Bret Stephens Oct. 31, 2003


According to the United Nations, this uninhabited strip of land – 14 kilometers long and two kilometers deep – falls squarely on the Israeli side of Blue Line dividing Israel from Lebanon. But because the farms are also on the Golan Heights, the UN insists they properly belong to Syria.


In the language of news agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press, that would mean the farms are in "Israeli-occupied" territory. But there's a catch. Syria – which otherwise is so jealous of its territory that it refused Ehud Barak's 1999 offer to return the Golan Heights minus a strip of shoreline – does not claim the farms as its own.


Instead, in 2000 Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara informed the UN that the farms are Lebanese. Syria claims it made a gift of them to Lebanon in 1951 as part of what one Lebanese official described as a "kind of oral agreement," but neither government has been able to produce any documentation proving it.


The Lebanese government has also produced some handwritten deeds for the farms dating from the 1940s. But even if these are not forgeries, the fact that they predate the 1951 land transfer renders them inoperative – if indeed there was a land transfer. According to Lebanese military maps from the early 1960s, the farms fell squarely in Syrian territory.


So why did Reuters and the Associated Press describe the farms as "disputed" following this week's Hizbullah rocket attacks? Because, one inside source helpfully explains, the Golan Heights are "disputed" by Israel and Syria. But in that case, why do the news agencies otherwise describe the Heights as "occupied"? And if they are now so sensitive to Israeli claims, why not also describe the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as "disputed"?


The fact is, Syria and Lebanon jointly pretend the Shaba farms are Lebanese in order to furnish Hizbullah with a pretext for continued attacks on Israeli targets. By calling the farms "disputed," Reuters and AP only lend credibility to what should be described as a fraud.


I EXPATIATE on this topic to make a simple point: Just because someone disputes something – whether it's land, law, history, received opinion or whatever – does not mean it's disputed. A controversy is not created by the act of controverting alone.


Take a homely example: I may swan into your living room, refuse to budge and claim your house as my own. That does not make it mine. Nor does it make it "disputed territory," except semantically.


Still, if some camera crew were to arrive on the scene to report not on my invasion of your property but on this "dispute" of ours, it would go a long way toward shoring up my case. Let it go on for a month or two, and you might even be tempted to compromise. The basement apartment, perhaps?


What goes for your house and the Shaba farms goes also for the Jewish state. Israel's existential legitimacy has been widely assailed for years – but that came, or comes, mainly from Arab, Islamic and Soviet corners. By contrast, Israel's critics in the West usually confined themselves to arguing about Israel's borders. As for the rightness of the Zionist dream itself, that was ideological territory upon which they dared not trespass.

Now that's changed. A line has been crossed. With the media's help, Israel has become "controversial." As usual, Israelis and Jews have blazed this particular trail.

In August, Haaretz ran a long profile by Ari Shavit of "neo-Canaanites" Haim Hanegbi and Meron Benvenisti, two Israelis who have come to the conclusion that "Israel as a Jewish state can no longer exist here."


In September, former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg penned an article for Yediot Aharonot in which he argued that "after two thousand years of struggle for survival, the reality of Israel is a colonial state, run by a corrupt clique which scorns and mocks law and civic morality." The article was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, Le Monde, The Guardian, the Suddeutsche Zeitung and (of course!), The Forward.


All this was bound to spill over on American shores, and earlier this month it did. In the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt, a British Jew who is a professor of history at New York University and director of the Remarque Institute, has announced "the depressing truth that Israel today is bad for the Jews." Judt's article is titled "Israel: The Alternative" – the alternative (actually, the "desirable outcome") being the binational state propounded by Benvenisti and Hanegbi. His argument is that Zionism "arrived too late": By the time the Jewish state was born in 1948, the world had moved beyond nationalism to globalism, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism.


Israel, however, remains a state defined by ethno-religious criteria, even as a growing percentage of the population within its borders is not Jewish. So it faces a dilemma: It can either retreat to borders within which it may remain both Jewish and democratic; it can expel its non-Jewish population, meaning primarily the Palestinians; or it can become a binational state.


Judt implies that he prefers the first alternative. Only he doesn't think it's going to happen: "There are too many settlements, too many Jewish settlers, and too many Palestinians" for the two-state solution to work. American pressure could help, but none is forthcoming because Bush "has been reduced to a ventriloquist's dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line."


As for that cabinet, it is composed of extremists to whom the fascist label "fits better than ever." The government, Judt claims, is moving Israel in the direction of "full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project."


Thus we arrive, with Hegelian inevitability, at history's juncture. Either the Zionist fascists of the present government will get their way, leading to the permanent estrangement of decent Diaspora Jewry from their fanatical cousins in the Holy Land. Or the decent people will prevail, leading to a binational state of which Jews everywhere, and the whole world, can be proud.


This second outcome, Judt writes, "would not be easy, though not quite as impossible as it sounds." All that's required is "brave and relentlessly engaged American leadership"; "international force" to guarantee "the security of Jews and Arabs alike"; and "the emergence, among Jews and Arabs alike, of a new political class."


