Category Archives: Israel
Issues particularly related to Israel
The article below is reprinted from Tablet and makes a gentle and fair-minded case for why Representative Omar should expand her experiences in Israel. We expect her to criticize Israel for the occupation as well as labeling Israel a colonial state along with additional critical vocabulary. But if she truly is trying to learn with an open mind, then Omar should heed Carly Pildis’s suggestions.
When news broke last month that Rep. Ilhan Omar was planning a trip to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank with some of her congressional colleagues, I felt a subtle sense of hope. I disagree with many of Omar’s comments on the conflicts, but, given her rapid change in viewpoint after winning her election, I hope that she’ll come to the region with an open mind and an open heart. And having myself visited Israel on numerous occasions—visits that were deeply meaningful to me and helped me shape my view of regional politics—I believe the right itinerary could make a real difference. I’m no travel agent, but I wrestle daily with a complicated view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, with that in mind, sat down to imagine the trip I would arrange for Omar and her friends.
Tzfat is a good place to start and get rooted. The town has a deep history of Jewish mysticism, religious study, and art. Local legend claims the city was created by Noah after the flood. Yes, that Noah. It has ancient Jewish roots, including mentions in the Jerusalem Talmud and the writings of Jewish historian of Roman times Josephus, as well as a vibrant modern Jewish culture of mystical study and art. I hope Omar will stop by Abraham Loewenthal’s studio and chat with him about mystic art; I have one of his pieces in my kitchen.I hope she walks the ancient streets, exploring its beautiful unique synagogues. Abuhav Synagogue, built by Rabbi Abuhav and his disciples after they were expelled from Spain in 1492, is a favorite of mine. Another is the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue, built in 1570. In 1948 a piece of shrapnel flew through the synagogue while congregants were praying, and, miraculously, no one was injured. People still write notes to God and slip them in the the hole the shrapnel left behind. I have left my own prayers there.
Why should Omar spend a day touching ancient stones and chatting with hippie mystic artists? Because some of her fellow progressives are likely to tell her that nothing about Israel is authentically Jewish, that it is all a modern construction, a colonialist, white supremacist enterprise. I am hoping after a day in Tzfat she will vocally disagree. Tzfat was the home of PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas before his family fled in 1948, and the home of Rabbi Abuhav who took refuge there in 1492. Roots tangle, especially in the Holy Land.
Now that Omar has rooted herself in history, I think she should visit those who best understand what’s at stake, because they have lost the most: the parents who lost a child to the conflict. Parents Circle-Families Forum is a grassroots organization of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost an immediate family member in the conflict. In 2007, I met with Aaron, a father from PCFF who told me lovingly and achingly about his son Noam, who was killed in the Second Lebanon War. His hands never stopped shaking, rolling and unrolling a piece of paper as he recalled hearing the news of his beloved son’s death and how he felt called to push for peace, reconciliation, and dialogue. PCFF brings families together to share their grief, and their hopes that by sharing grief they can create a path to reconciliation and peace. They have offices in both Ramat Efal and Beit Jala you can visit, where members engage in dialogue circles. Additionally, PCFF runs a summer camp for bereaved youth and a hotline that allows Israelis and Palestinians to talk for free and make new connections. It has had over a million callers. PCFF is both heartbreaking and inspirational, and it’s the kind of project that needs more support. In this era of American activists creating “anti-normalization” clauses and refusing dialogue and debate, PCFF stands in stark contrast to Western bombast. It is a model that is both heartbroken and hopeful for peace, deeply committed to recognizing the pain of all its members.
Another space that will help Omar understand the stakes of the conflict is Sderot. The people of Sderot have been hit with thousands of rockets over the past decade, including this past May, when over 450 rockets attacked Southern Israel from Gaza. One landed right outside a kindergarten in Sderot. Forty percent of children in Sderot suffer from PTSD and anxiety due to the trauma of rocket attacks, which is far higher than the national average of 7% to 10%. The Israeli Education Ministry’s psychological service is now training teachers to help them better support children who are traumatized by the conflict. In 2009, the Jewish National Fund donated an indoor playground that doubles as a bomb shelter, so that the children of Sderot can play without risking being too far from a bomb shelter. When a Code Red alert sounds, residents have only 15 seconds to reach a bomb shelter. There are over 200 throughout the city. Rep. Omar and members of her “squad” have proposed cutting U.S. military aid to Israel. I think when she is in the region, she should meet with the families in Southern Israel that would bear the brunt of that cut.
While examining investments in keeping the people of Sderot safe, both in terms of bomb shelters and the Iron Dome, it is important to contrast the average citizen of Sderot with the average citizen of Gaza, who does not have access to a bomb shelters. It seems the Hamas government is unwilling to invest in civilian bomb shelter, preferring instead to invest in underground smuggling tunnels that further the effort to bomb the citizens of Sderot. If Rep. Omar and her colleagues get a chance, they should question the Gazan government’s priorities.
