Well, some patterns are pretty clear: there is an ever-growing collection of small time nationalists who are angry and threatening the quality of democracy around the world. Even though the 20th century is characterized as an era of expanding inclusiveness, and a century that witnessed more democratic change than any other, it all seems to be dissipating as citizens interestingly and strangely become more comfortable with authoritarian leadership.
And it gets worse! Foa and Mounk, writing in the Journal of Democracy in both 2016 and 2017, report that American citizens are not only unhappy with their governments but increasingly critical of liberal democracy. 24% of young Americans polled in 2011 stated that democracy was either a “bad” or a “very bad” way to run a country. This is a sharp increase from previous measures and especially associated with the young. And consistent with these findings, there was an increase in the number of Americans expressing approval for “army rule.”
This is a shocking state of affairs and at first glance it seems impossible. But the data on Americans is consistent with the larger global patterns. Continuing to cite from Foa and Mounk in the Journal of Democracy (volume 28, 2017), 72% of those born before World War II thought that democracy was essential. Only 30% of Millennials said the same thing. And across long-standing democracies in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand the proportion of young people who believe that democracy is essential has drifted away.
And, of course, the rise of people like Trump, Le Pen in France, Chávez in Venezuela, Brexit, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungry, and Putin are all consistent with the decline in democracy because they blame an allegedly politically corrupt establishment (note Trump’s inauguration speech and reference to a nefarious Washington elite) but still want to concentrate power in an executive.
A narrow vision of groups and polities is the essence of the populist appeal and fundamentally antidemocratic because populism foregrounds and privileges the perspective of a particular group. Democracy is pluralistically oriented and committed to solving problems through dialogue and discourse.
What Explains All This?
For starters, it is not explained by isolated geographic aberrations. The decline in the respect for democracy is apparent in Europe as well as South America. But what does seem to be a key issue is the strength or durability of democracy. I would underscore the observation that democracies are a continuum. The country and political system is not either democratic or not in a binary sense. Measurements of the extent to which elections are free and fair, and citizens have rights of speech, movement, and assembly etc. result in a democracy rating but less so the strength or commitment to democracy. When democracies are weak they are more easily overcome. Moreover, the rise of citizen skepticism and disenfranchisement promote populist and antisystem parties.
It’s fair to say that Trump is like no candidate in American history. His victory caused so much pain and angst for large portions of the electorate because he fit no model of presidential preparation or decorum. His blatant political disrespect and sexism were like nothing the American public has seen in a presidential aspirant. Trump’s victory could have only taken place in the context of declining faith in democracy as well as a persistent history of delegitimizing the press, political parties, and the system they represent. It’s no accident that someone like Trump was elected during a historical period where the two political parties are so polarized, and so incapable of engaging each other to solve problems, that citizens look for alternatives, presumably “correct” alternatives, that don’t require them to consider the diversity of opinions democracies are so good at managing.
One of the divides that has emerged more starkly from the Brexit debate and the candidacy of Donald Trump is the distinction between elite and popular discourse. Just being overly general for the moment, elite discourse is most associated with the educated and professional classes and is characterized by what is considered to be acceptable forms of argument, the use of evidence, the recognition of complexity, and articulation. Popular discourse is more ethnopolitical and nationalistic. It is typically characterized by binary thinking, a simpler and more reductive understanding of the issue, and an ample amount of cognitive rigidity makes it difficult to change attitudes. To be sure, this is a general characterization because both genres are capable of each.
Still, consistent with the well-known polarization of society is the withdrawal of each side into a comfortable discourse structure where the two codes are increasingly removed from one another and the gap between them cannot be transcended very easily.
Additionally, elite and popular discourses share some different sociological and economic orientations. Elites are more cosmopolitan and popular is more local and nationalistic. Elites live in more urban centers and are comfortable with and exposed regularly to diversity. Those who employ more popular discourse tend to live in smaller towns and are more provincial. They seem to resist cultural change more and are less comfortable with diversity.
