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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Why I support the Palestinian cause

Hamas and Gaza:

Noura Erakat, a professor at George Mason, gave an extraordinary interview on CBS News about the currently ongoing (May 2018) Gaza border massacre.

It is rare on mainstream news in the US to hear such a cogent presentation of the Palestinian view. At the same time, I think she seriously weakens her argument by being in denial about the extent of Hamas's support, and its willingness to accept a two state solution. Though they dropped their demand for the destruction of Israel in 2017, their official policy is still "There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity".

I'm not saying they necessarily should accept an Israel that permanently makes Palestinians second class. But the terms of the divide are wider than Erakat is making them out to be.

Does Israel offer peace?

Still, there was never a choice for peace available to Hamas. Peace means that if I walk to my family's home--say, the home my family lived in until we were told at gunpoint, in 1948 were after, that we were forbidden to return--I don't get arrested or shot.

That seems like a ludicrously low bar for those claiming to want peace, but in reality it is such an unacceptable idea in Israeli politics that it has been refused by every major party for 70 years.

In other words, there has been a choice available to Israel in those seven decades, between permanent conflict (on the one hand) and risking Jews becoming a minority (on the other), and a huge majority have consistently chosen to guarantee ethnic rule even if it means permanent conflict.

This is often framed, especially in the US, as an issue purely of security. But any understanding of the history of the region shows how inadequate an explanation this is.

Before the advent of Palestinian terrorism, there were essentially no efforts in mainstream Israeli politics to accept the return of completely peaceful Palestinian families to their homes. And since, though there are thousands of families who have done absolutely everything that scolds tell them to--keep their heads down, focus on work and education, don't engage in violence--those families, some which still carry the keys to their old homes within Israel, still have absolutely no audience for their grievances.

I have Jewish ancestry, so I could move to Israel today and become a citizen, and live in their old home. They cannot, and there is no sign that they ever will be, no matter how compliant or peaceful they are. The only real reason is that I am one ethnicity, and they are another.

1948: counterfactuals

I do think both sides (and Europe and the US) made decisions in and around 1948 that really undermined the security and prosperity of their own people. Ever since, both sides have been backing further into corners because of never owning their own role in the conflict.

What seems clear to me is that if the Arab countries had won in 1948, Jews would have been largely exiled and oppressed. And unarmed Jewish people moving towards their families' homes being shot by Arab soldiers would be rightly condemned as a horrific injustice.

Seriously though, think for a moment about this scenario. If Jews had been mass evicted at gunpoint, rather than Palestinians, and continued to have their homes bulldozed and bombed, their land seized, and Palestinian settlements and exclusive roads carving up their meager remaining territory--would anyone in the US who vehemently defends Israel today criticize them? or would they see their cause as unquestionably righteous? When there would be atrocities committed by zealots on the Jewish side, would these be universally condemned, or subject to excuses?

A standard refrain is: "If instead the Palestinians hadn't demonstrated their murderous antisemitism by aligning themselves with the Arab powers that invaded without any provocation in 1948..."

As if unilaterally declaring an ethnostate that permanently disenfranchises people of a particular ethnicity, with the help of imperial powers, isn't provocation! As if a similar declaration by Palestinians now, which includes thousands of Israeli homes and farms, wouldn't be met with violence!

Regarding the partition proposal that Jews supported but Palestinians rejected:

One part of the story that seldom gets talked about is that many Europeans considered the partition plan to have failed and to be null since both sides didn't agree to it. A Swedish diplomat was sent, who came up with a plan that more Palestinians agreed with. But instead of Jewish groups engaging about it and trying to find a peaceful resolution, the Jewish terrorist group Irgun shot him to death in his car.

"A land without a people,for a people without a land"

I was raised around a lot of progressive Jewish hippies, and even they told me that there was basically no one else in Palestine when Jews colonized it.

If you read Theodore Hertzl's speculative fiction novel about the Jewish state he envisioned, Old-New Land, what's most remarkable is that there are basically just no Palestinians anywhere. (IIRC, there is a single Palestinian who's happily assimilated.) The colonial and imperialistic frame of reference was so strong that it doesn't seem to have occurred to Hertzl to even wonder about the repercussions of forcibly evicting an ethnic group from their land and seizing their property.

Ethnic rule vs. democracy

It's important to note that in the US, it's controversial to suggest that Israel uses ethnicity as a central reason for including and excluding people from its land.

But in Israel, it's not only not controversial, it's unquestionable policy. Every major party in Israel for 70 years has held as a core principle that Israel-controlled land must be kept clear from too many ethnic Palestinians--including Palestinians who built their homes and farms themselves and lived there for centuries.

When Turkey lets foreign-born ethnic Turks become Turkish citizens but won't let ethnic Armenians whose families are from inside Turkey's borders return to their hometowns, we have no problem understanding that that's ethnic cleansing. "The people in this land should be Turks, not Armenians, and we'll use guns to keep them clear of it" is ethnic cleansing, even if there is some wiggle room in the form of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Turkey who are allowed to vote.

But with Israel, people have this idea that it can't be ethnic cleansing. Why? Because they support it!

if you're paying attention, I think you must acknowledge that this idea is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. That's why it's so maddening to supporters of the Palestinian cause when we hear Israel called the only democracy in the Middle East.

Certainly, Israel is much more democratic for its citizens than any other country in the Middle East. And that is significant!

But you can't be a democracy if that citizenship itself is primarily determined by ethnicity. Israel is more properly called an ethnocracy, or maybe an ethnocratic democracy.

Proposals in the Knesset to make it a true democracy--to drop all legal preference based on ethnicity, and to restore property and residence that was seized or forbidden on the basis of ethnicity--are literally shouted down, and have been for decades. Israel is proudly, vehemently, emphatically not a democracy, to the point that those who want it to be one are treated as a laughingstock, or as enemies of the state.

But aren't there equal rights in Israel?

Some argue that this is not an ethnic conflict, but a nation-vs.-nation one.

But calling this a "national" divide, rather than an ethnic one, seems deeply misinformed. Ethnicity was used, from the start, to determine nationality. A car of people is stopped at a military checkpoint in 1948--the operative question is, what is their ethnicity? One ethnicity gets included as residents, as citizens, as recipients of state-controlled property, and if they have the deed to a home, it's respected. Another ethnicity gets told at gunpoint that they are forbidden to return; they are forbidden to be citizens; their deed is worthless; not only can't they receive state-controlled property, their property is likely to be seized by the state. Yes, there are Arab Israelis--and their roughly equal rights are great! (Though not without exceptions.) But I could become a citizen of Israel, and own and live in a particular home, before the family who built that home could--for one reason, and one reason only. It's not nationality, and it's not religion, for that matter.

But aren't equal rights impractical?

One cogent objection is that if Palestinian intergenerational grievances must be satisfied, shouldn't those of Native Americans?

I agree that if Palestinians have the right to repatriation and restoration of property, others--including Native Americans and black people--do to, in America. Yes, the amount of time passing matters; but I think it's disingenuous to act as though this is an insurmountable complexity. There are black people alive today in America who were subject to widespread theft and violence on the basis of race, especially in the 30s-60s; that's certainly close enough to me that I would feel deeply immoral if I just declared restitution impractical.

Likewise, there are Palestinians alive today--thousands--who grew up in what is now Israel. I think nothing short of cruelty or dishonesty is required if you're going to tell them you don't intend to respect their right to live and own their own homes.

As for the practicality of my proposals, I can't pretend to have wisdom into what is politically passable in the Knesset. I'm not trying to say my ideas are politically palatable. But I don't think that should get in the way of being clear-eyed about what's wrong, and I don't think holding what's right hostage to politics is morally defensible. And I don't think there's anything maximalist about recognizing the direction that seems most just, and

The bottom line

There's really only one question here: do you believe that countries' policies should discriminate on the basis of ethnicity?

Israeli soldiers are killing unarmed Palestinian children today, by the government's own admission, because Israel's leaders answer YES to this. There have been dozens of laws--from property seizure to land use rights to citizenship rights--that explicitly discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, and hundreds more that do so with the full understanding that they will be enforced only against one group, and not another.

