12 May, 2008

Israel's 60th birthday

I always feel that there is at once too much and very little left to say regarding Israel. There is no dearth of passionate opinions, but both sides (militarily as well as intellectually) seem to have reached a equilibrium point of bloody but useless stalemate. Israel as social democratic utopia of the Middle East is a tired and self-defeating dream. As is the revanchist pan-Arab dream of uniting to push the neo-colonial occupier back into the sea. All that is left, in the wake of the passage of these dreams, are half-measures and unsatisfying compromises.

A two state solution divided along 1967 lines seems eminently reasonable to the casual observer; that is, me. But seemingly intractable problems soon intervene. What of the intransigence of Hamas, and Arafat before them? And what of Israeli land grabs? Who is more to blame, and who must concede what, and who first? In political science parlance, there are too many "veto players" that can hold up the process by simply withholding their support -- a dynamic that is exacerbated by the political incoherence of Palestine. And so the starvation, the economic stagnation, the missile-launching, the rock-throwing, the helicopter strikes, the repression, disenfranchisement, they all continue as if through blind historical inertia, cultivating the potent alliance of religious exceptionalism and political ethno-nationalism united by victimhood and long-standing grievance.

A depressing profile, indeed, 60 years in. And Christopher Hitchens, in his usual understated fashion, asks if Israel can survive another 60 years. In his piece he makes a fundamental point about Israel's creation, a topic that usually lost among all the back and forth on this or that air strike, if not completely off limits for those who do not want to be tarred as anti-semitic. (One should, at this juncture, stop to note that Palestinians are also Semites.) He points out the tragic irony that the creation of the Israeli state as a fundamentally religious entity -- not a state that will protect Jews, but a Jewish state -- is the original sin that lies at the heart of the conflict:

Without God on your side, what the hell are you doing in the greater Jerusalem area in the first place?

Israeli propaganda for a long time obscured this crucial distinction. If all that was wanted was a belt of Jewish territory on the coast and plains, such as that which was occupied by the yishuv in pre-state days, the international community could easily have agreed to place it within the defense perimeter of "the West" or the United Nations or, later, NATO. Aha, say the Zionists, the bad old days are gone when we were so naive as to rely on gentiles to defend us...

But...Israel is now incredibly dependent upon non-Jews for its own defense and, moreover, rules over millions of other non-Jews who loathe and detest it from the bottom of their hearts.

Although I don't often agree with Hitchens these days, I think this is right on. The original justification for Israel elides the political and the religious in a way that is offensive to those of us that still support liberal secularism. This is because it argued that for Jews to be safe on Earth, they didn't just need political sovereignty over a plot of land called Israel, they needed a religiously defined state, ruling over Palestine based on religious justification. It is that fundamentally theocratic justification that has always bothered me, and continues to undermine Israelis' innocent protestations that they are merely acting in self-defense. Confronted with the tragedy of the continued conflict and the besieged nature of Israeli existence, it all just seems so needless, and so avoidable. Indeed, the problems of Israel demonstrate precisely why secularism is so necessary for free and peaceful societies: political orders founded on religious identity turn political disputes into competitions between two absolutist worldviews -- a dangerous proposition for all involved, including the integrity of religion itself, which becomes hostage to earthly political interests.

For more on the current state of Israeli politics and the direction things are headed, I recommend Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in the Atlantic. Goldberg (who also just started a blog on Atlantic.com) seems to represent a strain of moderate-left Zionists who, while making no apologies for Israel, are beginning to understand that the Israeli occupation is self-defeating and unsustainable. Also, check out Daniel Levy, an incredibly articulate Israeli writer and negotiator who I had the pleasure of seeing in person last summer at a debate over the deeply misguided "West Bank First" policy.


spencer said...

It's worth noting Goldberg's interview with Obama on Israel policy, where Obama says what he has to say as a politician and touts the mainstream line on Palestine. You can sort of sense a more liberal, pro-Palestinian position trying to break free from the rhetoric. He rejects Carter's use of the term "apartheid", for example, but he also says that settlements are not helpful.

Cassady said...

"blind historical inertia"

I miss hearing you talk.