These two orientations toward language divide the leave-remain vote over Brexit and the electorate that characterizes the differences between Clinton and Trump. But this distinction is more than a socioeconomic divide that reflects some typical differences between people. It symbolizes the polarization currently characterizing American politics and has the potential to spiral into dangerous violence as the “popular” form of discourse becomes more “nationalistic.” It lowers the quality of public discourse and typically degenerates into even more rigid differences and stereotypical exemplars of elite and popular discourse. Nationalist discourse substitutes close minded combativeness for elite debate which can be passionate but is geared toward deliberative conversation that can be constructive. Nationalism is the deep sense of commitment a group has to their collective including territory, history and language. When national “consciousness” sets in then one nation is exalted and considered sacred and worthy of protection even in the face of death. Trump’s catchphrase “make America great again” or “let’s take our country back” or his appeals to separation and distinctiveness by building walls that clearly demark “us” and “them” are all examples of a nationalist consciousness that glorifies the state.
The nationalism espoused by Trump and the “leave” camp during Britain’s vote on the EU question are the primary impediments to consolidating, integrating, and strengthening democracies. All states with any sort of diverse population must establish a civil order that protects those populations; that is, no society will remain integrated and coherent if it does not accommodate ethnic diversity. At the moment, Trump’s rhetoric is divisive and representative of a tribal mentality that clearly wants to separate in many ways various communities in the US. Trump’s references to Mexicans, Jews, Muslims, for example betrays his own nationalistic sentiments.
The two ways to handle ethnic diversity are either pluralistic integration or organizational isolation of groups. Isolating and separating groups is inherently destabilizing and foment ripe conditions for violence. Building a wall and making determinations about who can enter the United States and who can’t are all examples of isolating groups. Intensifying nationalist discourse and the privileging of rights for a dominant group is fundamentally unsustainable.
This gap in the United States between an elite discourse and the nationalist discourse has grown wider and deeper. Each side snickers at the other’s orientation toward language and communication and continues the cycle by reinforcing the superiority of his own discursive position.
What Kind of Mentality Kills Teenagers Because They are Jewish or Palestinian? I’ll Tell You What Kind.
You have to be pretty far outside the category of “human” to kidnap three scared teenagers and shoot them in the back of a car. Shoot them for no reason other than they fit the category of “other.” The murder of Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach 19, and the Palestinian Mohamed Abu Khdeir reveals the monstrosity that can arouse itself in humans whenever group membership is highly salient and fueled by powerful beliefs such as religion. Let me explain how framing a conflict can be murderous.
Experts talking to lay people usually make the point that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about religion or culture but land and national rights. It is a conflict between national political movements – Zionism and Palestinian nationalism – and perhaps includes broader Arab nationalism. Framing the conflict this way is actually quite good and beneficial. In addition to the practical implications, describing the conflict as one between two national political movements makes the conflict more amenable to management and resolution with all of the attendant rational and political bargaining. It implies sensible trade-offs and compromise along with future relationships and the positive attitudes and beliefs that will accompany these compromises and future relationships. Each side will broaden its circle of humanity and slowly include more of the other.
But with the integration and the unity government formed between Hamas and Fatah, not to mention the Hamas Charter and its aggressive religious history, we have a powerful religious element introduced. Islamizing the conflict is our worst nightmare and begins from the simple category definition of the conflict as one between two rival religions Islam and Judaism. Or, to put it in even more intractable terms, a conflict between two opposing absolutes. Now attitudes about the other are not subject to rational trade-offs and the anticipation of future relationships. And yes, the conflict can be Judiazed but there are important differences which we will take up at another time. This post is mostly about Islamizing the conflict. I will deal with revenge later.
Turning the conflict into a religious one between Islam and Judaism means you operate with only two categories – the ingroup and the outgroup with all of the biases and mental distortions that demonize and dehumanize the outgroup and wildly exaggerate the truth of the ingroup.
The murderers of these teenagers did not see human beings, they did not see naïve young boys, and they certainly did not see three individuals who like sports, school, and their friends. No, they saw three Jews or a Palestinian who are all alike; they saw the “other” who was responsible for usurping the holy land; they saw grossly distorted historical monsters who – as the Hamas Charter indicates – were a demonic force on earth, bloodsuckers and the killers of prophets.
And it’s getting worse. As Hamas asserts itself Judaism becomes its primary enemy. The hate and narrowing categories of acceptance will reach hallucinogenic proportions as Jews are described in demonic terms and according to the Hamas Charter are a “corruption on earth.” It will be increasingly easier to kill innocent teenagers because Islamizing the conflict drained them of any remnant of humanity.
