Shiite Muslims carry pictures of Lebanese cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah as they attend his funeral in Beirut’s southern suburb on July 6, 2010.(Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)
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Hollow Men

Why Israel’s enemies will always be the darlings of Western intellectuals

Lee Smith
July 14, 2010
Shiite Muslims carry pictures of Lebanese cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah as they attend his funeral in Beirut’s southern suburb on July 6, 2010.(Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s nothing new for Western intellectuals to lavish attention and admiration on the resistance forces aligned against Israel, whether it’s Hamas or Hezbollah or even organizations like al-Qaida that are less interested in Israel than in killing and maiming Western civilians. Last week, when CNN’s former Middle East editor, Octavia Nasr, tweeted that she respected the late militant cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the cards were out on the table for all to see. But usually the pro-resistance vibe is more subtle, as when Nasr’s defenders demanded a more nuanced understanding from knee-jerk Americans who were shocked by Nasr’s support for a suicide-bomb-sanctioning man of faith. After all, Fadlallah was a relatively pro-feminist radical Islamist cleric—and if his talk about Israel was genocidal, well, that’s just part of the package when dealing with a complex place like the Middle East.

Media consumers in the United States are by now well aware that Hezbollah and Hamas provide “social services” for their communities. For the writers and television personalities who push such supposed palliatives on their audiences—“Yes, they do chant ‘kill the Jews!’ and they do act on their rhetoric, but they also educate poor kids in clean, well-lit schools (please ignore the slogans painted on the walls)”—respect for the resistance is a polite way of indicating one’s tolerance for murderous anti-Semitism. The issue is whether this attitude is in danger of seeping into the mainstream of the U.S. public. Poll numbers show that U.S. support for Israel is consistently high—in February Gallup found that a near-record 63 percent of Americans were more sympathetic to the Jewish state than to the Palestinians. But ideas can change, and it’s intellectuals who often lead the way. Remember that Israel was a popular cause among the intellectual classes until the 1967 war. It is true that the American people and the bulk of their intellectual class are far apart on the subject of Israel, but all the massive and popular evil of the last century started among a small ideological elite.

A common explanation for the turning away of the intellectuals from Israel is that the Jewish state forfeited the world’s sympathy once it was no longer perceived as the underdog in its conflict with the Arabs. Israel’s sin, in this reading, is that it didn’t lose. However, this would suggest that intellectuals misunderstand a uniquely American concept: The underdog does not win the pity of the chorus because he is crushed by his tormentors; rather, he is the champion who perseveres because the stubborn stars that rule his nature will not permit him to choose otherwise. Perhaps his friends will abandon him, and maybe his family, too; neither his wife nor children signed on for such an arduous journey. If he intends to follow this hard path, he may well travel alone. Such is the stuff of big-ticket American heroism. It is odd that the American intelligentsia cannot recognize in Israel the likeness of our literary models, Melville’s Ahab, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. Rather, the intelligentsia is more like Hester’s hypocritical neighbors. If Israel is portrayed as the Dirty Harry of nations, then its accusers are the tepid bureaucrats mistaking cowardice for compassion, who chide Clint Eastwood’s Callahan.

In reality, of course, Israel isn’t all that heroic. No one and nothing is. Israel’s men and women of honor do not accomplish Homeric deeds in south Lebanon or Gaza to the beat of martial songs, like the resistance; instead they ride the bus home on the weekend to see their parents, go out drinking with friends, and pick up the wrong guy or girl in a smoky bar with awful pop music. “Our warriors,” says one former tank driver, “are Jewish boys who are bossed around by their wives.” And yet during the war with Hezbollah four years ago, the country’s incompetent political and military leadership sent too many of those Jewish boys to their deaths, without sufficient training or a strategy for victory. It seems like almost every day there is news that another of Israel’s chief political leaders is under investigation for corruption charges, which is to say the system is rotten and the system works. To say that Israel is normal is to say that it is, like all democracies, mediocre.

