Thursday, February 19, 2009

Compelling Review of What Sounds Like a Compelling Book

Israel is not an abnormal democracyBy Haviv RETTIGThe Jerusalem PostOct. 23, 2008

"...In Western academe, Israel's position has arguably never been very good. From severe criticism of the 41-year military presence in the West Bank and Gaza to questions about the basic morality of a state which has closer relations with a vast non-citizen Diaspora than with its own large national minority, it has faced a decades-long torrent of bitter excoriation that has only grown with each new peace move and agreement.

Now, for the first time at this level, two veteran local academics with a long record on the liberal Left have launched a broadside in the battle raging in the ivory towers of the West. They do not object to criticism of Israeli policy or West Bank presence (they share the frustration over an "undemocratic occupation") but to the more fundamental claim that there is something irrevocably wrong, in liberal terms, with a Jewish state. Israel's identification with a distinct ethnic group and Diaspora, they argue, is a common and ordinary phenomenon in the democratic West.

Released in English translation in Britain in July, Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights, though accessible to the educated layman, is a thoroughly researched academic work. At $140, it is priced like one, which may be a pity considering the importance of the tightly woven argument to the public debate over Israel.

The authors are Hebrew University history professor Alexander Yakobson, a former Meretz activist and Peace Now member with a regular op-ed column in Haaretz, and renowned professor of constitutional law Amnon Rubinstein, a Meretz minister of education in the Oslo years and author of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

This background informs their argument. This is not a book that defends government policies. As Yakobson explained in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, "We are not trying to counter the claim that the occupation is against democracy. The occupation by definition is against the principles of democracy. The Palestinians do not elect the Israeli military governor." Rather, the two scholars are tackling "something much more basic - an ideological assault not on Israeli policy or the occupation, but on the basic premise of a Jewish state and the two-state solution."

"Internationally this is a very widespread argument," Yakobson notes. "Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books wrote that the very idea of a Jewish state is rooted in another time and place, that Israel is an anachronism, a 19th-century idea that is fundamentally wrong and doesn't belong in this world. He has said that the root of the problem is not what Israel does but what Israel is." The significance: Judt "is not some Trotskyite or radical. He belongs to the liberal mainstream. It may be marginal politically, but the intellectual mainstream can become the political mainstream."

Israel and the Family of Nations tackles the question methodically, reading like a walking tour of the complex anti-Israel arguments heard in academia. For example, they quote Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling arguing that Israel must change its Law of Return for the sake of the "normalization and democratization of the state." Kimmerling is one representative of those learned detractors who argue that Israel's relationship to the Jews of the world, its favoring a particular group of non-citizens (the Jewish Diaspora) over other non-citizens, is discriminatory and even racist.

But, note Yakobson and Rubinstein, this view - often stated as an unquestioned fact - is actually opposed to the theory and practice of democratic states, particularly in Europe.

Their proof is exhaustive. In 2001, they write, a commission of European legal scholars was convened to advise the Council of Europe on constitutional issues "that conform to the standards of Europe's constitutional heritage." It concluded, in the authors' words, that "it is a recognized European norm that a nation-state can maintain official ties with its [ethno-cultural] 'kin' outside its borders and treat them preferentially in certain areas, including immigration and naturalization."

Thus, the European lawyers, sitting as the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the "Venice Commission"), not only praised the connection of "kin minorities" abroad to their "kin states" through ethnic and cultural ties, but in their report noted "favorably the growing tendency of kin states" to act to protect their ethnic minorities abroad - minorities who are not and have never been citizens of that state.

In fact, legislation offering both favorable naturalization and some benefits without naturalization to non-citizen "kin minorities" can be found in Ireland, Greece, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia and Armenia. International agreements protecting kin minorities exist between Austria and Italy (establishing specific rights for German-speakers in Tyrol), Denmark and Germany, Italy and Slovenia and among several "new democracies" in Eastern Europe.
In Germany, the constitution and subsequent legislation have conferred on all ethnic Germans from ex-USSR countries the right to automatic citizenship. As the book explains, "This applied to a large population of ethnic Germans living in those areas for hundreds of years, without any civic or geographic connection with the modern German state."

Even Finland, "a long-standing Western liberal democracy" with a national identity that includes all citizens, the Swedish-speaking alongside the Finnish-speaking, has a Finnish-speaking law of return. According to this legislation, ethnic Finns who emigrated from modern-day Finland to lands in Russia and Estonia as far back as the 17th century enjoy Finnish governmental assistance in preserving their ethno-cultural identity where they live, while their immigration to Finland is expedited and defined by the state as a "repatriation" to their homeland.
Is any of this sounding familiar? Indeed, the Palestinians themselves will enjoy such a relationship with their own extensive diaspora, Yakobson points out. "Everyone understands that if and when there is a Palestinian Arab state it will have a law of return within its boundaries. This is part of what is required of Israel [in peace negotiations]. It is part of Clinton's parameters. This law will apply to people not born in the West Bank and Gaza, and it will reflect the fact that the state will have been established to grant independence to the Palestinian people, so anyone belonging to this people can join it."

