By kind invitation of Robert Halfon MP, the Henry Jackson Society and the Friends of Israel Initiative was pleased to host a panel discussion. The distinguished panel included The Hon. José Maria Aznar, former Prime Minister of Spain, The Hon. Marcello Pera, former president of the Italian Senate, Andrew Roberts, a world famous historian and author, and Anthony Julius, a prominent British lawyer and academic. The panel discussed the Friends of Israel Initiative’s campaign to bring reason and decency back to the issue of Israel.
The Hon. José María Aznar
I would first like to thank the Honourable Robert Halfon, MP, Alan Mendoza and all the people at the Henry Jackson Society. Thank you for making this event possible. I cannot think of a better place to launch the Friends of Israel Initiative than the House of Commons, the very cradle of modern democracy.
We are here today, Marcello Pera, Andrew Roberts and myself, because on May 31st we gathered together with other friends, such as the former president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo; former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton; French investor Robert Agostinelli; the representative in the Italian parliament, Fiamma Nerestein; the former Spanish minister Carlos Bustelo; the catholic theologian George Weigel, and Lord Trimble (though I have to say that Lord Trimble, having been subsequently appointed to the Inquiry commission on the Flotilla incident, has frozen his activities with us until his work is completed, his absence being filled by the incorporation of Lord Weidenfeld); we all gathered together to launch a new and vital project.
All of us were and remain motivated by a deep concern at the increasing size and speed of the delegitimation campaign being conducted against the State of Israel, against its right to exist, and against its right to act in self-defence. We all believed that it was necessary that somebody should stand up and say, enough is enough, that over emotive and often irrational modes of discourse about Israel are simply not acceptable, that they should be replaced with reason and decency. We come from different continents, and from a variety of personal experiences. And the key element, I believe, is that, we are non-Israelis and mainly non-Jews. We are, simply put, concerned citizens, concerned democrats.
Why would such a bunch of disparate people feel inclined to defend Israel knowing that we will automatically be stigmatized as Zionist agents, as neo-conservative conspirators, or something worse? The answer is very simple, as I’m sure Marcello and Andrew will elaborate later on: because we live in a world where losing our moral bearings, losing our identity, losing the faith in our democratic societies, can only bring our own destruction. We are used to seeing on TV, and sometimes at closer quarters, the imperatives and consequences of, let me call it, hard-wars. But besides, below or above conflicts like the one being waged in Afghanistan, there is something else going on, let me call it a soft-war. By which I mean an attack on our core values, on our very way of life.
For all the founder members of the Friends of Israel Initiative, Israel is a western democratic country, which is in the forefront of a civilizational struggle. Israel is firmly anchored in the West because we share the same roots, values, interests, and ambitions; because we share an open political system; the same prosperity-oriented economy; the basic goals to live in peace.
You will see in our first statement, copies of which you will find by the door, why we think what we think and why we do what we do. But why now, you may ask? Basically because the world is currently undergoing profound and rapid changes that will have enduring consequences for all of us. We see an emboldened Iran, pursuing nuclear weapons; we see traditional allies of the West asserting themselves in ways that are not always benign or constructive, like Turkey, for instance; we see a Europe focused on economic survival that disregards existential topics like the rise of political Islam among us; and we see a United States of America sending out signals that she no longer places as much emphasis as before on her leadership position of the free world, let alone as the world’s policeman. And there are many other trends surfacing that point to an ever more weakened west.
We need to reinforce ourselves. There are many ways to do it on a national basis. But we, as a global group, believed that our best contribution would be to reinforce the international standing of Israel. Because many had come to the conclusion that Israel may be the weakest link. That a criticized Israel may evolve in time into an isolated Israel; and an isolated Israel may become a pariah state. At that point, anything could be possible.
That’s why we believe halting this process of eroding the rights of Israel is not only important, but vital: To Israel, of course, but to all western countries. As I put it in a recent op-ed in the Times, “if Israel goes down, we all go down”.
Let me conclude by saying one more thing. We don’t pretend to serve or act as a rapid reaction force every time Israel finds itself in crisis. We would never get a moment’s rest if that were our aim. Our goal is to be proactive and constructive. We aspire to make the case for Israel as a normal country, with all the virtues and, yes, all of the defects of a normal democratic society. We want to make our case sustainable over time. Israel is usually portrayed in a very negative way. We want, and we need, to open a space to discuss Israel and the wider region in a more rational way. It will take a lot of effort, and time, as well as money. But we believe we will see results. You don’t win wars by adopting a purely defensive posture. Neither do you win wars by simply focusing on the particular crisis of the moment.
We decided to start moving with our Initiative because we all shared a sense of urgency. It wasn’t an easy decision, I have to say. And you only have to remember that the very same day we were meeting for the first time, Israel was subjected to the most severe international condemnation after defending itself from a flotilla that was deliberately designed as a weapon of mass provocation.
We are here to be practical about our values and goals. We are not here because we want to be loved. Nonetheless, I have been heartened by the support that we are already getting. In the first days of putting our mission statement on the web, we received thousands of signatures supporting it, and supporting our Initiative generally. With your help and goodwill, we will succeed. I commend this new Initiative to all of you. Thank you very much.
The Hon. Marcello Pera
Point 4 of the Friends of Israel initiative says:
Western democracy will not prevail unless we recognize and assume the Judeo-Christian cultural and moral values that first gave rise to the institutions and the values that initially inspired them, and strengthen them. The assault on Israel is itself an assault on Judeo-Christian values.
The same concept is also expressed in the last statement of the document, where it declares that we intend to reaffirm the value of the religious, moral, and cultural Judeo-Christian heritage as the main source of the liberal and democratic Western society. Nobody doubts that European and Western liberal and democratic institutions have a special standing and should be safeguarded. It may be argued and it has been indeed even hotly argued whether our institutions should be promoted, some say “exported”, elsewhere. However, the fact that liberal democracy, that is, our Western regime, is one of the best, if not the best possible arrangement of society, is a point everybody seems to agree on. Why so? Scholars and politicians have often considered the second half of the 20th century as the outset of an “Age of Rights.” The 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, together with the many following Charters, marks a break in modern history and represents a peaceful revolution. We got over totalitarianisms and World War II by recognizing that people, both individually and collectively, enjoy rights over and above political authority. These rights are taken to be prior to, and independent of, the state. The state does not grant them, it simply “recognizes” them, as if they were “out there” in an external, not man-made world.
To use old-fashioned but still familiar language, people possess natural rights and are subject to natural law. And if people have natural rights, political institutions must respect them and must be devised accordingly, that is, they should be liberal and democratic. “Liberal” means that the State is a means to promote individual and collective freedom, while “democratic” means that everybody has his share in the political institutions.
Natural rights and natural law are so important for us today that we take them as yardsticks. They are standards and criteria by which we judge political regimes. A regime violating natural rights is considered illiberal and undemocratic. A regime that does not fully recognise natural rights is thought of as not entirely liberal and democratic. Human rights are, then, the pillars of our regimes: we appreciate the latter because we hold to the former.
To avoid misunderstandings, let us note that yardsticks by themselves do not provide practical suggestions, that is to say, they do not advocate policies. Moral and political yardsticks let us see whether or not a certain regime is democratic, but they do not tell us what we should do when a regime is not. In particular, the liberal and democratic yardstick does not suggest that we should make war against illiberal and undemocratic regimes. Those intellectuals who maintain that advocating Western human rights amounts to triggering a “clash of civilizations” with Islam are quite mistaken. The situation may in fact be much worse: many intellectuals today seem so scared of a clash of civilizations with Islam that they prefer to conceal even what they profess to cherish the most, that is, our system of rights. By so doing, these intellectuals hide our identity and favour that very clash they want to avoid.
A question at this point emerges. Where do human or natural rights come from? How can we justify them? Scholars, as well as politicians, differ in their opinions. Looking back at the French Revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man, quite a number of them think that human rights are a conquest of the Enlightenment and of the process of secularization sparked off by it. Others, looking at the English Bill of Rights and the American Revolution with its Declaration of Independence, believe that human rights have a rather more religious flavour, especially in the idea that man is “endowed” by his Creator with certain inalienable liberties. Still different views are held by others, including the relativistic idea that human rights are purely contingent features of a particular system, ours, which is as good as any other. Nobody however, not even the most secularist and relativistic of intellectuals, appears willing to dispute the importance of human rights.
As our document makes clear, the signatories of the Friends of Israel initiative wish to highlight one concept. The culture of human rights was born and has flourished in those countries that have been shaped by Judeo-Christianity. The Judeo-Christian idea that men are created in God’s image and are responsible toward Him for their actions has given rise to the concept of the dignity of man. The concept of the dignity of man, of the dignity of each single individual, supports the concept of human rights. And the concept of human rights is, in its turn, at the basis of liberal and democratic regimes.
Consequently, in all respects Israel is our forefather. If its culture disappears, our regimes may disappear, too. If the forefather’s heritage is endangered, we are in jeopardy as well. Israel, for us, is both a normal and a special country. A normal country, because it is like any other democracy. A special country, because the Jewish culture, which eventually became the Judeo-Christian culture of the dignity of man, is the conceptual foundation of liberalism and democracy.
