It has long been axiomatic that Israel—a tiny country whose people comprise a tenth of a percent of the world’s population and whose land mass is an exponentially smaller fraction of a percent of the planet’s land mass—gets the sort of media attention that would be appropriate for one of the largest nations. Anything that happens in Israel is considered big news, no matter what it is. Just as often, the same rule applies when events happen elsewhere in which Israel has no direct or even indirect involvement.
So when a land war takes place in Europe between vastly larger states—as has now happened as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine—we seem to take it for granted that somehow Israel is part of the story.
From the very beginning of the conflict, the world demanded to know what Israel’s position was on the war. Everyone wanted to know just how enthusiastic or vocal Israel would be in condemning Russian aggression. The international press was just as eager to find out if it would be in the lead in sending aid to the beleaguered Ukrainians, help isolate Russian oligarchs who were close to Moscow’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin or take in Ukrainian refugees?
As a result, the Jewish state’s role has gotten more attention than many of the neighboring nations who are actively involved in the resupply of the Ukrainians. Indeed, accounts of Israeli policy are far more ubiquitous than the actions of those other formerly “captive” nations that were, like Ukraine, part of the Soviet Union, but which gained their independence after its fall, and therefore very much threatened by Russian aggression.
As a result, and though Israel neither started the war nor played any part in it, it has come under criticism from the United States, the Ukrainians and their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as from ordinary Israelis and Jews for what it has and hasn’t done. Predictably, Jew-haters and anti-Zionists have seized upon this crisis, as they do with all others, to concoct a narrative that attempts to spin Israel as either in some way responsible for the continuation of the suffering or for committing crimes that are comparable to those of Russia.
That this is unfair and often malicious is not in question. It’s also true that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s often ill-conceived attempts to navigate through the double standards and unsubstantiated criticisms that have been directed at his country and its government have to no small extent made the problem worse.
But the main takeaway from these disturbing facts has little to do with Bennett’s inexpert leadership or even the merits of the critiques of Israeli policy. The reason why Israel has been thrust into this problem is no different from any of the other double standards by which it is judged or the bias that distorts media coverage of the Middle East. The disproportionate attention devoted to Israel on the Ukraine issue is simply unimaginable without the influence of anti-Semitism on every discussion that involves the Jewish state.
Part of the problem has to do with the way Jews themselves speak of their obligations—and by extension, those of Israel to do right in every conceivable situation. This is part and parcel of the universalistic aspect of Jewish identity that is at the root of many of the teachings of Judaism.
By the same token, many Jews have been outspoken about criticizing Jerusalem for not taking the lead in opposing Russia. They seem to take it for granted that the policies of Israel must be guided solely by moral imperatives and not the realpolitik principles that motivate other nations, including some that are the loudest about the need to stop Putin and roll back the Russian conquests of Ukrainian territory.
That strain of Jewish universalism has been accentuated by the way sympathy for Ukraine has seemed to replace virtue signaling about coronavirus pandemic precautions, and before that, support for the Black Lives Matter movement on social media and among the chattering classes in the West.
As it happens, Israel has good reason to be cautious about getting involved in this war. Russia is a major military power in the Middle East with a powerful presence in Syria. The two countries have worked out a modus vivendi in which Moscow has acquiesced in Israeli attacks on Iranian forces in Syria. If Bennett were to jeopardize that fragile relationship for the sake of a largely meaningless gesture of support for Ukraine, it would mean sacrificing the security of Israeli citizens who are directly threatened by both Iran and its terrorist allies in neighboring Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Yet that’s not only what the United States has seemed at times to demand but also what a not inconsiderable number of Jews think would be the right thing to do.
Further pressure has been placed on Israel by a desperate Zelensky, who has deployed his Jewish identity to help generate more sympathy for his cause. One can’t fault him for playing the Jewish card in this manner since he has few others in his hand. But in spite of our admiration for his stand against Russia, the idea that the defense of Ukraine is a specifically Jewish issue is simply wrong.
Bennett has also fallen into the traps set for him by friends and foes. While it is true that Israel has relatively cordial relations with both the combatants, they were not alone in that fact. Their prime minister felt so pressured by his critic that he dove headfirst into the diplomatic morass with a dramatic Shabbat flight to Russia in which he attempted to facilitate negotiations to end the war. But rather than silence Israel’s critics, his mission to Moscow only gave them more fodder, as he was bashed for being an inexpert mediator. Having bowed to pressure to condemn the invasion, it was generally treated by most observers as not strong enough. Even if they are well-intentioned, short of a miracle, it’s hard to see how his efforts will do Israel or anyone else much good.
Bennett’s government was further embarrassed by its efforts to set limits on the intake of Ukrainian refugees, which were soon reversed. It can be argued that Israel has taken in refugees on a scale that is out of proportion to its small size. But while it has an obligation to take in Ukrainian Jews or those related to Jews, the coverage of the contretemps rested on the bizarre notion that a small Middle East nation has a greater responsibility for solving a sudden massive refugee problem than many larger nations in the West and elsewhere.
Still, there is more at work here than Jews demanding to hold the Jewish state to a higher standard than they would any other nation.
The attention devoted to Israel and the widespread efforts to smear it as somehow pro-Putin—and by extension bearing some of the blame for his atrocities—must also be viewed in the context of every other unfair or libelous accusation about practicing “apartheid” or using “disproportionate force” in its self-defense. One doesn’t need to dig too deep to see the strain of prejudice that underlies the willingness to treat Israel’s policies about Ukraine as somehow more noteworthy or insufficient than those of any other small nation unconnected to the fighting.
It’s impossible to ignore the conclusion that the willingness of the media and most other critics to treat Israel differently than they would other countries is a function of prejudice against Jews. Rather than seek to disprove or debunk the lies being told about it, Israel’s government would do well to stop pretending that it can fix a problem that the rest of the world can’t solve. The anti-Semitism that is behind this double standard is a fact of life for the Jewish state. Its leaders ought to simply do what is in the best interests of their citizens and treat these new critics with the same disdain that others who bash Israel deserve.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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