[This post is the first of a series by Sam which will be running here on Mondays for the next couple of months.]
I've long thought that the fundamental moral issues at stake in the Israel/Palestine controversy - whose land is it? is there any justification for a Jewish state? is Zionism a form of racism or anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism? - need to be re-opened and discussed as calmly and fairly as possible. I'm not sure anyone can discuss these issues calmly and fairly - people on both sides tend to get very upset as soon as they come up - but I thought I'd try my hand at it some day, if I could ever find an opportunity for doing that. After writing a piece for Norm's Writers Choice series this summer, I therefore proposed the idea of a series of blog-posts on the subject, and was very happy to find that he liked it. So this is the first of what I hope will be about 10 posts on the subject, and I'm sending the links to a number of Muslim and Arab friends, in the hope that we could begin a bit of a dialogue. The idea is to step back a little from the passionate spirit in which we normally advocate for our respective sides on Israel/Palestine, and try to look at the issues in what the 18th-century British moral philosophers I admire called 'a cool hour'.
Why return to such basic issues now? Aren't we past the stage of worrying about which people really 'owns' the land, or whether Zionism is inherently unjust? Well, I thought exactly that in 1993. I was a passionate fan of Oslo - surprised and unbelieving when the first rumours of high-level contacts between Israelis and the PLO began to float around in August, then overjoyed at the events that followed. Shortly after the meeting between Rabin and Arafat at the White House in October, I assured my wife and best friend that the struggle over Israel/Palestine was now over and there would be full peace between Jews and Arabs within five years or so. They looked at me dubiously, hinted that I shouldn't even say such things - I was 'tempting fate' - and left me to celebrate on my own.
They, of course, were right and I was wrong. I've come to think that that is precisely because Oslo neither resolved nor buried the fundamental issues at stake in the conflict. What I thought was happening at Oslo was an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians to let the past be the past, and simply build a future in which both peoples can have national sovereignty. I have participated in arguments over the legitimacy of Zionism since the early 1970s, and never seen anyone on either side give an inch; I thought the Israeli and Palestinian leaders had similarly wearied of such arguments and decided to move on. Ernest Renan famously said that nations are based on 'an ability to forget many things'. No Frenchman, he pointed out, knows what part of France his ancestry comes from, and 'every Frenchman must forget St Batholomew's Eve and the massacres in the South of France in the 13th century'. There would be constant bloodshed, instead of a nation of France, otherwise. Adapting Renan's point to the Middle East morass, we may say that Israelis and Palestinians will have to 'forget' the various killings and injustices they have inflicted on each other over the years, and the family histories by which each claims to have a stronger right to the land, if they are ever to live side by side in peace. That is what I thought Rabin and Arafat, and the masses who supported them, were agreeing to in 1993, and that is why I rejoiced.
But it became clear pretty soon that that isn't what happened. Jews who believe the Jewish people has an inherent right to all the biblical land of Israel continued to dominate Israeli politics throughout the 1990s (one of them assassinated Rabin, to the relief of many of the others), ensuring that not a single settlement was dismantled for more than a decade after the agreement. At the same time, root-and-branch opposition to Zionism, and indeed anti-Semitism, continued to be taught in Palestinian schools and mosques. And one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Camp David and Taba talks in 2000 was a continued belief throughout the Palestinian community (and broader Arab and Muslim world) that Israel should accept all 3 million Palestinian refugees if they want to return to it: a demand that, if met, would mean the end of a Jewish state. Since 2000, moreover, there have been increasingly explicit calls, by Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, outside observers, and even some prominent Jews, for an end to the Jewishness of Israel: a repeal of the Law of Return, an abandonment of the Jewish symbols in the public sphere (the flag, the anthem, the marking of Jewish holidays), and the replacement of what is now 'Israel' with a single, binational or non-national state shared by Jews and Palestinians alike. This brings us back, I think, to where we were before 1993: a standoff between those who do and those who do not think a Jewish state is permitted, let alone required, by justice.
Now the situation here is not entirely symmetric. I spoke of both Jews and Arabs who have clung to their maximalist aspirations after 1993, but there are many more Jews willing to compromise over the proper borders of Israel, or the status of Jerusalem, than there are Arabs willing to compromise on the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Like most Jews, I used to blame the Arab side for this, but participation in a series of Jewish-Muslim dialogues over the past eight years has led me to realize that there is something a bit unreasonable about expecting symmetry here. There is a Jewish state, after all - the basic aspirations of Zionism have been fulfilled - while many Palestinians still live in refugee camps. Moreover, almost all Arabs and Muslims believe that the establishment of a Jewish state in what had previously been an Arab, Muslim area was a great injustice, to which there is no counterpart in the behaviour of Arabs and Muslims toward Jews. And if they are right about this, for Jews to talk of getting to a peace that lies beyond justice and injustice, about a peace in which Jews and Palestinians can 'forget' the wrongs they have committed against each other, sounds self-serving. Every time I have proposed, at interfaith peace discussions, that justice must sometimes be compromised in order to achieve peace, I am admonished by Muslim interlocutors that we should really be seeking a just peace. And I can see their point. If they are right that Zionism is premised on a basic injustice, it is an exercise of bad faith for Jews, now that they have what they want, to talk about a peace that sets aside claims of justice.
In fact, when I urge both sides to restrain some of their claims about justice in order to reach peace, I do have in mind Jewish claims against Palestinians as much as the other way around. Like most Jews, I grew up thinking that justice was indeed entirely on the side of Zionism. It's only later in life that I began to realize that most Arabs and Muslims grow up with exactly the opposite view, and much later that I began to see what was reasonable about their view. I'm writing these posts now partly because I'm finally at a point in which I can see how, depending on what factors one stresses, the two views may indeed be equally reasonable. I've also come to think that many of the claims Jews make on behalf of the justice of Zionism actually make the problem worse: pour salt in Arab wounds, as it were, and give people more reason to think that Zionism is based on force, not justice.
