Around the Web: Notewriters Edition

Woah, it’s been a slow week here at NOL. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’ve been busy. Michelangelo and Edwin have both recently had their work published by the Cato Institute, and that’s cool.

I wish, of course, that my fellow Notewriters would toot their own horns a little more often, especially on the blog, but rest assured loyal readers, we’re staying busy.

Israel/Palestine, an Encyclopedia: Part Two

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.

Israel-Palestine: Is a reasonable debate possible?

The question in the title is to be taken very seriously and not just as a prelude to a comforting ‘of course there is’ answer and a few helpful hints to how to engage in respectful debate. This is a debate which stretches at the  limits of debate, at all attempts at civility and respect for other points of view in debate. I am trying to find a way to discuss the issues in a way that is equally considerate of the rights and interests of all parties to the debate, while also finding that debates about Arab Palestinian and Jewish Israeli positions may at some point just not be open to rational debate, and can only be settled by pragmatic compromise at best, and violent imposition  in the less happy scenarios.

This started with a social media post on my part condemning George Galloway, a very left-socialist British politician for making remarks in response to Israeli Defence Force operations in Gaza that to my mind cross a line between criticism of the government of Israel or acts of the Israeli state into anti-Semitism, in demanding that Israeli tourists be excluded from the English city, Bradford, he represents in Parliament. I paired it with a social media message condemning the University of Illinois for withdrawing a tenure track job offer to Steven Salaita (just before the start of semester and after he had resigned from another job), evidently as a result of social media messages criticising Israel and Jewish settlers in land outside Israel’s 1967 boundaries in a quite extreme way. Both Salaita and Galloway have the right of free speech, as recognised in the United States in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. Less protection exists for free speech in the UK, I am sorry to say, if the speech is deemed racist or to be ‘hate speech’, and I have to say I am very unhappy that the police in Britain are investigating Galloway’s comments, and I will certainly condemn any attempt to prosecute him. Unfortunately if a public university in the US withdraws a job offer over a free speech issue, then the situation there is also open to improvement. I am against Salaita’s speech in the same way as I am against what Galloway said, both stepped over a line.

I won’t dwell any further on Galloway and Salaita, but will now move into some discussion of what distinguishes criticism of Israel as a state from anti-Semitism, posing as just standing up for Palestinians suffering from the actions of Israel’s armed forces, and will then move onto more general comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

First of all though I accept that not not all those who define themselves as anti-Zionist are anti-Semites, condemning all Zionism is anti-Semitic. Yes there are Jews who are proud of their identity who define themselves as anti-Zionists, but they are complicit with views discriminatory against Jews if they condemn all Zionism.

There is a stream of bi-national Zionism, that is a state shared between Jews and Arabs, which has always had some appeal to liberal and left leaning Jewish intellectuals, and which was certainly prominent amongst some of the early European migrants to Ottoman and then British Palestine, before the state of Israel was established. They were arguing for non-discrimination against the Arab population and peaceful forms of settlement. Dismissing this as just an expression of the European colonialism and racism of the time is completely wrong. The wish to create peacefully a national homeland without discrimination against the existing Arab population and to create a state for both peoples cannot reasonably be defined in this way, and the more aggressive forms of Zionism should not lead anyone to deny the existence of a form of Zionism that was not based on aggressive nationalism.

Even before the Zionist movement got going in the late nineteenth century, there was a Jewish population in Ottoman Palestine that could trace its history back to ancient Biblical times. Inevitably estimates of what per cent age of the population was Jewish before the modern Zionist movement are contentious, but I have not seen any figure less than 5 per cent. Was it inherently racist and aggressive for those people to have some corner of Palestine for a Jewish state? That is war implied in saying that all Zionism is to be condemned and adopting an anti-Zionist political posture. Was it inherently racist and aggressive to hope that Jews persecuted in Europe and elsewhere might seek a homeland with that historic population in some part of Ottoman Palestine, presuming there was no intention of pressure on the Arab population to give up land or deprive that population of full rights?

I will return to the historical issues soon and what I say will not all lean towards the Israeli side at all. Picking up on current ways of discussing Israel and Palestine, all attempts to burden all Jews everywhere with some responsibility for the most unpleasant acts of the Israeli state, and target them with demands for condemnation, or worse, are anti-Semitic. Moving to a more contentious discussion, while I accept that many who target Israeli citizens or non-state institutions for sanctions are not deliberately anti-Semitic and may again be Jews who are proud of their identity, that is a discourse which is at the very least unintentionally complicit with anti-Semitism.

