Liberalism, Democracy, and the Jewish State

The future of the state of Israel is once again a topic of heated public debate. For good reasons: The possibility of a nuclear threat from a hostile Iran is one; deadlock in the peace process in the region, and the chance of a gradual shift into chronic civil war between Israelis and Palestinians, is another. But it has become common in some circles to ask not only whether Israel can survive, but also if it has a right to.

Some commentators believe that “the Jewish Question” that has been buzzing around in the West for some three centuries - the question of how this ancient people, the Jews, should fit into a modern political order – should be reopened. National self-determination for Jews in a state of their own, such critics say, can no longer be part of a morally acceptable answer. That is a telling development. As in the past, Western attitudes to the “Jewish Question” are reliable indications of larger political moods and of the shifting meanings of political concepts. (First published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 10, 2007. Read the full piece…)

A Jewish Democratic State

The idea of a non-Jewish Israel has been circulating for a while. It is generally assumed that Israel would be more democratic if it stops being Jewish. But in order to renounce its Jewish character Israel would have to stop being democratic. It would also become far less hospitable to minorities. Because Israel is Jewish in a sense not all that different from the one in which Italy is Italian, Poland is Polish, and Britian is English. (The full piece was first published in the Jewish Chronicle.)

How the Settlers Hijack Israel’s Policy

Here’s a sneak preview of the upcoming Peace Now report on settlement activity in Judea and Samaria (courtesy of Yariv Oppenheimer, head of the organization):     

According to the Ministry of Interior by the end of 2006 there were 268,000 settlers in the West Bank, a 5% increase compared to 2005. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics in the first three quarters of 2006 construction of 1272 housing units has begun. The construction of so-called “by-pass” roads, connecting settlements to Israel proper, continued. According to Peace Now estimates there are currently 3000 housing units under construction in the West Bank, including work in 30 of the illegal settlements in direct defiance of government decisions.   

So it is easy to see why some of Israel’s critics say that while Israel declares it opted for partition, it is actually strengthening its hold on the West Bank. But this, alas, is not exactly the case, and unless one is familiar with how politics work in this country, one can hardly be blamed for not seeing this. The religious settlers are an enormously powerful pressure group, and a disciplined and well organized public. Though they are a tiny fraction of Israel’s Jewish population, they exercise disproportional influence, partly through the structure of coalition politics in this country, and partly by a fierce determination to raise hell every time their will is defied (the case of Hebron in these last few days is a good example). And here’s the crux: every government which hoped to move for an agreement with the Palestinians assumed it could pacify settlers in the interim period, by granting them their wishes. Then, they all assumed, when agreement with the Palestinians is finally reached, the settlements will be dealt with in one fell swoop. But so far, agreement remained out of reach, and settlement activity went on undisturbed.  Israel’s public opinion has turned its back on Greater Israel; Israel’s government was elected on a platform promising to leave the territories. But the whole state, like a clumsy blind giant, is still pulled closer to the abyss of bi-nationalism by a group of zealots, as if held by a nose-ring. The public and the press turn a blind eye on all this. But the world and the Palestinians do not. And the world judges Israel by its deeds, not just its declaration. If Israel lets the settlers dictate its policy, it shouldn’t be surprised that the world thinks its policy is further settlement. 

What to do with the West Bank?

Since the idea of a UN mandate in Gaza (see below, May 29th) seems to be defunct after the Hamas take over, the West Bank may serve as a model. Martin Indyk, one of the most sober commentators on the conflict, thinks a UN force in the West Bank is the way out of the impass. Here are his thoughts in Foreign Affairs.

Richard Rorty, 1931-2007.

Richard Rorty’s philosophical career is not easy to sum up. Many admired him, many others saw his advocacy of philosophical “light-mindedness” as a corruption of what they held dear. But many who never read him, and many others who didn’t know his name, were actually Rortians. In fact, most of those Americans who see themselves as “postmodernists,” though they salute French philosophers, actually speak Rorty’s dialect. In a deep sense, Rorty formulated the prejudice of our time. Or it was his formulation which many of us accepted. Some further thoughts on the occassion of Rorty’s death (on the Forward website).

Out of the Impasse: UN Mandate in Gaza to the Arab League

The Lebanon war taught Israelis the harsh lesson which Hamas, and a loose constellation of guerilla groups in Gaza, are now reinforcing: that unilateral withdrawal does not ensure peace unless there is some stable sovereign power to which authority can be transferred. But the Lebanon war also pointed the road to a solution. (Read more…)

(An Italian version of this piece appeared in Corriere della Sera, May 28, 2007.)

Why Israel’s friends should be outspoken critics of settlements in the West Bank

Israel’s friends are not doing it much good by justifying Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. By so doing they are only helping their opponents in identifying Zionism with settlements, and from there the road to delegitimising the right of Jews to self-determination is short: the occupation cannot, and should not, be justified, and if Zionism is equated with it, than Zionism cannot be justified as well.

The equation is, however, false. Because Zionism and settlements are in sharp opposition to each other. From its inception Zionism was not about redeeming land, it was about the right of all peoples to self-determination… (read the full piece on Ali Miraj’s – a British Muslim memeber of the conservative party – blog, here).

The Refugee Problem – here and elswhere.

The second installment of Ben-Dror Yemini‘s series on the misrepresentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the world press has appeared. No English translation that I know of yet. But I’ll update if and when. (You can find the Hebrew version here.)

This time Yemini has compiled numbers and compared treatment of refugee problems globally, and again a vast gap exists between fact and public knowledge of it. Again, it is striking how the Palestinian refugees are viewed differently, and how Israel’s responsibility for creating their predicament receives a focus incomparable to other far larger expulsions around the world.

