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Why Putin’s Support of Syria Is Okay for Israel

Putin and Netanyahu

Even at the risk of overstating the point, Russia has an increasingly more accommodating stance toward Israel than most people realize. One reason for this is Russia’s claim to support political systems that defend their citizens. Edward Luttwak, writing in Tablet, sang Putin’s praises for his “defense of his friends” and criticized the Obama administration for abandoning their partners every time the police shoot at a protester. Putin supports Syria surely because he wants to keep his base at Tartus, but he also wants to establish Russia as a friend who can be counted on.

Putin expresses the same sensibilities about Israel – he respects their right to defend themselves. The more general and encompassing relationship between Russia and Israel is accommodating even though there is a history of contentious disagreement. The Soviet Union did align themselves with Arab nationalist governments and Israel and the Soviet Union were estranged for many years. But they exchanged ambassadors again in 1991 and continue to have a certain amount of trade. Israel occasionally sends fighter-bombers over Syria to hit Hezbollah targets and Netanyahu and Putin have agreed to inform each other about flight plans. Think about this a moment. Russia has accepted Israel’s right to bomb in Syria when Russia has troops and equipment on the ground. That requires a fair amount of trust and cooperation.

According to Michael Katz in the Middle East Quarterly Putin has worked to upgrade Russia’s relations with Israel. There are numerous flights each day from Tel Aviv to Moscow and a large Russian population in Israel. Still, we can’t be too sanguine about this because serious differences remain. Moscow supports Iran’s nuclear development and provides many of the construction contractors. This support for Iran is certainly puzzling because Russia may be a practical political system, but it clearly opposes and objects to ISIS and all the efforts to establish an Islamic state be it Sunni or Shia. Stopping the Islamic state, a goal he shares with Israel, is one of its stated justifications for its Syrian support.

Russia has had its own problems with the Chechnyans and can sympathize with Israel’s struggle with Palestinians and Jihadist Islam. In fact, the declaration of “no negotiations with terrorists” is probably the most characteristic statement that binds Israel and Russia. Putin has pointed out the similarities between the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians and Russia’s with the Chechnyans and this has translated into mutual sympathy. But is sharing terrorism experiences sufficient to move the Russians more toward Israel? I think not. Katz in the article referenced above believes a more recent Russian pro-Israel attitude is the result of Putin’s personal preference. Putin has a deep dislike for the Chechnyans and believes they have no justification for complaints against Russia. He refuses to recognize their complaints or negotiate with them. Couple this with Israel’s general agreement and sympathy for Russia’s stance toward the Chechnyans, and you have the makings of a common enemy resulting in Israel-Russian alignment.

In the end, the relationship between Russia and Israel will remain as complex and multifaceted as the situation in Syria. Israel is certainly gratified that Russia is bombing ISIS targets and considers them a threat. But, on the other hand, Israel has no sympathy for maintaining the Assad regime and will never align with Russia on this matter. Then again, to make matters even more confusing, Russia is attacking militias some of which are supported by the United States – a great friend of Israel.

Before you know it the United States will be siding with its enemy Iran (Shia Muslims) against ISIS (Sunni Muslims) and asking the Russians to stop supporting Alawite Muslims (the Assad regime) and join with the United States and Iran to fight ISIS, while Israel sits safely on the sidelines. Wait a minute! That’s what’s happening now.

 

 

 

 

 

Should Israel Exist

Israel is bornRecently, an acquaintance sent me an article with the inflammatory title “Why Israel Should Not Exist.” My acquaintance sent it eagerly and mentioned how much he was awaiting my response because the article was so trenchant and challenging. You can read the article here. Upon realizing that it came from the publication “Counterpunch” I knew it was going to be pretty left of center but I read the article carefully and gave it its due. What a collection of nonsense and distortions! The article should be an exercise in a journalism class on recognizing bias and manipulating the readers. But let’s take a look at it point by point. Maybe somebody will learn something.

The text is full of clichés and politically loaded language and the author seems to flitter by them so easily I get the impression that they are common and taken for granted in his thinking. Single words or phrases are categories for entire spaces of reality and I can usually tell when someone has organized his reality according to some common clichéish categories. Here are just a few examples: the term “Zionist” in the numerous places below appears with frequency because the author imposes the normal caveat that he is not anti-Semitic but anti-Zionist. I will give him this distinction just because it’s important to defend the difference between being anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist, but I doubt sometimes that people are really making a distinction. There is clearly anti-Zionism that is a cover for anti-Semitism. But we won’t go there today. The sections below in quotes are taken from the article in question. We start with the author’s conception of Zionism.

