I confess I became incredibly tired of this topic when, seven months ago, I wrote the first entry. Israel/Palestine always dominates the news to a boring degree, the debate’s participants are all fulsome demagogues, and more important evildoers like the governments Gulf Arabs or the Chinese are routinely ignored for this stupid and aggravating slice of the world. The discourse over Israel/Palestine is so poisoned by divisive rhetoric that it seems a waste of time to try and inject reason into the maelstrom. However, I must confess, I have quite a bit of Schadenfreude over Likud’s flagging poll numbers in this recent election, so in preparation for giving King Bibi the boot, I felt like reviving my plan for a series of posts on Israel/Palestine.
To summarize my last entry, I focused on three topics: the occupation, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, and “pinkwashing.” In this entry, I’m going to switch gears and summarize some arguments used regarding Zionism and the Zionist project, and what I think of them. There are many, and they are all mostly tiresome, so I doubt I will be able to get to them all.
1. Israel has a right to the land/has a right to exist:
This has always struck me as an inherently weird claim. It appropriates the discourse for individuals and applies it to an abstract entity, the state. How can something abstract have rights? We must return to discussing individuals if we are to understand what it means for a state to have such “rights,” as it is the treatment of individuals that legitimates the state. The state of Israel is the geographical entity between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River from West to East, and the Lebanon and Egypt to the South. It may or may not include Gaza and the West Bank, depending on whether you think the Occupation and the blockades, the complete military control of those territories, and the very real power the Israeli state apparatus wields there constitutes political sovereignty. Within the state of Israel, there are not just Israeli Jews, but foreign-born Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, Druze, Bedouins, Africans, and smaller minority groups.
The proper theory of a state is that it somehow acts as a steward to the people that it governs, and in doing so, protects their individual rights. All concepts of a nation-state built on the exploitation of some for the benefit of others must be categorically rejected as wrong. For Israel the state to have a right to the land, it must protect the individual rights of all the people within that land, and only upon fulfilling that criterion is it able to wield power over them with any measure of legitimacy. Under that criterion, Israel does not have a right to exist. It cannot claim to act as a steward for the people that it governs, as it treats many of them much like human chattel, and lashes the rest to a military occupation that forces them to fight, and kill, that chattel for their own “protection.” The dictum “war is the health of the state” is clearly expressed in the total mobilization of Israeli society for warfare, which is inculcated as a sacred duty into the minds of its citizens almost from birth.
The fact that Israel, as it stands, certainly does not have a right to exist is well-stated in this post on al-Akhbar:
“What moves me instead in this post-two-state era, is the sheer audacity of Israel even existing.
What a fantastical idea, this notion that a bunch of rank outsiders from another continent could appropriate an existing, populated nation for themselves – and convince the “global community” that it was the moral thing to do. I’d laugh at the chutzpah if this wasn’t so serious.
Even more brazen is the mass ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population by persecuted Jews, newly arrived from their own experience of being ethnically cleansed.”
Israel, like all states, only has a right to exist insofar as it serves the purposes of the people it purports to govern. Israel is not serving the interests of any of its people, and so this canard of an argument must be thrown out.
2. Jews have a right to the land: This is a fundamentally different argument than (1), for Israel is a political entity, a nation-state that represents Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, the Druze, and other ethnic groups domestically and internationally, and provides various goods and services to those people considered citizens. In (2), however, it is not a state and a precisely defined nation that has a right to the land, but the Jewish people themselves.
There is certainly a conflict between (1) and (2) that most Zionists seem to not have conceived, or which they ignore. If Israel as the nation-state has a right to the land, then this is inclusive of all the citizens of that nation-state, the Jews, Arabs, Druze, and others. However, if it is the Jewish people that has a right to the land, and an exclusive right at that, then this precludes any other group from having a right to it. All the people that were there previously – I will not say originally, for now – do not have a right to it, as they are not Jews.
Now, if someone has a right to a piece of land, that does not automatically exclude others from having a similar right. A well held in common by the community may be rightfully used by all the members of that community. Pray, however, look at the way the land is administered by the Israeli government. The “Right of Return” is open to all Jewish people everywhere, and so I, a Jew, could hop on a plane to Israel tomorrow morning and receive my citizenship that evening. A Palestinian refugee, who has a greater claim to the land than I do, may not even be allowed to return to that land at all. At the very least, this implies that, even if other groups have rights, I have greater rights, which supersede theirs. This is because Jews, more so than other groups, have a true right to the land of Israel.