Demands for boycotts of Israeli universities, unless they condemn the actions of the government are highly discriminatory unless part of a more general and global scheme for boycotts of academic institutions in countries where the government is doing very bad things. I would not welcome such a global scheme, which is applied strictly and consistently could have disastrous affects on international academic life, for no proven benefit, but it would have the merit of consistency. Demands to boycott Israeli universities are not part of such a plan. Since they are linked to demands for academics and university boards to take positions contrary to Israeli government polices, they look very much like attempts to control to speech of Israeli academics and tell them what opinions they are allowed to have. While public universities are by definition supported by the state, they should be treated as educational institutions not arms of state propaganda, or as on a level with armed parts of the state inflicting violence on civilians, and indeed Israeli universities are quite successful in promoting free thinking education, which it should not be forgotten benefits Israeli Arabs as well as Jews.

Demands to restrict, or end, contacts with the Israeli government or military are a different matter, but punishing the educational sector or indeed discriminating against ordinary Israeli Jews travelling outside Israel is not something to be welcomed by advocates of liberty, or by anyone concerned with equal rights for everyone. Where is the evidence that boycotts will bring any benefit to Palestinian Arabs?

The short term material effects of reducing Israeli economic activity and employment opportunities would be very negative for Palestinian Arabs, and the long term political return no more than speculative. Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are presumably going to respond that their movement is popular with Palestinians suffering from Israeli military, administrative, and economic pressure, but it is a movement committed to ‘return of refugees’, which for reasons I explain below is simply not going to happen except at some very small level in a period of much happier relations than exist now between Israelis and Palestinians. A movement committed to full return, even if it does include some Jewish supporter, is committed to unrealistic maximalism. Since it exists, I can only hope it has some effect in moderating the actions of Israeli governments, but I fear it is more likely to foster polarised reactions and with no real change to the benefit of Palestinians. Israel looks more not less nationalistic at a time when its international reputation has declined, and moments like BDS have grown. The sort of economic pressure from the major western economies, particularly America that could force change is not on offer now, or in any foreseeable future. The biggest impact would come from Israel’s neighbours becoming economically dynamic democracies with much improved individual right, eager to trade with Israel and benefit from its technological achievements. The activism of a far left minority in the west, supporting some of the most implausible and damaging maximalist Palestinian demands has rather less potential to influence Israel in the right way.  A campaign that condemned the anti-Semitism and terrorism of Hamas, as well as the not entirely pure record of Fatah on these issues, as much as the brutality of the Israeli state, might just have more influence on Israel than BDS in its present form.

Getting onto the broader issues, I have to say that whatever impression the above gives, I do not find that there was any strong original justification for an Israeli state dominating all of, or most of, the land between the eastern Mediterranean and the Jordan River. However, it is also the case that I do not find there was any strong original justification for a Palestinian state dominating the same land area.

The problem with the Zionist claims, leaving aside bi-national Zionism or a Zionist project in one corner of what was Ottoman Palestine, and concentrating on what Zionism has largely been in practice, is that the Jewish population of Ottoman Palestine, was a small per cent age of the population. The historical and religious affinities of Jews elsewhere to the land of the Biblical Jews, and the persecution they endured, might justify some concessions of land to create a state in what was Ottoman Palestine beyond the population per cent age of the time, but some large part of the Zionist movement (roughly speaking Revisionist or right-wing Zionism) was always ready to take all of Ottoman Palestine regardless of the wishes and rights of the Arab population, and some other large part (roughly speaking Theodor Herzl Zionism, which defined the mainstream of the original large scale Zionist movement) simply evaded the issue of how the majority of Ottoman Palestine could be settled without conflict emerging between Jews and Arabs, and without violating any hopes Arabs in the area might have or, might come to develop, for sovereign national existence. Given that Zionism emerged as an imitation of 19th century European nationalist movements, and the growing tendency of European peoples with some kind of collective historic identity to express that identity in state sovereignty, it is not too much to ask that the original Zionists should have been aware of the likely development of Arab nationalism, on a general scale, and in distinct pre-national parts of the Arab world (i.e. nearly all of it) under Ottoman or European colonial control.