More than any one specific tour stop, I hope Rep. Omar integrates into her itinerary a search for duality. Sometimes we must hold two difficult, even seemingly contradicting truths in our mind at the same time, especially as people of faith. When she visits a West Bank checkpoint, as I hope she will, and confronts the cruelty of the occupation and the hardship it causes, I hope Omar will also talk to the Israeli soldiers on duty. If she does, she’ll see that they are often very young, just out of high school, and very frightened by the burden of responsibility for security placed on their shoulders. I hope she speaks to Palestinians who lost everything in 1948 and became refugees, just like her, and I also hope she speaks to Jewish refugees from Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Ethiopia, and the former USSR, who found a home in Israel when they were in desperate circumstances. If the congresswoman chooses to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, I hope she also goes to the Kotel. When I touched the stones of the Kotel for the first time, I laid my head on it and wept, because God felt so close and yet so far away. It is the same way for peace in the region, it seems both within our grasp and devastatingly far away.
The below is reprinted from Tablet (June 5, 2019). I have no problem with criticizing Israel and believe criticism is often well-deserved. But BDS and its supporters make legitimate criticism difficult if not impossible. For Israel to look the way BDS describes you have to be immersed in some malicious misinformation and be more interested in simply lashing out rather than productive conversation. I make the article below available for a little counterpoint.
The Big Lie
And the toxic BDS professors who tell it
Fiercely anti-Zionist students have become a fixture on American college campuses. They depend on professors for their doctrine, and the professors are spreading disinformation, as Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) between 2006 and 2012, shows in his valuable new book, Israel Denial : Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State.
Nelson’s argument is simple: If you want to single out Israel as uniquely worthy of condemnation among the nations of the earth, you have to sign on to a series of lies. BDS’ chief campus influencers, including Judith Butler, Steven Salaita, Saree Makdisi, and Jasbir Puar, traffic in hyperbolic calumnies about the Jewish state that are easy to refute—if, that is, one is interested in facts rather than blatant prejudice.
Yet Nelson shows that major academic presses sympathetic to BDS, like Duke University Press, have printed these false claims without bothering to engage in even the most basic fact-checking. After Nelson’s book, no one should be able to take the work of the BDS professors seriously, given their reliance on propagandistic lies.
We can start with Jasbir Puar , the Rutgers University professor whose book The Right to Maim (published by Duke) won an award from the National Women’s Studies Association, which officially endorses BDS. Puar has said in print that Israel mines organs from “Palestinian bodies” killed in violent conflict, and that this is “well-documented.” But she cites no documentary proof, because what she claims is impossible: Bodies killed by bullets during violent clashes are useless for organ transplants since they are instantly contaminated by bacteria. Only the scientifically illiterate could swallow Puar’s bizarre claim, which is of a piece with her equally counterfactual assertion that Israel is running a campaign to stunt Palestinians’ growth by denying them adequate nutrition. Nelson carefully demolishes this fabrication, for which Puar cites no evidence.
Nelson is very funny about Puar’s kooky obscurantism. She busily stirs her witches’ brew of bias, rumor, and postmodernist jargon, denouncing “the dark and destructive assemblage that swirls around the Jewish state, a biopolitical assemblage of control that instrumentalizes a spectrum of capacities and debilities.” But Nelson soberly adds that Puar’s high-profile work presents a deadly serious problem: A university press is presenting as evidence-based scholarship what is actually baseless slander, calculated to incite hate.
Even more lurid in his hatred than Puar is Steven Salaita , who absurdly states that any Arab entering Israel can expect a vaginal or anal search. Salaita is a self-confessed despiser of Israel who unleashed a storm of vulgar hate-filled tweets before and after the last Gaza War in 2014, and was then denied a campus appointment at the University of Illinois—a decision Nelson endorses, since Salaita in his books as well as his social media posts is a proud hatemonger who disdains the academic virtues of civil debate and free exchange of ideas. Like Nazis banning Jews from the professions, Salaita wants to ban Zionists from the left. Should a university hire someone like Salaita, Nelson asks, who would proudly promote discrimination on campus?
More banal than Puar and Salaita, but just as insidious, is Saree Makdisi, professor of English at UCLA and celebrated BDS advocate. Makdisi proclaims in his books that Israel has no Basic Law guaranteeing equality of citizenship and no Supreme Court decisions referencing equality. He is, of course, stating the opposite of the truth, as he must know. Israel’s Basic Law gives equal rights to all citizens and this principle has often been cited by the country’s Supreme Court.
Makdisi is just as careless about facts in his account of Bedouin villages which, he inaccurately claims, Israel has refused to recognize. Nelson traveled to one of the villages, Arab al-Na’im, which was recognized in 2000, as Makdisi might have learned from Wikipedia. Its Bedouin leader, Nimer al-Na’im, angrily said that Makdisi’s account was full of “lies,” and was astonished, as Nelson puts it, that “someone halfway around the world” was misrepresenting his home town. Nelson presents a moving account of how the village developed in tandem with a neighboring Jewish town, Eshchar. Makdisi refuses to acknowledge such instances of Jewish-Arab collaboration, instead telling a made-up tale of endless, motiveless Jewish hostility toward Arabs. He also derides the Palestinian Authority for engaging in a peace process with Israel, apparently preferring Hamas’ terror.
