The recent Conservatism Conference in Jerusalem, sponsored by the Tikvah Fund, was notable in a number of respects. Besides being a gathering of almost 800 like minded people who share a moral and intellectual clarity about critical political and philosophical issues, the Conference cast both a direct and a reflected light on some of the most pressing issues confronting the West.
Yoram Hazony, one of Israel’s greatest minds, made the exhilarating point that much of the world not only respects Israel, but wants to emulate Israel. Hazony believes that foreign observers applaud our traditionalism: our traditional values, our engagement if not observance with religion, our respect for the family, community and nation.
British political commentator Douglas Murray went on to contrast attitudes in Israel with those in Europe, finding that Israelis were more comfortable embracing nationalism, patriotism, and a respect for national borders than their European counterparts.
Murray made the provocative point that guilt was driving much of the European behavior towards migrants, and this was perhaps a reason for their adopting policies that he depicted as suicidal.
While the two men seemingly contradicted each other, I think they were actually describing two sides of the same coin.
In Murray’s view, the West has been untethered from the values and the mindset that made it the West. He detects a lurking fear of reverting to 20th century behavior, much as a recovering addict fears slippage back into his own self-destructive behavior.
This fear is the product of an expansive guilt, not just of German genocidal evil, but guilt about Colonialism. Murray astutely noted this feeling in England which once “controlled much of the world,” but also noted its widespread existence in Sweden, “which never controlled anything.”
The more one looks at the picture of the West from this vantage of guilt and shame, the more one can understand both why Israel is such an outlier from the prevailing Western mindset.
Hearing that made me think about the current American self flagellation focused on “white privilege.” In the US today, “white people,” however that term is defined, are being shamed into feeling that somehow they, and all their forebears, are directly responsible for the past and ongoing persecution of whoever makes it onto the accepted list of the “oppressed.”
Why all this is happening now was unaddressed, though it might be argued that it is one of the consequences of the end of the Cold War. The Cold War provided another global confrontation for the West after its war with Fascism. Now that Communism had also been defeated, there was the opportunity to turn inward. What the West found was unnerving and revolting.
Murray pointed out that the guilt of the Europeans was also tied to their sense of luck. How was it, they ask themselves, that I was so fortunate to be born into my society instead of, per his example, in Eritrea? There is an element of survivor guilt here writ large. Why was I so blessed? What right do I have to enjoy my good fortune?
The more one looks at the picture of the West from this vantage of guilt and shame, the more one can understand both why Israel is such an outlier from the prevailing Western mindset, and why Israel is so resented in enlightened Western circles.
For all but a small group of Jewish Israelis, our national story is one of improbable aspiration and accomplishment, both against daunting odds and an indifferent, unto vehemently hostile, prevailing reality. We feel no guilt about our return nor about our conduct vis a vis Arabs, including Palestinian Arabs.
Few of us are deluded enough to think that peace will come to us if only we make it happen. Contrary to what many might think in the larger West, the sense here is that Israel exists and thrives precisely because we held fast, stayed true and found in our tradition the vision and path to our eventual redemption.
While some Israeli academics might see Israel as a Colonialist occupier, the vast majority of us see Israel’s creation as the righting of one humanity’s greatest injustices.
Thankfully, we not only feel no guilt, but also do not seek to make others feel guilty because of our existence. We feel only gratitude to Divine Providence and to the giants of our People who made it all happen.
So intead of guilt, we feel pride. And with that pride comes the resolve, consciously or otherwise, to maintain ourselves in such a way as to keep faith with all those who struggled, prayed and dreamed to make Israel a reality.
That resolve, as Hazony notes, can be and is appreciated and even envied by many around the world: in the developing world, for those hoping to emulate our success, and in the developed world, for those seeking to maintain more traditional norms.
Unfortunately, increasingly, those beset by guilt and shame see Israel as not being with it for somehow not buying into a complicity of oppression. This attitude is both reprehensible, but also puzzling. Because maybe, just maybe, Israel’s example points to a model of self-conception that is not so guilt-ridden.
There is very likely a struggle going on in the collective European heart and soul, in which Israel plays the role of a trigger. That self-hating part of the European soul expresses its torment with irrational anti-Zionism. How could it be otherwise, since Israel represents the luck and the good fortune of what Europeans had?
If that history and legacy are to be disparaged and rejected, then anything reflective or reminiscent of it must also be reviled.
To which we Israelis can only say, I am sorry you feel that way, but so be it.
Mr. Altabef is the Chairman of the Board of Im Tirtzu and a Director of the Israel Independence Fund.