Arab nationalism grew rather later than Zionism, and the Palestinian aspect of it was definitely later. If there had been no Zionist movement, it seems likely that Palestine would have been part of a post-Ottoman Syrian or possibly Jordanian state, with no more than regional consciousness within than entity. Can we justify the emergence of an Israeli state of its current extent on the grounds that European Jews develop a Zionist movement more speedily than Arab national and in independence movements developed? That is not just a question inviting the reply ‘no’ though it might appear so. The reality is that throughout history states emerged where one people was more strongly organised than another and could imposed its will on another people, or at least a state elite could impose a statehood more suited to one group than others. The same applies to modern nationalist movements which drew on various democratic, republican, and populist ideas of self-government, or at least monarchy with popular legitimacy, for self-contained peoples, with anything that contaminated a pure self-contained identity pushed out of public recognition (or violently eliminated). If Israel’s existence in its current form in its current borders is simply based on winning out in struggles about who get to define the people who ‘own’ that land, then it is not obviously weaker in its foundations than many other states. Enthusiasts for the Israeli state often like to find some justification of pure right in the Balfour Declaration, that is the letter Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary directed at the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, via Lord Rothschild:

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of the object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious’ rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

The declaration was written into the League of Nations Mandate that legitimated British occupation and administration on Palestine until 1948. However, the same people eager to take the letter and the League of Nations recognition of it, as the basis for Israel’s domination of most of what was British Palestine (and the more radical kind of Zionist thinks that what is now Jordan was promised to them, because it was included within the first borders of mandate Palestine, before a division was effected) are not so eager to mention United Nations resolutions after the 1947 resolution that envisaged an Israel state. What was envisaged, in any case, was a partition of almost 50-50 proportions between an Israeli state and a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as a bi-national enclave under UN administration, so well short of the boundaries Israel established. Of course the selective approach to League of Nations or United Nations resolutions is also practised on the Arab side. In any case, the Balfour Declaration was not the result of consultation with the Arab population of Palestine, who were placed under British administration with no regard for their opinion in the matter, and seems a poor example of a purely just foundation for a state

Of course if Israel’s existence is justified by struggle rather than pure right, then Palestinian domination would be no more or no less just if the Palestinian people had been better organised or just more lucky early on in the Zionist movement, or even before the Zionist movement. However, there was no Palestinian national movement before the Zionist movement, it was a reaction against that movement. The word Palestine was used, sometimes, during Ottoman times to refer to the parts of what was then the Province of Syria round Jerusalem, Haifa and so on, with no idea of a separate identity or people there. There was no idea of a Palestinian people until the British Mandate, which inadvertently became the hot house for two mutually hostile national movements.

The 1948 attack of several Arab states on Israel, as it existed within the boundaries defined by the 1947 UN Resolution, was not an attempt to institute a Palestinian state. The Arab Legion (that army of the Jordanian monarchy) grabbed the West Bank and the East Jerusalem, and Egypt seized Gaza. Syria certainly hoped to turn Palestine into a southern part of its own territory. Palestinians fled their homes in all Israeli controlled territory, because of a mixture of Zionist violence and incitement by Arab states who promised to arrange a rapid return. The balance between these two causes is of course hopelessly contentious, but I will at least say that no one who denies that both were a reality is engaged in reasonable discussion. The emergent Israeli army succeeded in establishing the 1967 boundaries, which are still the recognised boundaries of Israel, though in practice Israel now exists as the completely sovereign power in East Jerusalem  and a number of settlements in the West Bank.

The 1947 UN Resolution was preceded by a British plan to award 17% of Mandate Palestine to a Jewish state. Palestinian nationalists succeeded in negotiating quasi-statehood in Gaza and some parts of the West Bank in the 1990s, but the idea of a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank as well as Gaza is now essentially dead, though various people find it necessary to claim in public that a two state solution on that basis is coming. One obvious point here is that if the Palestinians had negotiated pragmatically on the basis of existing realities instead of trying to go back to some earlier situation, at various times, they would have much  more territory in a viable state. Maybe 83% per cent of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Of course it is also the case that many Zionists would not have settled happily for 17% during the Mandate or even 50% in 1948, except as a short term expedient before establishing a state in all of, or at least the great majority of, Mandate Palestine, but at least the Palestinians would have gained some credit with the international community, and how would they now be worse off, it they had accepted those deals and tried to make them work?

The Arab states did not bring the Palestinian refugees of 1948 back to their homes and did not give them equal citizenship in the independent Arab nations either. Leaving them as symbols of Arab unity in refugee camps was a ‘solution’ which simply adds to the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most people in refugee camps were born after 1948 and increasingly so. Their numbers have grown and cannot be absorbed into their ‘home’ towns or villages, without a complete transformation of Israel’s demography. This is simply not going to happen, except though a massive military defeat of Israel, which is most unlikely anyway because Israel would use its nuclear arsenal in such a situation, and the US would probably intervene massively before that point. It is not a reasonable demand for anyone who genuinely wants a settlement. Arab states should integrate refugees and their decedents with full citizenship rights in the places where they have been based for decades. In such circumstances, some very limited ‘return’ of refugees and descendants might be negotiated, though by that time whenever it might be, I doubt any original refugees will still be alive.

