Monthly Archives: November 2014

Three Dilemmas for Israeli Settlers



Given that the territories are defined as a “frontier land”—neither sovereign nor part of the Israeli official map—their definition is open to construction. Israeli settlers frame three discursive dilemmas they must solve. These three dilemmas are (1) the construction of authenticity, (2) the discourse of marginality including the confrontation with the Palestinians or the “native others”, and (3) the use of rituals and collective memory to normalize life and established cultural and religious authority. Settlers must engage in various sense making patterns in order to facilitate the appropriation of the land.

The Authenticity Dilemma

Ethnoreligious communities are mostly constituted by narratives about their origins. These narratives are composed of bits of history and group identity that are consolidated into a narrative or “imagined community.” Such narratives must be complete and coherent enough to include discourses about belonging, citizenship, culture, as well as position people in relation to one another. These narratives are particularly potent because they clothe power with legitimacy, which is just the discursive puzzle that requires resolution.

The most important settler element of recorded time is the sanctity of the past. The insistence on the divine promise of the land to the Jewish people negates any legal arguments about property rights in the present. The relationship between the land and the Jews is transhistorical and therefore not subject to secular considerations. The land is a heavenly bequest to the Jewish people and their rights can never be relinquished. Moreover, the Jewish people are not “born of the soil” but arrived in the land on the basis of the covenantial relationship with God. In other words, the claim on the land is stronger than mere historical rights. Just as the American Indian cannot claim rights to the land, a Jew could not claim rights to the land of Israel on the basis of historical inhabitants; rather, the Jewish people claim their unique covenantial history and the fact that they created this history.

The solution to the discursive dilemma – the one most fundamentally associated with Jewish authenticity for settlers – about how to reconcile redemption with the institutions of the state lay in pragmatism. Religious settlers would not turn away from the commandment to settle the land, but find a more practical way of fulfilling it. This would be accomplished by the invocation of the security frame.

The Marginality Dilemma

The discourse of marginality is about the relationship between the center and the periphery and how the concept of the periphery, or margin, is essential to the concept of the center. The Palestinians live at the periphery of the environment and this increasingly informs their identity, albeit an undesirable one. The margins of a landscape contain what one is but not what they should be, and the conflict comes from the individual’s struggle against being socialized by the margins. The discourse of marginality depends on comparisons of the center to the margins.

We can borrow some from Gramsci here by pointing out that the marginal or disadvantaged group is in a binary relationship with the dominant group, cut off from most avenues of legitimate participatory politics, especially in the dominant sphere. The discourses that emerge from the authoritative center overwhelm local specificities and place the marginal group in a position that is enervated and without agency.

The Authority Dilemma

Settlers marginalize Palestinians by appealing to authority, but it is an authority that resonates with the settler community and deep elements of the Jewish historical consciousness. In other words, they are unconcerned with the general international community or the public at large and seek a form of self justification based on internal community authority standards. Traditional social movements are more successful when they use frames that are pragmatic for the intended audience. Hence, the appeal to the biblical right to the land or Jewish ethnoreligious roots creates arguments that resonate and converge with the interests of the target settler community.

The dominant settler discourse is built on the premise of biblical promise. It stresses the authority of the Bible and the word of God and projects an unassailable morality and inevitability. The invocation of the Bible and the word of God frames the narrative in language sealed from criticism and scrutiny. By definition, any questioning or challenge is viewed in moral terms and considered unacceptable. In contrast, the Palestinian narrative is less grounded in religious terminology but no less hardened by claims of historical rights.



The Problem with the Concept of “Peace” in Islam

Islam and Peace

Given the contemporary image of Islam as violent, and the current grip that extremist Islam has on the image of Islam, it’s a little difficult to explain that Islam has a preference for nonviolence and forgiveness. But Islam has a long history of reestablishing harmony and solving problems through genuine reformation including the moral courage to sincerely forgive others.

The interpenetration of Islam as a religion and the resolution of secular problems is a core theme in the Islamic definition of peace. Peace in the Islamic tradition is related to God and reflects a higher reality. In the Koran peace is affirmed in many aspects of the language and as a condition of paradise. It is something the innermost person yearns for and it is related to wholeness attained through the relationship with the divine. Now, peace in Judaic or Christian traditions is also a higher-order reality and integral to the primary religious precepts of these religions. But the contemporary problem with conflict resolution in Islam is just such a notion of the divine because the most recalcitrant tension is that peace has been defined as Islamic peace. And making relationships and having a sense of community is based on sharing Islamic principles. Thus there is an inconsistency between theory and practice where both sides, Islam and the West, have arguments between principles and practice and conflict is rooted in these disagreements between how to express and practice the divine. So in extremist Islam jihad is an effort aimed at the more abstract religious principles of the Islamic community and its maintenance (according to the practitioners of this strand of Islam) but it is a practice that justifies violence. Hence, the Muslim extremist and the religious Christian or Jew – or even the secular person – holds the same sense of peace as being integrated into the community but the conflict results from the practice of violence which is justified in one case but certainly not in the other. The jihadist “practice” is not considered acceptable as an expression of the holy Koran by either some other Muslims or group.

