Book Review - The Moral High Ground, Usurped
Joshua Muravchik, Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel (New York: Encounter Books, 2014), 296 pp. $25.99.
When Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, the international reaction was predictably vociferous. In London, Paris, and other capitals, thousands of people marched in rallies to decry Israel’s retaliation against Hamas-controlled Gaza. In editorials and op-eds, in the proclamations of academics, and in UN statements, Israel was accused of “war crimes”—a term given prominence after the Nuremberg trials. What distinguished this chorus of denunciation was its shopworn familiarity.
Rewind to 1967, when Israel faced off against neighboring Arab states. In London, Paris, and other capitals people took to the streets to endorse Israel. Editorials in The Times of London, The Guardian, The Economist, and Time magazine aligned with Israel. So did notable intellectuals and academics; one group even took out an ad spelling out its rationale in the Washington Post.
What happened since then to bring about this sea change? In Making David Into Goliath, scholar Joshua Muravchik presents a finely textured history that tells how international opinion turned so sharply against Israel.
The book’s account lays stress on two key developments, one political, the other intellectual.
The political shift unfolded after Israel’s humiliating defeat of the Arabs in the Six-Day War of 1967. Unable to win on the battlefield, the militant, autocratic Arab regimes moved to foster a Palestinian movement, which portrayed itself as part of the “progressive” camp. Superficially at least, Israel was recast as the powerful Goliath, whereas the Arab side, fronted by Palestinians, became the quintessential David.
Underpinning this reversal, the other pivotal development was moral-ideological: the rise of a “new paradigm of progressive thought.” Born of the New Left, in this outlook the central drama of world history was no longer the Marxist model of proletarians versus bourgeoisie, but rather “the third world against the West, or of people of color against the white man.” The Palestinians, in this theory, stand on the side of virtue; Israel, on the side of villainy.
At times working in league, at times fighting each other, the Arab regimes and the Palestinians took the fight against Israel beyond the battlefield. Palestinians gained worldwide notoriety for hijacking jetliners with breathtaking audacity. During one particularly energetic week in September 1970, Palestinian terrorists hijacked four planes simultaneously—and then, to extort the release of one of their crew who had just been captured, they took a fifth jet. Members of Palestinian terrorist groups bombed jetliners, murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and massacred schoolchildren in a grisly campaign of expanding scope and barbarity.
Perhaps what had an even greater impact on world opinion of Israel, however, was the shift that took place at the United Nations. Over the decade of the 1970s, the Arabs and the growing Third World bloc (sometimes allied with the Communists) took over the organization. As a result, Muravchik explains, the UN became “the principal instrument to legitimize and solemnize the advantages that the Arabs had gained since 1967 by bringing Palestinian national claims to the fore and by intimidating others through terrorism and the oil embargo.” A legacy of that diplomatic coup is the long-standing UN practice of overlooking pervasive violations of rights in Muslim regimes and across the world, but endlessly rebuking Israel on trumped-up charges.
Making David into Goliath retraces the fascinating history of how the Palestinian cause usurped the moral high ground from Israel. Initially that battle was fought in the halls of academia. In Muravchik’s telling, the chief enabler was a professor at Columbia University, Edward Said. In his major work Orientalism and a later tract The Question of Palestine, Said supplied the intellectual means for reinterpreting the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Muravchik notes that Said’s dodgy, arguably dishonest, scholarship led to the unwarranted equation of Arabs and Muslims with blacks living under apartheid. Hence the common trope that Israel is an “apartheid” state. Revered in academia, Said’s work jelled into an orthodoxy that embraced the Palestinians as righteous victims, despite the rampant terrorism perpetrated in their cause and by their number. Adding to that reframing of the conflict was a group of Israeli revisionist “new historians,” whose writings alleged that the founding of Israel was rife with “ethnic cleansing” and colonial-imperialist ambition.
Muravchik’s analysis details how a new narrative thereby took hold: that of Israel as the predator; the Palestinians as the supposedly powerless victims. All of this spilled out of scholarly books and seminars, and onto the agenda of international institutions, mainstream NGOs, the Israeli press, and the international media. You can see it on the streets as well, in the banners and chanted slogans at rallies in European capitals reviling Israel’s self-defense against Hamas.
The greatest strength of Making David into Goliath lies in Muravchik’s adroit telling of a riveting story that urgently needs to be told. Muravchik’s aim is not primarily to lambaste the intellectuals, political leaders, and activists who contrived to reshape the international view of Israel, but the historical account of their malice and duplicity amply convicts them.
In Muravchik’s causal explanation for the shift on Israel, the intellectual reframing of the conflict appears to have been the more potent factor. The other causal thread he emphasizes—the power and influence of Arab-Muslim regimes—clearly mattered too, but less than the New Left/progressive paradigm. There is one issue the book could have spent more time examining, namely how the apostles of that paradigm and their backers were able to succeed in defiance of the actual facts about Israel. We are left to wonder what impact the better scholars and political leaders had in resisting the anti-Israel trend, and what role wider intellectual currents, particularly moral-philosophical forces, played in the turnabout of world opinion.
Notwithstanding, Muravchik deserves praise for illuminating how Israel’s antagonists contrived to recast that beleaguered state as an international pariah. And how they succeeded in doing so, leaving Israel much the worse for wear.
Elan Journo is a fellow and the director of policy research at the Ayn Rand Institute. His book on post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy, Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled War Against Islamic Totalitarianism, was published by Lexington Books in 2009.