When Joshua Muravchik wrote this book, he could not have known how timely it would turn out to be. He would not have been surprised, however, by the worldwide condemnation of Israel for its “disproportionality” and “lack of restraint” in response to recent Hamas rocket attacks. He writes that “Hamas’ unyielding avowal of intent to eradicate Israel, made real by a barrage of rocket fire over the border, prompted Israel to . . . launch recurrent strikes at terrorists and their facilities,” and, next, to launch Operation Cast Lead (2008-09), “an invasion of Gaza aimed at crippling Hamas’ offensive apparatus.” The response was a rebuke of Israel by such figures as Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Kofi Annan, as well as by the British press, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the worldwide left, and the infamous Goldstone Report (later repudiated by Judge Goldstone himself). In fighting back against Hamas, so the narrative went, Israel alone was guilty of “war crimes.”
The subject to which Muravchik devotes Making David into Goliath is why and how the world turned against the Jewish state. At its beginning in 1948, Israel had broad global support; in America, both Republicans and Democrats, including the entire liberal/left-wing community, supported it. Israel’s story became familiar to Americans when, a decade after the country’s birth, Leon Uris’s novel Exodus became a worldwide sensation and bestseller that outsold even Gone with the Wind and was subsequently adapted into a movie starring Paul Newman. Uris’s depiction of the heroic struggle of Palestine’s Jews to build a state out of the existing Yishuv in Palestine moved people all over the world, creating great sympathy for Israel, especially in the United States.
The question Muravchik raises is: Why did this positive feeling erode, both here and in Europe? After Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, the narrative that was quickly adopted was not that of 1948, in which beleaguered Israel valiantly fought for its survival as a state against the Goliath of invading Arab powers. It was replaced by the opposite: Israel had been transformed into Goliath, using its superior power to defeat and destroy Palestinians who were fighting for their own people. Suddenly, the Arab powers had become David, standing against the Israeli behemoth.
What had happened to create this new paradigm? First, the Arab cause became that of defending the right of Palestinians to create their own state. This narrative developed because of the fight waged by Yasser Arafat, who created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to represent Palestinian Arabs, and who forged an alliance on its behalf with the Soviet Union as well as China. As Muravchik writes:
The Arabs, notwithstanding their regressive social and political practices, nor their recent [World War II] alignment with the fascist power, now, in the guise of the Palestinians, assumed a place among the forces of virtue and progress while the Israelis were consigned to the ranks of the villains and reactionaries.
The Arabs were now allied with the new totalitarian powers, represented by the Communist states; but this did not harm the Arab cause, since progressives on the left believed these nations to be on the right side of history. Hence, a hero like Nelson Mandela became a friend and supporter of the opponents of Israel, as well as a supporter of Fidel Castro and Latin leftists who saw Israel as an oppressor of their brothers in the Middle East.
Adding to this new counter-narrative was Israel’s stunning military victory in 1967, which resulted in Israel controlling what had been Arab territory in the Sinai, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. The Arab states, which continually rejected Israeli offers to negotiate the disposition of these conquered territories, now condemned Israel—the victor in the war—as “occupiers and of having entered a new phase of colonial settlement and oppression.” The international left, previously sympathetic to Israel, now joined the Arab states in viewing Israel as the sole impediment to peace for refusing to give back land won in battle and not accepting all Arab demands. Israel, they argued, was the only power standing in the way of the creation of a new Palestinian state.
Among the most important sections of this book are those that offer critiques of intellectual and political celebrities who have given legitimacy to the Arab cause and whose posturing has become an effective tool for the growing chorus against Israel. The most important one discussed here is the late Edward Said, a member of the Palestinian National Council of the PLO and whose Orientalism (1978) gave intellectual credibility to this new portrayal of Israel. Muravchik’s discussion of Said is a tour de force: He meticulously analyzes the errors, weaknesses, and obfuscations of Said’s celebrated work and reveals how, to the leftist academy, he succeeded in his task of moving the left away from a class-struggle analysis to a portrayal of Arabs and Palestinians as the truly oppressed group, while their opponent, Israel, represented the imperialist and racist West.
Muravchik’s chapter on how the Western left, in particular, moved against Israel concentrates on the key role of the late Austrian chancellor, the Social Democrat Bruno Kreisky (1911-1990). A vice president of the Socialist International (of which the Israeli Labor party was a member in good standing), Kreisky worked to move the SI against Israel. He invited Arafat to address the group, and he brought in anti-Israeli movements, such as Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. Working closely with West German chancellor Willy Brandt, he not only managed to turn Europe against Israel, but, as Muravchik writes, he used his own Jewish lineage “as a shield allowing him to take on the Jewish world with a fierce pleasure that would have been impossible for a gentile politician.”
Muravchik also argues that the election of Menachem Begin as prime minister in 1977 worked to alienate many former supporters of Israel. Under Begin, “the image of Israel . . . was shorn of features that had made the country appealing to many outsiders,” and the 1982 Lebanon war caused a further decline in Israel’s prestige. (Muravchik’s critical appraisal of Begin’s policies, by the way, shows that he is not an indiscriminate apologist for Israel.) Within Israel, the emergence of a leftist academy from which the anti-Israel “new historians” emerged in the 1980s revealed that, as in the United States, a leftist group of historians could provide a pro-Palestinian narrative in support of the theory that Israel and Zionism were born in sin. Their books and studies became an arsenal used by the Western left to show that Israel was no progressive force in the world, and in the United States, the remnants of the New Left worked to support the Palestinian narrative and helped turn many mainline Protestant denominations against Israel.
Now, Muravchik concludes, it is Israel that is in the dock, and this important book is the best source available to show readers how and why Israel is seen as a victimizer and oppressor, not as a David facing a vast array of Arab reactionaries.
Ronald Radosh is the coauthor, with Allis Radosh, of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.