There is considerable overlap between the Western conception of peace and the Islamic one but the overlap is not complete. Even the role of acceptable legal precepts and wisdom is valued in Islam above the capricious decisions of dictators or force of the military. Islam has always held its military and check and rejected abuses of power. There is a tradition of positive peace based on the actual practice of justice and not only the absence of arbitrary rule. There has been a long tradition of Islamic scholarship and wisdom, even wisdom in the Western tradition, but the relationship between reason and religion has maintained which is one difference between Islam and the West. This leads to an important difference between Islam and the West which is that reason in the West has been elevated to a more “correct” way of thinking. Passion in Western conflict management is considered disruptive and in need of control. A fundamental difference that accounts for the difficulty and intractability of conflicts between Islam and the West is the thorough integration and wholeness of the concept of peace with religious precepts. Peace is not only the domain of secular social science but peace begins with God and his attained as God calls everyone to the “house of peace.” Peace in Islam is patterned on harmony and religion based integration. The word jihad means to strive for the divine, but from a contemporary Western Islamist perspective has been corrupted by the inclusion of justifiable violence.

Islam also has a tradition of cooperation and coexistence with groups that were either divergent or even antagonistic toward Islamic precepts. There is a discursive tradition in Islam which refers to the “house of peace or truce” and includes issues concerning limits on war, truce with non-Muslims, and general concerns about managing conflicts. But the more dichotomous thinking of fundamentalists currently holds sway because military ideas about jihad have moved to the forefront. It remains true that a conception of peace and conflict management cannot be separated from Muslim discourse. Even the idea of individual freedom in Islam is based on the attainment of freedom as a result of being at peace with and integrated into the broader religious community. Individual freedom clearly is not synonymous with “doing whatever you like.” Rather, individual dignity emerges from the maintenance of harmony between individuals and God. There is in contemporary Islam a tension between using religion to justify violence and actual conflict dynamics. Conflicts are typically rooted in political and economic grievances, but religion is used to intensify attitudes and rally support. Nuance and issue complexity are lost as the discourse gets simpler and adherents become more radicalized. Currently Islamic fundamentalist leaders have made the claim that Muslims are occupied by non-Muslims in foreign lands and oppressed by various transnational governments. Casting such a wide transnational net is unusual and is typically interpreted as exceptional religious vocabulary used to justify violence. But from a dialogue and conflict management perspective using such religious discourse is not unusual. Moreover, the West must approach Islam with respect to pragmatic conflict dynamics (economic, political, and social issues) – including exploring the relationship between the conflict and Islamic principles – in an effort to meet group secular needs while maintaining harmonious relationships within the community. The West after a long period of engagement can turn this tradition to its advantage and the advantage of all.

Educating for Free and Deliberative Speech

Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in the multi-faith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it. John O’Sullivan

indexI have been a pretty standard liberal Democrat all my life, but recently I have been more critical of the left’s retreat from First Amendment protections. I’m talking about the left’s willingness to restrict symbolic expression that is critical of an ethnopolitical group or identity group of any kind. A recent article by John O’Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal takes up the issue of the new limits on free expression in the name of protecting religious and ethnopolitical group sensitivities. The article is an excellent treatment of these issues and I highly recommend it.

The harsh and anti-democratic strand of jihadist Islam has successfully scared enough people into restraining free expression in the form of restricting criticism of religion and political culture. Earlier in the history of free expression, O’Sullivan explains, the predominant restrictions on speech were with respect to obscenity, pornography, and language that was sexually explicit. The purveyors of these restrictions were moralistic and believed themselves to be defending proper standards of society. Political speech was strongly protected. But now, the calls for restrictions are designed to limit the political speech of others and consider off-limits the entire array of topics surrounding religion and politics. Obscene and pornographic speech was limited on the basis of protecting the broad moral foundation of the culture, limiting speech that is critical of religion is justified on the basis of particular groups with each making their own demands.

Burning an American flag is considered political speech and symbolic expression that is protected. I can legally burn the American flag in the center of the town square as a symbolic statement of opposition to some aspect of American foreign policy. But if I burn the Koran, which would still be legal in the United States as politically protected expression, it will cause a different reaction. There is a suggestion that the US endorse an international blasphemy law that would define the Koran as so special that burning it constitutes a particular offense, rather than simply protected symbolic expression.