Intellectuals are not interested in the quotidian mediocrity of a functioning democracy. They are interested in ideas. Once an idea is realized in the form of a political organization that must function on a day-to-day basis, it is difficult for men and women of ideas to stomach the result. For instance, it is very exciting that the United States is founded on an idea—one that upends classical political theory. Whereas the ancients believed the role of the state was to promote virtue, the moderns took a more realistic view of human nature. The United States is founded on the idea that men are mediocre when they are not murderous and that it is the role of the state to protect them from each other’s predations. For such an optimistic country like the United States, this is a very unpleasant picture of human nature, and quite a boring idea. Universal equality is not the kind of idea, in practice even more so than theory, that is apt to excite intellectuals.

Of course, intellectuals on the right and the left have been wrong about politics these last hundred years more than they have been right (or righteous). George Orwell, after all, is not a major figure who was right about communism; rather, he is a major figure because he was one of the few who was right about communism. Among the great names of U.S. and European literary modernism, it is difficult to number more than a handful who did not flirt with fascism or who were not openly anti-Semitic.

The same search for novelty and individual originality, the same disenchantment with democracy, the same desire to stand outside the mediocrity of mass culture that fueled the modernist revolution in the arts also gave rise to a dispiriting number of mass-murdering political cults, from communism to fascism and Nazism to a number of Western-inspired ideas that were realized elsewhere, from the genocidal regime of Pol Pot to Arab nationalism. Anything to change the status quo, for the West was “a botched civilization,” wrote Ezra Pound, the American poet, “an old bitch gone in the teeth.” This proudly fascist and anti-Semitic modernist master, who made radio broadcasts on Mussolini’s behalf, won the Bollingen prize for poetry in 1949—never mind Pound’s crazy politics, said his defenders, the man was a poet of genius.

You could argue that Israel is a nation of obvious appeal to the intellectual classes, even on their own terms. For instance, the rebirth of Hebrew as a living national language was the work of intellectuals. Zionism itself is an idea. If you were a person of faith, you’d simply take the restoration of the Jews as proof that God is real and acts in history. But as a man of reason, you’d see the rebirth of Israel as evidence of human progress: After 2,000 years of wandering and suffering, the Jews have a modern nation-state—things do get better. If you were a man of reason, you’d take Israel as proof that enlightenment is real.

But intellectuals are no more rational than the rest of us, and none of us are wholly rational in our politics. The attractiveness of the resistance takes place on an emotional level, for like all of the most intellectually captivating modernist grand concepts it is a rejection of the Enlightenment, the boredom and the mediocrity of regular politics. The Enlightenment did away with the blood, the magic and mysticism of the great leader, he who decides life and death with a word. And this is what is to be recovered in the resistance: the charisma and authenticity of the human being unrestrained by what Nietzsche called slave morality. From Pound and T.S. Eliot to Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault and their disciples, for a century the West’s greatest minds have taught that the privilege, and duty, of the Western intellectual is to unmake the West, even—or especially—through violence, even if someone else, like the resistance, must serve as the agent of apocalypse and rebirth. The notion that Israel is condemned because it is more powerful than its adversaries is patently false: The intellectuals are nothing if not spellbound by the economy of force, and equally so in the purgative bloodshed that ensues. The aspect of eros that Pound found in Il Duce and Foucault found in Khomeini is what the Western acolytes of the resistance see in Hamas and Hezbollah.

Some journalists shed tears when Arafat died, others are smitten by the beauty of Islamist militants: The “green eyes” of Hezbollah’s deputy Naim Qassem “are framed by thick, dark lashes and he has long elegant hands.” Saddam Hussein, we are told, did much to advance the rights of women. In Cairo I knew a former CNN producer whose first affair with an Arab intelligence officer was in Saddam’s Baghdad—a great city, she explained, if you didn’t mind the constant surveillance and widespread torture.

But this attraction of the intellectuals to the flame of the resistance is not simply based on eros alone. There is also the aspect of thanatos, the death instinct. The sad reality is that all organisms—men and the nations they populate—carry within them the seeds of their own end. While the normal run of men unwittingly nurture their demise through the wrong that has become habit and custom, the suicide overruns all limits. In reality, it is not Israel that our intellectuals despise, for that hatred is simply the latest pattern in a long century that the West’s self-loathing has taken. It is ourselves that we cannot abide.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.