The below is from Bret Stephens of the New York Times, August 11, 2018. I reprint it here because it states the issues clearly and more accurately than many of the responses to the original bill. The nation-state bill needs to be improved and adjusted in a few areas but it is not a narrow minded document dripping with nationalism and anti-democratic sentiments.
Anyone who follows the news from Israel knows that the Knesset last month passed legislation that takes the Jewish state a step closer to apartheid and outright theocracy. For instance, the bill explicitly authorizes Jewish-only communities and requires secular courts to adopt Jewish ritual law in certain cases. It also promotes the settlements.
Actually, the nation-state bill, as the legislation is known, does none of that. Nearly all of its most controversial provisions were stripped from it before passage. But you’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise based on the reaction to the bill — reaction that is far more revealing than the bill itself.
Among the planks of the legislation: “Hatikva” is Israel’s national anthem. Hebrew is its official language. Jerusalem, “complete and united,” is its capital. The flag and menorah its official symbols. The Sabbath its day of rest (with non-Jews having their own days of rest). Israel is open to Jewish immigration. Above all, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
If you’re shrugging at most of this, you should: The bill’s purpose was to codify into Israel’s Basic Laws — akin to a constitution — aspects of Israeli identity long taken for granted by Israelis and outsiders alike.
The bill has some more controversial features. It gives Arabic — the native language of roughly one-in-five Israeli citizens — “special status” as a language, which has no practical effect but is a demotion from the official status it enjoyed since the days of the British mandate. It contains language that might impede efforts to foster greater Jewish religious pluralism in Israel, including egalitarian prayer spaces at the Western Wall.
It also places a “national value” on the “development of Jewish settlement,” which means towns and communities in general but sounds like — and by no means excludes — West Bank settlements. And it notably fails to mention the word “equality,” which has a prominent place in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
All this can plausibly be described as a mostly symbolic codification of Israel’s Jewish character in the face of persistent efforts to deny that character. Or as part of a broader global turn toward more nationalistic forms of politics. Or, as Anshel Pfeffer, the author of “Bibi,” an excellent new biography on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tells me, as “a rabble-rousing poke in the eye to Israel’s minorities drafted to excite Bibi’s far-right base.”
What the bill is not is the death of Israel’s democracy — it was enacted democratically and can be overturned the same way. It is not the death of Israeli civil liberties — still guaranteed under the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and visibly reaffirmed by the large public protests following the bill’s enactment. And it is not apartheid — a cheap slur from people whose grasp of the sinister mechanics of apartheid is as thin as their understanding of the complexities of Israeli politics.
Nor, for that matter, is it anywhere remotely as noxious as what is happening in other Western democracies wrestling with competing claims between national identity, civil liberties and cultural pluralism. In Denmark, The Times reported last month, “starting at the age of 1, ‘ghetto children’ must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in ‘Danish values,’ including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and the Danish language.’”
Whatever else you think of Israel’s nation-state bill, this is undoubtedly worse. So where are the calls to boycott, divest and sanction Denmark?
Which raises a deeper question concerning the nation-state bill: Why the over-the-top reaction? In an interview with Haaretz, British philanthropist Vivien Duffield, who has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli causes over the years, declared “I hate Israel” after the bill’s passage, then reached for the apartheid analogy.
Shoddy reporting about the bill from some of the usual suspects furnishes at least part of the answer. Ordinary liberal distaste for a conservative Israeli government furnishes another part.
And there are plenty of good reasons even for Israel’s friends to dislike the bill as unnecessary, provocative, divisive and a transparent bid by Netanyahu to shore up his popularity in the face of corruption allegations and a military quagmire in the Gaza Strip.
But if liberal Americans haven’t (yet) given up on the United States in the age of Donald Trump, liberal Jews shouldn’t be giving up on Israel on account of an overhyped, underwhelming law whose effects would be mostly invisible if they hadn’t been so loudly debated. Countries we love will inevitably do things we don’t like or fail to understand. The same goes for people.
However else you feel about the nation-state bill, reserve your serious outrage for the things that deserve it. An estimated 542 Syrian civilians were tortured to death last month by the Syrian regime, according to the Syrian Network For Human Rights. Did you know that?
Israel, even with all its difficulties and enemies, is making progress with respect to its relationship with some other countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, just allowed flights to Israel to go through its air space. These new routes for India Airlines cuts over two hours off the trip, makes the trip cheaper, and saves fuel. This is really pretty amazing given the contentious relationship and the long history of animosity between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But surely enough Israel is losing ground and growing farther part from other cultures and in a few cases cultures you would expect to be more resonant with the Jewish state. Ireland is a good example.
The Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) reported a couple weeks ago about the curiously poor and deteriorating relationship between Ireland and Israel. In the article, which you can read here, the author defends the position that Ireland is one of Israels most ferocious critics.
Why would this be? What is it about Ireland that would set it so against Jewish culture and politics? At first blush you might accept the premise that the Jews and the Irish have common history, a history of oppression and suffering at the hands of a dominant and racist culture. Both the Irish and the Jews have sought redemption and strained for generations for acceptance. Both cultures have experienced war and violence in an effort to maintain their own culture and develop political independence. This is the essence of Zionism and compares to the Irish struggle for their own state as well as independence.
Still, it is Ireland whose voice is the loudest and most critical of Israel. Recent legislation from the Irish Senate prohibits the import of products from “illegal” settlements with very little if any definition or decisions about which settlements are illegal. This is one more example of singling out Israel and holding them to standards others do not have to meet. Of all the repressive governments in the world, of all the illiberal and authoritarian political systems brutalizing their own people, it is Israel that gets selected out for punishment.
This kind of legislation is a gift to BDS and those of that ilk and is in stark contrast to ethical and productive commerce. On another level this is simplistic politics designed to show solidarity with the Palestinians through what will amount to be ineffectual policies.
So, in the end, the Irish and the Jews should sympathize with one another on the basis of common historical experiences. But it turns out that the Irish see Israel in the same role as the United Kingdom before Irish independence in 1921. Like others in the EU Ireland increasingly sees Israel as an occupier just like the United Kingdom “settled” in Ireland. Before 1948 Jews were a struggling minority seeking the integrity that accompanied national recognition. But now the Palestinians have assumed that role.
Once again, Israel has a story to tell and they just cannot seem to tell it well enough.
Donald Trump is leading this country into a dark place. Let us remember what Sinclair Lewis said in the 1930s: when fascism comes to America that it will be wrapped in the flag, sing the national anthem, carry a cross and be called, “Americanism”. But I won’t even use the loaded word “fascism.” We can just go down the list of typical qualities associated with the nativism and corruption of justice associated w1ith such political philosophies. Many points in Trump’s “State of the Union” signal a dangerous conservative trend and potential constitutional crisis.
- Powerful and Continuing Nationalism.Trump makes use of patriotic mottos and symbols. Trump’s phrase “make America great again” is the most typical example and seeks to capitalize on the sense of decline in America, a decline that is mostly indefensible..
- Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights.Trump fears enemies and has simplistic categories of either “loyalty” or “disloyalty” and everybody must be fit into one category or the other. And if you are in the disloyal category then your human rights get compromised.
- Identification of Enemies as a Unifying Cause. Trump’s base of supporters are unified over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat which is typically either someone from a different ethnic or ideological group, or some enemy actual or perceived.
- Supremacy of the Military. Soldiers and military service are glamorized. This glamorization is different than paying respect and recognizing sacrifices made by veterans. Trump prefers military people and is in the process of directing massive increases in funding to the military, money that will not be available for health care subsidies.
- Sexism. Need we say much more about this. His crudity with respect to women knows no boundaries.
- Controlled News. His labeling of the news as “fake news” is an attempt to muzzle the press and control the information environment. His effort to delegitimize the most basic sources of information necessary to a democracy is unprecedented.
- Obsession with National Security.Trump uses fear and the threat of criminal immigrants to scare people into stricter immigration laws.
- Religion and Government are Intertwined. Surprisingly, and even though Trump is far from an upright religious person, he has the support of Christian groups partially because of his willingness to blur the line between government and religion.
- Corporate Power is Protected.The industrial and business aristocracy in Trump’s world often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite. Note his tax bill which is more beneficial to the wealthy than the average citizen.
- Labor Power is Suppressed. to corporate greed. He opposes labor unions because they are the only real threat to corporate greed.
- Rampant Cronyism and Corruption. Trump’s appointment of groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability is blatant. He perhaps will not appropriate national treasures but has begun the process of appropriating the legal system (e.g. tax laws) in order to benefit himself.
- Fraudulent Elections. Again, we need to say little more. Talking with the Russians about dirt on Hillary Clinton is about as debased as you can get with respect to election fraud.
Even at the risk of exaggeration, which I prefer to avoid, Trump “bumps up against” fascist qualities rooted in right-wing nativism. His criticism of law enforcement agencies is unprecedented and a potential danger of considerable importance. All the signs were in his State of the Union speech and should be a serious warning about the real “State of the Union.”
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.