The current situation is that the Palestinians have not succeeded in creating well functioning institutions in the West Bank or Gaza. No doubt some blame belongs to Israel. If any Israeli government ever genuinely hoped for a viable Palestinian state as a neighbour, the idea is certainly dead now. Palestine for the foreseeable future will only exist as a fragmented entity, increasingly hemmed in by West bank settlements and security measures, which are turning that area into an aggregate of not very well connected Palestinian zones side by side with element of Israeli sovereignty. This is not a viable long term basis for peace and stability.

The only long term solutions now are: the forcible expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza, which is not likely, but might just happen if war breaks out between Israel and neighbouring Arab states; the removal of West Bank settlements, because Israel decides that full Palestinian sovereignty is a welcome prospect, but I presume there are too many settlements too deeply embedded for that to happen now; a complete defeat of Israel by a military alliance of Arab states, but that would lead to the use of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, if not massive US intervention before that stage; gradual movement towards a binational state of Israel-Palestine. I believe that last option is the most likely long term result, but I mean long term, and I expect much polarisation, violence and suffering in the meantime. Gradual pragmatic adjustment will I believe lead both sides to see that total victory or total separation between two national entities is just not viable.

Personally I’m deeply disturbed by the Israeli treatment of Palestinian civilians now and in the past. However, dramatic gestures, boycott calls, and anti-Zionist discourse will not resolve the issue. Realistically errors and crimes on the Arab side have brought us here as much as the bad things done by Zionists, and the Zionist movement did not destroy an existing national entity. The early pacific binational Zionists were often in practice irrelevant and naive, as well as paternalistic and patronising towards Arabs, but their ideas are the only basis now for an enduring settlement. That will require some Arab equivalent, some new ways of thinking about Palestinian nationality and sovereignty, which can find precedents such as the sympathy of the Saudi monarchy at the end of World War One, for a Jewish presence in Palestine (not that the House of Saud is without great faults). Such a movement will progress at a micro-level only for decades and maybe generations, involving Israeli Arabs as well as Israeli Jews and the Palestinian of the West Bank and Gaza. At some point a critical mass on both sides will realise that exclusivist nationalism cannot win a complete victory, certainly not if the wish is to live in a democracy with individual rights and flourishing civil society.

The Religious Basis for Zionism, and its Relevance for Today

After reading Brandon’s post on the historical context for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I was inspired to pen something similar, but distinct, on the same topic. Namely, the religious basis for Zionism.

I’ll start with a short textual primer. Religious Jews use a variety of prayerbooks, or siddurim, but the basic content of all of them remains the same: Shacharit, or morning prayers, Minchah, or afternoon prayers, Maariv, or evening prayers, Kabbalat Shabbat, or “welcoming the Shabbat” (Sabbath), and if the siddur is full size, a variety of other prayers for religious holidays and festivals, explanatory bits about various prayers and songs, how to don the tallit (prayer shawl) or tefillin (phylacteries, little black boxes containing verses from the Torah). A cursory look through this book will reveal the various emphases the ancient authors placed on aspects of belief, and it reflects a decidedly post-Second Temple Judaic outlook.

What does this mean? In the pre-morning prayer, which is said upon arising, after a variety of blessings bestowed on the creator and reminders to keep His commandments, Jews read a portion from the Torah detailing the korbanot, or offerings, and the ketoret, or incense, that were to be given and burned in the temple. Following this are descriptions of the priestly functions, various explanations and speculations on how these functions were fulfilled, and concluding with Talmudic rules on how to interpret the Torah. So, before a Jew even gets to his morning prayers, he has to do pre-morning prayers that remind him or her of the significance of the temple and exactly how it was constituted and run by the priests, and how common Jews would offer tribute there. Obviously, this has little practical significance – there is no temple, and so all of these commandments given in the Torah and subsequent Talmudic commentary are irrelevant. If the temple is rebuilt that is a different story, of course.

So, why would the authors of the siddur put this information in? The most logical reason is that they wanted Jews everywhere, everyday to remember the temple, to remember their unity as a people in the historical Kingdom of Israel, and to never forget who and what they are: b’nai Israel, children of Israel, a term with two meanings, the children of Yaakov (Jacob, who gained the name Israel after wrestling with an angel), and the children of the land God promised them. This emphasis does not end with the initial prayers, but is found in the first paragraph of Shacharit:

“Remember the wonders He has wrought, His miracles, and the judgments of His mouth. O descendants of Israel His servant, children of Jacob, His chosen ones: He is the Lord our God; His judgments extend over the entire earth. Remember his covenant forever, the word which He has commanded to a thousand generations; the covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac. He established it for Jacob as a statute, for Israel as an everlasting covenant, stating, “To you I shall give the land of Canaan” – the portion of your inheritance, when you were but few, very few, and strangers in it” (emphasis mine).

