Like other great powers, Israel is using myth, denial and intimidation to enforce its false claim to morality, writes James Zogby
Israel massages morality to justify its despicable actions
More galling than Israel’s brutal behaviour towards Palestinians is its determined effort to cloak its actions with claims of morality. There is, of course, nothing new in this. Throughout history, more powerful nations have always sought to portray themselves as more noble and their conquests as serving an elevated purpose.
As the great powers of Europe wreaked havoc on their weaker neighbours or on Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans, they masked their own barbarism, at least in their own minds, as being dictated by a civilisational imperative. Tens of millions of dead bear witness to the contrary.
Americans inherited this mantle and celebrated their campaigns against North America’s native peoples as victories against savagery. And America portrayed its brutal advance westward as progress and a fulfilment of its God-given destiny. Its utterly inexcusable use of nuclear weapons and refusal to inform the Japanese of the effects of radiation ultimately took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Despite this, the US called the bombing “life-saving” and heralded the role it played in ending the war.
Much the same could be said of its use of napalm and carpet bombing in Vietnam and, more recently, its decade-long sanctions against Iraq, followed by its invasion and occupation. The US called it “bringing freedom”, but to the millions of dead, maimed, tortured and homeless Iraqis other descriptions come to mind.
Israel is no stranger to this same game.
From the beginning, its founders saw themselves as the upholders of Western civilisation. In The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl described his ambition to create a colony that would be “a rampart of Europe against Asia ... an outpost of civilisation against barbarism”.
His colleague, Max Nordau, envisioned the Zionist enterprise as extending “the moral boundaries of Europe to the Euphrates”. And Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote: “We will always be on the side of the West, for the West has represented a more superior culture than the East ... and today we are the most prominent and loyal bearers of that culture.”
The earliest European Zionist settlers in Palestine, then, saw themselves as colonisers bringing progress and civilisation to a desolate land populated by a backward people. They even referred to the indigenous Arabs as “Red Indians” – mere obstacles, with no rights, to be removed in order to pave the way for a far nobler enterprise. Their mythic construct was captured in popular culture in Leon Uris’s book and movie Exodus, in which Israelis are portrayed as a moral people seeking only freedom and a future, forced against their will to confront a “savage culture” that only wanted to kill them.
This powerful myth took hold in Israeli culture and has held fast for almost a century. Despite the documented massacres, the occupations, the killing of tens of thousands, the forced expulsions, the use of torture and the daily humiliation and degradation of an entire captive people, many Israelis still see themselves as the moral nation in the Middle East.
The stark contradiction between how they see themselves and the reality of what their country was doing has led the Israeli leadership to develop a rather bizarre form of denial.
They cannot acknowledge that they do evil, and, therefore, they deny it or present themselves as victims of the duplicity of their enemies.
When sleeping children or men watching a World Cup match are killed by “not-so-smart” bombs falling on Gaza, Hamas is to blame – because they must have ordered them to be there. When reporters take pictures of destroyed homes and wrecked lives, Israel’s propagandists insist that these photos have been recycled or staged.
Given this mindset, Israel will admit no wrong. What it is saying and what it insists that we must also believe is that Israel doesn’t kill innocents.
If people have died, it is either because they were guilty or it was someone else’s fault. And if you continue to insist that it is Israel’s responsibility, then it must be that you are under the influence of Israel’s enemies.
Of course, the propaganda of the powerful and their self-delusion has limits. It may still control the way the Gaza story plays out in US mainstream media, but for much of the world’s media and for independent bloggers here in the US, reality has broken through. This can also be seen in the witness of Israeli human rights groups and journalists who have long been sharp critics of their government’s immoral behaviour.
As I write, the horror of Gaza continues. This is the fifth major assault in nine years. When and how it will end is unclear, but here’s what we know for certain: no good will come from this madness.
There will be no winners. The Palestinian people will pay the dearest price; and when the dust settles and the tears dry, Palestinians and Israelis will be more embittered and will feel less secure, with both waiting for the next round.
In spite of this, Benjamin Netanyahu and his ilk will continue to claim that they are the moral nation, all the while attempting to bully into submission anyone who dares to disagree. They will do so with renewed vigour, because myth and denial and, when that fails, intimidation are the means the powerful use to enforce their claim to morality.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa