Israel: The Vienna of our Time

Israel is vital to Western interests throughout the Middle East - it truly is the Vienna of our time.

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The Siege of Vienna, by Peter Snayers
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Alexandros Petersen
On 10 May 2011 09:17

In his hit BBC 4 series ‘Civilization: Is the West History?’, Niall Ferguson refers to Israel as the new Vienna, ‘a fortified city on the frontier of Western civilization’. For the well-known historian and commentator, this was an off-hand remark on the way to contrasting historical Western vigour with Eastern idleness. For those who focus on Israel a little more closely, however, it was a quip pregnant with meaning.

Simon Rocker at the Jewish Chronicle picked it up, saying ‘at least someone likes Israel on Channel 4’. But, the significance of Ferguson’s characterization goes far beyond the calcified battle lines of those traditionally pro and anti-Israel. It is important precisely because it transcends that tired debate. Through historical comparison, it reshapes the way the West ought to be thinking of Israel: not just as the Jewish state or in terms of the Middle East peace process, but as a Western outpost under siege. 

The famed Siege of Vienna in 1529 marked the beginning of a century and a half of armed struggle between a coalition of European forces and the menacing, albeit lumbering Ottoman Empire. Israel has so far been assaulted by many of its neighbours, states and non-state actors, for 63 years. If grave security threats such as Hamas, Hezbollah and a potentially nuclear Iran are not neutralized, Israel’s struggle may well go on for another century. But, regardless of its length, Israel’s struggle is not its own. It is part of the great struggle for the continued preponderance of the West.

I do not frame the struggle in this fashion to join ranks with those who believe the global struggle against Islamist extremism to be an extension of the Reconquista, the Crusades, the Ottoman devouring of the Byzantines etc. It would be inaccurate to the see the Yom Kippur War as a modern-day Lepanto. 

It is, however, accurate and instructive to see Israel for what it is: not a bothersome buddy of the United States, not an idiosyncratic result of the ‘Jewish lobby’ in the West, certainly not the ‘arrogant nation that has overreached itself’ that the Guardian feverishly lambasts. Israel is a staunch, vital and enormously useful ally of its fellow Western countries – of the U.S. as well as the UK, not to the mention the entire NATO alliance. Whether or not one has an emotional affinity for the country, it is naive and unscrupulous to see Israel any other way. 

Israel is vital to Western intelligence gathering activities throughout the Middle East. It is the centre for counterterrorism training essential in combating groups such as Al-Qaeda. And whether we want to shield our eyes from reality or not, Israel is the only state with the wherewithal, gumption and hard-headedness to face down the Iranian nuclear threat in the manner required. It should go without saying – but often does not – that Israel is its region’s only functioning democracy: a Jewish homeland that incorporates Arab Israelis in its politics and culture in ways that no other Middle Eastern state has been able to accomplish with its minorities. Even under siege, this outpost maintains one of the world’s most vibrant party political systems.

After the fall of Constantinople – the last remnant of the Roman Empire – Western European civilization survived and flourished due largely to the brave defenders of Vienna. It was this fortified city on the frontier that did the dirty work in the east, so that the seafaring empires of the Dutch, the British and the French could prosper in the west. Similarly, it is Israel that has for decades faced down threats that its Transatlantic allies would rather ignore. But, were it not for reinforcements from across Europe, the ongoing siege of Vienna would have never been lifted; in fact the city may have been subsumed into the Caliph’s domains. 

The least that Western policymakers and publics can do for Israel, the Vienna of our time, is accurately characterize its position and predicament. I hope other commentators will run with Ferguson’s description to begin to reverse the appalling demonization of one of our outposts under siege.

Alexandros Petersen is Director of Research at the Henry Jackson Society and author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.

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