Written in September 2014. Not posted because WHY WOULD I INVITE THAT INTO MY LIFE eh fuck it though…
My life isn’t complicated enough. I think I’ll write about Israel.
Much ink has already been spilled about Israel, and Palestine; my purpose here isn’t to add to the cacophony but to clarify certain dimensions of Israel’s identity, to better understand the claims made about it (and about Palestine).
1. Israel is Jewish.
That Israel is a Jewish state is its primary identity; it was founded as such, explicitly, as a nation for the people without a homeland. I don’t have a great deal to say on this matter except to point to a masterful (and shockingly readable) essay by Judith Butler, explicating why those who claim that to criticize Israel is to be anti-semitic are, in fact, making the same error of conflation as the anti-semites who use Israeli actions as an excuse to, say, smash windows in French synagogues. The essay is beautifully reasoned and should be read by all.
2. Israel is colonialist.
This is, perhaps, the number-one complaint against Israel: that its actions against Palestine are those of a colonizer against an indigenous population, and while violent oppression of the indigenous certainly has had its supporters, its historical heyday seems to have largely passed. However, the colonial nature of Israel runs deeper than its actions, and even deeper than its founding. Zionism, as a movement, developed in Europe’s imperial age, and its entire philosophical context is predicated upon colonialism. That the Balfour Declaration was a British document owed not only to Britain’s comparatively liberal attitude towards the Jews, but also to the utter domination of the British empire, which had enough geopolitical credibility to resettle a global diaspora within a foreign land to which it held no legal title — a maneuver which takes both cojones and unequivocal international pre-eminence. Israel is not only a colonial project for its Jewish residents; Israel is a European colonialist project, an abdication of “the Jewish problem” to another continent and, as such, a projection of European imperialist power.
3. Israel is militarist.
Israel often claims that its partnership with the United States is necessary as a consequence of its geopolitical importance: that it is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. We’ll approach that claim next, but one important distinction between Israeli democracy and the other Western democracies to which it compares itself is that Israel is, fundamentally, a militarist state. In the post-WWII era, European democracies have demilitarized; Japan was forcibly demilitarized, to the same effect — the reduction of military power as a central pillar of national might. Even the United States, by far the largest military in the world, uses its armed forces less as a tool for national identity than Israel, where all citizens, regardless of gender or ability, must serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (Arab and Druze citizens, as well as ultra-Orthodox Jews, may be exempted; the exemption has been challenged for the ultra-Orthodox). As a practical result of this, every Israeli leader, in all sectors of the country, has been, at some point in their lives, a soldier. There is quite literally no other liberal democracy in the West where a similar statement can be made, because universal military conscription doesn’t exist in any other liberal democracy in the West. Universal national service exists in other Western liberal democracies, but such programs also include options for non-military government work or even community service; if an Israeli version of AmeriCorps were available as an alternative to the IDF, the experience of youth would be radically different. Military service has often been a crucible for the formation of national values, generally patriotism, sacrifice, and adherence to authority. That the Israeli public opinion continues to shift rightward is the result of many factors, but one little-discussed is the values formation inherent to Israeli citizenship, which is militaristic.
When one holds a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; when every citizen is a soldier, war becomes an easy answer.
4. Israel is a liberal democracy.
Though this is a key dimension to Israel’s national and geopolitical identity, it is only a partial truth, mediated by point number one. If Israel is to be an explicitly Jewish state, then it is unlike any other Western liberal democracy in that it is not secular. If Israel is to be a truly liberal democracy, on the other hand, then a two-state solution with Palestine is actually less desirable than a fully integrated single state, with social and political equality between Palestinians and Jews. Any claim for both full democracy and full Jewishness must rest, then, on the total expulsion of the Palestinians — a realization which has been the central principle of Israeli strategy since its foundation, and which might have been morally and politically acceptable one hundred years ago, but in the era where wealthy governments are officially apologizing to indigenous groups is no longer. Intrinsic to contemporary notions of liberal democracy is pluralism. Israel can either be a pluralist democracy and therefore embody the word as it is now commonly understood, or a Jewish democracy and therefore distinct from every other Western liberal democracy to which it compares itself.
5. Hamas is a terrorist organization.
Yes, Hamas has used suicide bombers to terrorize the Israeli population. They are terrorists. But terrorism, by its very nature, implies just the asymmetry that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict typifies: terrorists do not engage in terrorism because they have the means to wage legitimate warfare, or to otherwise accrue power through peaceful, legitimate means. Terrorism is — without diminishing its horrific effects — a tool of the dispossessed. Moreover, terrorism does not necessarily delegitimize a cause. Numerous states have achieved independence through means which included terrorism, but the actions of, say, the Irish Republican Army did not negate the brutality of the English against the Irish. It is one thing to condemn violent actions which result in the loss of life; the loss of life is always tragic, whether in acts of terror or “legitimate” warfare. It is quite another, and logically insupportable, to claim that acts of terror invalidate a subject group’s claims to liberation.
A common statement made in support of Israel is that the nation has the right to defend its existence. But this is essentially meaningless: the Palestinians have the right to defend their own existence, too (as do all human beings). Moreover, it is not the fundamental claims of either group which are commonly subject to critique in Western media, but rather the methods invoked in creating those national identities. If Israel can object to the manner in which Palestinian leadership proceeds, then Israel must itself be open to similar critiques. Criticism of Israeli methodology is more important not because of any difference in identity or fundamental claims, but because of the asymmetry of power and resources; no matter how many tunnels are dug Israel is, indisputably, the stronger of the two combatants, and with great power comes great responsibility.
6. Israel exists because of the Holocaust.
This is true, but is nuanced by point number two in interesting ways. Before getting to that, though, it’s worth recalling the abhorrent history of violence against Jews in Europe — pogroms, expulsions, and genocide happened with regularity for some thousand-plus years before the Shoah. There is, to this day, a town in France whose name translates as “Death to Jews.” That Jewish idealogues saw in European colonialism a way out, a path to their own liberation, is utterly unsurprising, given the unceasing violence arrayed against them over the centuries. In many places, even in the twentieth century, even before the rise of the Nazis, even assimilated Jews were not full citizens of Europe. Zionism may have reached its apogee in 1948 but it developed over the nineteenth century, and the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, well before anyone imagined six million dead in concentration camps.
Those concentration camps, however, were not a foregone conclusion. One of Hitler’s earlier ideas was not to murder every Jew he could get his hands on, but rather to export them all to Malaysia, an idea rejected because — in short — he thought it would outrage the British (that same nation which was the first to diplomatically support the export of Jews to Palestine). Against the brutality of the Holocaust, some may find this nothing more than a bit of historical trivia, but it reflects an uncomfortable truth about Zionism: that removing Jews from Europe was a goal shared by Zionists not with liberal, assimilated Jews, but with anti-semites who wanted them gone. Prior to the grotesquery of the Final Solution, where assimilation proved no guard against annihilation, the idea of moving to a hot, undeveloped, already-populated foreign land in the name of Jewishness was not exactly the most popular goal amongst the diaspora. That Israel now asserts centrality within the international Jewish identity (a notion rejected by many non-Israeli Jews, but shared by many others) is, therefore, a feat of historical re-engineering rather than an inevitability.
Let’s hope that in the two years since I first wrote this, that town in France has changed its name, eh?