A guest post by Rebecca of City of Ladies
Peace and hello. The Feministe crew have generously invited me to guest-post here about the Israel-Gaza conflict. I’ll spare you the biography and just say as background that I’m a blue-state Reform Jew with an Israeli-born mother who’s about ready to disown me (not literally) because I support peace in Gaza. (How about that ceasefire, eh.)
This post is in three parts: Israel-Republicanism, One State, Two State, Multiethnic State, Jew State, and Shalom/Salaam.
While I discuss below issues that are more specifically related to the current war, I’d like to first counter, somewhat obliquely, David Schraub’s earlier posts on anti-Semitism.1 I agree when David says that, as with other forms of bigotry, it’s the victims of that bigotry that should get to define what is and what is not anti-Semitism.
However. Criticism of Israel’s actions is not, in and of itself, anti-Semitic. Period.
Most American Jews I know are, if not always liberal, at least consistent Democrats. (Except for my uncle. Does everyone have a Republican uncle?) Which is why it confuses and saddens me when so many of them adopt what I call a Republican position with respect to Israel.2 Meaning they take as their motto the saying “My country, right or wrong” without adding the coda that liberals do: “if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.” Rather than seeing the conflict as the complex and nuanced situation it is, they see it in black and white – “you’re either with us or against us.” In short, large numbers of American Jews that are progressive about American politics are total right-wing nutjobs when it comes to Israel.
Why is this? Why this willful blindness, this Israel-Republicanism? Does it stem from religious conviction? Anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia? A belief that Jews have just been persecuted enough? Simply a facet of American privilege? I suspect it’s all of these.
In the Bible, the land of Israel is promised to the Hebrews, etc. etc. etc. This has no actual relevance, of course. But even people who aren’t that religious sometimes buy into the belief that Jews have a right to that patch of desert that supersedes others’ right to it, because their ancestors lived and worshiped there, or that the haven for Jews all over the world has to be right there. (Somewhat unsurprisingly, the same people are distinctly unwilling to give their houses to descendants of Native Americans.) I can speak to this; I used to be a fanatical Israel-Republican, until I got on the internet and grew up and realized that I was being an idiot. It can be difficult to get rid of ideas that have been ingrained in you since childhood. Even people who don’t care so much about God promising the land to the Jews internalize the bit about Jews being the chosen, the special; they believe this conflict is special, different, not subject to the same rules we would apply to other conflicts such as China-Tibet.
Without going into the dysfunctional family drama, I’ll tell you that I’ve seen a great deal of outright anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia and a lot of borderline examples of the same from my relatives. I feel it’s hugely important. Obviously there is hate on both sides. But I haven’t seen from Arabs or Muslims the same level of “they hate us anyway, so it’s not worth negotiating with them” that I have from Jews. (One example that I’ve seen in comments here is the remark that because Palestinians voted Hamas into power, they agree with every part of its charter, including the desire to wipe out Israel and the Jews. But when you have no home or health care or food or schools or running water, you don’t have the luxury of voting for the more moderate party over the party that will provide you with your basic needs. See this piece by little light for more on that, and an explanation of why people who absolutely condemn terror tactics should still be able to see where Palestinian terrorists are coming from. Note also that if it were Israel providing basic social services to the Palestinians, instead of Israel blocking them and Hamas providing them, fewer Palestinians would vote for Hamas. Funny how that works.) This attitude is clearly racist/Islamophobic. Even if you don’t believe that Arabs and Muslims “contribute nothing to the world” (words are my mother’s), by assuming that all members of a group share a particular bigotry, you’re attributing to them a bad quality based on their race or religion. That’s racism. Not to mention that believing that Palestinians are inherently irrational and hateful makes successful negotiation downright impossible.
I don’t think that people who think “the Jews have been persecuted enough” ever consciously add “and now it’s their turn to do some persecuting.” But in practice it comes out that way. In particular, with the Holocaust. Yes, it is true that many Jews fled to Israel because of the Holocaust. It is true that the Holocaust confirmed for many that Jews needed a state where they were the majority because they felt that in such a state they would not be oppressed as they were in places where they were a minority. But that doesn’t excuse anything. In too many cases, there’s an implied “nothing can equal the Holocaust, so anything we do is somehow OK.” And exploiting the deaths of six million Jews (the community often forgets the millions of other people murdered) killed out of others’ hate, in order to hate and victimize others, is a poor way of memorializing them. (Piece by Tema Okun: criticism of the way support for Israel has replaced actual commitment to social justice as what makes a person a good Jew, and the way a community which is known for argumentativeness – you have two Jews at a table, you get three opinions – just has to be unanimous on this.)
As Americans, we have the privilege of never having to think about other countries’ politics. Everyone follows our presidential race, every news source reports on our government as if it were their own, and when we travel abroad people talk to us about our own politics. And that blinds us to the realization that other countries’ politics aren’t monolithic. How many Americans know the difference between Likud and Kadima? How many actually know what they’re supporting when they call themselves unreservedly “pro-Israel”?