The Hamas Charter – and I encourage everyone to read it to fully appreciate the depths of its depravity – relies on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The old charges of the Jews controlling everything would be laughable if they were not so consequential. Hamas is not bargaining over land because Palestine is sacred and not subject to division or occupation by anyone else. There will be no discussion of borders, or settlements, or land swaps. Palestine is dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam).
Islamizing the conflict is the worst thing that can happen from a contemporary social science and intergroup conflict point of view. It will increase the distance and differences, and decrease opportunities for positive contact even more than they are. As the two groups retreat into their own worlds and formulate their psychological and communicative categories such formulations will be increasingly based on misinformation, distortions, historical inaccuracies, stereotypes, and emotions until the two groups retreat to their respective corners each having drained the other of even the slightest consideration. At that point it becomes easy to murder teenagers.
If we want to treat Moscow’s interventions into Eastern Ukraine and Crimea seriously for the moment we might ask about any legitimate concerns on the part of Moscow. But the issue of “legitimate” concerns that justify aggression against others conjures up the rhetorical history of the Soviet Union and their claim to have spheres of influence. Hitler and Stalin used phrases such as this to intervene in the business of others and claim their “legitimate” rights to land and military presence in order to protect Russian citizens or interests.
This is exactly the situation in Eastern Ukraine on the lands that border Russia. Even though these territories have culture contact with Russia and a history of political engagement, the current tensions are not so much the result of locals agitating for stronger associations with mother Russia but with interference by way of propaganda and Russian adventurism. Moreover, it continues Russia’s persistent attention to breakaway regions of the former Soviet Union. Russia has desperately tried to hold on to influence in some of the states (e.g. Georgia, Azerbaijan) but this typically backfires. Ukraine and Kiev will probably be even more oriented toward the West and Ukrainian nationalism will soar.
Ethnic Conflict without the Conflict
The old Soviet Union, like so many political actors, wore blinders that allowed them to see primarily the colors of ethnic groups. The Soviet Union divided and assigned groups to territorial units predominantly on the basis of ethnic heritage. Stalin in particular created ethnic territories and established a broad array of territorial units defined as states. These states were supposed to be homelands for particular national groups (Azeris, Armenians, Uzbeks, etc.). The strategy was to keep groups separate so they could not easily organize against Moscow. It worked for a long time until various groups began to demand independence. Soon, there was ethnic violence and Moscow had its excuse to maintain influence by stepping in and claiming to calm the situation.
Russia has felt quite comfortable intervening in the affairs of its former territories. Russia felt, in fact, very secure and justified by its movement into Crimea. About 58% of the population of Crimea is Russian so the claim to a sphere of influence has some standing. But if Russia feels as if some international commitment has been violated, then they should use diplomacy and the avenues available to them through international law.
The Basic Instruments of International Conflict Management
For my money, Russia has never been particularly good at managing ethnic conflict. Even though historically they oversaw with the old Soviet Union 15 Soviet socialist republics all of which had minority groups, Moscow is sort of a “bull in the china shop.” There are typically four intervention possibilities – military interventions, economic interventions, diplomacy, and dialogue – but Russia relies mostly on military options. In designing a macro level institution meant to facilitate ethnic conflict resolution, the Russians have never been very innovative or creative. Take the case of the Chechens for example. In the northern Caucasus of South Russia Chechens are increasingly a higher percentage of the population, and there are about 20% Russians. Even without Russia agreeing to Chechnya’s autonomy assuring fair treatment, increased cultural autonomy, and more political rights would be reasonable.
When it comes to designing macro structures for divided societies Russia seems to ignore all of them. First, an ethnic group must address the issue of territorial organization of the state. The Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Chechnya and territories, Georgia, and other points of Russian interest are yet to resolve these territorial issues properly. Secondly, is the matter of the governmental relationship between the minority and the majority. And finally, Russia rarely concerns itself with the protection of identity groups and individual rights.
Putin may have successfully grabbed territory in the Crimea but he is increasingly competing with the West rather than a lesser prepared minority. And he may be banking on the fact that the EU will never consider Ukraine a proper European project, but this may be a dangerous wish as Ukraine increasingly turns its attention to the West and thereby makes progress on territoriality, sound governmental relations, and the protection of identity and minority groups.
