Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Disingenuous debate

Israel is in the news again. As is so often the case, the debate appears to have degenerated into a competition of talking points. What's particularly tragic (in the true sense of the word) is that it does not seem that there is a real ideological rift between the two "sides" of this rhetorical war.

Take the Israeli Apartheid controversy at Pride Toronto. Apologists for the Israeli administration argue that the group is a breeding ground for anti-semitism, aimed at delegitimizing the State of Israel's very existence and all together too cosy to extreme groups like Hamas. Israel, they point out, is the closest to a modern liberal democracy in the Middle East.

Palestinian partisans are appalled by the interception of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. They are outraged that Palestinian workers are walled into a third world zone from which they must make a half-day's commute through deliberately humiliating conditions in order to find work. They point to arbitrary and bureaucratic regulations about spices in the embargo and the underprovision of the residents.

Yet both positions are selective. Both seek to uphold rights of national self-determination and democracy. Both, it is true, have unsavoury supporters in some quarters. Yet mainline political parties in both Israel and Palestine support a two-state solution at least in principle. Having met members of the contingent in question at last year's parade, I can vouch for the fact that most of them were themselves Jewish. Most supporters of Israel, similarly, are not Bush Republicans. They are people whose love of freedom and national pride causes them to be loyal to the cause of Israel's independence just as Palestinians are theirs.

These positions are not inconsistent. Liberally-minded people of all ethnic and religious communities should realize we are common allies against extremism. Under Mr Netanyahu's government, Palestinians live essentially in Bantu townships or indeed First Nations reserves. Citizens and friends of Israel cannot profess surprise when the "A" word rears its head. Countering this talk with censorship rather than refutation (for apartheid is a defined legal term and can be answered on its own merits) is self-evidently suspicious.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza participate in the reinforcement of their own oppression by electing a government dedicated to opposing Israel's enjoyment of the same rights they seek for themselves. The State of Israel was founded by international consensus in response to an urgent need for a safe haven for Jews. There was no seriously viable alternative, Uganda notwithstanding. And Partition, as noted, has broad cross-community support.

Some have been known to proclaim themselves "anti-Zionist, though not anti-semitic." The truth of the latter will of course vary from person to person, but on the former point they seem commonly mistaken. Only a few interlocutors have tried to persuade me that Israel's existence is not legitimate. More often, they seem to be using "Zionism" as a sort of metonym for imperialist elements within the Western bloc, including the United States and Israel. Yet defenders of Israel are usually, again principle, prepared to concede the possibility of legitimate criticism of Israel.

So then, why cannot moderates in both communities come together in support of mutual recognition and co-operation, unafraid to be critical wherever it is necessary and supportive wherever possible. I realize this is probably necessarily a naïve view, but I am not a political scientist, and my understanding is primarily driven by theological anthropology and what I read in the news. But it seems to me unfortunate to align based on ethnic chauvinism rather than mutual compatibility for the purpose of achieving a path to peace. To use the analogy, it seems rather like the Social Democratic & Labour Party allying with Republican Sinn Féin rather than participating in the governance of Northern Ireland on a cross-community and democratic basis.


Nathaniel said...

I don't believe Israel has an inherent right to exist or that it is legitimate, but that is because I think those are litmus tests I don't want to participate in. I don't believe any states, particularly settler-colonial states, have this right to exist. Although I'm suspicious of rights-based languages, I'm much more congenial to it when it involves human beings directly. So, my position is that Israel as a state doesn't have the right to exist, but Israelis (and Israeli culture and community, including the Hebrew language) have a very definite right to exist as much as any other people. If there is to be a one-state solution, it cannot be only a secular state but an explicitly binational state.

Palestinians in Gaza (and in much of the West Bank, since we have to remember that Hamas won a Palestinian national election) elected a party that they thought was less corrupt and capitulationist than Fatah. Ironically, this same party has some of its origins in Israeli attempts to fund a counterbalancing Islamic force to the secular national liberation movement of the PLO.

The Yishuv in Palestine showed itself not to be a real refuge for Jews during the Holocaust and it is irrelevant, since the liberal governments showed the weakness of their principles by limiting Jewish refugees due to anti-Semitism and more general xenophobia. The Ugandan option could only have been thought suitable in an age where settler-colonialism was acceptable. Idi Amin was horrible, but adding a Jewish Rhodesia to Uganada'

I'm with you on the idea that anti-Zionism without anti-imperialism is probably headed for trouble. It's why I'm always uncomfortable reading liberal critics of the Israel Lobby, as though US foreign policy would be wonderful without "those Jews manipulating the president." Although to be realistic I think there might be some measure of justice in Israel and Palestine before the US gets some real justice and part of the credit will go to those problematic liberals and conservatives.

I don't really understand your final point, since I'm not sure how much sway Republican Sinn Fein has in Northern Ireland anyway.

I guess a basic thing is that I don't view the Israel/Palestine situation as having much to do with ethnic chauvinism and more to do with colonialism. You can see it in the way Israel-defending histories point to the Balfour Declaration as some sort of ownership documents instead of the British imperialist document it was in the context of stuff like the Sykes-Picot treaty.

Anyway, I'm always pushing this essay on people, but it's the single best essay I've ever read about "the situation".

Nathaniel said...

Realized I didn't finish my thought on Uganda, but it was just that a Jewish Rhodesia wouldn't have been awful too.

Nathaniel said...

Damn, why can't I write properly. *Would* have been awful. Not *wouldn't*.