course, true. Israel has never pushed for absolute victory, and has consistently looked for the quickest way to end the fighting, with a desire to negotiate a settlement. (Ironically, we seem to be encouraged to negotiate a settlement, but we are criticized for building one). It can further be argued that while the parameters of a negotiated settlement vary from one political party to another, pretty much all the parties have some notion of a negotiated settlement in their platform. This does not negate the fact that it is antisemitic to be critical of Israel in its interaction the Arabs, or to expect Israel to negotiate or compromise. Jews in Israel and elsewhere who have these expectations are practicing – most of them unintentionally or even without realizing it – the worst kind of hatred: that of the self.
The one thing that would render this argument invalid is an example of a conflict somewhere else – anywhere, from any time in history – where the losers imposed peace conditions on the winner. That would serve as a precedent for the demands made on Israel. The reasons for war are numerous – land, language, race, religion, resources; the purpose of war is to either impose on another, or to prevent being imposed upon by another. Nobody loses a war and then has the privilege of extracting from the victor terms of disengagement that come at the expense of the victor. Similarly, nobody – nobody – goes to war, wins, and then says to the loser, “OK, now what was it you wanted?”
I have been dealing with this issue for a long time. The response to what I propose – that Israel impose a settlement – is consistently “the Arabs will never go for that”, or “the world will never go for that”. These responses merely beg the question, why not? And if it is not antisemitism, then what is it?

Bob Yermus, born in Toronto, made aliyah to Israel in 1986. He has a B.A in Early Childhood Education and is presently working on a Masters in English Literature at Hebrew University.