The Tsarnaev brothers have little to do with Chechnya. They have spent most of their life in the United States and their connection to Chechnya is on the basis of an imaginary kinship with an ethnonational group. The brothers have been described as “self radicalized.” In other words, over time they developed a powerful sense of their ethnic identity and its humiliation which resulted in decisions to unleash extreme measures. How does this happen? How is it that generally average American boys, with Chechnyan heritage, all of a sudden foreground that Chechnyan heritage and behave so violently?
Well, ethnic identity is like a plot in a murder mystery; it thickens over time. But it remains true that this identity has to be activated or triggered. The more interesting question is how such an identity is triggered. What are the issues most associated with stimulating differentiated group identity? Such identity is rooted in tradition, sacred mythology of the past, and a collective consciousness. The work of Anthony Smith directs attention to the power of myths, memories, traditions, and symbols of ethnic heritage that are used by people like the Tsarnaev brothers to tap into and construct a narrative that tells the story of injustice and retribution. Under particular circumstances this can happen pretty quickly and easily. And it does not only apply to angry groups bent on violence to redress a past injustice. I have seen Jewish students with little knowledge of their Judaism and few touch points with Jewish culture and religion travel on the Birthright trip to Israel and return significantly influenced and changed if not transformed. They have experienced little more than the activation of their ethnic identity through symbols and myths that historically position them within something greater than themselves of which they assume a long kinship.
The map below is just for general information because most people (although not the readers of this blog!) think we are talking about Czechoslovakia rather than Chechnya. Some earlier research on terrorism found that terrorist groups achieved their goals one of which was gaining attention. In other words, immediately following a terrorist act the public turns its attention to the issue or cause of the terrorist. Palestinian terrorism in the 60s and 70s is generally known to have been successful at laying the foundation for future international sympathies toward Palestine. Consequently, I’m sure that Google was filled with searches about Chechnya a few days after the Boston bombings. The public simply asks “who are these people and what are they talking about.” At least that’s true of some of the public but unfortunately large segments remain oblivious and apathetic about conflicts in strange places far away.
Very briefly, the Chechens are autonomous people in the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus. They have been in conflict with the Russians for generations and this conflict has radicalized many and been violent, very violent sometimes, on the part of both sides. There has been a raging controversy between Chechens and the Russian government since the early 19th century when Persia gave the territory to the Russians. They became increasingly focused on Islam given the proximity of Chechnya to Turkey and Chechnya’s continuous desire for help from Turkey. In 1944 Stalin committed atrocities and massive human rights violations by deporting the entire population of Chechnya’s to Central Asia because Stalin claimed they were supportive of Hitler. In 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union Chechen separatists sought independence from Russia and this resulted in bloody wars. Chechnya continues terrorist activities rooted in ideological Islam and national pride.
Ethnic identity is a relational concept such that the categorization of an ethnic group is based not only on ingroup qualities but differences from outgroups. This is what Edward Said meant when he described the “Oriental” as inferior because he was relationally in opposition to Westerners. The Tsarnaev brothers somehow began to foreground their Chechnyan identity and define it in relational opposition to an American identity (as well as probably a Russian one). The added intensity of having a stigmatized Chechnyan identity (oppressed, mistreated, misunderstood) was probably sufficient to ratchet up their sense of humiliation and justification for violence. Unfortunately, the rising expectations about democratic development and the concurrent increased respect for group rights probably means that we have not seen the last of such violence.
When grappling with the difficult issues of intractable conflicts and how to moderate them one always encounters the “contact” solution; in other words, the two competing groups must get together and begin the process of communicating in such a way that the differences dissipate. There is sound research supporting such a suggestion and my own work, along with many others, is deeply focused on the processes of difficult conversations – or, as some term, dialogue.
There is always then a chorus of people who chuckle and say “this won’t work”. The depth and intensity of the conflict between the two parties, so the claim goes, is so great that talk is a waste of time. Well, this is true sometimes. I know of no serious scholar who believes that talk is magic, but I also know of no serious scholar who doesn’t recognize the centrality of interaction, contact, and some properly controlled form of dialogue.