Nelson convincingly suggests that BDS recapitulates a choice familiar from centuries of Christian history and theology: “Jews can remain demons or else they can convert” to Israel hatred. Among the superstar converts is Judith Butler , the famously obscure theorist who is president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Butler like other BDS advocates paints herself as nonviolent and rejects the notion that she engages in hate speech. But instead of merely condemning Israeli policies, she voices, as Nelson remarks, an “existential rejection of Israel’s cultural institutions and its right to exist.” In this way she encourages hatred that licenses and promotes violence.
To hear Butler tell it, the Jewish state can be erased through nonviolent means, because when Israelis and Palestinians become Butlerians their nationalism will wither away and be replaced by—well, it’s hard to tell by what. At any rate, terrorism will disappear and with it nationhood itself. As she puts it in her clotted style, “There is we might say, a necessary and impossible attachment that makes a mockery of identity, an ambivalence that emerges from the decentering of the nationalist ethos and that forms the basis of a permanent ethical demand.” Nelson responds, “Good luck with that. Does she think millions of Arabs and Jews are mere clay she can mold to fit her fantastical ambitions for them?”
Butler, when she talks about Israel, seems to be running an outlandish thought experiment, not to be taken seriously as policy because it would lead to endless warfare. She pretends, Nelson says, that it would be “neutral or beneficial” to dissolve the State of Israel, but this is a “frankly lunatic” proposition.
If Jewish statehood came to an end, as Butler and BDS insist it must, Israeli Jews would not flee, they would fight. The only way an anti-Zionist agenda could win would therefore be through massive bloodshed. BDS’ claim to nonviolence is therefore meaningless, since the goal it proposes would unleash a wave of massacres with both Jews and Palestinians as victims. Even seemingly more moderate goals, like restricting weapons sales to Israel, would have disastrous results. Without its Iron Dome system, largely financed by America, Israel would have to make full-fledged war against Hamas, causing vast suffering for the Palestinian people.
Butler has an essentialist definition of Jews, one that comes out of her head rather than lived reality. For her, to be truly Jewish is to be ferociously anti-Israel, though anti-Zionists are currently a tiny minority among world Jewry.
The Butlerian Jew is at home with diasporic (non-)identity, exile, and otherness. One might respond that such a strategy was hardly a choice and didn’t always work out so well during the 2,000 years of Jewish statelessness and political powerlessness prior to 1948. Today, Israeli Jews make up nearly half of world Jewry. They are in no way diasporic, but deeply attached to their homeland. Butler’s solution, acting as the extremist rabbi of the academic left, is to anathematize and erase their Jewishness.
Butler says that BDS boycotts only institutions, not individuals, a well-worn talking point for a movement that habitually cloaks its eliminationist aims. But again, this simply isn’t true. Organizations that abide by BDS like the American Studies Association discriminate against Israeli academics by preventing them from using university funds to appear at conferences. Israelis have been kicked off the editorial boards of academic journals simply because they are Israeli. Students have been denied letters of recommendation to study in Israel. All of these measures hurt individuals.
Those who have never been subject to prejudice because of their national origin, ethnicity, or race might find it hard to identify with the pain someone feels on being rejected for a job because she comes from a despised nation. Perhaps they should perform a simple ethical thought experiment: putting themselves in place of the hated Israeli.
BDS has three “nonnegotiable” demands: that all descendants of Palestinian refugees be given Israeli citizenship, that the separation barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories be taken down, and that Israeli Arab citizens be given equal rights with Israeli Jews. This last demand is simply misleading, since Israeli Palestinians already have equal rights.
As for the first two demands, no Israeli government, even a far-left one, would ever contemplate accepting them, as removing the separation barrier would lead to a wave of terror attacks, new wars, and an exponentially higher death toll—especially on the Palestinian side. Giving all Palestinians Israeli citizenship would lead to the death of the Jewish state. But of course, the end of Israel as a Jewish state is precisely BDS’ goal, and it doesn’t matter how many Arabs and Jews are killed in order to achieve it.
BDS proponents habitually call Israel an apartheid state. But Israel has no segregation or passbooks like the kind that blighted apartheid South Africa. There were no blacks serving in apartheid South Africa’s parliament or seated on its Supreme Court. The historian Russell Berman points out that Nelson Mandela happily accepted an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University in 1997, and in his acceptance speech thanked Israel for its contributions to South Africa (through the collaborative programs that BDS wants to ban). Since then, affirmative action keeps boosting the number of Israeli Palestinians in Israel’s universities and, especially, medical schools. The University of Haifa is 40% Arab, twice the percentage of Arabs in the Israeli population.
BDS activists, who imply they know more about apartheid than Mandela, ignore his praise of Israel, just as they diligently attempt to rewrite Martin Luther King Jr. By turning Israel into apartheid South Africa, they demonstrate their ignorance of what apartheid was actually like—while casually denying and erasing the brutal violence and unceasing hatred to which Jewish Israelis have been subjected by neighboring Arab countries since before the founding of their state. Racism exists in Israel just as it does in the United States, but Israel has taken large and visible steps to counteract it.