  1. “Zionism is for that sector of the Jewish people that believes it is their God-given right to establish a state of Israel in the holy land at the expense of the Palestinians who lived there for 2000 years” Zionism is about no such thing; it is nothing more than a concern for the care, cultural development, and security of the Jewish people. Zionism says nothing about Palestinians or God-given rights to land. These things happen to emerge but they are not part of actual Zionism. Zionism is philosophically rooted in the principle of self-determination – the same principle applied to Palestinians and other groups.
  2. “Zionism is a continuation of European colonialism.” The author and his minions better start following these issues a little more carefully. In fact, Israel was one of the first to decolonize the Middle East. The Balfour declaration helped Arab nations escape the colonial clutches of France and the United Kingdom. The Balfour declaration was good for the Arabs. Moreover, there were plenty of states that became colonies or protectorates but only Israel gets accused of being “colonial.” Here’s where you better be careful about claiming your anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. The colonial settler charges are rooted in the ideological denial of Israel’s connection to the land. And to continue if you need more arguments, the term settler colonization is only applicable if the population has no historical or indigenous relationship to the land, which clearly is not the case for the Jews. Calling Israel a settler state is nothing more than name-calling. Anyone who does it is already ideologically grounded and biased and simply interested in attacking Israel. Again, the “I’m anti-Zionist not anti-Semitic claim” gets a little unsteady. American racists always had it explained to them how they didn’t understand their own racism. Why would liberals critical of Israel be less subject to such influences?
  3. The author loves the phrase “Zionist project.” This is postmodern language for intentional hegemony and criticism. If you refer to it as the “Zionist movement” or “Zionist aspiration” it would not be so devilish sounding.
  4. Good God, the author quotes Ilan Pappe as an authorative of source. Don’t you realize man that he is the most discredited academic in Israel? The author’s bed table reading must be pretty scary. You might as well quote Chomsky on the American media.
  5. The source (quoting Pappe) says that Israel destroyed 400 Palestinian villages, massacred thousands of civilians and forcibly displaced almost 1 million Palestinians who ended up in refugee camps. He then uses the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe what the Jews did to the Palestinians. He even invokes the term Holocaust. The author of the article doesn’t even hint that other historians, far many more of them who are more credible, discount all of these numbers. Sure, there were some unfortunate circumstances of war and Israel is not completely innocent but most of the Palestinians fled and there are far fewer documented instances of wrongdoing than in most violent conflicts.
  6. The claim that the United States has used its veto power to prevent anti-Israel resolutions is a piece of circular reasoning that has nothing to do with the issue. Do you know how easy it is to gather up a few people who will sanction some Israeli United Nations act or support a resolution condemning Israel. All you have to do is go to a few of the Arab delegation and they will gladly condemn Israel. Nobody takes it seriously.
  7. “Almost half a million Jews live in the illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem despite UN resolutions demanding that they be dismantled” Sorry my friends but the legal status of settlements is just not established. Painful as it is for you, you cannot simply and glibly point to illegal settlements. Nor can the movement of Israelis be regarded as violating the human rights of the occupied individuals.  The situation is unlike that of the deportation of Jews to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camps. The 1949 Geneva Convention was aimed at preventing in the future what had happened in World War II: the forced transfer of large numbers of Jews by Nazi Germany and associates to the extermination camps.  It was never intended to apply to Israeli settlements.
  8. There is no international law to ban Jews, whether Israelis or otherwise, from settling in the area of the original Palestine Mandate established by the League of Nations.  The Mandate clearly says, in Article 6, that the administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage … close settlement by Jews on the lands, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.”  Eugene Rostow argued thirty years ago that “until the final status of a particular area is resolved, there is no legal basis for barring Jews from settling there.”
  9. “There is a disproportionate number of Palestinians killed in this conflict.” Call it what you like, but the Israelis have the right to defend themselves. They have been subjected to terrorism and a host of violent incidents all of which justify response. It’s unfortunate but these things are relational and the behavior of one side is dependent on the behavior of the other. This response is typically viewed as an excuse by those critical of Israel but there’s little more to say – it’s a simple fact.
  10. I will dispense with much of a response to “apartheid.” Apartheid is a political system that has nothing to do with Israel. Israel has no laws forcing its citizens into residences or legal restrictions. But remember, if he wants to use the word “apartheid” to describe the condition of Israel’s Palestinian Arabs—who enjoy rights denied to many ethnic and religious minorities throughout the Middle East and beyond—so many countries are going to quack that the term is going to lose any meaning. We should reserve “apartheid” for countries that deny an entire ethnic, racial or religious group the right to citizenship or the right to vote. Israel isn’t one of them.
  11. Finally, the author poses the standard “one state solution”. This is simple enough to respond to because it’s a nonstarter. It would mean the end of the state of Israel and the noble Zionist aspirations to simply find a homeland for the Jews would all be for nothing and make no sense. No Israeli, except in the most extreme case, supports a one state solution. Even if they are not religious or particularly nationalistic in the end they want a state of Israel, devoted in some way to Jewish particularity, to be standing.

I will stop here because there is always no end to these arguments especially when the participants would not recognize the end anyway.

