Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Problem with a Jewish State

This week, the Israeli cabinet was set to discuss the legal status of the children of migrant workers. There are about 1200 such children awaiting deportation. An inter-ministerial special committee has recommended that 800 of the children be allowed to stay. These children were born, educated and raised in Israel. They consider themselves to be Israelis and speak Hebrew. While I’m glad to hear that most of the children will be allowed to stay, I find that the way that many Israeli officials have been framing the issue is very disturbing, and indicative of a larger problem.

For example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants the children to stay, described the issue thusly:

"The issue touches on two things," Netanyahu said Sunday at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting. "One is humanity, and the other is a Jewish and Zionist state."

"We have here little children who grew up here and went to school here. They are a part of us. We are looking for ways to absorb them and take them into our hearts. However, we don't want to create an incentive. We want to preserve the Jewish democratic majority that allows us to maintain a Jewish democratic state," Netanyahu declared.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been less delicate. Back in October of 2009, when the Netanyahu Government postponed a decision on the children until the end of the school year, he reportedly informed the prime minister that if the children were granted residency or citizenship he would resign control of the Immigration Authority, and foment a coalition crisis. (As Israel has no formal legal mechanism for the absorption of non-Jewish residents, such questions are left to the discretion of the Interior Minister.) At the time, he said that allowing the children to stay in Israel:

"is liable to damage the state's Jewish identity, constitute a demographic threat and increase the danger of assimilation."

He also noted that:

"We are not a safe haven, period. We should not damage the character of the Jewish state simply out of clemency."

In many ways, these statements reflect the deeply problematic nature of the Jewish democracy. It is a matter of widely held belief in Israeli society that Israel is not just a democratic state, but a Jewish and democratic state. What exactly this means has bedeviled successive Israeli governments almost since the founding.

I think it is important that we recognize that these two principles, the democratic and the ethnic, are in tension. The State of Israel cannot be truly available to all of its citizens, regardless of race or creed, and simultaneously proclaim itself to be a Jewish state.

Many disagree with me, however. The Supreme Court of Israel famously ruled that “there is no contradiction whatsoever between these two things: The state is the state of the Jews, while its regime is an enlightened democratic regime that accords rights to all citizens, Jews and non-Jews.” The Court also argued that, “the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people does not negate its democratic character, as the Frenchness of France does not negate its democratic character.”

If it just used Jewish iconography in all its official symbology, or made the Hebrew language the official language of the State, I would agree with the Court that Israel’s Jewish and democratic principles are not in irreconcilable conflict with one another. The United Kingdom has its own state church, the national language of France is French, and a cross figures prominently in the flags of all Scandinavian countries. All these countries are universally respected members of the family of liberal democracies, despite their superficial lip-service to Christian or ethnic symbolism.

The premise of the liberal democracy rests on the assumption that as far as the State is concerned, your religious and ethnic origins are irrelevant. The State engages with you as an individual, and not as a member of a larger group.

The reason the aforementioned countries are excused their not-completely-neutral symbols is that everyone recognizes that these are just symbols. There is no substantive legal benefit to being an Anglican in England more than being a member of any religion, or being an atheist.

In Israel, however, being Jewish carries with it profound legal and social implications. The State defines itself as being the Homeland of the Jews, whether those Jews be within Israel (i.e. Israeli citizens) or without (i.e. foreigners). It sees as its duty the protections of Jews the world over, and sees itself as the best instrument for accomplishing that goal. Only Jews and their families may immigrate to Israel.

Israel’s official state ideology is Zionism. Zionism, by its very definition, seeks to make Israel more Jewish. It promotes Jewish settlement, use of the Jewish language and the propagation of Jewish institutions. Zionism has no place for Arabs (or any non-Jews), nor, for that matter, has it endeavored to find a place for them. Zionism demands that Israel’s non-Jewish citizens swear fealty to Israel as a Jewish state, and recognize it as the Jewish homeland. Israel’s national anthem expresses the millennia-old hope of the Jewish people to return to Eretz Yisrael, an aspiration that all Arabs are, at best, indifferent too, and more likely, actively resent. Arabs do not serve in the armed forces, do not participate in settlement of the land, and are formally forbidden from tinkering with the official Zionist ideology of the State of Israel.

In short, what separates Israel from France is that Israel has an official ideology that aggressively uses the organs of the state to favor one group of its citizens over the other. Instead of being content to rely on its already in-born demographic advantage, Israel uses government power to increase its lead. Israeli politicians, even when well-meaning, are willing to advance this notion to the point that it contradicts basic humanistic and democratic principles, as evidenced by Netanyahu’s equivocation above.

It is illiberal ideologies like Zionism that allow a government minister of a country explicitly founded as a safe haven, to argue that the country is not a safe haven, because the people seeking refuge belong to the wrong ethnicity.