To counteract BDS it’s not enough merely to condemn the movement’s lies, Nelson writes. In a series of chapters interspersed throughout Israel Denial, Nelson shows his commitment to the imperfect yet inspiring reality of Israel, giving his own ideas about increasing peace between Israelis and Palestinians through a series of trust-building Israeli concessions like ceding parts of the West Bank’s Area C to the Palestinian Authority. The point is to create a two-state dynamic even without a peace deal. He describes his own practice of “teaching for empathy” by presenting Jewish and Palestinian poets together. Nelson’s Israel is not the mythic realm of demons fantasized by BDS advocates but an actual place that contains signs of hope.
Yet professors and students like Nelson are often denied chances to share their experiences. Instead they are silenced by BDS, which seeks to advance their agenda not through reasoned debate but by a full-frontal assault on free speech. BDS adherents have in the last few years tried to shut down 90 mostly Israeli speakers, some of whom were bona fide leftists. Tactically, the BDS movement uses violence and extreme pressure to forcefully prevent reasoned discussion about Israel on campus, and make university faculty, administrators, and students afraid.
It is in the context of the BDS movement’s campaign of continuous pressure and often violent intimidation against those who hold more nuanced, fact-based views that the apparatus of academic BDS publications and conferences should properly be understood. The jargon of po-mo theory, words like “apartheid,” and baldfaced lies about organ harvesting and biological warfare are intended to intimidate while serving as a fig leaf for the eliminationist fantasies they are intended to justify. Even when the facts are wrong, the fact that books are published and conferences are held allows nervous administrators to pretend that the BDS movement is somehow observing normal rules of academic discourse, rather than violating them.
Yet perhaps because of these social pressure tactics, BDS gets a free ride in much of the mainstream media. Their violent heckling of speakers, their traffic in disinformation, and their opposition to dialogue and open debate are nowhere mentioned, for example, in a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Nathan Thrall. When BDS looks in the mirror, what it sees is the noble faces of crusaders against injustice—but that’s because the mirror is cracked, too.
These days, American universities give awards to student BDS organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine , which dutifully parrot the hateful nonsense spewed by their professors, in a grotesque parody of what a humanistic education should look like. Instead, the academy ought to follow the German Bundestag, which declared on May 17 that “the pattern of argument and the methods of BDS are anti-Semitic,” and, the Bundestag added, clearly reminiscent of Nazi-era anti-Jewish boycotts. It’s time that these words became as commonly accepted in America as they are in Germany.
Read more from Tablet magazine’s deep archive of stories on campus anti-Semitism .
Well, it might not be the biggest issue because there are so many in Israel but it is certainly a leading contender and currently capturing regular headlines. And that is the matter of yeshiva students or Torah scholars serving in the military. Israel, of course, has a high need for security and the burden of maintaining that security should be a community value. But the study of Torah is also central to Judaism and thought by many to be part of the process of bringing about the coming of the Messiah. Religious leaders argue that these Torah scholars should be exempt from military service.
During the beginning of the state David Ben-Gurion came to an agreement with religious leaders that a specified number of yeshiva students would be exempt from military service, but since then that number has been growing. These exemptions arouse tremendous resentment especially in secular society. The strongest and most emotionally compelling charge is that secular and non-Orthodox young men and women go off and fight and die protecting the lives and rights of yeshiva students who don’t serve.
There are strong and defensible positions on both sides: cases can be made on the basis of authoritative texts for both compelling military service and being exempt from it. A good review of the issues appears here.
The Best Case for Military Service and the Ultra-Orthodox
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox students avoiding the military – sometimes on the basis of pretty thin claims for Torah scholarship – is simply unfair and can be justified on religious grounds. There are four main arguments for why yeshiva students should serve in the military.
- There is a commandment to study Torah called Bilul Torah and the argument is military service will detract from such study. But there are other commandments and performing one does not take automatic precedence over the other. Protecting the land of Israel is also a commandment and military service would be supportive of such a commandment. There remains the question of how much Torah study constitutes a sufficient amount. It is probably possible to both serve in the military, just like working at any job, and still study Torah even though this is not the definition of “full-time” Torah study.
- A second argument is that Torah students are special in that they are separate from the empirical world and are set aside to serve God. For yeshiva students their full-time occupation is the service of God and the study of Torah. Once again, a commitment to studying Torah does not remove all secular obligations. Concluding that yeshiva students live separately in a special relationship with God confers saintliness on them, which is quite contrary to Torah scholar identity.
- Another claim is that yeshiva students are in constant training to protect the spiritual world and not protection of the physical world. But Torah scholars are still obligated to take part in protection of the community. This means service in the military because they do not have the right to demand that others protect them.
- A final argument is much more practical in that the Orthodox community points to the incompatibilities between their life and the military. Problems with keeping kosher, separation of men and women, religious obligations, and interpersonal relations all pose almost insurmountable difficulties. But the military already has experience in meeting the individual needs of certain groups. Although there will be certain challenges the more orthodox Torah students enter the military the more the military will adjust and adapt to their needs.
