Prestigious Israeli Prize Goes to Israel-Bashing Prof · 10 January 2008

By Joel Amitai - Israel Academic Monitor

Among the 2007 winners of Israel’s prestigious Emet Prize for Science, Art and Culture was Prof. Avishai Margalit in the field of philosophy. Margalit taught philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem until retiring in 2006. Also in that year he was appointed George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He is a strange but, alas, all too typically masochistic choice for the prize, since he has been defaming Israel in publications for years.

Margalit was also as late as 2005 a board member of B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization known to be harshly critical of Israel. In 2003, NGO Monitor called B’tselem “a prime source in the campaign for the de-legitimization of Israel internationally” and noted its alliances with anti-Israeli organizations like PCHR, Miftah, and Christian Aid, its “conspicuous absence of honest and balanced background information regarding the overall conflict,” and the fact that its “massive support received from several governments…is clear evidence that B’tselem is being used to intervene in the domestic politics of a sovereign and democratic state, which is entirely unethical.”

Not surprisingly, then, for over twenty years Margalit has occasionally been publishing articles and reviews in the New York Review of Books. A left-wing intellectual journal, among the NYRB’s most famous articles in recent years was Tony Judt’s “Israel: The Alternative” in 2003, which went beyond Israel-bashing to argue that Israel should cease to exist. To the best of my knowledge, NYRB has never offered its pages to a call for the dissolution of any other state; Israel alone holds the honor. And last April NYRB published George Soros’s “On Israel, America and AIPAC,” which harshly censured those three entities for failing to open a peace process with Hamas, which Soros characterized as a constructive, reasonable organization.

Margalit, though, has kept publishing in NYRB right up to the present, apparently unperturbed at being a cocontributor with authors who advocate Israel’s dismantlement or shill for Hamas. Indeed, given some of Margalit’s own statements it makes sense that he keeps his association with NYRB.

In 1988, Margalit published in NYRB “The Kitsch of Israel,” an article that heaped derision on Israel’s most cherished values and symbols. It begins with a satirical look at Israel’s commemorations of victory in warfare and of fallen soldiers. Of the book Siach Lochamim, which was published soon after the Six Day War and featured conversations with soldiers, Margalit wrote: “The clear but unstated message of the book was one of rueful moral self-congratulation: we are beautiful, but we must shoot to kill—but not before we go through an agonizing search of our tormented soul.”

Continuing in this mocking vein, Margalit went on to mention “the thriving industry of books dedicated to the memory of fallen soldiers. It was almost invariably pointed out that they secretly read the poetry of [Israeli poets] Rachel…or Alterman…. These soldiers never got much credit for their love of poetry while alive, only after their premature deaths”—sniggering along with his fellow eggheads across the Atlantic at the Israeli kitsch.

“The Six Day War,” Margalit further remarked, “was fortunate to have had one of the world’s best stage sets, the Old City walls, in the foreground. One of the co-producers of scenes from that war was the present president of Israel, an archkitschman, Chaim Herzog”—words written thirteen years after Herzog’s stirring denunciation at the United Nations of the “Zionism is racism” resolution. But wry, detached professors don’t share the vulgar sentiments of the common folk, and in the next paragraph, in connection to Jewish tourism to Israel, Margalit leers that “It is thus enough to provide a glimpse of Masada, or the Wall, or the Temple Mount, to move the ‘Jewish heart’”—putting that fatuous phrase in scare quotes just in case we don’t know he’s making fun of it.

But it gets still worse; not even Holocaust commemoration is spared the jibes of the future winner of the Emet Prize for Science, Art and Culture: “Israel’s shrine of kitsch is not, as may have been expected, the Wailing Wall, but a place that should have been furthest away from any trace of kitsch: Yad Vashem, the memorial for the Holocaust. A ‘children’s room’ has been dedicated there recently, a pitch-dark room with tape-recorded voices of children crying out in Yiddish, ‘Mama, Tate.’ This kind of kitsch even a kitschman of genius like Elie Wiesel would find hard to surpass.”

In response, Yad Vashem’s director of commemoration wrote to NYRB that “we will offer a prize of one million dollars if Mr. Margalit can prove that there exist or ever have existed in the Children’s Memorial ‘tape recorded voices of children crying out in Yiddish, ‘Mama, Tate.’” In reply Margalit stated: “In my article I incorrectly described what one hears in the children’s memorial room at Yad Vashem. For this I apologize”—apologizing, that is, only for a factual error and not at all for the cruel, contemptuous spirit of the passage that he wrote.