What do you do about situations we’ve been reading about recently? I’m talking about the reports of fan racism in soccer in Israel. Israel has suffered a few difficult instances in the last few years with respect to violence against Arabs and Palestinians. But the sports context seems to exacerbate the problem and provide a context for a poison cocktail of attitudes, energized competition, and ignorance that produces a combustible mixture of racism.
Recently, plans by Beitar Jerusalem soccer club to add its first Muslim players prompted violent and racist incidents in Israel. During a recent match between Beitar and a team from Umm El Fahm hundreds of police had to be deployed. Beitar Jerusalem fans held up the banner above(which reads “Beitar will remain pure forever”) which connotes very unpleasant references to “group purity” an attitude that Jews – at least most Jews – would like to forget. Beitar gets its name from the youth movement, linked to Herut the forerunner of Likud, which opposes Israel’s Arab neighbors. The team name symbolizes a position of honor in Israeli youth movements. Some Beitar fans lead chants calling the Arabs offensive names, which prompts the Arab teams to call out “Allahu akbar.” Some Israeli teams do include Arabs but not Beitar.
The sports environment activates group level perceptions that cause fans and players to identify even more strongly with their national and ethnic group. Sports is a team activity and it is thus easier to foreground a collective group identity. The “individual” versus “group” level of perception is exaggerated in the sports context. People can feel threatened or vulnerable and they can feel this on an individual basis or a group basis, and the two levels of perception can be quite distinct with some situations, such as during heated competition, causing greater distance between the two. For example, if a Jew were asked whether or not he feels vulnerable or threatened he might say “no.” He personally feels secure and not threatened. But if you ask that same person whether or not his group (Jews) is vulnerable or threatened he might say “yes” my group the Jews are vulnerable and threatened. Some studies show that the more one feels his or her group is vulnerable or threatened the more conservative they are with respect to social policies and security.
It’s clear that Israel is expressing its insecurities and hardening its own political stances because it increasingly feels threatened and vulnerable at the group level. The sports context and public displays of demands for “purity” (meaning no Arabs) are troubling examples of the increased polarization in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nothing is separated from politics in Israel because conflicts of such intractability permeate the entire society. The whole culture participates in the conflict ethos. Ultimately the goal is to play soccer without charging ethnic tensions. Talk will not solve the problem at the moment but it will one day.
On Friday, March 9, 2012 I leave for Israel to teach at Ariel University for about two months. Ariel is a settlement and I will be blogging from there. Some thoughts are below from something I’ve been working on related to settlers and their discourse. I will take up related issues over the next few months. Please feel free to comment. The remarks below are the basic issues related to settlements beginning with “What is a settlement.”
Contiguous land can be claimed or annexed for any number of reasons including economic, security, or military defeat. Benvenisti argued that Israel’s position with respect to the territories was not ideological but purely economic and practical. He held that the land was legally available to Israel and Israel’s incursion into the territories was justified by economic interests. Israel also makes the distinction between pure colonization and the slow integration of a new population into an older one. The new population is typically more powerful and considered superior and they slowly overwhelm the older or indigenous population. This process mostly describes post-1967 settlement justifications. Israel has struggled with the definition of the territories as a frontier land that is subject to the legitimization process. This is one reason that various strategies have been used to justify land acquisition. Sometimes these justifications are political and economic and other times they are ideological or religious. My concern is with religious and ideological justifications. But in either case the “settlers” and their “occupying” behavior have become a part of Israel and restructured how Israelis define themselves. Lustick is interested in state expansion and contraction and describes stages of territorial expansion. He argues that Israel is in the throes of regime occupation and so increasingly intertwined with the territories that it cannot extract itself without violence. The conflict is at the intersection of the settlers desire to naturalize and justify their existence, and the fact that their project is opposed by many and will have to be abandoned or severely curtailed in order to secure a stable peace. In the face of this conflict, the settlers must work through discourses about the land, sanctity, Zionism, and the cultural “other,” namely, the Palestinian Arabs.