The answer to this problem is not clear-cut. As of now it looks like the conscription bill will pass and more religious students will enter the military. The secular-religious divide is one of the widest in Israel and it is clearly exacerbated by military exemptions for Torah students. I think it’s important that these religious students do not stand on the sidelines while Israel struggles with issues of defense and security. It is already the case that their alienation from political society produces difficult conflicts. Military service is the most potent route to the type of integration necessary to close up this divide.
I smell war in Israel. I’ve had the feeling for some time that Hezbollah will flex its muscles and even try to provoke Israel and Iran, although they will not succeed. I arrived in Israel a few days ago and after reading more of the local news I had my suspicions confirmed.
The Jewish News Service reports that the Israeli Defense Forces are drawing up plans for an offensive attack on Hezbollah. But equally as interesting, the IDF is also working on defensive strategies. The population is being as prepared as possible realizing it’s always impossible to prepare perfectly. This is especially true because Hezbollah is not the same organization it was in 2006 during the second Lebanon war. At that time Hezbollah fired about 6, 000 rockets into Israel and none of them struck anything of significance and could not even travel the distance of the country.
Those days are over! Hezbollah can now fire with greater accuracy and reach any space in Israel. This means that sensitive and important targets along with more people will be struck. The death toll will be higher and the damage to the infrastructure greater. This will escalate the consequences. As more Israelis are hurt and more damage is done to the country Israel will, as is expected, retaliate even stronger thus exacerbating the whole problem.
Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy group and they have gained experience by fighting with the Syrians. They are better prepared for different military situations including training in infiltration. Israel has ratcheted up its preparation by training volunteers, first responders, and those responsible for providing information. New technology including smart phones, alerts, and computers are all being integrated into Israel’s defensive positions. Local authorities such as police and administrators will have more authority and be responsible for directing community responses.
If Hezbollah is not enough trouble, the relationship between Iran and Israel has deteriorated and already seen some share of violence. The relationships among Iran, Syria, the Kurds, the Turks, Hezbollah, ISIS, the United States, and Israel are a complex matrix of influence and aggression. The Syrians and Israel have already exchanged fire which is a highly provocative and dangerous circumstance. And the one thing all of these groups have in common (except for the Kurds and the United States) is a contentious relationship with Israel. Russia cannot be ignored because they support the Syrians but dislike Islamic motivated religious groups like Hezbollah. So what is going to happen? Here’s what I think is going to happen:
- All out war between Israel and Iran is unlikely. It’s too dangerous. This is one advantage of a form of mutual assured destruction; it causes both sides to become more conservative and cautionary.
- Also, Iran has difficult internal strife with intensified protests and more challenges to the Iranian leadership. The Iranian population seriously objects to money spent on outside political adventurism and the failure of the leadership to turn their attention to internal problems of employment and quality of life
- Iran sees itself as a leader among the Shia and spends billions of dollars, which it can little afford, supporting Hezbollah, Lebanese Shiite militia, and Shiite regimes in Iraq and Syria. A war with Israel would just be too costly especially under the pressure of sanctions.
- A war between Iran and Israel would very quickly include the United States. The United States of course would support Israel thereby increasing pressures on Iran.
- Russia maintains relationships with both Iran and Israel and stands to lose important economic relationships. Russia has increasingly friendly relationship with Israel and would not easily take the side of Iran–a religious extremist country. No one wants to see Iran consolidate power.
The complexity of these political arrangements is actually an advantage because there are so many different types of relationships and path dependencies that some route can always be blocked. Let’s hope it’s the most violent route that cannot find its way to its endpoint.
Israel, even with all its difficulties and enemies, is making progress with respect to its relationship with some other countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, just allowed flights to Israel to go through its air space. These new routes for India Airlines cuts over two hours off the trip, makes the trip cheaper, and saves fuel. This is really pretty amazing given the contentious relationship and the long history of animosity between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But surely enough Israel is losing ground and growing farther part from other cultures and in a few cases cultures you would expect to be more resonant with the Jewish state. Ireland is a good example.
The Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) reported a couple weeks ago about the curiously poor and deteriorating relationship between Ireland and Israel. In the article, which you can read here, the author defends the position that Ireland is one of Israels most ferocious critics.
Why would this be? What is it about Ireland that would set it so against Jewish culture and politics? At first blush you might accept the premise that the Jews and the Irish have common history, a history of oppression and suffering at the hands of a dominant and racist culture. Both the Irish and the Jews have sought redemption and strained for generations for acceptance. Both cultures have experienced war and violence in an effort to maintain their own culture and develop political independence. This is the essence of Zionism and compares to the Irish struggle for their own state as well as independence.
Still, it is Ireland whose voice is the loudest and most critical of Israel. Recent legislation from the Irish Senate prohibits the import of products from “illegal” settlements with very little if any definition or decisions about which settlements are illegal. This is one more example of singling out Israel and holding them to standards others do not have to meet. Of all the repressive governments in the world, of all the illiberal and authoritarian political systems brutalizing their own people, it is Israel that gets selected out for punishment.
