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John Locke in the Middle East

July 3, 2001

After more than half a century, the Arab-Israeli conflict still occupies the front pages of American newspapers. It still obsesses American opinion leaders, presidents, and diplomats, who dream of a “solution” that never seems to come and pursue a “peace process” that never brings peace.

What lies at the heart of the conflict? It isn’t land, writes David Brooks in the pro-Israel Weekly Standard. The events of the past year — “the failure of Camp David and the subsequent intifada” — have revealed that “it is a struggle over the assignment of historical guilt.”

The Palestinians, Brooks goes on, can’t hope to defeat Israel militarily, but they can hope to “undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state,” to force the Israelis “to admit that their state was founded on a crime.” “The whole dispute,” he says, “hangs on a simple question: Is Israel a criminal state?” At bottom, then, this is “a contest between historical and spiritual visions ... a war over intangibles ... a war over moral visions.”

Ignoring the historical facts of Israel’s founding, Brooks contrasts Palestinian and Israeli nationalism in exceedingly general terms. The Palestinians embrace what “looks a lot like 19th-century blood and soil nationalism (laced with a large dollop of Islamic fundamentalism)”; whereas the Israelis adhere to “Lockean nationalism.” Brooks doesn’t define these vague abstractions, but he does opine that the Israelis’ kind of patriotism is “more admirable,” because it is “infused with democratic pride, and with respect for individual opportunity.”

[Breaker quote: A philosophical 
impasse?]Whatever all this means, it sounds rather stacked against the Palestinians. The ideas of John Locke have played a decidedly small role in Israel’s founding and history; Brooks is surely the first commentator ever to mention them in connection with the Arab-Israeli struggle.

In fact, you wonder what on earth Locke has to do with the Middle East today. His doctrines did help shape our own Declaration of Independence. Is Brooks perhaps suggesting that Israel represents the “American” side in the Middle East?

But of course! Brooks says America “may soon face” the same kind of ideological “challenge” Israel now faces. “If so,” he adds, “let’s hope we behave as well as Israel ... is now doing.”

Huh? Just where is this “challenge” going to come from? And why is Israel a suitable role model for this country?

It’s hard to see why the Palestinians, on their own principles, should acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy, which means the right of Jews from around the world to dominate non-Jews with ancestral roots in the region. It’s also hard to see why the United States, based on rather Lockean ideas about race and religion, should take sides in an ethnic and religious war across the globe.

Nevertheless, Brooks insists: “The role for the United States is clear: to stand with the democratic nationalists” — the Israelis, of course — “over the blood and soil nationalists” — the Palestinians. “Those are America’s values as well as America’s interests.”

He concludes: “The struggle will be long, and it will force the people in the area — and the American people — to come to grips with the full implications of their political ideals.” If you find all this hopelessly nebulous, you aren’t the only one. All that is “clear” is that Brooks wants the United States to support Israel, no matter what.

He needn’t worry about that. American politicians don’t have to be persuaded of Lockean principles; they only have to be bought. And that has long since been taken care of.

If an honest politician is one who, when bought, stays bought, our elected representatives qualify. In 1967 the Israelis attacked the USS Liberty and killed 34 American sailors — with impunity. In 1985 Israel was found to have stolen thousands of U.S. military secrets through the spy Jonathan Pollard — with impunity. In these and many other cases, our Congress and presidents have repeatedly overlooked, and helped cover up, Israel’s flagrant treachery to its chief benefactor.

Even our scandal-loving “watchdog” press chooses not to delve too deeply into such matters. After all, Israel is, as George Will and several thousand other journalists have put it, “our only reliable ally in the region.”

The problem isn’t our “reliable ally.” It’s our reliable politicians. And our reliable media.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications

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