Here, the emphasis continues on the historical Kingdom of Israel, but it is also broader, in line with the goal of unity and cohesion amongst all of b’nai Israel. This is repeated  in numerous other places, but not simply in the morning prayer; the Amidah, the central prayer recited in the morning, the afternoon, and the night, ends with the words “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, that the Beit Hamikdash [Holy Temple] be speedily rebuilt in our days, and grant us our portion in Your Torah.” The siddur is replete with such references, and if you wanted you could likely find hundreds within it – I merely wish to highlight their frequency, and elucidate their general purpose, to serve the aforementioned goals of religious cohesion. Further, they serve the goal of instilling a yearning for Zion amongst the Jewish people, a desire that their temple be rebuilt, and their holy rites reinstated.

What is the point of this discussion? According to My Jewish Learning, “the particular order of Jewish worship was established largely during the first four or five centuries CE, although the components of that worship were drawn from earlier periods and have continued to develop until modern times.” Religious Jews (and it should be important to note here, that such a term is relatively recent; in past times, there was no such thing as a non-religious Jew) said these prayers in some form for at least 1500 years, and likely for longer periods of time for the older prayers such as the Psalms (Tehillim in Hebrew). The passages referring to the temple and the restitution of Israel are obviously of a younger vintage, as they would only have been added sometime after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD by the besieging Roman general Titus.

That is, this yearning for Zion has been instilled in Jews on a daily basis for over 1500 years. The dream of a Jewish people reunited in the historical Kingdom of Israel has a clear and distinct theological pedigree that cannot be overstated. It is probably not too much of a stretch to claim that without this daily insistence, this daily urgency, that there would not be a state of Israel within its historical boundaries.

If we take Brandon’s analysis to be true, that the founding of Israel has a historic basis with the emergence of nationalist movements in Europe, this is not to say that a Jewish state would not have developed. Indeed, before the various Zionist movements coalesced around a firm demand for the historical land of Israel, there was talk of moving the Jews en masse to Uganda, and during the Nazi period, to Madagascar. It is conceivable that, without a strong connection to this specific land, Israel might have ended up in a different place, or not ended up at all (as was the case with other persecuted groups like the Roma, who to this day do not have a state of their own).

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I should clarify here that I am not attempting to justify the establishment of the modern Israeli state. Many such arguments abound, many of them exploring the same terrain I have just traversed, using references in the Torah to Abraham buying a tomb for Sarah in Canaan, or God’s proclamation that Canaan was marked out for the Israelites, or referring to the voluminous archaeological and historical evidence of Jewish habitation in historical Israel, or whatnot. I am attempting to explain instead not reasons for, but reasons why – why was historical Israel a better choice than Uganda or Madagascar for instance? More importantly, why would the Zionist movement, which was predominantly secular, attach itself so strongly to these theological premises for Zion in Israel?

To answer these questions, we must return to some of the ground Brandon’s post went over: the historical and economic realities driving Zionism in late 19th, early 20th century Europe. In the late 19th century, what was a collection of principalities in Central Europe, united only by a superficially common language and a set of loose traditions, became consolidated under the rule of Prussia, with the Prussian ruler Otto von Bismarck being named Chancellor of a unified German state – the first Reich. In this nationalizing movement, the first articulation of what would be called the “Jewish Question” or the “Jewish Problem” was formed. How does one integrate a minority, non-German, non-German speaking, non-Christian group of transients into the new nation-state? There were a variety of solutions:

  1. Fully integrate them into German society – the ethnic over the civic identity.
  2. Integrate them into German society without assimilating them, allowing them their unique religious traditions, but subsumed within a broader Germanic citizen ideal – the civic over the ethnic identity.
  3. Expel them all.
  4. Kill them all (this was, of course, the Nazi answer to the Jewish Question, and why it has been called ever since the “Final Solution”)

What was ultimately settled upon was a track of full integration with assimilation, and what resulted was the greatest flowering of Jewish civilization until modern times. History’s annals are replete with Jewish expressions of genius, from music (Moses Mendelssohn) to science (Albert Einstein) to psychiatry (Viktor Frankl, Sigmund Freud), all of whom were nurtured within the cultural confines of Germanic civilization. Indeed, Jews were never more prosperous than at that time, when they abandoned most of their traditions and flocked to the banner of the rising German civilization.