Israel as a Jewish State

If you want to listen to one of the finer minds around click here and listen to Ruth Gavison. This is a first-class intellect grappling with the issues of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and how it can achieve such. Just put your feet up and enjoy. Then read a few opinions of my own. This issue is the classic intersection of politics, philosophy, and culture

Now that Netanyahu has formed a government, a very conservative one, it’s time to think about the “Jewish” definition of Israel. We can explore these issues and expose the difficulties and suffer the different philosophical consequences including the conundrums, logical impossibilities, and damning inevitabilities. Then I’m going to conclude that Israel should be Jewish, that the entire history of the country and the Zionist project makes little sense if Israel is not “Jewish.” You will see, of course, that according to some I’m recommending “Jewish lite” and that will be enough to disqualify my conclusions. But ultimately there’s only one way to meet that goal of Israel being both Jewish and operational and that’s for the Judaism to inform the state but not control it.

This question of Israel’s Judaism is really no small matter because it determines whether or not the state serves Judaism or Judaism serves the state. In other words, if the state is Jewish first and democratic second then the democracy has to be flexible enough to fit the Jewish nature of the state. Strongly religious Jews who want Israel to be a Jewish state begin with Judaism and shape all other forms of government to fit the needs of the Jewish community. Places like the United States begin with democracy and shape the society to fit the democracy. This is known as a liberal democracy and in the more pure sense is impossible in Israel if the state is “Jewish.” I would recommend a reading from the Jerusalem Center for Public affairs available here.

If Israel is devoted to Jewish particularity than it begs the question about what that particularity is and whether or not it is sustainable. A society that is truly communal in the sense that everyone holds a religious or ethnic identity is a society that is truly actualized and expressed by the state. The “state” is truly a full expression of the people and not simply a compromise or the sum of the parts. Even at the risk of some exaggeration the state becomes the full expression of the nature of the people. Now, we’ve seen all this before and it certainly wasn’t pretty (think Fascism or the Soviet Socialist Republic). But it is not inevitable that the state will gravitate toward authoritarianism and oppression – even though constant monitoring is required. But Israel will have trouble if it has a strong sense of Jewish identity wrapped up in the state because the community is not cohesive. An officially Jewish Israel will be oppressive for non-Jewish groups such as the Arabs. Again, this is a situation that simply cannot stand. Israel must find a way to be Jewish but acceptably tolerant of the groups within its confines that are not Jewish. It is easy to describe the state as fundamentally expressing a culture when everyone in the culture is the same or holds the same political or religious values. But government is about managing differences and this is going to be true even of Jewish government.

So this is the primary tension. The tension is between Israel as a modern state and Israel as a continuation of Judaism. In what sense is Israel uniquely Jewish? Well, we could begin with the question of the Jewish people living independently in their own country. How important is it that Jews have a sense of completeness and does this depend on living in certain territory? An Orthodox Jew, although not all strands of orthodoxy, will tell you that the task of completing the Jewish people is dictated by God and an in-tact political system is a means to that end. In fact, the reconstitution of the state of Israel in the biblical and religious sense is a sign of the coming of the Messiah. In the Bible a collection of people make up the nation and they are permanent entity. In this image Israel would become a Torah state that might be an honorable expression of the will of Jews, but it would also be discriminatory not only against non-Jewish groups but include gender and the various intellectual discriminations. To be sure, Israel could create a state of the Jewish people and such a state would struggle in contemporary terms.

We are still confronted with the question of how modern Israel fits into the long tradition of Jewish civilization. And if we decide that Israel is Jewish first then there is the daunting question not of Judaism – which will make adjustments slowly to the modern world – but how Jewish Israel fits into the contemporary culture of justice and fairness for all. More

Now that Netanyahu has formed a government, barely, and it’s composed of some pretty right-wing parties it begs the question of Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature. Let’s think a little bit about this. I’m going to conclude that Israel should be Jewish, that the entire history of the country and the Zionist project makes little sense if Israel is not “Jewish.” You will see, of course, that according to some I’m recommending “Jewish lite” and that will be enough to disqualify my conclusions. But ultimately there’s only one way to meet that goal of Israel being both Jewish and operational and that’s for the Judaism to inform the state but not control it.

This question of Israel’s Judaism is really no small matter because it determines whether or not the state serves Judaism or Judaism serves the state. In other words, if the state is Jewish first and democratic second then the democracy has to be flexible enough to fit the Jewish nature of the state. Strongly religious Jews who want Israel to be a Jewish state begin with Judaism and shape all other forms of government to fit the needs of the Jewish community. Places like the United States begin with democracy and shape the society to fit the democracy. This is known as a liberal democracy and in the more pure sense is impossible in Israel if the state is “Jewish.” I would recommend a reading from the Jerusalem Center for Public affairs available here.

If Israel is devoted to Jewish particularity than it begs the question about what that particularity is and whether or not it is sustainable. A society that is truly communal in the sense that everyone holds a religious or ethnic identity is a society that is truly actualized and expressed by the state. The “state” is truly a full expression of the people and not simply a compromise or the sum of the parts. Even at the risk of some exaggeration the state becomes the full expression of the nature of the people. Now, we’ve seen all this before and it certainly wasn’t pretty (think Fascism or the Soviet Socialist Republic). But it is not inevitable that the state will gravitate toward authoritarianism and oppression – even though constant monitoring is required. But Israel will have trouble if it has a strong sense of Jewish identity wrapped up in the state because the community is not cohesive. An officially Jewish Israel will be oppressive for non-Jewish groups such as the Arabs. Again, this is a situation that simply cannot stand. Israel must find a way to be Jewish but acceptably tolerant of the groups within its confines that are not Jewish. It is easy to describe the state as fundamentally expressing a culture when everyone in the culture is the same or holds the same political or religious values. But government is about managing differences and this is going to be true even of Jewish government.