This kind of legislation is a gift to BDS and those of that ilk and is in stark contrast to ethical and productive commerce. On another level this is simplistic politics designed to show solidarity with the Palestinians through what will amount to be ineffectual policies.
So, in the end, the Irish and the Jews should sympathize with one another on the basis of common historical experiences. But it turns out that the Irish see Israel in the same role as the United Kingdom before Irish independence in 1921. Like others in the EU Ireland increasingly sees Israel as an occupier just like the United Kingdom “settled” in Ireland. Before 1948 Jews were a struggling minority seeking the integrity that accompanied national recognition. But now the Palestinians have assumed that role.
Once again, Israel has a story to tell and they just cannot seem to tell it well enough.
The legal and political standing of Jerusalem remains unclear and subject to confusion. Recall from last week’s post that when the United Nations decided to divide Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state Jerusalem was not included. It was to be administered by an international group until some equitable agreement could be reached as a result of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Some such third-party administering unit is still a viable idea that may be a part of an end-of-conflict solution. It recognizes the importance of the religious sites for all groups and keeps the various sides engaged with one another. Still, the likelihood that Israel will forgo sovereignty over the old city is slim.
But the Arabs did not accept the partition plan and war was the result. At the end of the war in 1948 Israel had taken West Jerusalem and Jordan East Jerusalem including the old city, the center of the religious life. During the 19 years that Jordan occupied East Jerusalem the Palestinians grew into a nationalist movement and made increasing demands on Jerusalem as a future capital. But after 1967 Israel expanded the city’s borders and added Jewish residents to the neighborhood. As of 2015 Arabs made up 38% of the population (Central Bureau of Statistics) of Jerusalem.
The incorporation of Arab neighborhoods into the municipality of Jerusalem has created a regular tension between Palestinians and Israelis. For example, the Palestinians do not participate – or participate minimally – in civil society governance and therefore suffer from poor services with respect to roads, schools, garbage collection etc. The Palestinians are designated as permanent residents but such a status can be revoked at any time.
In East Jerusalem Israel has also incorporated some neighborhoods that were never a part of Jerusalem in the first place, and has built new neighborhoods intended for Jews only. This, of course, is the settler problem along with the aggressive appropriation of land designed to create “facts on the ground.” Interestingly, much of this policy has made things even worse as it becomes increasingly difficult to divide Jerusalem and assign sections of the city to the Palestinians and others to the Israelis. And Palestinians consistently maintain that there will be no Palestinian state that does not include Jerusalem as its capital.
Finally, any future Jerusalem that has the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and Israel’s capital in the West must be the result of mutual agreement and acceptance because there cannot be a dividing line strictly separating the two sides. There must be free and easy movement if the religious sites of the old city are to be available to everyone.
The notion that the two state solution is dead because the United States will move (not until 2020) its embassy to Jerusalem is indefensible. A two state solution with Jerusalem as a capital for both sides has been a part of just about everybody’s proposal from Clinton, to Barak, to Olmert.
Trump’s speech did recognize a reality that negotiations and discussions between Israelis and Palestinians are still viable. And, on the contrary, this move by the United States does not distort the peace process but stimulates it.
Some problems can’t be solved. The fundamental assumptions and philosophy of two competing sides ensnared in the problem cannot be reconciled. Let me elaborate with an example:
There is a concept used by myself and conflict resolution specialists, a concept in particular associated with work by Cass Sunstein, called incomplete theorization. Sunstein, as a lawyer, is concerned with constitutionalism and how you write such constitutions that are effective when people disagree about so many things. Here is how Sunstein poses the issue. Again, he is talking about constitutions but tell me whether or not incomplete theorization sounds like the primary conundrum for the Israelis and Palestinians.
Incompletely theorized agreements help illuminate an enduring constitutional puzzle: how members of diverse societies can work together in terms of mutual respect amidst intense disagreements about both the right and the good.
People often agree on practices but not on theories. Therefore many problems have to be solved as incompletely theorized agreements. Sunstein continues:
The agreement on particulars is incompletely theorized in the sense that the relevant participants are clear on the practice or the result without agreeing on the most general theory that accounts for it. Often people can agree that a rule—protecting political dissenters, allowing workers to practice their religion—makes sense without entirely agreeing on the foundations of their belief.
Incomplete theorization has the advantage of turning attention away from difficult philosophical issues which are typically a combustible mix of foundational beliefs that cannot be reconciled. Moreover, attention to concrete practices has a better chance of success and acceptance which can likely lead to other areas of agreement as participants practice the habits of agreement.
So, let’s incompletely theorize an issue for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The division of Jerusalem into municipalities will not be solved by weighty discussions of Jerusalem’s history and who has rights conferred by kings or gods. But East Jerusalem neighborhoods are home to 300,000 Palestinians–and no Jews. The parties can’t wait for philosophical issues to be solved about historic Jerusalem. Separating the neighborhood would reduce the number of West Bank Palestinians subject to direct Israeli rule and remove a serious point of contention. Also, it would lighten Israel’s economic burden. Moving the security fence away from a hostile population, rather than moving people, would certainly be easier and less traumatic. Both Israelis and Palestinians would benefit without agreeing to any kind of philosophical supporting rationale.
