Americans are constantly told that they have to defend themselves against people who “hate them”, but without understanding why they are hated. Is the cause our secular democracy? Our appetite for oil? There are lots of democracies in the world that are far more secular than the United States (Sweden, France ...) and lots of places that want to buy oil at the best possible price (China) without arousing any noticeable hatred in the Middle East.
Of course, it is true that, throughout the Third World, Americans and Europeans are often considered arrogant and are not particularly liked. But the level of hatred that leads a large number of people to applaud an event like Sept. 11 is peculiar to the Middle East.
Indeed, the main political significance of Sept. 11 did not derive from the number of people killed or even the spectacular achievement of the attackers, but from the fact that the attack was popular in large parts of the Middle East. That much was understood by Americans leaders and infuriated them. Such a level of hatred calls for explanation.
And there can be only one explanation: United States support for Israel. It is indeed Israel that is the main object of hatred, for reasons we shall describe, but since the United States uncritically supports Israel on almost every issue, constantly praises it as “the only democracy in the Middle East” and provides its main financial backing, the result is a “transfer” of hatred.
Why is Israel so hated? The constant stalling of “peace plans” in favor of more settlements and more war aggravates that hatred, but the basic cause lies in the very principles on which that state is built. There are basically two arguments that have justified establishing the State of Israel in Palestine: One is that God gave that land to the Jews, and the other is the Holocaust. The first one is deeply insulting to people who are profoundly religious, like most Arabs, but of another creed. And, for the second, it amounts to making people pay for a crime that they did not commit. Both arguments are deeply racist, with their claim that it is right for Jews, and only Jews, to set up a state in a land that would obviously be Arab, like Jordan or Lebanon, if not for the slow Zionist invasion. This is illustrated by the “law of return”: Any Jew, anywhere, having no connection with Palestine whatsoever, and not suffering from the slightest persecution, can, if he so wishes, emigrate to Israel and easily become a citizen, while the inhabitants who fled in 1948, or their children, cannot. Add to that the fact that a city claimed to be holy by three religions has become the “eternal capital of the Jewish people” (and only them) and one should start to understand the rage that all this provokes throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
It is precisely this racist aspect that infuriates most Arabs, even if they do not have any personal connection to Palestine (if they live, say, in the French banlieues). This situation delegitimizes the Arab regimes that are impotent in the face of the Zionist enemy and, after the defeat of the region’s two main secular leaders, Nasser and Saddam Hussein (the latter thanks to the US), leads to the rise of religious fundamentalism.
Now, people often find racism far more unacceptable than “mere” economic exploitation or poverty. Consider South Africa: Under apartheid, the living conditions of the blacks were bad but not necessarily much worse than in other parts of Africa (or even than in South Africa now). But the system was intrinsically racist, and that was felt as an outrage to blacks everywhere, including in the United States. This is why the conflict over Palestine goes beyond the second-class status of Israeli Arabs or even the treatment of the occupied territories. Even if a Palestinian state were established on the latter, and even if full equality were granted to Israeli Arabs, the wounds of 1948 would not heal quickly. Arab leaders, even religious ones, can of course sign peace agreements with Israel, but they are fragile so long as the Arab population considers them unjust and does not accept them wholeheartedly. Palestine is the Alsace-Lorraine or the Taiwan of the Arab world and the fact that it is impossible to take it back does not mean that it can be forgotten. (I am not arguing here in favor of “wiping Israel off the map”, or in favor of a “one state solution” but simply underlining what seems to me to be the root and the depth of the problem.)
There is no sign that any of this is understood in Israel by more than a few individuals; if Arabs hate them, this is just another instance of the fact that everybody hates Jews and it only proves that they have to “defend themselves” (i.e. attack others pre-emptively) by any means necessary. That is bad enough, but why isn’t this understood in the United States either? There are traditionally two answers to that: One is that the population is manipulated into supporting Israel by the government, the arms merchants or the oil industry, because Israel is a strategic US ally; the other answer is that the United States is manipulated by the Israel lobby.
The idea that Israel is a strategic ally, if by that one means a useful ally (useful to, say, the oil interests, broadly understood), although widely accepted, especially in the left, does not survive a critical examination. That may have been the case in 1967 or even during the Cold War period, although one could argue that, even then, the Arab states were attracted by the Soviet Union only because it might support them in their struggle against Israel, albeit ineffectively. But both in 1991 and in 2003, the United States attacked Iraq without any help from Israel, even begging Israel not to intervene in 1991, in order for its Arab coalition not to collapse. Or consider the post-2003 occupation of Iraq, and suppose that the goal of that occupation is control over oil. In what sense does Israel help in that respect? Everything it does further alienates the Arabs, and US support for Israel makes the control of oil harder, not easier. Even the Iraqi Parliament, Maliki and Sistani, who are the closest to allies that the United States can find there, condemn Israel’s actions.
Finally, just imagine that the United States would make a 180 turn and suddenly side with the Palestinians, as they did with the Kosovars against the Serbs — who, by the way, were, like the Israelis, richer and more “Western” than their Albanian adversaries. Such a change of policies is by no means impossible: When Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, the US supported the invasion by providing most of Indonesia’s weapons. Yet, 25 years later, the US supported, or at least did not oppose, East Timor’s accession to independence.
What effect would that have? Can anyone doubt that such a change of policy would facilitate US access to oil fields and help it gain strategic allies (if any were still needed) throughout the Muslim world?
In the Middle East, the main charge against the United States is that it is pro-Israel, because it lets itself be “manipulated by the Jews”. Therefore, if Washington switched sides, there would be no more basis for hostility to US presence, including its control over oil. Thus the notion of Israel as “strategic ally” makes no sense.
— Jean Bricmont teaches physics in Belgium. He is a member of the Brussels Tribunal. This article first appeared in CounterPunch. Bricmont can be reached at: [email protected]