Brendan O’Neill’s article in the new TAC offers an interesting critique of an odd trend among quite a few prominent “pro-Israel” advocates in recent years, which is to define Israel and its importance to the West more or less in terms that make it a crusader state for “Enlightenment values.” As O’Neill says, this puts absurdly great pressure on Israel that no state should have to bear. Worse, it badly distorts the admirers’ understanding of Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors:
What is going on here? How can a conflict that looks to many reasonable people like a long-running national and political clash be described as a grand battle for mankind? In effect, Israel is cynically, and lazily, being turned into a proxy army for a faction in the Western Culture Wars that has lost its ability to defend Enlightenment values on their own terms or even to define and face up to the central problem of anti-Enlightenment tendencies today.
Another article would be needed to work through the problems with the admirers’ prior assumptions about the importance of “Enlightenment values” as such, but that is for another time. Even if it were true that Israel is what these admirers (idolaters?) claim, the idea that Israel is a front-line state of civilization creates at least three bad habits among Westerners. O’Neill discusses at least two of these in the article, but I hope to elaborate on them a bit more. One such habit is that if we believe that Israeli policies are helping to save the civilized world from barbarism, many of us will want to overlook misguided, counterproductive and inhumane policies for fear of undermining the civilizational bulwark. Variations on the “we had to destroy the village to save it” rationalization will be offered, except ironically this time the “village” in question will be “Enlightenment values.” Second, it would be a form of outsourcing the work of defense that, if needed, we ought to be providing for ourselves, and this outsourcing would be fundamentally unfair to Israel.
Third, it would create an opportunity to focus our energies not on the practicable but difficult work of cultural renewal at home, but rather on cheering on and defending the actions of the front-line state in an epic battle far away in which we can assert our virtue by taking the right side. It is a grim kind of escapism for those previously engaged in culture wars at home, which then ends up negatively affecting how the escapists view their own domestic political debates. In the end, they come to view otherwise natural allies in combating various cultural ills as their enemies and even as fifth columnists working for the “barbarians” because the latter do not embrace the sort of blind, full-throated support for Israel that these admirers have. The front-line state will have to compromise the “values” it is supposedly defending, while the “hinterland” or metropolitan states of the West will gradually lose them through internal cultural changes. So, on its proponents’ own terms even if it were true, the front-line idea would lead to very bad habits and outcomes. The larger problem with it, of course, is that it is sheer fantasy.
One highly undesirable consequence of defining Israel as this front-line state is that it reinforces the tendency in America to ignore Near Eastern Christians and to endorse policies that, while nominally “pro-Israel,” are directly harmful to the survival and flourishing of Christian communities in the region. This is also one of the serious problems in stressing “Enlightenment values” as the thing that Israel is defending, since drawing the line this way would exclude many Arab Christians and would probably even categorize them as part of the threat, but it also shows how selectively these admirers are willing to defend the “Judeo-Christian tradition” to which they will sometimes refer as well. Obviously, at that point the entire argument becomes even more ridiculous and the fantasy of the front-line state idea becomes completely unsustainable, or at least you would think so.
Furthermore, conceiving of differences between civilizations in terms of fronts with clearly-delineated lines and all the associated war metaphors, while dramatic and rhetorically powerful, seems to be basically misleading and encourages seeking military solutions to cultural differences that are not going to be “solved” at all, but which can become more radicalized and the source of additional conflict. If certain “values” are weakening in the West, they are not going to become stronger by endorsing entirely unrelated military and security policies in a foreign country, and they are almost certainly not going to be built up through the West’s militarizing of abiding cultural and religious differences with other parts of the world. Finally, besides being an occasion for self-congratulation and creating moral blind spots for ourselves, building up these constructs of civilization vs. barbarism abstracts political conflicts in the Near East even more when their solutions, if any exist, are going to be found in paying close attention to specific details about individual conflicts. Negotiating over territory, settlements, water rights and other technical details is already tremendously difficult without freighting every concession or proposal with the full weight of Western civilization’s fate, which would make negotiation impossible. Indeed, one gets the impression that this is half the reason for framing the issue in this way.