The logic rests on two basic premises:
P1. The original possessor of a land is the rightful owner of that land
P2. The land was continuously inhabited by its rightful owners, though their claim to the land was not granted by its de facto rulers
(1) is simply incoherent for the goals of the Zionist, because none other than the Torah itself declares that the Jews were not the original possessors of the historical land of Israel. They conquered it by force from whatever Canaanite tribes lived there, and then were in a perpetual contest with other groups over it until the final expulsion by the Romans. If the Zionist wants to claim that Jews were originally there, he would be historically wrong, and if he wants to claim that this premise is the basis for the rightful possession of the Jews, he would also be wrong. Instead, we ought to track down the remnants of the dispossessed Canaanites and give them back their rightful territory. Israelites were simply conquerors, and as conquest is deemed illegitimate – at least, I assume it is, as most Zionists vehemently deny modern Israel is a conquering nation – then the Israelite possession of the land was also illegitimate, which in turn means that Jewish Israeli possession of the land is illegitimate.
(2) builds off of the authority of one, for if members of the original possessors remain in the land, that gives legitimacy to their claim that the land is truly theirs. “Jews have lived in the land of Israel ever since they moved there” may be true, but does it do any productive work for the argument? If I have a claim to a plot of land, but my neighbor wants it, and so drives me off the land, then the land is still mine by right. If I was forced to leave my child there, and in a benevolent state of mind he decided to raise it in my absence, then the presence of the child is irrelevant to my claim of the land. If I were to die, then the claim would pass on to my heir, as the rightful inheritor of my property. This doesn’t require that my heir even inhabit the property, though, for if we all were to be dispossessed, my heir and I, when I die he would still be the rightful heir of the land itself. If (1) is correct, then (2) does nothing additional to legitimize reoccupation of the land by the descendants of the Israelites. Indeed, this sort of principle is what governs real estate in some of the older settlements in Israel. In Tzvat, for instance, it is nearly impossible to buy a home in the old city, because the rightful owners of the plots are very difficult to track down, and that ownership may be divided between multiple heirs, many of whom do not even know they are heirs to a property at all! Their presence, or lack thereof, is immaterial to determining property rights.
The real purpose of these arguments is to deflect the obvious fact that Israel began as a settler colonialist project, which became a project of conquest after the departure of the British. The principle of conquest has been legally rejected since Nuremberg, but that does not mean it has been practically rejected. Such quibbles have not stopped nation-states from practicing it, such as Russia with the Crimea (notwithstanding the various arguments in favor of the annexation). Nor has it stopped private forces such as ISIS from attempting to conquer Syria and Iraq, and then onward to all of the Muslim world. Law is the muslin veil over the cruel heart of man. It is periodically lifted when groups and individuals cannot, or do not desire to, achieve their goals through the proper legal channels.
Though Zionists attempt to mask this with claims that “Jews have a right to the land,” they are tacitly affirming it as the true guiding principle of the philosophy. Why do Jews have a right to the land? Because they were there first, or at least, before the Palestinians. Why were they there before the Palestinians? Because they conquered the land from the Canaanites. Therefore, Jews have a right to the land because they took it by force, and maintained it by force against others. This has the unsavory effect of legitimizing the conquest of the Jews by the Romans and others, but that is a mere historical matter, as the Jews successfully reconquered the land from the Palestinians after the British departed. It also has the unsavory effect of elevating force to the primary principle of politics – but that is what it has always been, hasn’t it? I would tell my Zionist friends that if they want to defend Israel, they should keep the points about Jews having a right to the land, but drop the nonsense about historical possession, or historical inhabitance, or the divine right nonsense. Simply affirm the basic truth, that they took it by force, and will keep it by force, and that is enough.
3. You haven’t been there (so you can’t comment): This is one of the stupidest of them all, and I think anyone with a sound mind can see the stupidity for himself. The argument goes like this.
P1: First-hand experience is more reliable than second- or third-hand experience
C1. Therefore, one ought to prefer first-hand experience
P2. First-hand experience can only be gained by people who have been physically present in the area they are speaking about.