Here’s another incompletely theorized condition.
Israel has serious security issues and must remain in control of the “West Bank.” However, Palestinians should have full autonomy as an “unincorporated territory.” Until the Palestinians agree to peace with Israel, they could be welcomed as partners in the Israeli economic system and should be able to fully participate in Israel’s commercial and creative life. Even without statehood, in less than a generation the Palestinians could become more prosperous and prepare one day for peace.
If one thought this through I would expect there are many practicalities that could be achieved without the burden of deeper philosophical rationales.
A few weeks ago I published an article in the Jerusalem Post in support of the Kurds and their quest for independence. You can read that article here. And it remains the case that if you are generally supportive of states with democratic processes and cultures oriented toward mutually tolerant relationships, then you’re in support of the Kurds. Moreover, the Kurds have been good friends to Israel. Last week Prime Minister Netanyahu stated publicly his support for Kurdish independence and the referendum. The Kurds welcome Israel’s support but have remained quiet for fear of antagonizing the Arab world.
In Saturday’s edition of the New York Times there is a story on the relationship between the Kurds and Israel. It is a clear and well stated article explaining the relationship between the Jews and the Kurds, a relationship about which many people don’t understand or are unaware of. The Kurds and the Jews of Israel in particular share a history of oppression and both groups are minorities in an unwelcoming neighborhood. There are about 200,000 Kurdish Jews and a strong Kurdish presence in Israel. Most notably was the assistance from Kurds in helping Jews escape Baghdad in 1969 after a mass hanging of Jews.
Netanyahu’s support for the Kurds and the independence resolution was a gutsy move made in isolation, because most powers in the region including the United Nations and the United States either directly oppose or have reservations about the referendum. The Iraqis oppose it because they don’t want their nation to be broken up; the Americans oppose it for fear that it will interfere with the defeat of the Islamic State and complicate their mission in that area of the world; Iran and Turkey oppose the referendum for fear of stimulating separatist thinking and even potential violence.
But Israel is publicly supportive of the Kurds because Israel needs friends. The Kurds are potentially very useful friends and would be a valuable resource in the region. And to the joy of just about everybody, the Kurds don’t care about the Palestinians. They assume it is Israel’s problem and are willing to be helpful if possible but otherwise just stand aside.
The Kurdish Independence Referendum
On September 25th Kurds will hold a referendum that will not be legally binding but is a vote on whether or not the Kurds should be an independent political entity. The referendum is a payoff for the consolidation of external military successes and help with the fight against the Islamic State. The Kurdish efforts to defeat ISIS have won the Kurdish leadership considerable praise and resources. But a cynical interpretation is that the Kurds are at the peak of their popularity and the time to declare independence is now. There have also been numerous reactions to the idea of a referendum. Some see it as a genuine deserving reward for the Kurds, others see it as a move by the old guard to cling to power.
In the end, a strong independent Kurdish state will certainly require help from the United States but also Kurdish attention to their own institutions and political trajectory. The Kurds have much work to do with respect to economic development and ensuring that institutions are a platform for democratic processes. There must also be a shared sense of Kurdish nationhood that unites the young and the old, the different localities, and final discussions about borders.
The referendum is generally a good idea and while it will interfere with the political maneuvers of some states the Kurds have to think about their own political future more than that of others.
1. Don’t equate Zionism with racism. Zionism is a national aspiration to cultivate and encourage Jewish life, literature, culture, and politics. It is designed to encourage group interests in the same way that any political, religious, or cultural group cares about its preservation. It is an ideology of inclusion, not exclusion. The racism charge is a hammer used to harm people. True enough, that the politics of Israel are complex and Israel national identity can disadvantage other groups (see #2 below). But this is not racism in any accepted sense of the term; it’s not an intentional ideologically based system of discrimination. Israel protects and perpetuates its own self-interest like any other nation state – and I repeat that this sometimes disadvantages other groups – but it’s nothing different than the United States does when it asserts itself in the affairs of other countries. The UN resolution #3379 to this effect in 1975 was an example of how easy it is to organize enough of Israel’s critics to pass UN resolutions. The resolution was revoked in 1991 and is typically recognized as an embarrassing moment in the history of the United Nations.
2. All criticism of Israel requires some nuance, complexity, and context. This may sound obvious but there is the sting of anti-Semitism when some issue is presented without context. For example, Israel is unfairly criticized for responding to violence against the state such that Israel appears to be perpetrating violence against a weaker population when in fact it is “protecting” itself and responding to violence. Recognizing some complexity and nuance is always important in any political conflict but anti-Semitism rears its head when Israel is criticized without seeming understanding of the issues. Israel does not engage in profligate violence and terrorism simply to achieve a political goal. Again, the charge of “terrorism” is a rhetorical tactic that does not characterize policy. Israel regularly complains about visual images of Israeli tanks or soldiers that make them appear aggressive when in fact they are responding to antecedent aggression. It does not mean that Israel’s policies are always correct and not subject to criticism, but such a discussion must take place in the context of facts and political reality.