What is wrong with this picture? In every European society, there was a current of anti-Semitism, varying in degree of severity from place to place. Germany was not particularly anti-Semitic relative to other countries in Europe, and indeed, the top contenders in this category were on either side of the German Empire: France to the west, with the Dreyfus affair, and Russia to the East, with numerous pogroms (organized destruction, rape, and murder of Jews and Jewish property by the non-Jewish population of a town or city), most notably in Kishinev. (I recommend the work of Professor Zipperstein at Stanford to understand the far reaching implications of this one event, which are truly fascinating.) While Germany cannot take the crown for standard bearer of anti-Semitism in this period, Germany may be distinguished from other European countries in the kind of anti-Semitism that flourished there. In Germany, anti-Semitism was bracketed within newly emerging racial categories, so that Jew was not thought of simply in religious terms, but in ethnic terms as well – a Jew was not a Jew because he practiced Judaism, but he was born and would always remain a Jew. Interestingly, this rhetoric is now dominant amongst many Orthodox groups such as Chabad-Lubavitch, and indeed the Nazi racial laws which defined a Jew from a non-Jew were adopted for the state of Israel’s immigration policy: if the Nazis considered you a Jew, the Israelis consider you a Jew. But, that is a different discussion.

With what seemed like a rising current of anti-Semitism, in stepped the figure of Theodor Herzl. I tend to be wary of overarching historiographical theories like the “Great Man” theory, but in this case it seems to fit the bill; it cannot be underestimated how important Herzl’s contribution to the Zionist movement was, how critical he was to its foundation, maintenance, and lasting success. Without him, there would likely be no Zionist movement. The story of his conversion from German assimilationist to Zionist leader is canonical, but it bears summarizing here. A correspondent for a German newspaper in France, Herzl witnessed the Dreyfus affair and was galvanized, Or, according to recent scholarship, a Viennese anti-Semitic demagogue inspired him. Regardless, in 1896 he published Der Judenstaat, which almost immediately caused all the existing Zionist groups, along with many new adherents, to join his cause. I have not read the book, but I have read descriptions of it, and within it he seconds the racializing element in anti-Semitism, stating that the Jews are a people with a distinct nationality, and all they were missing was a national homeland – according to Herzl, it ought to be in Argentina, or preferably historical Israel. These ideas eventually gained great currency, and in a long process from the publication of Der Judenstaat to the founding of Israel in the borders of the Kingdom of Israel, these ideas bore themselves out to fruition.

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At this point, we should be ready to answer why Zionism sought a Jewish state in historical Israel, and the impetus for why that idea gained currency at all. For centuries, as was stated above, the Jewish people yearned for a reestablished Israel. Yet, they made no concerted efforts to make this state a reality. To understand why this is, we must return to theology, this time to the concept of Jewish messianism. The basic tenets of this are derived from various prophetic texts, outside the scope of the Torah itself, which is generally circumscribed to the Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Some of the claims of what the messiah, or moshiach, will do are listed below:

  • And I will restore your judges as at first and your counsellors as in the beginning; afterwards you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City. (Isaiah 1:26; some Jews interpret this to mean that the Sanhedrin will be re-established.)
  • Once he is King, leaders of other nations will look to him for guidance. (Isaiah 2:4)
  • The whole world will worship the One God of Israel (Isaiah 2:11-17)
  • He will be descended from King David (Isaiah 11:1) via Solomon (1 Chronicles 22:8-10,2 Chronicles 7:18)
  • The “spirit of the Lord” will be upon him, and he will have a “fear of God” (Isaiah 11:2)
  • Evil and tyranny will not be able to stand before his leadership (Isaiah 11:4)
  • Knowledge of God will fill the world (Isaiah 11:9)
  • He will include and attract people from all cultures and nations (Isaiah 11:10)
  • All Israelites will be returned to their homeland (Isaiah 11:12)
  • Death will be swallowed up forever (Isaiah 25:8)
  • There will be no more hunger or illness, and death will cease (Isaiah 25:8)
  • All of the dead will rise again (Isaiah 26:19)
  • The Jewish people will experience eternal joy and gladness (Isaiah 51:11)
  • He will be a messenger of peace (Isaiah 52:7)
  • Nations will recognize the wrongs they did to Israel (Isaiah 52:13-53:5)
  • The peoples of the world will turn to the Jews for spiritual guidance (Zechariah 8:23)
  • The ruined cities of Israel will be restored (Ezekiel 16:55)
  • Weapons of war will be destroyed (Ezekiel 39:9)
  • The people of Israel will have direct access to the Torah through their minds and Torah study will become the study of the wisdom of the heart (Jeremiah 31:33)
  • He will give you all the worthy desires of your heart (Psalms 37:4)
  • He will take the barren land and make it abundant and fruitful (Isaiah 51:3, Amos 9:13-15, Ezekiel 36:29-30, Isaiah 11:6-9)

These beliefs account for two things: first, a Jewish eschatalogical account for how the world will end, and what will occur when it does, who will bring this about, and more importantly for this post, a strong theological basis for Zionism; and second, why the rest of the Western world cared about Zionism at all.

