For a student of political science, these are illuminating, if often also unnerving, times.
Many of us had thought that we—perhaps as a species, certainly as a society—were more or less above, and also beyond, upheaval. We were governed by rationality, oriented to stability, predisposed to decency. In 2016, cold war was supposed to be a relic of a different century, holy war even more outdated. In an age of near-instant “fact-checking,” flagrant falsehoods were supposed to be deprived of any traction, and at a time of growing political correctness, demagoguery was supposed to be deemed distasteful, when not laughable.
Wherever one stands on the myriad global and domestic issues of the day, few of us, it is safe to say, are laughing at the moment.
In the year 2016, seven decades after World War II, our high-technology world has watched, with a mixture of wariness and impotence, a five-year-long Syrian civil war that has killed and maimed well over half a million people. As soon as that and nearby conflicts began to propel refugees outward, the European Union—that great exercise in regional collectivism and answer to the continental fissures of the past—began in earnest to crack, and now at least one of its leading members is headed for the door. The 20th century rivalry between East and West has also made a riposte in a territorial standoff on European soil, in Ukraine. And while the world has somehow grown numb to serial decapitations and other barbarisms in the Middle East, Europe has responded with the advancement of multiple rightist and other extreme parties. Much of France’s left, for its part, recently joined in advocating restrictions on Muslim women’s personal right to dress in accordance with their religious convictions.
Meanwhile, 77 years after Hitler was so brazen as to announce that a genocide of Jews would come if the Jews brought it on themselves, and 41 years after the U.N. General Assembly voted to equate Zionism with racism, members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization have perfected a new perversion by effectively severing Judaism from its holiest of sites in Jerusalem by relabeling them as exclusively Arab and Islamic.
Perhaps not least disturbingly, much of the globe has been experiencing a wave of populism, authoritarianism and questioning of the rule of law. Vitriol or worse has been directed at religious and ethnic communities, civil society and political opposition, especially online, and a general “post-truth,” “fake news” age seems to have dawned. Even in the West, more than merely a coarsening of rhetoric or a lessening of civility, we’ve seen the risk of erosion of democratic norms.
During an American election season when both presidential candidates had children who either are Jewish or have Jewish spouses, Jews in particular have watched social networks overwhelmed by some “alt-right” aggressors posting sentiments like “dirty kike, get back in the oven.” Separately, the platform of a consortium called the Movement for Black Lives—despite the fact that many American Jews, but also Israelis, have been in the forefront of championing civil rights—singled out Israel for depiction as an “apartheid state” that commits “genocide,” and that is thus deserving of divestiture and a cutoff of defense assistance.
These and many other realities underscore the precariousness of social cohesion even in the contemporary period, with all its blessings. Simple parallels to previous eras would advisably be avoided, if only because ours and its conditions may in some ways be unique. But a general sense of malaise and uncertainty—whether founded upon security, economic, cultural or other concerns—can lead to worse, with fringe elements seeming actually invigorated by the prospect of chaos and conflict. At times of apprehension, more citizens are susceptible to shallow solutions—or worse, the politics of divisiveness. (In turn, journalists and politicians tend to romanticize popular passion—just look at conventional wisdom within so many countries’ chattering classes, where the unarticulated view is that the “Arab street” is so angry and formidable, like the Arab bloc at the U.N., its claims against Israel could never possibly be wrong.) This climate is conducive to the deepening of mutual estrangement and an ethos of plain offensiveness for the sake of offensiveness.
Even where we’ve seen one step forward, such a step has often been followed by another back. Jarred by the heightened uproar this year, some governments pledging not to repeat unprincipled voting at UNESCO on resolutions whitewashing Jewish ties to Jerusalem have proceeded to vote “yes” on motions doing the very same thing at other U.N. bodies.