A settlement is a communal Israeli village purposefully located in the West Bank or what religious settlers refer to as the ancient biblical land of Judea and Samaria, land that is currently contested territory. The settlement represents religious and political significance in every manner from architecture to geographical location and design. Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967 resulted in a return to holy places and thus reconnected the Israeli public with sacred places and religious feelings. Gadi Taub in his book on the settlements credits Israel’s literary figure Amos Oz with being the first to recognize in just a few months after the Six Day War the political division that would overtake Israeli politics for years to come. Oz wrote that Zionism in the future would either continue to be about democratic self determination in the best sense, or it would be about redeeming the land. Oz knew that if Zionism drifted toward religious redemption of the land then the Palestinian population would be under the boot of occupation and Israel would evolve toward a modern Sparta focused on military expertise and subjugating a local population.
Settlements are self contained communities that require roads, schools, buildings, and all the essentials of municipalities. Various religious and political organizations (e.g. the Gush Emunim, Yesha council) have taken the lead in promoting settlements by developing apparently normal communities in every way except location. Settlements typically resemble modern suburban bedroom communities where residents come and go at will. But these settlements are anything but innocent or normal. They are a discursive space for a counter Israeli society that has religious redemption and control as its goals. We will see below how the settlements have discursively constructed authenticity through language, symbols, and the creation of their own meanings. Settlers employ a discourse that is an interrelated set of practices that shape meanings. These practices, whether cultural or interpretive, are patterned and systematized within a social and political context. A critical point about discourse is its constitutive nature. That is, a discourse states how the world is, should be and what matters the most. It defines an acceptable way to talk and conduct oneself. By attending to the discursive practices that give rise to meanings we can reveal settler claims of rationality, the ways in which they relate to institutional norms, and the political implications associated with them. Discourses, then, exist at local levels of interaction but are also related to broad discourses that become historically situated and enduring systems that take on political and cultural significance.
Consequently, discourse constitutes relationships and meanings by prescribing what conforms to the dominant discourse. And, discourse can be transformative.
Even the staunchest defender of Israel is troubled by the approval of undemocratic laws designed to maintain the Jewish nature of the state. For some time now nationalists have been challenging the good nature of Israel’s democracy by passing laws that restrict the rights of the minority community, namely Arabs, from expressing themselves even symbolically. Here are a few examples: Israel’s war of independence in 1948 is called the Nakba or the disaster by the Arabs and it is against the law to use state funds to commemorate the Nakba. Small communities have been empowered to prevent groups from moving into the community. Some have suggested loyalty oaths and there have been laws passed that prevent Palestinian citizens from seeking rights in the courts.
Many of these laws are objectionable to most Israelis and have been rejected by the Knesset. But a certain number of them appeal to a wide variety of people. Israelis fear the loss of the Jewish particularity of the state and even though they struggle with these laws some argue for their necessity. One Israeli leader even proposed legislation that suggested the superiority of the Jewish nature of the state over the democratic nature of the state, and this included rejecting Arabic as a national language in Israel.
What motivates this sort of action? There are a few prime motivators the most important of which is the essential Jewish nature of the state. Israel simply cannot be a strong liberal democracy and privilege Jewish particularity. It’s a contradiction in terms on one level. But on another level Israel has a right to remain Jewish. There is a sense in which the state of Israel makes no sense if it is not Jewish. The question is how Jewish? The answer lies somewhere betweenIsraelas a Torah state sealed in orthodoxy, and Israel as a secular democratic state with the separation of church and state. The balance between the Democratic and the Jewish nature of the state will have to evolve over time.
But there are other causes which include a failed peace process, a public tired of violence and rocket attacks, and the distasteful experience of watching Israeli Arabs cheer Hezbollah rockets. Increasingly Israelis see all Palestinians, even Israeli Palestinians, as the same and do not assume that Israeli Palestinians have any commitment to the state.
Of course, one answer to this reactionary legislation is the two-state solution. But that does not seem to be something bound for the near future; moreover, even with the establishment of a Palestinian state there will be a sizable Palestinian minority in Israel proper. This problem will not go away. This sort of reactionary legislation will not go away but it is more exposed than ever because it promises to threaten the democratic nature ofIsrael. Threats to free speech and the disempowerment of whole groups of people have placed the problem at the forefront of the public’s consciousness. Israeli Arabs are about 20% of the Israeli population and the number is simply too big to ignore.