The traditional approach to protected speech is to ignore the content of speech but simply disallow symbolic expression that will cause imminent danger (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater).Yet feeling free to limit speech because words are supposedly so powerful and dangerous is a slippery slope that will slowly erode freedom.

The Answer: Education

One does not come into the world with established political ideology and sensitivities to managing group differences. Democracy and freedom of speech is advanced citizenship in a democracy and must be taught. Free and open societies, where citizen participation is rich and required, necessitate learning the habits of pluralism and democratic processes. The legal environment surrounding freedom of expression has drifted toward an oversensitivity to categorize speech is injurious and in constant need of management. We should not be in the business of restricting all sorts of pure symbolic behavior. Living amongst one’s fellows in a pluralistic, multi-faith, diverse environment requires living in a world that is not of one’s own making and is constituted by differences. These differences must be managed through the deliberative communication process which is by definition “contestatory.”

The lines and distinctions implied here are difficult. For example, do we allow street gangs to deface public buildings with racist slogans and call it “freedom of expression”? I presume it would be possible to define such activities as sufficiently harmful and capable of producing imminent danger, but it will depend on many factors. Slow and long term as it is democratic cultures must continue civic education that includes democratic values.

If You Were Born in Jerusalem Were You Born in Israel? Maybe not

Jerusalem erased

There is currently a court case in the United States about to be heard by the Supreme Court pertaining to Menachem Zivotofsky who was born in Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem – Western Jerusalem. As reported in the Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2014 Menachem’s parents are US citizens but when they went to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to apply for his passport they listed his place of birth as “Israel.” The consular officials said no. The case is currently under consideration and interestingly is a major issue in foreign policy. Let’s explain with a little background first.

Some Background

Jerusalem from 1517 was part of the Ottoman Empire up until the First World War. It was an international city mostly of interest because of its religious sites traced to the Abrahamic religions. After World War I Jerusalem was part of the British mandate and in 1948 the United Nations partitioned Palestine and Jerusalem was declared a “separate body” with special political status. After the establishment of the State of Israel Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and Israel maintained control in West Jerusalem. Jerusalem was divided for 19 years and after the 1967 war, Israel retook the old city and declared Jerusalem united.

Status of International Law

UN resolution 181 in 1947 declared Jerusalem a “separate entity,” and would be managed on the bases outlined in the United Nations Proposal 181 which concerned the partition of Palestine. Israel has always considered the partition proposal null and void because the Arabs rejected the UN resolution and attacked the new state of Israel. Consequently, separating Jerusalem out as a separate entity was unjustified. Israel was again attacked in 1967 and as result of their victory in the Six-Day War Jerusalem was reunified, or reclaimed by Israelis, as a Jewish city. Since 1967 all residents including Arabs were offered Israeli citizenship, although most of them declined. The Palestinians argue that in violation of United Nations principles Israel acquired land by military means and the unification of Jerusalem was illegal.

Israel in 1980 declared Jerusalem as its eternal capital and made the argument that such claims are rooted in 3000 years of history citing King David, biblical events, the structure of Jewish prayer which turns toward Jerusalem three times a day, as well as the foregrounding of Jerusalem in the thoughts and liturgies of Jews everywhere.

Still, the Palestinian Authority claims all of East Jerusalem including the Temple Mount and maintains that West Jerusalem and its final status can only result from negotiated agreements between the two sides.

So What Is to Become of young Menachem Zivotofsky?

The United States prefers Jerusalem to remain an international city with final status to be the result of negotiations. It does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel according to international law. The United States position is specific in that it supported the partition plan but not UN control of Jerusalem. The US also objected to all unilateral action, including moving its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, that made decisions for Jerusalem outside the boundaries of negotiated agreements.

US foreign policy became entangled in this issue when Congress passed a law in 2002 that directed the State Department to allow US citizens born in Jerusalem to identify “Israel” as their place of birth. This allowed people like Mr. Zivotofsky to self identify. But the Bush and Obama administrations have refused to implement the rule claiming their exclusive powers in foreign policy and avoiding antagonizing the Arab world by maintaining the international standing definition of Jerusalem.

As of now, Jerusalem remains a potentially contentious definitional issue with much of the world automatically associating it with Israel and other parts of the world refusing. It has found its way into a political battle between Congress and the presidency with respect to who is most authoritative when it comes to directing the nation’s foreign affairs. Can the executive branch just ignore Congress, and can Congress direct legislation over the head of the President. These are the matters influencing the Supreme Court decision while Menachem Zivotofsky waits to see where he was born.


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