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Tuesday, March 18, 2003
THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT
I don't like to say much about Israel. Everything about that country and what it represents is conflicting to me. On the one hand, Israel has a lot to admire. It is a successful country in a region of failed states, a David who has successfully defended itself against Goliaths, and a democracy that is generally much more respectful of civil liberties than its dictatorial neighbors. Further, it represents the solution to a real problem-- Anti-Semitism still exists, and there is a need for a place where Jews can go to escape it. And it faces discriminatory obstacles that other states don't face, because of its Jewish identity. For instance, the U.N. is structured to prevent Israel from participating in many of its functions (because Arab and European states have conspired to prevent its "listing" in any of the regional sub-groups that form the structure of the UN).
But you know there is an "on the other hand" coming here. Israel is the one state in the world that officially endorses torture (although the US is unfortunately moving in that direction). Israel has become worse and worse at impinging on its subjects' freedom of religion, to satisfy an Orthodox constituency that, for the most part, refuses to serve in the army which protects them from certain annihilation, and which is generally a backward presence in a forward country (many are on welfare, don't work, or insist on studying Scripture at government expense; many insist on having many more children than the society can support on the small strip of land that is Israel; many refuse to enter the 21st Century on issues such as gender equality). And most importantly, Israel insists on occupying, but not annexing (and that distinction is important), the land of Arabs, and settling Jews in that land (a form of demographic manipulation that borders on ethnic cleansing) in order to fulfill a Biblical vision that Arabs do not, and should not be required to, subscribe to. This occupation denies the Arabs any right to choose those who govern them, while privileging the settlers with preferred access to scarce water, housing subsidies, and full political participation in Israel's affairs.
Also, I object to Israel's sanitizing of its history. For many years, the official position of Israel was essentially that Zionists came and settled an empty land between the sea and the Jordan River to escape persecution, and the world eventually came to recognize their state, first as part of the British Palestine Mandate, and then through the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The Arabs then attacked the new state three times, and Israel successfully and valiantly defended itself. During the first of those three wars, many Arab residents of the new state fled rather than agreeing to live under Jewish rule, and those Arabs were then cynically placed in refugee camps by Arab states who used the existence of Israel to channel opposition away from their despotic governments.
There is, of course, a lot of truth to this narrative. But there is also a lot of it that isn't true. Israel's creation was an act of original sin-- irreversible, and at the same time making what occurred thereafter a foregone conclusion. While it was easy enough for the British to draw up maps dividing the area of Palestine between Arabs and Jews, what actually happened on the ground was that a lot of Jews moved into a land populated by Arabs, talking about how they were reclaiming land that they had been driven out of in centuries past. The Arabs, understandably resisted, and when a state was proclaimed, they went to war against that state, which they had no input in the creation of. I would suppose that the Arabs of pre-1948 Palestine viewed the Jewish settlers the same way that Native Americans viewed American frontiersmen and women who settled the West, claimed title to the land, and then sought statehood from the US government. In both cases, the interlopers came in and transferred sovereignty to themselves, thereby dispossessing the previous residents of control over their affairs.
Nothing, of course, can or should be done about 1948. (If colonial powers had it to do over again, they might have created Israel in a place that was less populated and had no religious meaning to Jews (as religion is what has inexorably led to Israel's provocative policies on settlement and Jerusalem), and would have compensated anyone who was living there at the time.) You can't unring that bell. But at the same time, Israelis and their supporters should not be entirely surprised that many Arabs do not concede the state's right to exist. The creation of Israel did constitute the dispossession of Arab land.
Why the history lesson? Because, today, as we are on the cusp of war with Iraq, Israel is a much-discussed topic. The Bush Administration has announced the outline of a peace proposal, at the urging of its allies. A Virginia congressman, Jim Moran, has placed his foot in his mouth by making the untrue charge that powerful Jews are driving the war effort in order to further interests of Israel-- a charge that is echoed by Pat Buchanan. And Moran's critics are accusing him of anti-Semitism.
I think it is wise to stay clear of charges about "powerful Jews". While some Jewish and pro-Israel groups (such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) are powerful in Washington, and there is statistical overrepresentation of Jews in certain professions (the film industry, lawyers, etc.), the fact of the matter is that people perk up their ears at generalizations about Jews for very good reason. It's very easy for people to slip from "some Jewish groups are very powerful" to "the Jews control the world"-- and the latter was the Nazis' libelous charge that riled up the German population towards supporting some of the worst acts in human history.
But it's also very easy to throw the anti-Semitism charge against legitimate criticism of Israel, and of American foreign policy towards the Middle East. For instance, as I note above, any dispassionate analysis of what occurred in 1948 can show that there is substantial merit to the contention that Arabs were unfairly dispossessed of their land by the creation of the state of Israel. Given that, how is arguing against the existence of Israel anti-Semitic? (What is anti-Semitic is when such arguments are coupled with other arguments or policies that treat Israel unfairly, e.g., false claims that the Jews were never in the Holy Land in ancient times, or the refusal to judge Israel by a standard that is applied consistently to Arab states, which are far more oppressive.) I don't make that argument; I believe that Israel's existence is an established fact in 2003 (and, on balance, a very good thing), and we have to proceed from that fact. But the counter-arguments are intellectually defenisible.
And I am very concerned that all this talk of powerful Jews and anti-Semitism is distracting attention from the most underreported stories of 2003: the extent to which the Christian Right, rather than American Jews, is pushing a radical policy that would deprive the Palestinians of statehood. Of course, such arguments are usually couched in terms of Israel's security, but there are many people who go farther. Many evangelical groups are supporting the settlers in the West Bank, and believe that the Jews must ultimately control the entire West Bank because: (1) they were promised such land by God in the Bible, and (2) such control is a precondition for the second coming of Jesus. Those evangelicals are influential in the White House. Further, two important Bush Administration aides, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, apparently support a biblical claim to Greater Israel and once advised former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel should take over the entire West Bank.
So far, thankfully, President Bush has not retreated from his stated belief in a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But there are many supporters of Bush who believe in a one-state solution, driving (or "transferring", as it is spun by supporters of the policy) the Palestinians out of the West Bank. Further, these beliefs are particularly dangerous because they are based so obviously on religious claims to the Holy Land that Arabs have no obligation to accept. (I have even heard that some in the Administration actually believe that the ideal Middle East would have the Palestinians take over Jordan and the Hashemite kingdom in Jordan moved into Saudi Arabia!) The populations of Israel and the US do not have the right to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of the world merely because they have the military power to do it, and it would not be wise to do so. Someone needs to ask Perle and Feith point-blank about this issue. (Perle often gives media interviews, so he shouldn't be hard to get on the record on this.)
The point is, the debate shouldn't be about Jews or anti-Semitism. It should be about whether there is a way to provide the Palestinians with a viable state in the West Bank while guaranteeing Israeli security. And those who would stand in the way of such a policy need to be called out into public.
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