The first factor accounts for the broad theological basis for “why Israel,” and it also brings to light certain long-standing divisions in the Zionist movement. For example, many groups of Orthodox Jews such as the Haredi Naturei Karta reject Zionism and call for the dissolution of the state of Israel. Indeed, they are so vocal about this, a group of Naturei Karta rabbis was invited by then-President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a conference of prominent anti-Zionists and Holocaust deniers. Naturei Karta is so vehement on this point because, technically speaking, only the messiah is able to return to refound Israel, create the Third Temple, usher in world peace, et cetera. And this is why, historically speaking, Jews were content to wallow in galut (exile) until the future coming of the Messiah, who would bring them back to Israel. Tangentially, it also accounts for much of the religious suspicion, embodied in Natueri Karta, towards the Zionist movement; during the early modern period, many Messianic movements emerged under the charismatic demagogues Joseph Frank and Sabbetai Tzvi, who lured many Jews into their movements before failing spectacularly, the former converting to Christianity, the latter along with his flock converting to Islam somewhere in Anatolia (the story of Sabbetai Tzvi does not end there, for his followers thereafter became known as the Dönmeh, many of whom were instrumental in the Young Turk movement. But that is a different story).

The religious pushback against Zionism simultaneously accounts for the strong religious appeal of a Zionism that takes Israel as its logical terminus: not only does it attract secular, assimilated Jews with nationalist rhetoric, it attracts religious Jews who would see in the foundation of Israel a fulfillment of the eschatological prophecies, and perhaps an ushering in of the age of the messiah.

The second factor explains the broad gentile appeal for a new Jewish state. What initially separated Christianity from Judaism was the belief among Christian Jews that Jesus was the messiah ordained in these foregoing passages, and the contrary belief amongst non-Christian Jews that he was not. Over time, this sectarian difference widened to the point that Christianity diverged from Judaism, probably some time in the post-Second Temple era. However, the common Christian belief that Jesus came to fulfill and, in time, supersede the Jewish prophecies has remained current throughout history, and profoundly influenced non-Jewish support for Zionism.

Indeed, much of the British and American community that supported the Zionist cause did so on explicitly religious grounds, conceiving of the Jews as the historical inheritors of the ancient Israelite religion, and by extension to the Holy Land itself. Coupled with the predominant historical arc of nationalism, just then winding its way through European society, you are left with the perfect confluence of factors – a certain benevolence towards the Jews on religious grounds, along with an assent to the basic premises of nationalism that provided the impetus for the initial Zionist movement.

This is why Zionism fixated on Israel, and this is why secular Jewish leaders such as Herzl, and later Weizmann, would so strongly advocate for a Jewish state in historical Israel. The theological undercurrent was so pervasive amongst Jewish people, so universally recognized, and so compelling – especially to religious Jews – that to choose any other geographical area would likely have torn the movement apart. Indeed, this happened in the period between 1903 and 1917, when Herzl introduced the British plan for Jewish settlement in Uganda, causing an immediate split between the anti-Uganda and pro-Uganda segments of the World Zionist Organization. This rift was not fully healed until 1917, when the Balfour Declaration was published, and the pro-Uganda segment fizzled into irrelevance.

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So what we have here are two broad trends, as I said above, the theological undercurrent of messianism and “yearning for Zion,” which was wedded at just the right time to a dominant discourse of ethnic nationalism, which can be seen as the birth of Zionism.

Further, this did not have significance for the Jews only, but garnered great sympathy amongst non-Jews, which was crucial for certain guarantees such as the Balfour Declaration to have any currency. Without the movement, which was not explicitly theological but nonetheless tapped into theological ideas at its core, I do not believe that Zionism in the form we know of it would have emerged. Furthermore, without the theological underpinnings, if I may extend the argument further, the Jewish people would not even exist – there would be coherence amongst the Jewish people, over such broad geographic distances, without the theology that had united them or almost two thousand years between the dissolution of historical Israel and the foundation of the new state of Israel. But, that is another discussion.