I should think it obvious that using the rules to ensure that you are always in the majority, a cause Netanyahu is clearly advocating, is not real democracy. It’s stacking the deck, pulling up the ladder after you’ve already climbed it to the top, and any other metaphor that describes unfairness.

As long as Israel continues to deny its minority citizens an equal place in the country, it will continue to not be regarded as a full-fledged democracy, and rightly so.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Logic of Prisoner Swaps

Can someone please explain to me the logic of swapping one captured Israeli soldier for hundreds, maybe thousands, of terrorists? It could be I'm missing some basic part of this, in which case, I hope someone will enlighten me.

To me, if these guys are dangerous terrorists, then I don't see why the Israelis would release them in exchange for just Gilad Shalit. Gilad Shalit is not dangerous to Hamas. He's just some guy they kidnapped. Presumably, these terrorists Israel has locked up are there because they have either committed, or participated in the commission of, horrendous crimes, and there is reason to think they are still dangerous.

If, on the other hand, all the terrorists offered in exchange are not dangerous, as in, not really terrorists, then why are they locked up in the first place? Just for the purposes of prisoner exchanges? That seems pretty stupid - stop locking up prisoners to be used for prisoner exchanges, and you take away Hamas's reason to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

I understand there's some psychological benefit in doing anything you can to bring any Israeli soldier that falls into enemy hands home, but I think we can agree that a thousand terrorists seems excessive. It seems the height of foolish sentimentality to me to hold, as an absolute value, that you'll give in to terrorist demands to bring a soldier home. Again, assuming at least some of these guys have blood on their hands, I don't see how there is a net gain, even psychologically, in bringing home one soldier, who killed nobody, in exchange for a prisoner that killed twenty people at a pizzeria. If anything, soldiers accept certain risks (such as capture or death) that are not typically contemplated by restaurant patrons.

And, just additionally, if you're unwilling to negotiate with Hamas to bring peace to the region, because you don't negotiate with terrorists, then why the hell do you negotiate with terrorists to bring one soldier home? Especially when the terrorists only kidnapped the soldier so you would negotiate with them for the release of prisoners?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jewish Press Op-Ed Page Advocates Treason?

More Jewish Press fun. Op-Ed writer Arnold S. Mazur has had enough of Barack Obama. (From what I can tell, Mazur’s claim to fame is that he was Executive Vice-President of Sales with CA Technologies sometime in the ‘80s, when the Jewish Press credits him with “defying the Arab boycott.”) Anyway, Barack Obama is so bad for Israel, he recommends that Israel, our current ally, begin to realign its foreign policy to be more in tandem with China, our current not-ally, and major rival for world domination. Helpful.

Besides the possibly treasonous angle here of an American citizen urging an allied state to start weakening that alliance (I know it’s not actually treason, thanks), I’d like to just highlight for a moment the great stupidity here.

I understand that many Jews believe that Barack Obama is bad for Israel. I disagree, but surely reasonable people can differ on the interpretation of stimuli. But I think it’s important to note here that when we say “bad for Israel,” we don’t mean in the same way that President Hitler would be bad for Israel. At least I hope so. My assumption is that most rational Jewish Obama-haters don’t actually believe that Obama is seeking ways to destroy Israel, but rather they complain that he is not a strenuous enough advocate on Israel’s behalf, more than anything else. Another frequently aired complaint is that he may be more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to the Israelis.

My point is, that Obama on his worse day is a much better friend to Israel than Hu Jintao (or whoever controls Chinese foreign policy) will ever be. Mazur himself recognizes that China has no particular need for Israel at the moment, and that China has far more to gain by staying cozy to countries like Iran. For some reason, though, he is assuming that Israel can win China over.

Let’s just run through some of the differences between the American-Israeli relationship and the Sino-Israeli relationship.

America is the largest, richest, most powerful country in the world. It has been allied with Israel for at least 40 years. It is home to around 6 million Jews, who wield a disproportionate amount of influence in media, politics and finance, typically in favor of Israel. It is home to a powerful lobby, AIPAC, that is widely considered to be the most successful ethnic lobby in the history of mankind. It is virtually impossible for Congress to pass a resolution critical of Israel, or for the executive to make remarks critical of Israel. The United States gives $3 billion in foreign aid to Israel, more than any other country in the world, and much of it is used to purchase the latest American military equipment. It is currently in a war trying to kill Islamic terrorists, whom Israel has long considered a major existential threat, and has, to that end, toppled governments in Iraq and Afghanistan hostile to Israel, and is currently doing its damndest to ensure that Iran not get a nuclear weapon.