Israel should guarantee the symbolic rights of all minority groups. The key word here is symbolic rights, the rights to express themselves through protest and the right to propose alternative perspectives on the state. Any culture has a right to protect itself from a genuine threat and Israelis no different. In the same way that the skinheads were allowed to march in the United States, as long as they were not judged to be overly provocative or violent, minority groups inIsraelshould also be allowed to express themselves through acceptable forms of protest. Protected speech is sacred to liberal democracies and, as the observation goes, the best response to unpleasant speech is more speech. Israel should have nothing to fear from the rights of Palestinians to express themselves – again, the right to express themselves peacefully and under conditions that do not promote imminent danger. Stubborn resistance to the rights of Palestinians will only cause the conflict to spiral downward and make the two-state solution even more difficult to achieve.
The issue of a two state solution continues to loom large in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quite a number of people, including me, think it is the only answer. But it still remains an abstraction and even though there are numerous documents and plans for instituting two states reducing those documents and plans to actual shovel-ready projects has remained elusive. Actually calling for a two state solution has become a “shibboleth”, a “cliché” that sounds good but is increasingly empty of content. I see two lines of argument emerging in this discussion. The first is that the two state solution is not workable and will disappear. The second is that the two state solution is the only answer and will continue to develop. Let’s take a closer look at each of these alternatives.
The two state solution is not workable
We begin by pointing out that this call for a two state solution has been droning on for years and nothing has happened. This in itself is pretty good evidence that it probably never will happen. Moreover, the Palestinian insistence on the right of return and continued problems over settlement development make the two state solution even less attractive. Both sides are going to have to pay a price for two state solution, and as of now neither seems to be lowering its asking price. Israelis insist on recognition and Palestinians continue to remain firm with respect to their demands pertaining to refugees and settlements. We might even ask whether or not it’s time to start talking about alternatives, according to this perspective, because no progress is evident on any of the issues that divide these two groups. The attempts by the Palestinians to have the UN declare a Palestinian state has been one response to this conundrum.
Others see the Israeli government as moving toward increasing radicalization and away from a peace process that would result in two states. The composition of the Netanyahu government is one example. This is an interesting divide in Israel because while the leadership in Israel has become more recalcitrant and radicalized, the general population has made significant movement toward acceptance of the Palestinians as neighbors. Additionally, as settlers plant their flags in East Jerusalem and the West Bank they intertwine their economies with the Palestinians and make a two state solution even more difficult. In sum, the facts on the ground created by both Israelis and Palestinians are not conducive to the two state solution.
The two state solution is workable
Here the argument changes course. It begins with the notion that even though progress is
slow the two cultures are intertwined and tied to each other in such a manner as to make two states inescapable. If one accepts this point then it’s a small leap to the conclusion that Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state of Israel is not so necessary. Two states can be developed in the interest of peace and democratic expressions, and “official” recognition of Israel as Jewish can come later. This might hold true for the issue of refugees also. The Palestinian claim that they will never give up the right of return might be mitigated when faced with the reality of their own state.
Then there are all the arguments pointing to a parade of horrors if the two state solution is not implemented. The two state solution, as the quarrel goes, must be implemented because the one state solution is so unacceptable and probably means the end of an Israeli majority. A one state solution with all of its conflicts about identity, national recognition, cultural preferences, and political complexities is so unacceptable that a two state solution is the only viable alternative.
Part of the founding narrative in Israel was that it had returned to its homeland which was a “land with no people.” This just simply was not true, and all of the arguments about who is at fault notwithstanding, there were people living in the land of Israel who were displaced and must be dealt with. The Palestinians are a people – even if many aspects of their political nationality have been recently constructed – and must wiggle out from under the weight of the Israeli presence. A state of their own is one solution to this problem.
The clarity and distinctiveness of the Jewish nature of the state is important in Israel. Of course, there are many future arguments and problems to be solved with respect to just how Israel expresses itself as a Jewish state and remains democratic. But from a philosophical level Israel is simply not Israel if it doesn’t devote itself to Jewish particularity (again, recognizing the difficulties with respect to the meaning of “particularity”). The only way for Israel to retain its Jewish nature is by ensuring that the Palestinians have a state of their own in order to allow its particularity to flourish.