This is why attacking Israel is tantamount to attacking Europe and the West. This is also why disputing Israel’s legitimacy and its right to existence means questioning democracy. And this is why we are Friends of Israel. By defending Israel, we are defending ourselves.
I would like to speak to you today as an historian, because it seems to me that the State of Israel has packed more history into her 62 years on the planet than many other nations have in six hundred. There are many surprising things about this tiny, feisty, brave nation the size of Wales, but the most astonishing is that she has survived at all. The very day after the new state was established, she was invaded by the armies of no fewer than five Arab countries, and she has been struggling for her right to life ever since. And that is what we are here for today, to reiterate Israel’s right to self-defence, inherent in all legitimate countries.
From Morocco to Afghanistan, from the Caspian Sea to Aden, the 5.25 million square miles of territory belonging to members of the Arab League is home to over 330 million people, whereas Israel covers only eight thousand square miles, and is home to seven million citizens, one-fifth of who are Arabs. The Jews of the Holy Land are thus surrounded by hostile states 650 times their size in territory and sixty times their population, yet their last, best hope of ending two millennia of international persecution – the State of Israel – has somehow survived. When during the Second World War, the island of Malta came through three terrible years of bombardment and destruction, it was rightly awarded the George Medal for bravery: today Israel should be awarded a similar decoration for defending democracy, tolerance and Western values against a murderous onslaught that has lasted twenty times as long.
Jerusalem is the site of the Temple of Solomon and Herod. The stones of a palace erected by King David himself are even now being unearthed just outside the walls of Jerusalem. Everything that makes a nation state legitimate – bloodshed, soil tilled, two millennia of continuous residence, international agreements – argues for Israel’s right to exist, yet that is still denied by the Arab League. For many of their governments, which are rich enough to have economically solved the Palestinian refugee problem decades ago, it is useful to have Israel as a scapegoat to divert attention from the tyranny, failure and corruption of their own regimes.
The tragic truth is that it suits Arab states very well to have the Palestinians endure permanent refugee status, and whenever Israel puts forward workable solutions they have been stymied by those whose interests put the destruction of Israel before the genuine well-being of the Palestinians. Both King Abdullah I of Jordan and Anwar Sadat of Egypt were assassinated when they attempted to come to some kind of accommodation with a country that most sane people now accept is not going away.
‘We owe to the Jews,’ wrote Winston Churchill in 1920, ‘a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all wisdom and learning put together.’ The Jewish contribution to finance, science, the arts, academia, commerce and industry, literature, philanthropy and politics has been astonishing relative to their tiny numbers. Although they make up less than half of one per-cent of the world’s population, between 1901 and 1950 Jews won 14 percent of all the Nobel Prizes awarded for Literature and Science, and between 1951 and 2000 Jews won 32 percent of the Nobel Prizes for Medicine, 32 percent for Physics, 39 percent for Economics and 29 percent for Science. This, despite so many of their greatest intellects dying in the gas chambers. Civilization owes Judaism a debt it can never repay, and support for the right of a Jewish homeland to exist is the bare minimum we can provide. Yet we tend to treat Israel like a leper on the international scene, merely for defending herself, and threatening her with academic boycotts if she builds a separation wall that has so far reduced suicide bombings by 95 percent over three years. It is a disgrace that no senior member of the Royal Family has ever undertaken an official visit to Israel, as though the country is still in quarantine after more than six decades.
Her Majesty the Queen has been on the throne for 57 years and in that time has undertaken 250 official visits to 129 countries, yet has not yet set foot in Israel. She has visited 14 Arab countries, so it cannot have been that she wasn’t in the region. Although Prince Philip’s mother Princess Alice is buried on the Mount of Olives because of her status as Righteous Among Gentiles, the Foreign Office ordained that his visit to his mother’s grave in 1994 had to be in a private capacity only. Royal visits are one of the ways legitimacy is conferred on nations, and the Coalition Government should end the Foreign Office’s de facto boycott.
After the Holocaust, the Jewish people recognised that they must have their own state, a homeland where they could forever be safe from a repetition of such horrors. Putting their trust in Western Civilisation was never again going to be enough. Since then, Israel has had to fight no fewer than five major wars for her very existence. She has been on the front line in the War against Terror and has been fighting the West’s battles for it, decades before 9/11 or 7/7 ever happened. Radical Islam is never going to accept the concept of an Israeli State, so the struggle is likely to continue for another sixty years, but the Jews know that that is less dangerous than entrusting their security to anyone else.