In September 2000 the Al-Aqsa Intifada or Oslo War broke out and kitschy Israel came under its most concerted assault since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. True to form, Avishai Margalit could not stand up for his besieged countrymen and instead treated the New York literati—most of whom had no experience or grasp of the Middle East and saw “the Palestinians” as a romantic, noble group struggling for justice—to more anti-Israeli vilification. In a May 2001 piece in NYRB called “The Middle East: Snakes and Ladders,” Margalit intoned: “I believe we are now seeing a full-fledged feud between the two communities, with daily murderous assaults in revenge for the previous day’s injuries and insults.”

An Israeli who lived through that period looks at those words in disbelief. According to Margalit, if the suicide bombings were “murderous assaults,” so were the Israeli military actions—at that time very limited and ineffectual, in large part for fear of harming Palestinian civilians—taken to try and prevent or stop the bus and restaurant and mall massacres. The inescapable conclusion is that to serve in the Israeli army at that time was to be no different from a Hamas or Islamic Jihad or Fatah terrorist; Prof. Margalit saw perfect equivalence.

He went on: “The Israeli argument is simple…. If the Palestinians were to stop the violence tomorrow, there is no question that Israel would stop its violence at once. But if Israel stops the violence tomorrow, there is no chance the Palestinians will stop theirs. This I believe is largely true. But the argument neglects the basic asymmetry between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As things stand, a cease-fire would greatly favor Israel; it would leave the Israelis with their heavily patrolled West Bank and Gaza settlements and their punitive border controls; and it would leave the Palestinians without a state. So as defenders of the status quo ante, the Israelis would be more willing to stop the feud than the Palestinians.”

In other words, the Palestinians had more to fight for and so should not have been expected to stop their attacks. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a justification of Palestinian terror against Israel. The NYRB readers must have been gratified to find their trendy attitude confirmed—and by an Israeli, no less: the Palestinians are always just and deserving of sympathy no matter what level of savagery they descend to.

In January 2003, Margalit was at it again with another, imposingly titled NYRB article, “The Suicide Bombers.” He observed that “the suicide bombers have succeeded in hurting Israel very badly, and not just by killing and injuring many civilians. A more far-reaching success is that Israel’s leaders, in retaliating, have behaved so harshly, putting three million people under siege, with recurring curfews for unlimited periods of time, all in front of the world press and television, with the result that Israel may now be the most hated country in the world. This is hugely damaging to Israel, since the difference between being hated and losing legitimacy is dangerously narrow. Throughout the world, moreover, the suicide bombings have often been taken more as a sign of the desperation of the Palestinians than as acts of terror.”

Yes, and don’t look to Avishai Margalit to use his platform in NYRB to counter these distortions. Curfews in reaction to suicide bombings—those brutal Israelis! No, all Margalit could do was join the mob: “Israel claims it is fighting a war against the ‘infrastructure of terrorism,’ but in fact it is destroying the infrastructure of the entire Palestinian society, not only its security forces and civil administration but much else as well. Many of the Israeli countermeasures are not only cruel but also irrational.… settlers have not only been preventing the Palestinians from picking their olives but have been stealing them for themselves. This is simply one small example of a policy that is not just bad but also irrational.”

Hold it now, even if some settlers were doing those things, did that mean it was Israeli policy? Was the Israeli government sending them to steal olives? Here the professor descends into inanity; anything but, for once, to stick up for the battered community of which—physically if not in any other sense—he was part. But after all, that would just be kitsch.

And then Avishai seemed to turn around and contradict himself: “Still, even when it is clear that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians are evil and irrational, it is far from clear how to confront the suicide bombers in ways that are rational and effective, as well as morally justified.” Far from clear, indeed!—especially since, by that time, moralists far from Israel egged on by disloyal Israelis had condemned every single antiterror measure Israel had taken, from curfews to roadblocks to assassinations of terror masters. Could Prof. Avishai, instead of adding his voice to this din, have done some hard, coherent thinking about just what measures would have been “rational and effective, as well as morally justified” and then suggested them? Don’t count on it.

This prize-winning academic taught philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1970 to 2006. I don’t know if he taught his political views in his classes, but professors naturally influence their students . If one wonders why Israel these days seems so unsure of itself, so vulnerable to accusations and self-doubt, the exposure of young, impressionable Israelis to “teachers” like Avishai Margalit has a lot to do with it.

Joel Amitai is an independent researcher and filmmaker. Reach him at