Speaker Gingrich caused a small stir the other day when he referred to the Palestinian people as “invented.” Gingrich typically prefaces these statements with phrases like “let’s be honest.” The preface “let’s be honest” is designed to signal the hearer that Newt has the truth and you are about to hear it. It implies that up until now all discussion about the point (in this case the construction of Palestinian national identity) has been tainted by indirectness, vagueness, avoidance of what’s “real,” and the dreaded political correctness.
Newt Gingrich considers himself an intellectual and a historian. And although I cannot imagine myself voting for Gingrich, I do enjoy listening to him and appreciate his argument-based approach to politics. Newt can make an argument and offer a perspective, something which I enjoy and appreciate always keeping in mind the difference between “perspective” and “bias.” But the speaker can tout his historian credentials all he likes; he remains shallow and incomplete with respect to a variety of issues – Palestinian peoplehood in particular this time. I’m waiting for one of Newt’s challengers to point out that all collectivities, all national identities, all “peoples” are invented.
Gingrich’s claim that the Palestinians were Arabs living on the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire and never constituted a national or political entity – complete with state institutions, internal infrastructure, and recognition – is defensible enough. He is sort of technically correct. When the state of Israel was declared in 1948 there was no existing Palestinian state in the full sense of the term that was displaced by Israel. In fact, there was no consistent and organized call for a Palestinian state until about 1967. Many Arab leaders in that region of the country considered themselves to be part of Syria. Evidence has been marshaled to defend this point, namely, that most of the land acquired by Israel up until 1948 was purchased legally, the Arab Muslim population was migratory, and that some testimony before the Peel Commission suggested that the word “Palestine” was a Zionist invention.
But none of this matters. Gingrich doesn’t understand that all political and national entities are “constructed” and come into being over time. 100 years ago there was no Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or Syria. These “peoples” were formed as a result of political alliances. The speaker has perhaps fallen into the trap of believing that because his own national group (American) is older and more established it is somehow more authentic. A society and its national institutions are constructed on the basis of cultural unity. If a group of people live amongst one another long enough they have the basis for inclusion and exclusion (ancestry, language, religion,). The attachment to a collective category such as national group (e.g. Palestinians, Canadian, French, Saudi) is primarily symbolic and utilitarian in some important ways. Thus, any time a collective group mobilizes in pursuit of goals and has a loyalty to this collectivity, including a preoccupation with its preservation, they are cementing their sense of peoplehood.
Even if we accept a conservative estimate the Palestinians have been organizing themselves around instrumental societal institutions for 50 years. They have constructed themselves in a manner consistent with acquiring control over resources, the solution to problems, and a defense against enemies. The basis for inclusion in the Palestinian national identity is no different than any other; it is by birth, language, and a commitment to the well-being of the collective identity. There are few, if any, national categories or groups in reality. There are always influences from other groups, languages, and ideologies and definitions of collective identities vary somewhat on the basis of emphasis or orientation. Hence, there are Christian Palestinians as well as Muslims and groups whose ethnic descent varies somewhat from others.
There are a few common characteristics that describe the development of a national identity. These characteristics tend to represent a pattern of evolution from scattered bands of people to a cohesive collective identity that has persistence. First communities undergo changes from a minority to majority conception of themselves. They see themselves as the dominant voice and presence in a geographic area. This process is still incomplete in the case of the Palestinians but is clearly moving forward. Gaza, the West Bank, and other disputed land must be settled first. Related to this, is the fact that Palestinians have moved from a pan Arab sense of themselves to a more precise definition of their own boundaries as a collectivity. Secondly, the Palestinians have increasingly focused their attention on development in the future rather than surviving the past. This too is still in the early stages and will progress as the Palestinians acquire structures and control of resources that have an impact on their own political well-being. Third, the act of inventing one’s sense of being a “people” is advanced as institutions advance for the realization of group interests. Turning to institutions as a mechanism to satisfy collective interests is superior to relying on tribal or ethnic affiliations and begins the process of transcending ethnicity and forging a civic identity rather than an ethnic one.
Speaker Gingrich needs to develop a more refined sense of how a people come to be. Why would a possible president of the United States even make such a statement? It is not only shallow but unproductive and certainly not conducive to a peace process. As of now, the speaker is stuck in simplistic categories of what groups are deserving of national identities. He thinks of these categories as finite and established; he thinks of them as nouns when in actuality they are verbs.