So this is the primary tension. The tension is between Israel as a modern state and Israel as a continuation of Judaism. In what sense is Israel uniquely Jewish? Well, we could begin with the question of the Jewish people living independently in their own country. How important is it that Jews have a sense of completeness and does this depend on living in certain territory? An Orthodox Jew, although not all strands of orthodoxy, will tell you that the task of completing the Jewish people is dictated by God and an in-tact political system is a means to that end. In fact, the reconstitution of the state of Israel in the biblical and religious sense is a sign of the coming of the Messiah. In the Bible a collection of people make up the nation and they are permanent entity. In this image Israel would become a Torah state that might be an honorable expression of the will of Jews, but it would also be discriminatory not only against non-Jewish groups but include gender and the various intellectual discriminations. To be sure, Israel could create a state of the Jewish people and such a state would struggle in contemporary terms.

We are still confronted with the question of how modern Israel fits into the long tradition of Jewish civilization. And if we decide that Israel is Jewish first then there is the daunting question not of Judaism – which will make adjustments slowly to the modern world – but how Jewish Israel fits into the contemporary culture of justice and fairness for all. More later.

 

Reprinted from earlier post May 7, 2014

Obama’s Support for Israel – I’ve Come to the End of My Rope

 

US an Israeli flagI can barely stand it anymore. The knee-jerk reaction to Obama and his supposed lack of support for Israel is fueled by either rank partisanship or blatant ignorance. Signing the agreement with Iran is part of the protection of Israel not a threat to Israel. Moreover, in terms of traditional support Obama has been strengthening the US-Israel relationship and maintaining its historical bonds.

If you don’t think so then you’re just not paying attention. Below I’m going to be simple, clear, and blunt. For additional information go to the National Jewish Democratic Council. This is a Jewish organization and they are more likely to be demanding in terms of support for Israel. If anything, they are going to be a difficult group to please so when they expressed their satisfaction with Obama’s support you know it must be substantial. On the National Jewish Democratic Council site you can follow links to more original documents and click your way to the original sources of evidence for the issues I list out below.

  1. In a speech in 2013 Obama stated emphatically that the United States stands with the State of Israel. He pointed out that Israel was recognized quickly by the United States 65 years ago and continues to be Israel’s closest international friend.
  2. Obama has provided Israel with as much and in many cases more military aid than any time in its history. This includes $275 million for the Iron Dome Missile System which is so important for Israel’s protection from Hamas missiles.
  3.  Obama signed the US-Israel Enhanced Security Act which provides additional weaponry for Israel’s defense. This includes bunker busting bombs, F-35 fighter planes, and fast tracking arms   sales.
  1. As much criticism as Israel receives, Obama has clearly defended Israel’s right to self-defense and has maintained support for the position that the Palestinian issue should be bilateral. The US continues to vote consistently with Israel and has defended Israel’s legitimacy on the world stage.
  2. Israeli leaders such as Shimon Peres, Michael Oren, Ehud Barak, and on more than one occasion even Benjamin Netanyahu have praised President Obama and noted his strong support and alliance with Israel.
  3. The US has continued to support Israel behind the scenes in numerous subtle ways. For example the US and Israel continue to coordinate to combat smuggling and engage in military exercises designed to protect Israel.
  4. Even with the Obama-Netanyahu spat the two allies remain close and it has not been Obama who has wavered in his support.
  5. A narrow definition of support is what primarily informs those who continually complain about insufficient support for Israel. That definition is typically limited to military aid and other financial means. Obama’s diplomacy, and his slower more deliberative approach to the issues, must be considered a serious form of support and not appeasement. The critics of Obama when it comes to Israel have a narrow definition of the management of conflict and images of peace. No true legitimate third-party can be so blatantly supportive of one side at the expense of the other. If Obama and the United States are going to be true brokers of peace they have to be somewhat more inclusive. Difficult as it is, a truly sustainable relationship between Israel and its neighbors will come when there is some sort of peace agreement. And such an agreement will include the interests of others as well as Israel. That, too, is what it means to be supportive of Israel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Netanyahu and The Future: Israel and the Peace Process Will Make Little Progress

Well, Netanyahu has been elected for an historic fourth time. His path to the Prime Minister’ s office this time is strewn with damaged relationships (think US), international political stunts (speech before Congress), the race card (“the Arabs are voting in droves”), and desperate political appeals (“there will be no Palestinian state”). As much as I understand that he can be a charismatic leader, and Israelis obviously respect him, I also cannot shake the feeling that he is increasingly embarrassing. He has moved from being a strong and impressive leader to just another crude politician. But he also seems to have lost his political sophistication by failing to satisfactorily consider the negative consequences of his behavior. Let’s look at a few examples.