For the most part the hawkish right had been keen to point this out, in attempts to advance its own agenda. But Yemini, senior journalist at the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, is of the dovish left, and his point in raising the question is quite other. This merits a few words of explanation.

At the opening section of piece Yemini mentions a problem well known to all who have been following the question of refugees world wide. The UN has two agencies which take care of such problems: UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), and UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). The first is responsible for all refugees around the world except Palestinian refugees, the second focuses on Palestinian refugees only. But they also operate in very different ways. In fact they operate in cross purposes. UNHCR helps people out of their refugee status, while UNRWA helps preserve refugee status. Under UNRWA, in contrast to UNHCR, refugee status is independent of residence in any country and of economic conditions, and is automatically applicable to family members. What is more striking it is also automatically hereditary, this too regardless of living conditions. Only Palestinians can inherit such a status. This is also how UNRWA has been operating in its actual policies: it helps maintain rather than dissolve refugee camps.

What does this different treatment of the Palestinian case add up to? It adds up to pointing only in one direction as a solution to the problem: the right of return of the refugees of 1948, along with all their offspring, to Israel (that is to Israel itself, not the Palestinian Authority in the territories).

As Yemini points out, no one is demanding the return of tens of millions of Muslims to India, Greece or Bulgaria, or returning the Germans to Eastern European countries, or having all the populations of the Balkans returned to where they were expelled from. Anyone can see that this would reignite conflicts which have since been pacified. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it would do something worse: it would destroy Israel without creating an independent Palestine. It would mean turning the territory within Israel’s international borders (that is, without the occupied territories) from a country with a very large Jewish majority, to a country with a Jewish minority. No Israeli government would agree to this kind of solution, because it would mean committing suicide.

So in fact, UNRWA is blocking the way for partition and helping drive both peoples to a Bosnian situation – a permanent civil war. What looks like siding with the best interests of the Palestinian refugees, actually keeps alive unrealistic maximalist dreams, breeds despair on which terrorism thrives, and, in the long run, prevents Palestinian independence.

The logic of Yemini’s piece should be clear to anyone who hopes for peace in this region. But the numbers and stories are nevertheless striking and surprising. So, hopefully a translation would come along soon…

Is it a Good Idea to Replace Hamas with Fatah?

The dramatic decline in support for Hamas among Palestinians is taken as a good sign by Israel’s government and the American administration. It is, indeed, a good sign, given the fact that the Hamas ideology, is not only violent, but also offers apocalyptic hopes in lieu of political plans But both the Israeli and the American policy makers are not happy for the right reasons. They’re hoping to block the move for a Fatah-Hamas national unity government, have the parliament dissolved, and then get a Fatah controlled government after new elections.

But this is a near sighted, and useless hope. Not because Fatah can’t win. It probably can. But rather because this will make Hamas popular again. The worst scenario for anyone who hopes for partition and Palestinian independence, so necessary for the well being of both Israelis and Palestinians, is going back to a situation in which Hamas will be able to dictate a radical uncompromising policy without paying a price. This it can do as an opposition and an underground. Terrorists have hijacked the agenda before, and they can do it again. As part of the government, under pressure to deliver – jobs, food, administration – Hamas may not have to change its declarations, but it would have to change its policy. Throwing it back outside government will increase chaos in the Palestinian territories, possibly to a full scale civil war, and would leave us all hostages to any lunatic with a gun. It is the best interest of all not to let Hamas off the hook, and force it to remain in a position of responsibility. It is far more dangerous when instead of being accountable, it can go back to making apocalyptic promises on which, as an opposition, it doesn’t have to deliver.

Genocide Against Muslims

On the Jewish New Year’s Eve, Ma’ariv’s senior journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, published the first installment of a three part series about media representation of the Arab-Israeli conflict worldwide. The piece was entitled And the World is Silent. Yemini, a long time leftist, and supporter of Palestinian independence, has nevertheless been outraged, quite rightly, by the way that the criticism of Israel’s occupation, which he shares, has seeped, especially in Europe, into a wild array of attempts at delegitimizing the right of Jews to self-determination.

A central part of these attempts is the persistent myth about systematic “genocide” allegedly committed by Israel against Muslims in general and Palestinians in particular. Yemini did a simple thing: he collected the available numbers – they are staggering indeed – of Muslims murdered during the years of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some 10,000,000 (ten million!) Muslims were murdered, by the more conservative estimations. But only about 0.6% of these deaths were caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict itself. Read again: about half a percent. Here’s one finding from the margins of Yemini’s research: France is responsible for about ten times more Muslim deaths than Israel during the same years. Not something your average newspaper reader in Europe is likely to guess. Imshin, an Israeli blogger, has translated the whole piece, which you can now read in English here.


Israel is responsible for about 60,000 Muslim deaths (all its wars and the occupation included).
The USA is responsible for about 70,000.
France is responsible for about half a million (in the 1950s alone, by the most conservative estimate).
Russia (along with the former Soviet Union) over one million.
About 8.5 million Muslims were murdered by Muslim regimes, internal Arab civil wars, and Arab tribal ethnic cleansing.

The first thing that meets the eye when you read the piece, since that was the piece’s intention, is the discrepancy between Israel’s image in world public opinion, and the actual numbers. But the more profound result of reading this research is quite other. If Israel is responsible for some 60,000, how have the deaths of the other 10,000,000 been so effectively marginalized in public opinion? The numbers were never secret, after all. Yemini collected them from Human Rights Organization, UN agencies, and the like. That those who have care fairly little about those who have not, we know. But that genocide on such a vast scale should slip under the radar and leave so small an impression is beyond pedestrian cynicism.