Three days before Spain’s 2004 general election, a massive bomb attack on the Madrid subway killed 191 people. When then-Prime Minister José María Aznar and his government initially pointed the finger at Basque terrorists, the public believed his government was covering up the fact that Islamist militants had exacted revenge for Spain’s decision to send troops to fight alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Spanish voted against Aznar’s party—in the apparent hope of appeasing Islamic terror.
Given his first-hand experience with how terrorism can shape political reality, Aznar more than any other European official is capable of deep sympathy with Israel. This partly explains why he is now using his name and reputation to found the Friends of Israel Initiative, which includes includes other world leaders, like Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru, and Czech playwright and one-time President Vaclav Havel, as founding members. “My conviction,” Aznar told me in a phone interview this week, “is that the best strategy to defend the West is to defend Israel.”
Israel, Aznar said, is not a Middle Eastern country but a Western country in the Middle East—the West’s first line of defense in the battle with Islamist radicals who seek to destroy Western freedom and terrorize whomever tries to stand in their way. “The harm done to Israel is damage done to the West,” Aznar said. “And delegitimizing Israel is a delegitimization of the West.”
While Aznar’s pro-U.S. sentiment was obvious to Spanish voters, his support of Israel was more muted. “There wasn’t that much opportunity to express this conviction in government,” Aznar told me. “But now I’m involved in a battle of ideas.” To express unequivocal support for the Jewish state is not the soundest political move in a country that historically has not been particularly friendly to Jews, from the Spanish Inquisition to the present day, when it has played host to massive public rallies in support of Hamas and Hezbollah.
Aznar admitted that “the majority of Spanish are extremely critical of Israel.” Radical Muslims, he explained, “help shape public opinion of Israel in Spain. And Europe is a kingdom of relativism. Our work is in convincing both the people of Europe as well as some of its leaders—and this is true even in the U.S. We are aware that there’s a long way to go, we’re at the beginning, but it’s a conviction we share with different people across the world.”
In the last few months, Aznar’s work has taken him to Israel, throughout Europe, and to the United States, where he also teaches at Georgetown University. In this full schedule of travel, he raises support for his international lobbying campaign to combat the global effort to delegitimize Israel.
The point of his organization, Aznar explained, is that it rallies the support, and solicits the membership, of non-Jews. His members are those who care deeply for both the living Israel and the biblical nation on which Western civilization was built. Unless one understands the history of the Jews and Judeo-Christian values, he said, “it’s impossible to understand the history of the Western world and Europe and where we come from.”
If many European (and American) elites believe that the world has moved beyond nationalism and toward a post-modern, multicultural utopia in which Jewish nationalism is a dangerous anachronism, Aznar will have nothing of it. For him, the evil that befalls Israel will eventually happen to the rest of us. Failure to defend Israel will only make all Western democracies more vulnerable.
The global left has shaped the debate on Israel in its efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state, leaving American liberals with a center that is skewed toward Israel’s murderous adversaries. Today’s Democratic party mainstream believes that the failure of Oslo is the exclusive responsibility of the Israeli right and has nothing to do with Arab terror, because that’s the political spectrum that the Western far-left and its Arab comrades-in-arms have framed for them—the same way that extremist groups in the Middle East regularly skew the regional political debate in the direction of their mad ideas.
Over the last decade, few have played a more public role in tilting polite opinion against Israel than George Soros. So, perhaps last week’s news that Soros is one of the main financial sponsors of J-Street shouldn’t come as a surprise—even though he and J-Street founder and director Jeremy Ben-Ami have denied since the group’s inception two years ago that the billionaire had provided any backing whatsoever. Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, is considered by many in the Jewish community to be toxic, not least for arguing that anti-Semitism is the effect of Israel’s policies, rather than the polluted mental state of anti-Semites. Nonetheless, Soros has in the past funded some Jewish organizations, while others have said they’d be happy to have his support. J-Street’s leaders could have explained their decision to take money from Soros—or simply stated that they do not reveal the identities of their benefactors. Instead, Ben-Ami and his organization lied. Why J-Street chooses to operate in the shadows is perhaps less important than the fact that it does.
It is hard to see what credibility J-Street has left in light of the clear evidence that the organization consciously intended to manipulate and deceive the public, the press, and its own members to advance an agenda that was quite different than the one that it promoted in public statements. The fact that J-Street made Soros’ foreign policy guru Mort Halperin, an uncompromising opponent of Israel and vice president of the Open Society Institute, one of its five officers and directors suggests that the organization was not just taking the billionaire’s money but also following his political line.
Yet for these self-proclaimed friends of Israel it was rarely about Israel anyway. For them, Israel is a mirror image of those aspects of American culture that make them uncomfortable: nationalism, exceptionalism, and a muscular foreign policy. Scarier yet, Israel’s most uncomplicated supporters are Evangelical Christians and those American Jews who believe strongly in both American and Jewish nationalism, and among those who are strongly attached to religious practice. However little some self-conscious liberals may know about the particulars of the Middle East conflict, they know what side their domestic enemies are on.
The other side gets it, too: The Israeli flag Sarah Palin kept prominently displayed in her office as governor was not intended to secure Alaska’s Jewish vote but to fly her colors in the U.S. culture wars. Support for Israel can mean many things, some of which are affiliated, and others contradictory—saying no to terrorists and bullies, believing in Western values, accepting the truth of God’s promises in the Bible, feeling affinity for Jews, or just showing loyalty to allies. Israel is a cultural signifier of great power among all sorts of people, even in congressional districts where there are very few Jews and where Israel is only a tiny abstract fleck on a map.
However, as the former Spanish prime minister understands, this is not just a war of symbols. It’s a real war in which the fate of families and entire peoples is at stake, not just Israel but Europe, too—which is why he has chosen to take a stand. Jeremy Ben-Ami also has an inkling that the conflict is larger than policy debates in Washington and Jerusalem, that it’s a real war, which will shape the politics of the West for the next generation—and that’s why he lied.