First, trying to scare Israelis about how many Arabs are voting was equated by the White House to the tactics of Southern racists who tried to scare the population about the black vote. Now there is a smart move if you’re dealing with the Obama administration. This is a president who is steeped in issues both professionally and personally related to minority rights. They were not going to be sympathetic to such talk.

Secondly, the statement about there being no Palestinian state, as a few observers have pointed out, undercuts the US argument in the United Nations. We have consistently supported Israel on the basis of bilateral negotiations; that is, the argument has been that solutions should emerge from discussions between the two sides. But if Israel is on record as opposing the future Palestinian state then why have the negotiations in the first place. Then again, Bibi does not want the UN to be involved in outlining a Palestinian state anyway.

There just is not going to be a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s watch. Netanyahu is not going to be the leader of Israel who goes down in history as responsible for the establishment of the Palestinian state. And this is why Netanyahu is actually dangerous for Israel. No one can think about Israel in the future as an intact stable political system that is both democratic and Jewish without imagining a separate Palestinian state. Netanyahu has become a force leading increasingly in the direction of one state and all sorts of demographic difficulties.

I want to underscore the importance of a stable Palestinian Authority. Israel and the United States subcontract out security issues and border patrol to the Palestinian Authority and as they teeter things get more unstable. Even Israel would rather deal with the Palestinian Authority then some other more politicized and religiously fueled group (e.g. Hamas). So there are incentives to keep the Palestinian Authority stable even though this is distasteful to Netanyahu. Of course, there is the entire matter of settlements which I will not take up here but suffice it to say that Netanyahu’s predatory settlement expansion is a major sticking point.

Finally, there is the looming presidential campaign and US politics. Leaders of the Democratic Party have to find a way for Hillary to run to the right of Obama on Israel if she wants to guarantee the Jewish vote. Running to the right of Obama on Israel is not particularly difficult but it would be far easier for her to run if there is an actual UN resolution outlining final status parameters.

It is distressing that Israel continues to reelect the one person who is resistant to final status preparations. I just have the feeling that Bibi’s heart isn’t in it and he is trying to play both sides. What I mean by that is Netanyahu fundamentally rejects the idea of a Palestinian state, but must present himself as receptive to it. The US will maintain its deep commitment to Israel, but Bibi is not making it any easier.

Just for the fun of it if you want to hear Minister Farrakhan’s take on Israel and Netanyahu click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Israel Wins the Military War but Loses the Narrative

free Palestine as code

resisting Zionism

Israel supporters are struck dumb by what they consider to be the great moral inversion. In fact, as Jeffrey Goldberg writing in The Atlantic states, “Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel.” It is an organization committed to genocide. Hamas represents nothing of modern democratic political theory– religious tolerance, political participation, association rights, liberal values, etc. But to the chagrin of many Hamas is treated as if it were a legitimate political party committed to the interests of Gazans rather than itself. Hamas is fighting a war in which they are trying to kill as many of their enemy as possible (Israelis); Israel is fighting a war in which they are trying to avoid killing as many people as possible. The moral inversion continues.

John Kerry is currently struggling with a cease-fire agreement because he insists on granting Hamas various rights rather than treating it according to his own State Department’s designation as a terrorist group. Kerry’s defense is that Hamas is a reality that must be dealt with and I agree with that, but one does not cave in to a terrorist group’s demand for their own security, funding, and freedom of movement in order to secure a cease-fire. On the contrary, that would be a reward for the group’s behavior and will probably encourage future violence if such rewards are available.

So what explains this? Why is this violent anti-Semitic group being treated seriously while Israel takes a perceptual and public relations beating? Why do the Palestinians, who are equally as blameworthy for the failure of conflict management, win the narrative? Why are they the sympathetic underdog? Here are a few suggestions:

Imagine some tough guy big kids in your neighborhood who are teased and taunted by a bunch of little kids. The little kids throw rocks, break the windows at houses, and spread false or distorted stories about these big kids to others in the neighborhood. The big kids defend their houses and respond to the rock throwing with fistfights they easily win, and throwing back bigger and harder rocks. The big kids do more damage and bloody the noses of the little kids and are “blamed” for inflicting damage even though they were defending themselves and the little kids initiated the aggression. And so it is with the Israelis and Palestinians. It doesn’t seem to matter how the Palestinians or Hamas behave, the Israelis get blamed because they are capable of inflicting more damage. The big kids and the Israelis lose if they defend themselves and if they do not defend themselves. So Hamas wins the narrative battle every time they manipulate Israel into killing Palestinians. Israel cannot escape the paradox.

Secondly, the Palestinians have mastered the underdog narrative. During pre-state Israel, and even in the early days of the state, Jews were the underdog and the center of world attention and sympathy. But now the left has switched its allegiance to the newest minority group. There is a spectrum of the left that never met a minority group it did not consider oppressed and the Palestinians are a perfect example.