Because “pro-Israel” is nearly as bullshit a phrase as “pro-America.” Does being “pro-Israel” mean you support Israel’s right to exist? Sure, why not. Does it mean you support its right to exist if it has to ban non-Jewish political parties and discriminate against non-Jewish immigrants in order to do so? Less black-and-white. Does it mean you support its right to exist if it has to bomb Gaza into the Stone Age? That is the question. (See this piece by Ezra Klein in Ha’aretz, which incidentally came out as I was starting to write this post. We’re sharing a brain! Thrilling.)
It is entirely possible to oppose discrimination without being bigoted against those committing it. It is entirely possible to oppose disproportionate force without being bigoted against those using it. It is entirely possible to oppose ghettoization without being bigoted against those enforcing it.
One State, Two State, Multiethnic State, Jew State
Even in “enlightened”3 discussion of the Israel-Palestine situation, there’s disagreement over whether “anti-Zionism” is anti-Semitic. My thoughts: if you believe in the validity of ethnic/religious states to begin with, it’s anti-Semitic to oppose, in theory, the right of Jews to have a little state of their very own. In theory.
But not in practice. In David’s first post here, commenter Ben used the example of the American Civil War, when “we decided by war that Southerners weren’t entitled to their own state.” Putting aside the idea of maintaining the Union for its own sake and focusing on why we, modern progressives, would not have supported a Confederate States of America – it wasn’t some group, some intrinsic “Southernness” that we decided did not deserve a country, independent of all other factors. To maintain a “Southern” nation with a “Southern” way of life, as it was defined at the time, black people would have had to be enslaved, and it’s not “anti-Southern” to oppose that.
Likewise, a “Jewish state.” I can understand, intellectually if not emotionally, the desire for one – where Jew is the default, where a Jew might be less likely to be oppressed. But however you define “Jewish state” – 1. Jewish-majority state, 2. one where Jews hold all or most of the political, economic, and social power, or 3. one where Jews are welcomed without question4 – the fact remains that such a state is untenable, or at least that it is impossible for Israel to remain both a “Jewish state” and a democracy.
Let’s examine these three definitions in a one-state model:
Palestinians and Israeli Arabs outnumber Israeli Jews. If they were to be made full citizens with equal rights and all permitted to live in Israel, it would no longer have a Jewish majority. Thus it would not be a Jewish state by definition #1. If not, it would not be a democracy.
While problems of poverty and prejudice would not go away immediately on Palestinians’ being given equal rights, much as people of color in the United States technically being full citizens doesn’t mean that they are economically equal or that racism doesn’t exist, one can probably assume that the political, social, and economic power of Jews would indeed decline significantly as Palestinians voted for representatives that would act in their best interests (not the current Knesset, that’s for sure) and became integrated into Israeli society. Thus it would not be a Jewish state by definition #2. If they were prevented from doing so, whether by de jure or de facto disenfranchisement, segregation, or other discrimination, it would not be a democracy.
It would theoretically be possible for Israel to remain a haven for Jews even were it secular and with a non-Jewish majority – ie. I, a Jew, could still hop on a plane, fly into Ben-Gurion Airport, and become a citizen. (I’m simplifying, but not by much.) However, in order for such immigration and citizenship law not to be discriminatory, the same opportunity would have to be open to non-Jews. I don’t think any government of the region would keep completely open immigration and citizenship around for long, even if they went so far as to try it. So there would have to be limits on immigration. If these limits did not discriminate on the basis of religion or ethnicity – if they ended up keeping Jews out of the country – Israel would not be a Jewish state by definition #3. If they did, it would not be a democracy.
This is why I don’t think a one-state solution is possible, at least for people to whom a “Jewish state” that is also a democracy – and Israel prides itself on being a democracy, just as American Jews boast of it as the only democracy in the Middle East, whatever the veracity of those statements – matters. Jill posted a little while ago about Israel banning two of the three major Arab parties from running in the February 10 general election. One reason cited was that their political platforms undermine Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. (Well, it looks like Israel’s already having some problems being a democratic state. Since the solution to a supposed threat to Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state seems to be to reduce democracy, we conclude that it’s more important for Israel to be Jewish than to be democratic.) That undermining of Israel’s right to exist? A desire for a two-state plan where Israel gives equal rights to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. The horror.
This is what I see as the ideal (or at least the best) solution: two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine. If there is to be a “Jewish state,” the Jews are going to have to give the non-Jews a place to go. Not the Gaza Strip. Not the Negev. A decent amount of land worth living in. (It’s possible, even probable, that entire Israeli cities would become part of Palestine. I feel that eviction of Israelis could nonetheless be avoided – it would seem to be a self-correcting problem, as I can see that most would not want to live in a state that was not Israel or a “Jewish state” and would leave of their own free will. Those who stayed would naturally enjoy rights equal to the rights of Palestinian citizens or resident aliens, depending on which they choose to become.) With a proper state for Palestinians to inhabit, I think there could be a bit more wiggle room about giving preference to Jews in Israeli immigration law, though not citizenship law or other law – all people would have to have equal rights, Jew or non-Jew, in both states.