China, a totalitarian state, is home to practically no Jews, and none of them are politically powerful. It’s main foreign policy concern is securing enough oil for its rapidly developing economy, which means cozying up to countries that have oil, the vast majority of which Israel hates. America may be accused of not pushing hard enough for tough sanctions against Iran, but China actively resisted any sanctions at all. There is no Jewish lobby in China, and China gives no aid to Israel. China has no use for Israel at all, whereas it has great use for countries Israel considers to be enemies.

Why the hell would anyone counsel Israel to switch allegiance from the US to China?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Muslims Are Probably Like Everyone Else

Tikkun Olam has a post up in which she approvingly quotes from an interview that Prof. Richard Rubinstein gave in which he makes the case, inter alia, that Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama are/were both wrong in declaring to the Muslim world that we do not blame them for 9/11, and that we think Islam is really a religion of peace. To the contrary, Rubinstein argues,

In reality, Islamist enmity toward the infidel West, such as was manifest on 9/11, is not a consequence of a small, unrepresentative group “hijacking” a religion whose “teachings are good and peaceful.” On the contrary, the kind of Islamist hostility that drove Islamist terrorists to act on 9/11 and all too many other occasions is deeply rooted in centuries of Islamic tradition.

He goes on to make the point that Muslims really are trying to take over the world.

I think there's a couple of things wrong with this perspective. First, looking through Islamic religious texts from a few hundred years ago is not a particularly good way of finding out what 1 billion people think today. If you look through the old religious texts of Christianity and, yes, Judaism, you will find much of the same sentiment expressed by almost everyone. Most, if not all, religions consider all other religions illegitimate, and would think it a good thing if everyone switched to their own. Even Judaism, which does not require conversion of non-adherents, espouses the belief that when the Mashiach comes, all will see its truth, and the Jewish religion will reign supreme over the entire world. It would be a big mistake to conclude from this, however, that Judaism really seeks to take over the world.

Second, I doubt most Muslims are aware of even a few of these texts, much less subscribe to and act on their contents. Following Rubinstein's logic would be like holding all Jews responsible for the opinion of R' Elchanan in one of his tshuvot.

Of course, there are a whole bunch of Muslims out there who do think it's important to kill people, but it makes more sense to think of them as crazy people than to assume they are representative of the feelings of 1 billion people. Most sane people do not find it tenable to kill for their beliefs. The fact that these few Muslims do should not make us think that Islam per se requires such an attitude, but that some crazy people, whose particular pathology happens to take an Islamic tint, do.

It's worth noting that religious induced violence is no stranger to any of the Abrahamic religions. I don't think that anybody would think it fair to say that religious crazies like Baruch Goldstein or Yigal Amir demonstrate that Judaism is inherently violent. And, of course, Christianity is no stranger to bloodshed. In fact, when considering whether it makes sense to think of Muslims in a conspiracy to take over the world, it may be instructive to ask from whom they are taking it. Probably the Christians, who have already taken it over. And how did they take it over? Not by giving out free candy. (Although that was definitely part of it.)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How Else to Read the Jewish Press?

I suspect that most people don’t buy the Jewish Press for the news, because it’s not so much a newspaper as it is something to hold ads for Pesach Hotels together in. What we refer to as the Jewish Press (the articles, the op-eds, etc.), is just the glue that makes up the binding, as it were. Consistent with this theory, you would expect that what is written in the Jewish Press would just be meaningless gibberish, and it usually is. (I exempt from this harsh criticism “The Silly World of Chelm,” which is truly timeless commentary.) However, due to the political leanings of its “editors,” the meaningless gibberish must of course have a right-wing slant.

If I am able to continue this blog, you can expect that criticism of random garbage I find in the Jewish Press will constitute a big chunk of it. However, for now, I just want to draw attention to an opinion piece in July 2’s issue (last week’s), by Benjamin Weinthal, “Europe Will Never Forgive Israel For The Holocaust”.

The thesis seems to be that the governments of Western Europe condemned the May 31st flotilla raid by the Israeli Navy, not because they actually felt it was a bad idea and not conducive to peace in the region, but because they blame the Jews for the Holocaust.

What’s really interesting about Weinthal’s argument is that he’s not blaming on just anti-Semitism, which is the usual (indemonstrable) claim, but the completely absurd idea that it is all part of Freudian urge to absolve themselves of the Holocaust.

In an attempt to justify this craziness, you get a really hilarious bit of writing, so much so that it seems to be a parody of right-wing Jewish writing on the UN. It’s rife with non-sequiturs and other fallacies so huge that it’s a wonder Weinthal himself didn’t break down in tearful laughter as he was writing it.

What follows, is a partial fisking:

As an Israeli psychoanalyst once noted with bitter irony, the Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz. The corollary to this observation is that Europeans will never forgive the Israelis and the Jews for Auschwitz.

Doubtful, but OK, maybe.

How can one explain the latest outbreak of European loathing for the Jewish state after it intercepted a flotilla heading for Gaza in open violation of a naval blockade?