And third, the second point above is informed by the context of anti-Semitism. I dislike and reject the notion that anti-Semitism is everywhere and always the explanation for criticism of Israel. Surely Israel can be criticized without it being anti-Semitic. But sometimes the criticism of Israel is so bizarre, so morally inverted, that only anti-Semitism explains it. And new media has brought violent and vitriolic anti-Semitism to the forefront. Anti-Semitism was of hallucinogenic proportions during the Holocaust, completely unjustified by reality, and there are moments when I feel the same conditions returning.

Finally, everyone has to do more. Israel has to make its case better to the world. They need spokespersons and better public relations to be sure. But that’s only a small part of the problem. It is not a public relations problem but an argument one. It is incumbent on Israel to do a better job of explaining to the world who they are and what they are fighting against. Moreover, Israel has to begin addressing those issues where change is inevitable. Settlements, for example, are just not going to be there in the end – at least in their present form. The only way Israel remains a nation of Jews, for Jews, and defined as a Jewish state devoted to some sense of Jewish particularity is by allowing the Palestinians to do the same for themselves in their own state. Israel must make more aggressive progress toward this goal.

Until then, Israel will continue to win military battles and kill more of the other side (which is never a very good measure of anything), but lose the narrative battle.

The Reptilian Sensuality of Hate

The noted cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman introduced the concepts of System 1 and System 2 or fast and slow thinking. System 1 is fast, instinctive, and emotional. System 2 is slower, logical, and deliberative. System 2 came later in our evolutionary development. System 1 thinking is intuitive and uses quick judgments that we rely on for most decisions. It is also the process that leads to far greater biases in judgment. System 2, our more deliberative thought processes, can be used to dampen the negative effects of our intuitive judgments. System 1 or fast thinking is reptilian and automatic. It has evolved from deep in our evolutionary history. So we respond quickly and easily to sexual associations and danger. System 2 is thoughtful and cognitive. It requires slower thinking and patience.

The experience of hate is I think a System 1 cognitive process but we often try to treat it with System 2 solutions. In other words, the bigot, anti-Semite, and the racist are typically confronted with System 2 rational thinking as if the person is simply experiencing unjustifiable beliefs and misinformation. We try to change the person or educate him by presenting facts, correcting errors, and revealing logical inconsistencies. Curiously, we are dumbfounded and dismayed when this doesn’t work. When our attempt to reason the other person into correct thinking is useless we are chagrined.

The truth is that bigots and racists and anti-Semite’s don’t want to hear it. They are immune to the closed fist of logic that characterizes reasoning. Also, even though it’s a little bit counterintuitive, these people enjoy the experience of hating. It’s a powerful biologically-based experience of information that doesn’t require much from them and is sensually pleasing psychologically. The System 1 experience of emotional engagement for the racist and anti-Semite is fun! The quick and automatic conclusions of System 1 thinking are enjoyable and require little of the hater.

The person’s beliefs are firmly established and foundational to the experience of hating. There’s no questioning or insecurity. Anti-Semites stand sure in their beliefs and the power and pleasures of self-righteousness, condemnation of others, and sense of intense kinship with those who think like them is climactic in its joy.

Just look at the joys of hating:

  1. That anti-Semite gets to compare Jews to Nazis. What an orgiastic pleasure it is to take the group you hate most (Jews) and compare them to the great symbol of evil Nazis. Hatred is a purifying experience and perhaps the height of its titillating pleasure is the sense of superiority it confers on one. The bully, the self-righteous, the judgmental, and the ignorant are all soldiers in this army of those who feel superior. The expressions of their beliefs are immediate and instinctual. And since they have little cognitive analytic sensibility and are incapable of genuine information processing, they don’t even see themselves as anti-Semitic.
  2. The racist who feels his group is superior transcends the pleasures of superiority and can think of himself as “morally” purified. Everywhere he looks he sees evidence – the confirmation hypothesis at work a System 1 heuristic – of his group’s moral clarity. The history and traditions of the outgroup are the subject of propaganda and deceit as any “good” in the outgroup is automatically attributed to the environment rather than the group thus maintaining the racist’s own sense of purity.
  3. The instinctual and exaggerated language of the hater quickly categorizes the other and relieves him of the burden of real moral scrupulousness. So one can accuse Israel of violation of human rights or colonialism without doing the hard analytical work of defining and understanding these ideas. These pleasures extend to the Westerner who hates Islam as well. His sense of political supremacy and rectitude produces the same gut feeling that Islam is backward and tribal, thus reproducing his own moral superiority.

Deliberative and thoughtful exchange about others is slow and plodding. It requires correction and revisiting of attitudes and beliefs that must be modified or discarded. The scrupulous attention to cognitive errors and misinformation is evolutionarily new and we are not yet so good at it, especially when deliberation has to compete with the reptilian joys of hate.

First published at HartfordFAV

Movie Stars, War Criminals, and Criticism of Israel

Once again we are confronted with monstrous contradictions, ideological ignorance as well as inconsistency, and an oppressive and unfair singling out of one group (Israel) that certainly smells of anti-Semitism if nothing else. It’s another one of those moments when the world seems less than sane. Israel a vibrant democratic market economy surrounded by less developed political cultures is targeted by a fringe anti-Israel movement called BDS or boycott, divestment, and sanction.

