This piece was written after a friend vectored me onto the Wall Street Journal editorial from 19 April, “The View From Jerusalem.” (Note: Subscriber content) A day later I saw Dennis Prager’s column on a similar topic at National Review Online, “The Genesis Prediction.” The three articles are presented as a set.
Is the Middle East a line of coexistence between cultures – or is it a line of confrontation? Must the culture of the West be consigned to demonization and expulsion from this territory? Or is it possible to coexist in peace?
The latter is, of course, the aspiration of the modern West. It’s an aspiration that bears no resemblance to either the European Crusades of the Middle Ages or the Islamic conquests of Africa and Europe that preceded and followed them. But in our eagerness to disavow the armed ventures of the past, the West too often forgets today that the most fundamental prerequisite of coexistence is existence.
The reminder we have of that, in this age of guerrilla Islamism, is the nation of Israel. Israel is, inevitably, a representative of the West in her Middle Eastern setting. But the larger West – including many ordinary Americans – seems to have come to view that as an uncomfortable, untenable, and un-historical thing. And that is ultimately a suicidal perspective.
Israel represents the most important aspects of the liberal West’s very existence: nationhood, sovereignty, and religious and philosophical tolerance. At the heart of nationhood are territorial defensibility and sovereignty. Nationhood exists in the West because a nation is a defensible entity that can preserve its national life against both insurgencies and empires. The Western-style nation is the basis for consensual politics and political freedom. Nowhere outside the Western idea of a national polity – not in empires, and not under local oligarchies or tribal patriarchies – have these things ever existed.
They exist in Israel because Israel is a Western nation, in every way that matters to nationhood. Western nationhood is also the basis for religious and philosophical tolerance in Israel, where – unlike the rest of the Middle East – Jews, Christians, and Muslims can all worship openly and unmolested according to the customs of their faiths. Equally Western is Israel’s tolerance of agnosticism and even atheism. The state watches over public order, but does not, in the words of England’s Elizabeth I, demand to “make windows into men’s souls.”
The understandings of Judaism are as conducive to this pattern of statehood as they are integral to the Western philosophical tradition. In fact, both Judaism and Christianity are elements of Western culture that originated in Israel; it is modern ignorance of history – along with a healthy dose of “multicultural” affectation – that makes Westerners today think of the Levant as alien territory in which the West is an interloper. What the West has struggled toward over the centuries is, rather, the very concept of coexistence – as opposed to conquest – that modern Israel symbolizes.
But we have lost sight of the truth that coexistence can require defense and enforcement. If we don’t defend the existence of what we prize, there can be no coexistence. The Islamic East is still groping toward a principle of coexistence, weighed down by the contrary push of radical Islamists and political leaders. Indeed, the great struggle in the Middle East today is for what its character will be in that regard: a locus of coexistence, or a cultural-religious redoubt from which terrorism is exported and attacks by fanatical despots are periodically launched.
In this evolving, unsettled environment, Israel represents in microcosm everything the West as a civilization has at stake. Will we acquiesce in ethnic grievances undermining national sovereignty? Will we acquiesce in expulsion from territory long commonly occupied, on the basis of radical religious motivations or unrequitable hatreds? Will we accept not coexistence, but forcible exclusion from territory and from peaceful interaction? Above all, will we accept that there is a sort of pre-existing, regional-religious entitlement to the imposition of illiberal rule in the Middle East – rather than coming to the aid of our allies there who propose to stand against it, and who want to keep for their posterity the idea of nation-based political freedom that we ourselves would fight and die to preserve?
As the Wall Street Journal points out this week, we decided against accepting such conditions, just in the last decade, in Iraq and Afghanistan – interventions that in key ways represented a continuation of American policy since 1945. In fact, we invaded and regime-changed those nations, and made allies where previously we had enemies. The durability of those newly-minted alliances will depend directly on the comparative strengths of our cultural confidence, and the irredentist influences of the region.
In Israel, by contrast, we start out with the advantage of a likeminded ally – and one with a history of doing her own fighting. But an existential crisis for Israel is an existential crisis for the West. Defeating Israel’s Western cultural qualities on a strip of land in the Levant would be at least as meaningful as defeating them in Berlin, London, or Washington, D.C.; and in some ways more so. This is particularly true because the methodology of Israel’s enemies today is to attack not the nation, in the conventional sense, but what makes the nation possible. America, first among all nations in prizing the liberty and character that Western nationhood fosters, has an indivisible stake in Israel’s survival on that basis.
In the struggle toward global coexistence, the illiberal factions in the East have their trouble with the “co-” part. The West’s trouble increasingly is with “existence.” What America decides about our support of Israel, long-time ally and fellow democracy, is what we will decide about ourselves. Let that decision be in favor of the best the West has given mankind, of which Israel is today among the chief exemplars.
For a more extended treatment of Israel’s geostrategic significance to the West, see here.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.