But at the same time I think that Zionism is not inherently unjust, and that seeing it that way is an insuperable obstacle to peace in the Middle East. The one non-negotiable for almost all Israelis, the one thing for which they will continue to fight as long as necessary, is that they can continue to live in a state with a Jewish character, predominantly inhabited by Jews, and that can be a home for Jews everywhere. With the lone exception of Sari Nusseibeh - and even he regards this as a considerable concession - practically no Palestinian or other Arab or Muslim leader has accepted this idea even in principle. But as long as they see that idea as unjust, they have no reason to abandon their calls for a Palestinian right of return, or the revocation of the Israeli Law of Return, or the dismantling of the Jewish symbolism that marks the state. If the Jewish hegemony in Israel is an injustice, then Palestinians will - and should - continue unendingly to resist it. Only if they can see some justice in Zionism can they cease to feel aggrieved by it, and be willing to work towards a long-term co-existence with a Jewish state. So, strange as it may sound, it is crucial to peace in the region that Palestinians (many of them, anyway) be able to see a certain justice in at least the basic aspirations of Zionism, just as Israeli Jews (many of them, anyway) must see the justice in at least the basic demands of Palestinian nationalism.
I hope in these blog posts to help encourage the thought that there is right on both sides of this controversy - that we have here a tragic clash of just claims, not a clearly just side versus an unjust one - in part by clearing away myths that get in the way of seeing what seem to me the real issues between Zionists and their opponents. And in an effort to keep the tone of this presentation fairly dispassionate, and to work against my own biases, I will try to be more even-handed than some of my readers, on both sides, may think plausible. In truth, there are probably more asymmetries than I allow: more places in which either the Jews or the Palestinians are clearly in the right, and the other side clearly wrong. But stressing those asymmetries plays too much into the passions by which we cease to listen to anything said on behalf of the other side, so I will avoid them.
A word, finally on my own political position on the conflict:
I describe myself these days as a 'tepid Zionist'. Once I was enthusiastic about the idea of a Jewish state, thrilled by going to a place where I could be surrounded by Jews, where the Jewish religion and culture was celebrated in the public square - where, above all, no one was embarrassed to be Jewish. I've always lived in places where open anti-Semitism is frowned upon; nevertheless, like most Jews I know, I've often felt odd, uncomfortable, out of place, about being publicly Jewish - observing Jewish holidays, for instance, when all around me the work world is in full swing - and have not uncommonly had to put up with condescending attitudes, from non-Jews, about Judaism and Jewish culture. Jews who grew up in earlier generations, or, even now, in intensely anti-Semitic places like Russia, have had to put up with much worse, and the picture we have had of ourselves for centuries is a fearful, shrinking one, on which we always need to show a certain deference to our non-Jewish neighbours, and plead and apologize to them if we want the right to maintain our heritage. In Israel, that's not so. I remember one evening walking with my Israeli cousin in a public park in Kfar Saba, looking around at all the confident Jews enjoying the evening with us, and being struck by the fact that a century ago we would all have been trying to be good Germans or Russians, reluctant to admit that we were Jewish: that here the frightened, self-hating Jew had finally been replaced by dignified, proud, healthy Jews, holding their heads up high, and celebrating their culture proudly. That, it seems to me, is unquestionably a good thing.
But the price for the goods that a nation-state has brought the Jews may be too high. The price of nationalism in general has I think been too high to justify any good it has done. Nationalism has been the greatest source of war over the past two centuries, and has provided the justification for the mass murder or expulsion or oppression of many minorities (groups thought not to 'belong' to the nation). Peace and justice are both far better pursued if states are seen as having the task of protecting individual rights, or promoting happiness or equality for all their citizens, rather than expressing national identities. So I now think that in an ideal world there would be no Jewish state - but also no Christian or Muslim or Arab or Malay states. In my ideal world, there would be Jewish towns or villages - as there are, and always should be I think, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian towns and villages - but no state representing a single religion or ethnic group. States wield too much power to foster the cultural identities of some of their citizens at the expense of others. I'd like to see what Chaim Gans, an excellent recent writer on nationalism, calls a 'sub-statist' expression of cultural identities, with states, everywhere, being held up to liberal or social-democratic ideals, not nationalist ones.
But we don't live in that ideal world. Zionism is a Jewish response to a world in which nation-states largely dominate the political arena, and it seems to me justified as long as other states promote other religious and ethnic groups (and, consequently, don't make public room for Jews, along with other minority groups). If nationalism were to fade generally, Jewish nationalism should certainly fade along with it. Until that happens, it seems to me reasonable, and perhaps necessary, for there to be a Jewish state - a state with a predominantly Jewish population and in which the public culture celebrates Jewish symbols and Jewish history. Of course, that state must protect the political and civil rights of all its citizens, but I think Israel can do that as long as it remains within its pre-1967 borders. So I support a two-state solution to the conflict for the foreseeable future - a viable Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one - while believing that it would be better in the long run if the nationalistic qualities of all states were to fade. Perhaps, with peace and a liberalization of all states in the region, the political order in the Middle East could eventually come to resemble something along the lines of the European Union - and perhaps, over time, structures like the EU will eventually replace nationalistic states worldwide. (Sam Fleischacker)
[The next post in the series is here. Responses may be sent to Sam at this email address: sfleisch (AT) uic (DOT) edu]