If your answer is no, you disagree with every ruling party in the history of Israel. Welcome to the movement for Palestinian rights.

If your answer is yes, I hope you see the pain you're helping to cause in every injured or killed Palestinian child. Their suffering is the consequence of the explicit discrimination you support.

A grain of salt

When I get deep into a productive discussion with Israeli friends, it seems that in many ways we are on the same page about the status quo.

We agree that Israel's internal political reality is that systematic ethnic discrimination is not just seen as permissible but absolutely necessary; that if civilians won't go along with exile and denial of their property due to their ethnicity, at some point Israel simply has to arrest or kill them; and that Palestinians are correct in understanding that nothing short of violent force can change that. (Let's call this reality "A".)

Of course, that's not exactly how they'd put it! They talk instead about Israel's existential concerns, and the threat of demise of Israel as a Jewish state. But there's no actual daylight between their position, and mine; just a choice of focus, and, I think, a difference in how honestly they're willing to describe the situation.

I'll certainly agree that instilling equal rights without regard to ethnicity opens the door to the possibility of the Jewish population becoming a minority, and to the possibility of even more conflict and social dissolution within Israel. (Let's call this possibility "B".)

But I think there are reasonable steps towards equal rights that can be taken that are not apocalyptically dangerous, and which I posit would be more likely to increase justice and peace than to decrease them. Start a process by which a stream of Palestinian families can repatriate and have their property restored, that considers their property claims and history of violence. Announce that Jerusalem can be the capital of Palestine. Reverse settlement expansion. Stop demolishing homes of Palestinians, inside Israel and outside. (Let's call these steps "C".)

Now, there's lots about Israel and Palestine that I don't know. I don't pretend to be an expert, or to be particularly good at foreseeing events. So why do I feel skeptical that B merits so much fear?

In part, because those who publicly warn loudly about B seldom seem to be honest about A, and attentive to the practical details of C.

There are plenty of people in Israeli politics and commentary who are honest about what A and C are--and they openly celebrate A, and reject C not because it's dangerous to Israel, but because they have no intention of increasing justice for Palestinians. From what I've read and seen, they frame the matter as a simple question of power, not of security.

That is, they want to more or less clear the land of the unwanted ethnicity if it's docile; and if it's not, all the better to sell the case. They want to win, and think sharing is for faithless losers and cowards--which is what they call the Israeli peace movement. It's the mirror image of what conservative supporters of Israel accuse Fatah and Hamas of.

Could B be so dangerous that C is a bad idea, for the survival and security of Israel? Maybe. But look at the voices who warn about any weakening of A leading to B. How much should we believe and trust them? Do they have our true understanding of the situation at heart?

Show me someone who is honest about A, articulates what C would look like, and rejects C  because of the danger of B. Seriously, show me someone who does that! I suspect that they don't exist. I think C is eminently reasonable in any framework with a modicum of morality. To reject it, I think you need to either abandon morality and operate only from power principles--or lie about A, B, and/or C.

A glimmer of hope

Why does the lying about A matter?

Friends of mine who support Israel's status quo think that "People of another ethnicity: abandon your homes and go far away, or we'll have to kill you" is a horrendous thing for Palestinians to say, and an acceptable thing for Israel to say.

I think both are horrendous.

What's interesting is that given how universally that quote is agreed with in Israel, among liberals I know, there seems to be quite a lot of evasiveness and shame about saying it.

There's an opening there--a glimmer of hope.advocating for it.

I say all this because I believe in Israel

I know this stuff is complicated, but there's a narrative of the Israeli side choosing peace that you've heard so many times because there are many people lying to you.

For the record, I am a Zionist, a proud Jew, and a supporter of Israel. I wish for Israel to be a second home for me and my people, but I feel as though it has been hijacked from the start by its most violent and shrill voices. I'm part of the tiny minority who has always believed that a Jewish state must be a democratic one, and that if you are telling children at gunpoint that they can't live in their family's own home, you're being contrary to everything we believe in as Jews.

Here's to the Israel we long for, the Israel we think still can be.

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