Daniel Schwammenthal wrote in The Wall Street Journal Europe about how the BDS crowd  might as well label Scarlett Johansson a war criminal of all things because she works for and supports SodaStream a highly successful sophisticated soft drink company. SodaStream is a model of coexistence, sustainability, peace, and corporate responsibility. They make a tasty fizzy drink and the company is operated by the Israelis and Palestinians together including Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze. The company is known for its environmental sensitivity and complete equality between Israelis and Israeli Arabs. There are no discrepancies in compensation and the Arab employees average more income than other Israeli Arabs. Again, the factory is an example of cooperation and what future relations could look like between Israeli Arabs and Israelis.

SodaStream has numerous factories but one of them is in the West Bank. That was all it would take for BDS to get fired up and target Scarlett Johansson and Sodastream as war criminals and violators of human rights. Never mind that if Israel is going to create factories and jobs that include Israeli Arabs than the West Bank is probably going to be implicated. I’m sure BDS’s slick public relations arm was drooling at the opportunity to use Ms. Johansson’s celebrity to magnify their own media presence.

Never mind again that this is pseudo-activism designed to keep pressure on Israel along with a constant flow of criticism without paying any attention whatsoever to issues and analysis. The location of the factory would probably end up in that portion of what is now the West Bank that will be the new state of Palestine – someday one hopes. Additionally, the economic infusion and stimulation provided by SodaStream is not insignificant and makes for considerable economic benefits to the local community. It seems as though BDS is more interested in boycotting the factory and subjecting it to inflamed media criticism than it is the well-being of the 500 Palestinians and their families that work in the factory.

But BDS must be taken seriously because they have convinced more than a few governments and organizations to withdraw investments from Israel. The EU is on the verge of preventing funding that benefits anything related to the West Bank. The pressures on Israeli banks that have relationships with settlements is preventing EU investment money from helping various communities. Once again sanity seems to elude these people and their organizations. It will not be long until Iran is one screw turn away from a nuclear weapon but the sanctions imposed on them don’t seem to be very bothersome. Democratic freedoms of all sorts including gay rights struggle amidst Israel’s neighbors but the EU turns a blind eye. Mahmoud Abbas continues to pay salaries and ignore terrorism.

And all this time the EU continues to support Palestinian communities even though their record of development is poor. They support the Palestinian right to ignore serious peace treaty attempts and encourage them in numerous unproductive ways. Everyone knows, for example, that some sort of compromise is going to have to take place in which Israel keeps selected settlements in exchange for giving up others. Moreover, there will have to be adjustments and compromises on all sorts of issues pertaining to refugees, borders, and the definition of each state. And, yes, Israel too must make some changes, but the EU does not work with Palestinians in a pragmatic manner designed to move them toward solutions. The EU does not communicate or use its position as an honest broker to properly direct Palestinian attention.

Ariel Sharon: Tough Guy

For many people interspersed throughout the politics of the Middle East defending Ariel Sharon is an impossible task. Even bypassing for the moment those who considered him a “war criminal” and an aggressive and narrow minded defender of settlements, Sharon attracts a lot of emotional attention. He is easy to demonize and has been treated with more than his share of abuse and vitriol. He has been portrayed with swastikas and Nazi symbols of all sorts. Characterizing him as a hook-nosed version of Fagan or Shylock is routine for many media outlets.

I accept that Sharon was a tough guy who was a staunch defender of his country and took little reproach from anyone. But a closer look at historical events reveals that he’s been treated pretty unfairly. Again, I would not deny that Sharon was willing to do what he considered necessary but it is interesting to note how the truth or any justifiable interpretation about Sharon has drifted over time. There are three occurrences most associated with Sharon’s reputation for violence. They are the attack on the village Qibya, the second intifada, and the attack on Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Let’s strike up a little history lesson.

In 1953 Sharon formed a military unit that carried out attacks on Arab villages in retribution for the murder of Israelis. In the village of Qibya he and his unit blew up houses and killed 69 people. Most reports describe this as a mistake and certainly not part of Israeli policy. The attack on Qibya was condemned by Israeli authorities. Moreover describing what Sharon and his unit did as reprisals implies that this was government policy and uncontrolled violence. At the time Israel was responding to the fedayeen who were terrorists no different than today’s terrorists. Israel had a right to defend itself. But the forces around the Sharon’s violent image were building and the Qibya incident simply laid the foundation for future charges.

The Sabra and Shatila incident is most associated with Sharon’s reputation for violence and aggressive reprisal. Sabra and Shatila were Palestinian refugee camps that were the home to various terrorist groups. Those who are truly ignorant of the facts believe Sharon and the Israelis massacred hundreds of Palestinian refugees. But, of course, it was the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia who carried out the massacre. It was considered revenge killing for the assassination of the Lebanese president in a car bomb. Still, Sharon was blamed for “letting it happen.” Sharon had allowed the Phalange to enter the camp because they were supposed to be administrative changes of sorts. Sharon made mistakes and probably should’ve known what sort of violence was about to take place when the Phalange entered the camp. But it remains the case that he was regularly defamed and treated in a very discriminatory manner over the years by a constant drumbeat claiming that he “intended” to kill civilians.