ABOUT JUDT'S scheme, many things can be said, the least of which is its mind-boggling impracticality.


A binational state? Surely Judt is aware of where that path led to in Lebanon, where the animosities and differences between Christians and Muslims were nowhere near as deep as they are between Muslims and Jews.


A new political class? Had Palestinian Arabs had such a class in the 1930s, a binational state may have come into being with the end of the British mandate, for there was no shortage of Jews advocating as much at the time.


"International forces" to guarantee the mutual security of Jews and Arabs? We know too well what such forces recently accomplished in Srebrenica and Kigali.


Then there's Judt's sense of history.

He says that Israel threatens to become the first modern democracy to engage in ethnic cleansing. Well, no: The United States and Australia, both modern democracies, did far worse with their aboriginal peoples.


He says that Jewish nationalism came to fruition too late. Wrong again: India and Pakistan and Indonesia were born alongside Israel; the Indochinese states emerged a decade later; the African states a few years after that. Should we do away with them, too, under the auspices of "international forces"? This is a cry for colonialism.


He says that US support for Israel has been "a disaster for American foreign policy." (Syria, by contrast, is praised "for providing the US with critical data on al-Qaida). In fact, what has been disastrous for US Middle East policy has been its support for Arab and Muslim autocrats such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the Shah of Iran.


Judt is equally bad when it comes to understanding Israeli politics. He tells us that the current Likud government is the heir to Herut and the Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky. Which is partly true, except that Sharon himself is an old Laborite who in recent months has sidelined the true heirs to Revisionist Zionism championed by Binyamin Netanyahu.


He says that Israel's security fence is like the Berlin Wall. But the Berlin Wall was built to keep people in, whereas the security fence is being built to keep people out. A better analogy for the security fence is the American border with Mexico.

He tells us that the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank is an option seriously being considered by Israeli decision makers. Please.


Judt's resort to classic anti-Semitic tropes should also not be overlooked. He tells us, twice, that US policy is being conducted to suit Ariel Sharon's convenience. This is a view that finds wide expression in Arab media.


But does Judt seriously believe that the foreign policy of a superpower is being manipulated by its own client state? Truly it is an amazingly wily and manipulative client who can so hoodwink its patron.


Judt tells us that Israel is bad for the Jews because the actions of the Sharon government taint Jews by implication everywhere. What's more, he says, they contribute to "misdirected efforts, often by young Muslims, to get back at Israel" by torching synagogues in Lyon or attacking Jews in the streets of Berlin. But as Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic points out in a devastating critique of Judt, "if you explain anti-Semitism as a response to Jews... you have not understood it. You have reproduced it."

Then too, notice Judt's use of the word "misdirected." For an Algerian youth to stab a Parisian rabbi is "misdirected." Everything the Israeli government does is unadulterated fascism.

The fact that Judt is Jewish does not acquit him of the charge of anti-Semitism. It aggravates it.

A gentile with little or no knowledge of classic anti-Semitic tropes may make a comment that sounds anti-Semitic –"the Jews control Hollywood," for instance – without recognizing it as anti-Semitic.


That's stupid, but it is not necessarily ill-intentioned. But it is unforgivable for a man of Judt's pedigree and education to make similar kinds of comments. Explain, please, the difference between Judt's line that Sharon plays Bush like a "ventriloquist's dummy" and Mahathir Mohamad's remark to the Organization of the Islamic Conference that "the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them." I see none.


SO MUCH for Judt's arguments. They collapse on first inspection, rather like Syrian and Lebanese claims regarding the Shaba farms.


Yet Judt remains a figure of respect. Not only was his essay allowed in the New York Review of Books, as far as I can tell he remains a contributing editor to The New Republic, the very magazine in which Wieseltier savaged him.


But will TNR sack Judt the way the American sports channel ESPN recently sacked Rush Limbaugh for making an arguably derogatory comment about a black football player? I doubt it.


No: Judt has merely exercised his right to free speech. It was a foolish speech, perhaps, but wasn't it Jefferson who said that error of opinion may be tolerated where freedom is left free to combat it? Instead, we will argue with Judt, show him the error of his ideas. Ostracism is not the democratic way. Engagement is.


Except that's not true. Polite society in the US has ruled that racist comments, or anti-Semitic comments, or sexist comments, or comments that hint at racism or anti-Semitism or sexism, are out of bounds. Rightly so. Especially in a free-speech country, some things must not be said.


It is the obligation of the people who rule polite society – academics, editors, teachers, TV producers and so on – to enforce the norms when government will not. Fail to do so, and you take the lid off the gutter and let the sewage run in the streets.


This is what is happening now with Israel. It does not really matter what Judt thinks about the dummy's ventriloquist. It matters that his views are being published in prestige magazines. It matters that his views are on this side of acceptable discourse.


It matters that his views are a matter of controversy, not disrepute.


It will be said that I am trying to quash debate. That is exactly what I would have done, were it still possible. It no longer is. The controversy of Israel's borders is over. Our enemies have won. The controversy of Israel is now upon us.

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