In the West, when CNN credulously reports atrocities from Darfur or Bosnia or wherever, we’re often told that it is akin to the Holocaust, and intervention is therefore a moral imperative. At least in speech, the West piously accepts the charge from the Nazi’s Jewish victims that this episode was as much a moral failing of “bystanders” as it was the responsibility of the perpetrators themselves, and that therefore the whole world should stand united in the future when such events occur and intervene, militarily if need be, so that such an atrocity would happen “never again.”
But no one really acts as if this is true. It is true that the Holocaust is the chief agreed-upon symbol in the moral imagination of the Western World. It is a unique symbol, one of absolute evil. And this symbol is sometimes used, particularly by the far left, to show the fundamental moral failing of the Western World (as opposed to merely showing the failings of some of its members). For them, the Holocaust is the Evil Western World’s apotheosis, the culmination of the crusades, witch burnings, slavery, pogroms, mistreatment of indigenous peoples, etc. We all agree at a minimum that this event against these victims should not happen again. At the same time, the phrase “never again” has long meant something very different to Israelis than to Diaspora Jews and other Westerners.
For Israel is a throwback nation, a country with many western values and western technological expertise, but it is also a land of unapologetic nationalism reminiscent of the 1930s. For many Israelis, “never again” means “never again” to themselves, the Jews. And it means this even if they must inflict serious violence on marginal threats, while remaining aloof from strangers who may need their help.
As Yuri Slezkine observes in his tour de force, The Jewish Century:
[Israel is] the sole Western survivor (along with Turkey, perhaps) of the integral nationalism of interwar Europe in the postwar—and post-Cold War—world. The Israeli equivalent of such politically illegitimate concepts as ‘Germany for the Germans’ and ‘Greater Serbia’—‘the Jewish state’—is taken for granted both inside and outside Israel. (Historically, the great majority of European states are monoethnic entities with tribal mythologies and language-based high-culture religions too, but the post- 1970s convention has been to dilute that fact with a variety of ‘multicultural’ claims and provisions that make European states appear more like the United States.) The rhetoric of ethnic homogeneity and ethnic deportations, tabooed elsewhere in the West, is a routine element of Israeli political life. And probably no other European state can hope to avoid boycotts and sanctions while pursuing a policy of territorial expansion, wall building, settlement construction in occupied areas, use of lethal force against demonstrators, and extrajudicial killings and demolitions. It is true that no other European state is in a condition of permanent war; it is also true that no other European state can have as strong a claim on the West’s moral imagination.
The West, the eternal victimizers, we who must atone, must never let this happen to Israel or anyone else. We and our forces must go to Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, etc. But Israel exempts itself from this obligation, classifying itself as the victim par excellence, forever exempt from the obligation that all others must obey. Its supporters defer to this exceptional nation and this exceptional view of its obligations.
Today we read:
Israel will in future turn away all illegal entrants from Sudan’s war-torn region of Darfur, a top official says. The policy applies to new arrivals only, while some 500 people from Darfur already in Israel will be permitted to stay for “humanitarian reasons”.
Israel is struggling to stem the flow of Africans entering the country via its southern border with Egypt. Overnight, Israel handed 48 Sudanese people back to Egypt, according to Egyptian security officials.
I found this policy striking, but not surprising. Gallantry and heroism and expensive support for supplicant strangers are too much to ask from the general lot of humanity and their nations. It’s an onerous and unrealistic demand to impose upon nation states that they put others on an equal plane with their citizens. Israel, though small, is surely not stretched to the limit by these Darfur refugees. If they were Ethiopian or Russian Jews, no doubt, their immigration would be encouraged, as it has been for the last decade. No, Israel rejects these refugees for the same reasons that Gentile “bystanders” have long been condemned in the standard interpretation of the Holocaust: it is inconvenient and possibly threatening to the group’s interests to provide such assistance. How much more costly was such help for strangers when those who assisted Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe faced certain death of themselves and their families? What a miracle that so many did!
Because when “nations” stop wars and genocides, it is not nations that do so collectively. It is their soldiers, whose interests are a public trust of sorts. When nations take on refugees, it is not the nation, but individuals and communities who are affected. It is Newark and Wausau and Minneapolis who must absorb the Central American, Hmong, and Somali refugees respectively. Acts of generosity and heroism are noble sentiments that should be praised and encouraged and remembered. Yet they are rare, and their absence should not be an occasion for condemnation. It is too much to ask Ordinary Men to be heroes; it is hard enough that they do not become monsters.
Military force may be expended justly, in my view, only when that nation’s interests are at stake, not simply to help victims of political violence, including cases of genocide. It is an abuse of the public trust for a free nation’s armed to dispatch its armed forces and public funds on such crusades. It is better that war be a last resort, when clear national interests are at stake. Evils involving oppressed minorities may be dealt with through other means: boycotts, prudent refugee policies, embargoes, trade, the joining of the combatants individually as volunteers, and the like. I don’t deny that this would not always be as effective, at least in the short run. Yet a policy of “looking for dragons to slay” would undoubtedly be worse if practiced consistently. The Wilsonian notion that America, the UN, or any other group of outsiders should “do something” is the chief reason petty border squabbles can metastasize into something like World War I, when they might otherwise have been contained. In the name of creating world unity against aggression, the interventionists instead create a formula for perpetual and ever larger wars fought by enormous coalitions of people with no direct stake in the conflict. This is madness. Yet this is the fundamental premise of the United Nations and the “New World Order” and “idealist” foreign policy.
If we accept this view of things–as I do, joining many hoary conservatives, including the much-maligned America Firsters–then we must revisit the solemn invocation: “never again.” Because if “never again” means we must always go to war to protect the weak from the strong, then we’ll always be at war everywhere. Our people will suffer. And we may find ourselves victimized in turn for having created new enemies. Worse we may be unwittingly enabling future victimizers posing as victims in far flung locales involving people about whom we know very little. Consider Iraq as an example of a “humanitarian war” gone awry: who are the good guys again? Is it the Shiites? The Sunnis? Or was that last week?
If Israel expends its resources so parsimoniously on behalf of strangers in need, how persuasive is the claim from Israel and its supporters that we must do the same for strangers the globe over? In light of this shabby treatment of the Sudanese, how persuasive is the associated claim that America owes Israel substantial military and financial support to atone for our “earlier failing” to intervene directly to assist European Jews during the Holocaust?
It’s all a bunch of double standards. No one can follow them. So the principles should be revisited. And we should wisen up so that Americans and the West do not get brow-beaten into doing things that no sane nation, not least the Israelis, would ever do whether it relates to our immigration or our foreign policy.