The reader, if he has followed me up to this point, may be wondering why I took the time to outline my idea of the development of the Zionist movement. “What relevance does this have for today?” he may ask. First, it is a small inference to make that if the state of Israel can owe a large part of its foundation to theology, it owes a large part of the form of its existence to that same theology. Settler colonialism in the West Bank is driven by many factors, many of them economic in nature, but it is indubitable that many settlers have an explicitly religious vision – the conquest of the entire historical Israel, comprising not just the West Bank but parts of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt as well. Further, the debate over the future of Jerusalem is not just political – how could the Jewish people split their historical capital, where their temple stood, where the Sanhedrin met, where thousands of years of Jewish history took place? Furthermore, how could any part of historical Israel be split off?

There is much to be discussed about the religious significance behind conflict in Israel today, but my goal in this post was simply to trace a path from theology to nationalism and to its synthesis in Zionism, which could not have taken shape without both movements. Further, I want to impress upon you that Zionism would never have gotten off the ground without the good will of non-Jewish friends in high places, those Christian philanthropists and statesmen who shared the messianic vision that Zionism used as a core tenet of its ideology. Thus, while many nationalist movements can be explained with reference to economic and social factors only, Zionism seems to be unique in that religion played such a pivotal role in its foundational story and its raison d’etre.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Zionism’s Colonial Roots

Today, Benjamin Netanyahu is seen widely as a leader of the Right (although in comparison with Avigdor Lieberman and others who have held office in Israel lately, Netanyahu could look moderate), and Israeli politics have long been categorized in terms of Left and Right, with the Revisionists cast as right-wing no-goodniks. That was so from the 1930s: with the rise of fascism, it became quite common to characterize Jabotinsky as a fascist, a word widely used by his Zionist foes. Rabbi Stephen Wise, a prominent liberal Jewish American of his day, called Revisionism “a species of fascism,” while David Ben-Gurion—the leader of the Labor Zionists in the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in British Palestine) and then a founding father and first prime minister of Israel—referred to his foe privately as “Vladimir Hitler,” which didn’t leave much to the imagination. And to be sure, while Jabo called himself a free-market liberal with anarchist leanings, the oratory of Revisionism—“in blood and fire will Judea rise again”—and the visual rhetoric—the Betarim in their brown shirts marching and saluting—had alarming contemporary resonances.

Read the rest, it’s very good throughout.

Origins of Terrorism in the Middle East

I just recently came across a very, very good book on the history of the Middle East. As far as theory goes, it is lacking, but it is readable enough that the intelligent layman can pick it up and learn new things from it. Written by historian Eugene Rogan, it’s titled The Arabs: A History and it has won numerous awards. Be sure to check it out. One new fact that I learned is that while terrorism as a tactic in the Middle East did not appear on the radar until the 1920s, it was undertaken on behalf of Jewish interests, not Muslim ones. Rogan explains:

The terrorists had achieved their first objective: they had forced the British to withdraw from Palestine. Though their methods were publicly denounced by the leaders of the Jewish Agency [the pre-state government], the Irgun and Lehi [terrorist organizations] had played a key role in removing a major impediment to Jewish statehood. By using terror tactics to achieve political objectives, they also set a dangerous precedent in Middle Eastern history-one that plagues the region down to the present day.

Now, I am not “blaming the Jews” for terrorism in the Middle East, nor is the historian. What I would like to do is point out that the theories and excuses about Islam’s violent penchant produced by Western analysts are horribly wrong. In a similar vein, Arab culture is not to blame for the violence in the region, either. Terrorism is entirely a product of politics.

What we have in the Middle East is simply a problem of statecraft. A conceptual turn away from cultural and religious explanations for the violence in the Middle East and towards one that looks at political and legal institutions and the economic consequences that arise from them would do wonders for the region (and the world). If we cannot even agree on the fundamentals of what is wrong with the Middle East institutionally, we sure as hell are not going to agree upon anything else. This goes for domestic and regional factions in the Middle East as well as for Western ones.

Israel exists. It is a state in the Middle East, and a highly successful one at that. This may well explain why terrorism has been used so often, as a political tactic, for almost a century in the Middle East. It also helps to explain – conceptually – why terrorist attack rates were so high in Sri Lanka until the defeat of the guerrilla insurgency a few years ago, and why Latin America has suffered from chronic terrorism. Arab culture and Islam, on the other hand, do not explain terrorism in other parts of the world. I see no reason why we should make an exception to the rule for terrorism in Middle East. This is an institutional problem, not a cultural one.