Finally, Sharon was blamed for an intense outburst of violence in the year 2000 because he visited the Temple Mount. This was described as highly provocative and sparking the Palestinians anger because of the holy nature of the Temple Mount. Of course, the Temple Mount is equally as holy to Jews as it is to Muslims and even from a legal administrative standpoint Sharon had a “right” to go there. But, it is true enough, that Sharon visiting the Temple Mount was going to be extremely provocative and one wishes he had exercised more discretion. Yet again, Sharon was painted with a broad brush blaming him for the entire Second Intifada. More than a few Palestinians later explained that the Intifada had been planned for some time and that the violence resulting from Sharon’s visit could have been stopped by the Palestinians at any time. Arafat was more interested in provoking the Israelis than anything else.

Ariel Sharon was a magnet for misdirection and misinterpretation of issues. The reporting about him was often strongly biased and never missed a chance to blame him for something. But even though Sharon supported settlement development and was the father of many current Israeli problems, he will also be remembered in history as one of the “fathers” of the state of Israel.

How Israel Can Be “Jewish”

This is a big and controversial issue and I will not satisfy most people. Moreover, it is steeped in serious issues related to political theory, culture, philosophy, and the law. Better minds than mine have grappled with this issue. Still, I’m going to make a case. I’m going to make a case for two reasons: one, I believe a defensible case can be made. And, secondly, I believe it is important to make the case because Israel is clearly deserving but vulnerable and its political status is important for its long-term prospects. Israel is besieged on all sides by those who see it as illegitimate and conceived in sin (a Christian image). For these reasons – along with historical and cultural connections to the land as well as the ethnopolitical character of the people –it is important to establish Israel as a Jewish state. The single best reading here is by Ruth Gavison titled “The Jews Right to Statehood: A Defense.”

For starters, a Torah state run by Orthodox rabbis is not only undesirable but not defensible. A legitimately recognized Jewish state must be as democratic as possible and founded on human rights. It’s important to recognize that Israel cannot be a liberal democracy in the same vein as the United States. I’ve made this argument before but it is simple enough: if Israel is going to be even slightly favorable towards Jewish particularity than it is going to privilege one group sometimes at the expense of others. We have to remember that democracy is a continuum.

If some secular professor representing the universal values of the contemporary left believes that any state organized around ethnicity or religion is a remnant of ancient tribalism and thus undeveloped, then I say “so what?” The type of state I have in mind is not a theocracy. It is a state that privatizes much of religion but simply works to fulfill, support, and express the religious culture of Judaism. For example, Israel has no religious test for its highest offices of president or prime minister. The president or Prime Minister does not have to be Jewish in the religious sense he or she just has to have the fulfillment of the Jewish state in mind. They have to accept the founding principles of doing nothing to interfere with the Jewish character of the state.

We can dispense with the criticism of Israel as a political entity from Muslim states quite easily. Many of them (Oman, Qatar, Kuwait) have Islam as the religion of the state and laws requiring public officials to be Muslims. This is fine, it is a principled point but certainly lends hypocrisy to the claim that Israel should be multicultural or one secular state. Their refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state is not a political or philosophical argument, it is a charged political ideal based in their refusal to make peace with Israel.

And there are examples of secular states with religious ties that operate quite well. I would compare something proposed for Israel to that of Denmark. In Denmark the Constitution recognizes “the Evangelical Lutheran Church” as the established Church of Denmark. The only requisite is that the political leadership in Denmark do nothing to interfere with the established church.

Israel must continue to establish justification on moral universal grounds as much as possible because this appeals to most of its own people who feel the power of the Zionist project but are not particularly religious. Gavison makes the interesting point that the more Israel argues on the basis of universal values the more the Palestinians will follow suit rather than claiming ownership based on the sanctity of Muslim lands. The state of Israel will be a contestatory political system constantly engaging in interaction designed to balance human rights with its Jewish nature. This is consistent with all democracies who rely more on argument and deliberation than ideology.

I reiterate that it will be impossible for Israel to be absolutely neutral with regard to cultural, ethnic, and religious issues. There will be differences in civic equality. But these differences do not have to be fatal. It is still possible to have a democratic Jewish state that respects the rights of citizens – and certainly allows them to engage in their own religion in the same way as the United States does not interfere with religious practice as long as it is in the private sphere – and still represents a national identity.

So for now, the state I am imagining is not completely neutral, has an official language that is Hebrew, a calendar that marks Jewish time (including Shabbat ofcourse), and puts forth a public culture that is Jewish. The public sphere will be important in the Jewish state because that is the context for contestation with respect to issues that affect the public in general. People will be able to practice Judaism or any religion but the management and compromise will come in the public sphere when one person’s rights have to be balanced against another’s.

The state will be as democratic as possible and proudly Jewish.

I will say more next week.

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