P3. Because first-hand experience is more reliable, it is more preferable.
P4. Because first-hand experience is more preferable, second- and third-hand experience is useless
P5. Many commentators on Israel/Palestine have not been to either place
C2. Therefore, they do not have first-hand experience
C3. Therefore, their experience is useless
The problem is with P(1) and P(4), as you might see. (1) may be mistaken because first-hand experience, though more raw and visceral, may not be more reliable than second- or third-hand experience. Take, for example, a victim of a bombing and a forensic examiner. The victim experiences the horrific event, and has his own account of what happened: “I saw a man place down a suitcase, and then I went back to my iPhone. Then, *boom*! The suitcase blew up, and I was thrown back twenty feet. I’m fine, but the person in front of me was vaporized!” Then the examiner comes, and based on this account, begins to look for pieces of the bomb to reconstruct its design, and the suitcase to reconstruct its container. First she goes to the surveillance tapes to see what happened and, lo! she sees the man put down the suitcase, and then the explosion. But here’s the kicker: the suitcase didn’t explode, but another package, discretely tucked away from the victim’s view. He had been there to witness the event, but had misconstrued a random person for the bomber, and conflated the true cause with a mistaken cause.
First-hand experience is often plagued with problems, as people misremember, misconstrue, and outright contradict the established facts of a case based on whatever conscious or subconscious mental biases they may have. In such cases, second- and third-hand sources of information, established by latecomers such as the forensic examiner, may yield an account of greater truth than anything a witness might say, in opposition to the claim of (4). The lesser reliability of these sources is due, then, not to their ability to establish truth, but to their proximity to an event. And such proximity may, instead of heightening the truth, distort it. Another example: in the graphic novel Maus, the author is questioning his father about the famous brass band that played for the workers coming in and leaving from Auschwitz. “There was no such band” his father says. “But the historical records are clear, as are the testimonies of the victims” his son retorts. “Yes, but the band was never there, I never saw it.” Even two direct witnesses to an event may contradict each other. What this suggests is that there must be skepticism regarding sources, both from first-, second-, and third-hand experience. We must look at each source, and to the best of our ability, determine its proximity to truth. This can be harder to do with sources like news media that do not give us direct access to events, or the places where they happen, but that does not make it impossible.
A more substantive objection, though, is that even if this argument is sound, it completely vitiates the claims that history is able to offer an adequately clear picture of the happenings of the past. If we are required to be first-hand witnesses of events, and to experience life from the very place we are commenting on, how can we say anything about the past? Especially, about the past that no one directly remembers, such as the 19th century? Or, more pressingly, the past conquest of Canaan by the Israelites? Who is to say it isn’t all made up? After all, no one living has ever seen an Israelite, because all the evidence is in archaeological finds, and tattered old documents, and folktales like the Bible. If Zionists wish to hold this line of argument, they cannot also hold the second line of argument, viz. that Jews have a claim to the land, unless they modify it along my lines.
4. American/University of California/whatever money implicates us in Israeli “apartheid”
This isn’t a Zionist argument, but it is equally as stupid, so I will address it now. Let’s say I am the head of a corrupt government, call me Georgios Papandreou. And let’s say you are the head of a fiscally sound government, let’s call you Angela Merkel. Now, I want money to pad my private mansion, oops! to pay civil servants and build my pet infrastructure projects back in Hellas. The times are good and the gravy train is rolling on, so you say, sure, why not? And I receive billions in loans from you. Then, oh no! I go bust because I’m a corrupt idiot, and my people vote me out. You are angry, but at least, still in power. Who is at fault? Me, or my people?
Angela Merkel answers the latter, but its a ridiculous argument. The Greeks are no more implicated in decisions they have no control over than the people of America or the students of the UC system are in the decisions of their administrators. The state, and systems of power, generally run in the same direction regardless of voter indignation or agitation for this or that. The great lie that democracy means power of the people enables us to escape this truth, but the fact of the matter is this: groups and individuals with power, whether it be through money or influence, are the ones who drive policy. Poor and impotent citizens have little oversight over the prerogatives of their governments, and so attempting to morally equate the actions of government with the actions of its citizens is foolhardy.