3. Don’t refer to “the Zionists” as a collective noun. The public relations arm of Israel’s enemies have been successful at distorting the word Zionist to imply plots, conspiracies, racism, and insidious designs to oppress the Palestinians and engage in secret manipulations of segments of society. Referring to “Zionists” when you really mean Israel is an inappropriate lumping together of issues that justify anti-Semitism and suggests secretive and manipulative Jews pulling the puppet strings. Zionism does not mean that Jews and Israelis believe they have rights to “take what they want” in the interest of historical justice. On the contrary, original Zionist aspirations would be to cultivate Jewish life within a proper social and political context. That is, Zionists sought “a place among the nations” for Israel.
4. Don’t equate Israel with Nazi Germany or South Africa. The purpose of the Nazi Germany comparison is simple: it is a vicious and stinging comparison designed for nothing more than inflicting pain. It is a rhetorical strategy that capitalizes on the ironic charge that one group has become what its enemy was before. As with the comparison to apartheid in South Africa, the close and clear application of political theory and history (see #2 above) demonstrates how unjustified such a comparison is. All comparisons to Jewish historic enemies (Christians, Nazis,) and nefarious practices (blood rituals, money manipulation, Christ killers) will mark you as ignorant, anti-Semitic, and someone not to be taken seriously.
5. Learn important terminological distinctions and historical trends. Don’t blend the word “Jewish” with “Israeli”, at least not completely. It is true that the two complement one another, and the Zionism incorporates the symbols of Judaism, but realize that one can be Israeli without being Jewish (yet an issue still debatable by some) and, of course, Jewish without being Israeli. Judaism refers to a religious cosmology and Israel is a nation-state political entity. Make sure you know the difference between “Palestinians” and “Israeli Arabs” or if you prefer “Palestinian Arabs” and be able to describe the distinctions and political markings of each. Know something about the ethnic and historical identities groups in Israel; that is, the distinction between the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi traditions as well as other cultural groups. Be able to describe Israel’s democracy which is a viable democracy but not a liberal democracy quite like the United States.
There is clearly more to these issues than described above but it remains the case that anti-Semitism and ignorance walk hand-in-hand. The individual who cannot make the distinctions above, or who purposely draws on them in order to injure a rhetorical opponent, will be categorized immediately as repellent and easily rejected. None of this will further the interests of problem solving.
Published January 22, 2013
The legal status of the West Bank has been a thorny issue wrapped in confusion, historical change, as well as ideological motivations at the expense of legal clarity. Below is a brief treatment of the issues pertaining to the legal status of the West Bank and it is designed to be an introductory overview. I would direct the reader who seeks additional information to another brief synopsis published recently in the Jerusalem Post Magazine titled: “50 Years of Law Versus Reality” (www.jpost.com May 26, 2017). Also listen to and read the work of Eugene Kontorovich at: http://insct.syr.edu/legal-case-israels-settlements/ a legal expert who devotes scholarly attention to the issue. Below is my own distillation of the issues, based on the above sources, designed to establish some foundation for discussion.
Israel never imagined there would be 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank in a complex and politically charged project called the “settlements.” The land mass that includes the West Bank has been of questionable and debatable legal status for the last 50 years for sure but even before that. What is currently referred to as the West Bank was the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire who were defeated in World War I. The land became part of the British mandate and slipped into additional confusion about who had legal rights. When Israel took control of the land after Israel was attacked in 1967 (the Six-Day War) it fell into the category of “belligerent occupation.” This is a category of international law that requires the conquering force to adhere to a few rules of occupation. Under belligerent occupation the occupying force maintains the rights of the local people, agrees not to change the face of the land, and means that it cannot annex the land but is holding it temporarily. When land is acquired through force or war belligerent occupation is a mechanism for maintaining citizen rights and allowing political decisions to develop.
One of the controversies and difficulties about the legal status of the West Bank is whether or not to apply the principles of The Hague Regulations or the Geneva Convention. Belligerent occupation is a principal from The Hague regulations. The Geneva Convention requires more humanitarian rule even including returning conquered land. But the Israelis argued that Jordan was not a legitimate owner because they had only recently annexed the West Bank in the 1948 war. So Israel argued that it took disputed land from a wartime situation and did not conquer it from a sovereign nation, that is, they did not conquer the land from a legitimate state namely Jordan.
This is a key legal issue: did Israel acquire the West Bank from a legitimately recognized state that had sovereign power, which means according to the Geneva Accords Israel has obligations for peace negotiations, or was the West Bank genuinely disputed property.
The argument by Israel that all of the West Bank was negotiable provided justification for the ballooning settlements. As the settlements have developed, historical and legal arguments about the rights of the Jewish people – supported by a variety of historical documents ranging from the Bible to the Balfour declaration – have become more pronounced. The preponderance of evidence supports the notion that acquiring land by building settlements is illegal. But, on the other hand, Israel argues that it is still engaged in belligerent occupation and protecting the rights of the local inhabitants, that is, the Palestinians.
The legal status of the land acquired in 1967 is clearly debatable such that there are legal principles under which Israel is culpable according to international law, or principles that support Israel’s presence. In either case, the current situation is not sustainable.