How indeed? What reason could there be for the governments of several countries allied with Israel to issue warnings and condemnations of a botched raid that resulted in the deaths of nine citizens of another friendly state and highlighted the humanitarian crisis engendered by the Gaza Blockade? Try as I might, I can’t think of any. Oh wait, I know!

The widespread condemnation Europeans have expressed toward Israel after its commandos boarded the so-called peace flotilla on May 31 - and used force only when threatened with death - signals a desire to turn every Israeli action of self-defense into absolution for the crimes of the Holocaust.

Duh! It’s so obvious! Europeans (all of them!) don’t care about questions of international law or global security or human rights, they care only about absolving themselves of the sins of the Holocaust! The link is so straight, and so obvious!

The UN Human Rights Council - chaired by none other than Colonel Khaddafi's government - issued a resolution condemning Israel.

I’m not sure what the UN Human Rights Council or the dictator of Libya have to do with Europe, specifically. Maybe, to Weinthal, anti-Israel sentiment = Europe, by default. That would explain a few things.

Meanwhile, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom blasted Israel's "disproportionate" response, and their handmaidens in the European media turned Israel into a punching bag.

Well, this is at least Europe, so that’s a start. I’m not sure why Spain and the United Kingdom are interested in absolving themselves of the guilt of the Holocaust, in that they had nothing to do with it. Maybe they feel guilty for not intervening enough? But, if that were true, we should expect to see Benjamin Weinthal articles claiming that other countries that could have intervened more (and, really, who couldn’t) also hate Israel because they wish to absolve themselves of guilt. Perhaps articles criticizing the United States and Papua New Guinea are on the way?

The Europeans' vicious attacks on Israel are animated less by the Jewish state's foreign policy than by Europe's ongoing fixation on the Holocaust.

Here is the big leap, coming up. Let’s follow the logic train. The UK criticizes Israel’s foreign policy. This criticism becomes, in the parlance of Weinthal, a “vicious attack.” This “vicious attack”/criticism on Israel’s foreign policy is not motivated so much by finding Israel’s foreign policy deserving of criticism (that’s too obvious), but because Europe has a heretofore unrealized “ongoing fixation with the Holocaust”. I’m not sure what this ongoing fixation consists of, but it doesn’t sound too healthy. Are they talking about the Holocaust too much? Too little? I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s clearly leading to anti-Semitism, I guess.

What else could explain the presence of posters equating Israel with Nazi Germany at pro-Hamas demonstrations in Vienna?

Yes, what else could explain.... Wait a second, lots of other things could explain this. Let me get this straight. There’s a pro-Hamas demonstration in Vienna. At this demonstration, there exist posters that equate Israel with Nazi Germany. OK, with me so far? Rather than conclude that some European people who like Hamas (it is a pro-Hamas rally, after all) really don’t like Israel, Weinthal is taking this as conclusive proof that the governments of Germany, France, the UK etc. blame Jews for the Holocaust. If you didn’t follow that, don’t worry, I didn’t get it either.

According to one recent German university study, 45.7 percent of the European respondents supported the contention that "Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians."

I have no idea what study this is, so I’m not going to even bother being skeptical about its findings. (But I’m skeptical.)

In their eyes, apparently, maintaining a naval blockade against a government sworn to destroy you - while providing the unfortunate people living under that government with tens of thousands of tons of supplies and humanitarian aid - now equates to looting and butchering six million people.

Yes, that’s exactly their position! The European respondents who believe that Israel is engaged in a “war of extermination” really mean that Israel = Nazi Germany from 1942-1945 in every conceivable way. How else could you read the report? (I’m sorry, but again, where is this study? Who conducted it?)

Wolfgang Benz, the controversial director of the Berlin Center for the study of anti-Semitism, neatly summed up this incongruity on German television when he insisted that "anti-Semitism is different from anti-Zionism."

Aha! Wolfgang Benz, you clever anti-Semite! Trying to argue that anti-Semitism is different from anti-Zionism! Really. This only proves that you’re really an anti-Semite who is expressing the innermost desire of all the Volksdeutsche; to blame Israel for the Holocaust! Again, what else could Wolfgang Benz have meant? (Keep in mind, he’s controversial! For what, I don’t know, but he’s probably an anti-Semite.)

Anyway, this post has gone on long enough, for an inaugural. Suffice it to say, the article goes on in this vein for some time. The really hilarious part is the rhetorical trick of just asking “What else could explain X, but the very thesis I’m trying to advance? As added proof, here is Y – and what else could explain it but the very thesis I’m trying to advance?” over and over, ad infinitum. I don't have a problem with contrarianism, even for the sake of contrarianism, but just advancing a crazy contrarian theory without explaining why the conventional obvious one is inadequate is not contrarianism, it's intellectual laziness.