Very often in Britain, especially when faced with the overwhelmingly anti-Israeli bias that is endemic in our liberal media and the BBC, we fail to ask ourselves what we would have done placed in their position? The population of the United Kingdom of 63 million is nine times that of Israel. In July 2006, to take one example at random, Hezbollah crossed the border of Lebanon into Israel and killed eight patrolmen and kidnapped two others, and that summer fired four thousand Katyusha rockets into Israel which killed a further forty-three civilians.
Now, if we multiply those numbers by nine to get the British equivalent, just imagine what we would do if a terrorist organization based as close as Calais were to fire thirty-six thousand rockets into Sussex and Kent, killing 387 British civilians, after killing seventy-two British servicemen in an ambush and capturing eighteen. There are absolutely no lengths to which our Government would not go to protect British subjects under those circumstances, and quite right too. Why should Israel be expected to behave any differently?
In the course of researching my latest book on the Second World War, I recently visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walking along a line of huts and the railway siding where their forebears had been worked and starved and beaten and frozen and gassed to death, were a group of Jewish schoolchildren, one of whom was carrying over his shoulder the Israeli flag, a blue Star of David on white background.
It was a profoundly moving sight, for it was the sovereign independence represented by that flag which guarantees that the obscenity of genocide – which killed six million people in Auschwitz and camps like it – will never again befall the Jewish people, to whom the rest of Civilisation owes so much. I said at the start that I was speaking to you as an historian, and so I say: No people in History have needed the right to self-defence and legitimacy more than the Jews of Israel, and that is what we in the Friends of Israel Initiative demand here today.
I am going to talk about the purpose of the Friends of Israel Initiative, and then discuss the arguments that go backwards and forwards, that suggest some way that we might anticipate victory. I was thinking about the nature of friendship. In political terms, that automatically leads one to a consideration of political enmity. Political enmity is something that Jews have had occasion to reflect on for many centuries. In the text that is read at Passover, it is said that there will always be enemies rising up against the Jews. The question that was asked by early Zionists is whether that would continue to be the case, in the contest of the existence of a Jewish state. The optimists argued that there would no longer be any enmity towards the Jews, because it was in the character of anti-Semitism that it stems from the agitation caused from stateless Jews. If the Jews were to be given a state they would by ‘normalised’, and anti-Semitism as well as enmity would be extinguished forever. The pessimists, who were drawing on several lifetimes of experience, believed a specific enmity towards Jews would always be with us. A Jewish state would do nothing more than provide that enmity with a new focus.
The great Jewish Zionist realist Binyamin Herzl wrote that he took issue with both of these groups. In relation to the optimists he said that once the Jewish state is instated it will have enemies, they will be the type of enemies that states typically have with regards to matters such as scarcity of resources or international coalitions. Anti-Semitism itself however will not diminish. This is not in explicit disagreement with what the ‘pessimists’ said, however to them he stated; that the level of anti-Semitism will diminish with the existence of Israel, but there will of course still be anti-Semites. Above all this however, he said the Jewish state will be the guarantor and last resort of Jews everywhere in the world.
I think on an occasion such as this, which is all about organising to come to the aid of Israel, we should recognise that this relationship between us is a reciprocal one, and has in fact been reciprocated. Israel is no less required as a defender, as it requires defence. We find that the states that have not been peaceful, that have abutted, have purely in our analytical terms, become utterly infected with anti-Semitism. As a result what one finds with the state of Israel, negotiating and dealing as any other state might with its local and mutual rivals, potential partners and potential adversaries, it is constantly struggling to rise above a kind of swamp like mass of anti-Semitic sentiment. This sentiment constantly talks about Jewish power, malevolence, and financial influence.
This makes it almost impossible for ordinary political discourse to govern relations with Israel. It has encouraged a reconfiguration of anti-Semitism, in which Israel so to speak plays a part, which was played in previous generations by the likes of Jewish plutocrats, Jewish revolutionaries or Jewish non-believers. This anti-Semitism goes back through the middle ages and to Roman times where Tacitus’ perception of Jews was that they were the enemy of mankind. Today’s enemies are from the left and the right, religions that we notionally share a monotheistic inheritance, as well as enemies beyond that.
It might appear a little daunting as a prospect. In my own sense, it is that we and not just we here are more than equal to that challenge. We can address both left and right, with better arguments, a more accurate understanding of history, with a greater conviction in the virtue and justice of our cause. In due course, through much anguish, distress and pain, I believe that we will prevail. I hope that when history comes to be written, today will be regarded as a significant moment.