On the eve of his exit from office, after a full decade at the helm, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finally acknowledged that Palestinian grievances are not the cause of all the Middle East’s wars, that Palestinian terror and incitement continue unabated, and that “bias” is manifest when “[d]ecades of political maneuverings have created a disproportionate volume of resolutions, reports and conferences criticizing Israel.” He added, “rather than helping the Palestinian cause, this reality has hampered the ability of the U.N. to fulfill its role effectively.” But the secretary-general went on to say, beyond recycling the same old shoddy condemnations of Israeli policy, that “another troubling measure of the current state of play is that, during my tenure, the Security Council adopted only two resolutions on the Middle East peace process, the most recent almost eight years ago.”
Sadly, one week later, last Friday, the council took the entirely unhelpful step of adopting a new resolution, which, while calling in general terms for an end to violence and incitement, singled out Israel by name for condemnation over Jewish settlements, even communities in Jerusalem, deemed the primary impediment to peace. (No heed, of course, was paid to the fact that Israel has over the years uprooted entire settlements or frozen their growth—and offered Palestinians statehood and virtually all the territory publicly demanded by their mainstream leaders—only to receive unending terrorism and intransigence in return.) The U.S. abstained on the motion, enabling its passage. American enablement of the council resolution, though widely seen as a swipe at Israel’s prime minister, was ironically perhaps most stinging to the Arab leadership of Egypt, which had taken the political risk of agreeing to shelve the text just one day prior.
While withholding an American veto on this type of resolution is not unprecedented, it is a departure from the common practice over the course of many years, and a breach of the principle that Palestinians can achieve political goals only through direct talks and compromise with Israel, not lobbying the U.N. The day before Jews were feted with greetings of “Happy Chanukah” for the festival recalling the lighting of the menorah on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—and the day before the birth of a Jew “in Bethlehem of Judea” was celebrated by Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in a subtle escalation of a position merely deeming further settlement activity “not legitimate,” made reference to the presence of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria as having “no legal validity.” And, this week, Secretary of State John Kerry followed up with a speech on Middle East peace parameters in which he invoked a view that settlements are “inconsistent with international law.” He also employed, at a time when disputes over territory and demographics elsewhere continue to be wholly ignored by the international community, a straw-man assertion that regular criticism of Israel is often maligned as anti-Semitic.
The content of last Friday’s U.N. resolution is, admittedly, not very novel and, by itself, of limited direct impact on realities in the Middle East. What is significant about the resolution is its timing. Coming as the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been conducting preliminary consideration of Palestinian accusations against Israel, fresh Security Council action could push the ICC to direct a full probe at the Jewish state. At least until a new U.S. administration settles in, Palestinians will surely be emboldened to further pursue a strategy of combativeness and unearned, unilateral recognitions of statehood (notwithstanding the new resolution’s own censure of “all measures aimed at altering the… status of the Palestinian Territory”). And, not least, the resolution’s call for countries “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” will be used as fuel by partisan activists agitating for discriminatory boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Arguably, coalition politics in Israel—the joining of those leaning rightward with those leaning to the left, or the recurrent succession of one by the other—have helped encumber Israeli efforts to advance a clear defense, in historic, security, legal and ethical terms, of the country’s settlement policies. After all, whatever the long-term future may be of any given settlement under a final peace agreement, these are communities in the heart of Jews’ ancestral homeland, with long roots prior to their various forcible displacements. The existence of the settlements has broadly shifted Arab focus from the elimination of Israel entirely to the resolution of a dispute over final borders. The settlements actually comprise a tiny fraction of the landmass of the West Bank, and none remain in Gaza. Their growth mirrors, but pales in comparison to, the continuous increase in size of the Arab population on the Israeli side of the pre-1967 lines. The applicability of particular international conventions regarding the settlement of contested lands is also highly dubious considering that the territory in question, acquired during a defensive campaign, lacked a previous sovereign.
This said, the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War is undoubtedly seen by Palestinians as an occasion to ratchet up a global diplomatic offensive against Israel. Whether the international community fully re-immerses in such combat will depend on an array of factors, from the course taken by new leaders in Washington and at the U.N. to the degree to which other crises, including the carnage in Syria and Iranian nuclear activity, allow focus to shift back to the Palestinian narrative.
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