In this model, a state could exist that would be majority-Jewish (#1), Jew-dominated (#2), and a haven for Jews (#3). Yet it would also be a democracy and not oppress Palestinians. (See this Time article, first two paragraphs of the third page.)
Don’t let anyone tell you that a compromise is a solution where both parties end up happy. This compromise would make people unhappy. It would disappoint Hamas, who want to kick the Jews into the sea. It would disappoint Likud, who want to kick the Palestinians into the sea. But the workable solution is one that would make both sides a little sad, and both sides being a little sad is better than both sides blowing shit up all the time.
How ironic and strange it must be for friends or acquaintances or passers-by in the streets of Israel or Palestine to greet each other with “Peace.” That’s got to be the last thing that people associate with the region.
This part won’t be long; I don’t think it’s necessary to explain why I oppose unnecessary killing. The common accusation I’d like to address is “you don’t support Israel’s right to defend itself?”
The short answer: yes, I do. The slightly longer and necessary answer: yes, but not in this way.
Israel is not presently under any grave existential threat from Hamas. Hamas’s attacks are reprehensible, but they are not going to cause the destruction of Israel. Israel is collectively punishing Gazans for the deaths of Israelis – and collective punishment is a war crime. (Before anyone jumps down my throat: conducting military operations from among civilians is also a war crime. It is possible to condemn the actions of Israel without excusing the actions of Hamas, and vice versa. It’s not a zero-sum game.) Israel has bombed schools, mosques, hospitals, shelters, UN buildings. The justification: militants had been firing missiles into Israel from those locations. And, you know what, in some cases that was probably true. Did it justify destroying those facilities and killing those civilians? Was there no more precise way of silencing the rockets in a region packed so densely that any bombing will cause collateral damage? Was there any justification for using white phosphorus in a crowded residential area?
What’s more: I truly do not believe that it will work. Even if Israel had succeeded in eradicating Hamas – what exactly is supposed to happen next? Gaza looks like an earthquake zone, at least five hundred Palestinian civilians are dead, three thousand wounded,5 fifty thousand displaced from their homes. What does Israel expect the Gazans to do? Fall on their knees and kiss the ground the IDF soldiers walk on? Yes, one reads accounts of Palestinians who acknowledge that the military operation was in response to attacks by Hamas and who now hate Hamas. But how many more now hate Israel for destroying their homes and killing their families? And really, can you blame them? The only question that remains is whether or not this disproportionate response was enough of a deterrent. I’m going to go with a no.
This is why there must be peace. Because war doesn’t accomplish anything in this situation. Operation Cast Lead hasn’t stomped out Hamas, and even if it had, another group would have risen that was committed to destroying Israel, because when you make people hate you, they fight back. Hamas’s missile attacks haven’t wiped Israel off the map, and the retaliation they’ve provoked has decimated their own people, because when you make people hate you, they fight back. (See Nicholas Kristof’s NYT piece here.)
War is not a zero-sum game, either. Equal numbers of Israelis and Palestinians killed do not cancel out; they add up. Every person killed on either side is a strike against any hope of ever achieving stability in the Middle East. On Israel’s part, a solution might mean not bombing the shit out of Gaza when rockets fall on Sderot. Hamas might lead by a few “points” for a while. But in the long run, peace means fewer Israelis killed, too.
Shalom. Salaam. It’s the only way.
1. By “anti-Semitism” I would like to specify that I mean, here and in the rest of the post, the hatred of Jews. It is true that Arabs are also a Semitic people, but getting bogged down in this kind of quibble when the word has been used for centuries to mean hatred of Jews isn’t conducive to anything. For hatred of Arabs or Muslims I will use “anti-Arab racism” and “Islamophobia” respectively.
2. The term “Likudnik” is also used in a similar way, but I feel it implies an awareness of the situation that those I call “Israel-Republicans” do not have.
3. By “enlightened” I mean discussion where the word “Zionist” is used to actually mean “Zionist” rather than as a dogwhistle for “Jew.”
4. I ignore any question of a state with laws based on halacha; I think we here (as well as a large number of “pro-Israel” Jews) can all agree that laws should not be based on the tenets of a religion.
5. I use the figures provided by the IDF, because even the low estimate is a ridiculous number of civilians hurt.
–Parts of this post are adapted or taken directly from my post “Tzedek?”
–Apology for the American and Jewish focus – I’m speaking from my own experience and I may be way off in some respects. If I’ve said anything ignorant or insensitive, please do call me out on it – I want to be as educated and correct as I can.
–I recommend reading “Semitic Semantics,” by my co-blogger Brian – it’s a concise summary of the pros and cons of the different terms used to describe the sides in this war.
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