THE BOOK is not a traditional pro-Israel polemic in the sense that it does not extol Israeli behavior, but seeks to point out that, in its basic definition and goals, Israel is well within the norms of democratic practice. In Yakobson's words, while "every state is unique, Israel is not 'exceptional' in the negative sense. It is not an abnormal democracy."

The book includes chapters on Israel's establishment and the UN debates on partition in 1947-9, when the international community voted for a "Jewish state"; the views of the Zionist movement on the character of the future Jewish state and the rights of the Arab minority; international law, human and minority rights and their application in different democratic countries; religion and state in Western democracies; the relationship between nation-states and their national minorities; along with other issues that come up in the intellectual debate over Israel's legitimacy.

In dealing with the argument equating Zionism with colonialism - a favorite in both academia and Arab politics - the authors once again bring homegrown Israeli anti-Zionists into the ring.
The claim that Zionism was "a movement of 'pure' colonialist settlement" is taken from the writings of Ben-Gurion University professor Oren Yiftachel, who explains in passing that this is true despite a few "clear differences when compared to other colonialist movements." These differences, he elaborates in a footnote, are "the character of Zionism as an ethnic-national project rather than an economic one; the refugee status of most of the [immigrating] Jews; a loosely connected network of Jewish communities in the Diaspora rather than well-organized mother states; and the concept of 'the Return to Zion' anchored in the Jewish tradition."
In other words, Yakobson and Rubinstein note with some sarcasm, "Zionism is in every sense a colonialist phenomenon similar to other colonialist phenomena - except for its being a national movement not motivated by an economic profit motive, that it grew out of Jewish distress and was implemented by people definable as refugees, that the settlers did not have a colonial mother state and that the connection to the Land of Israel was part of the traditional historic identity of the Jewish people."

The English translation is new, so the book has yet to be properly taken to task by the opposition. But reading the Yakobson-Rubinstein side of the argument, one is left with the sense that those arguing against the possibility of a Jewish and democratic state (and often against the viability of modern Israel) are more the victims of intellectual laziness than rabid ideology.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the claim made often in the Arab world and Western academia - and even among some Jews - that the Jews are merely a religious community and not a people, and therefore don't "qualify" for a nation-state.

"On the Left, it is usually said that 'peoplehood' should be defined by the people in question and not externally. This is why we rejected Golda Meir's statement that the Palestinian Arabs are not a distinct 'Palestinian people.' We claim for the Jews the same privilege," Yakobson insists. "The international community explicitly recognized the Jews as a people with national rights - the UN in voting for partition and a Jewish state in 1947, and the League of Nations which supported a 'Jewish national home' in Mandatory Palestine. Even those who speak of a binational state, like Judt, must base this on the premise that there are two national peoples, two national communities."

Most importantly, the Palestinians themselves "accept that there are two peoples here. In all their constitutional documents, the Palestinians define themselves as the Palestinian Arab people, part of the Arab nation. They never claimed that the Jews in this country are a religious community within the Palestinian people. In fact, maybe the only thing Jews and Palestinians agreed on is that they belong to two different peoples."

In short, he says, "the whole argument is absurd." So absurd, in fact, that Yakobson wonders if "the right to national self-determination is some kind of a club with a 'no Jews allowed' sign hanging at the entrance. The principles of national self-determination are widely accepted by the Left worldwide as a universal principle. We support this right when it comes to the Palestinians. Why do many people on the Left refuse to apply this principle to the Jewish people?"

AT THE end of the day, Yakobson and Rubinstein are doves, and their motive for writing the book reflects that sensibility. Efforts to undermine Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state are not just intellectually dishonest, Yakobson argues, but they are actually preventing peace.

"When you regard Israel as an illegitimate foreign element, any peace with it is a humiliation," he says. "The Palestinians look at a map of the Middle East and cannot believe this tiny foreign body is irreversible. Even if part of the leadership accepts the need to make peace with a foreign invader, there will always be significant forces refusing to accept it. [Faced with such a challenge,] it is extremely difficult to use force against your fellow Palestinians in defense of an entity that is a foreign intruder."

On the other hand, acceptance of "the Jews as part of the Middle East means you are making peace with your neighbor, your cousin. It is an honorable thing, no matter how bitter the quarrel was." In that scenario, a Palestinian government acting against terror groups "is acting in defense of an honorable peace, not to rescue an intruder."

It is this understanding that lies at the heart of the book, that gives birth on the Left to perhaps the most vigorous defense of Zionism in recent decades. "The debate about legitimacy, although it sounds academic and irrelevant, is actually necessary for peace," says Yakobson. "In the conditions of the Middle East, ideological non-acceptance impedes practical acceptance."
For this reason, too, the book is addressed not only to the Palestinians, but perhaps first of all to the Western academics who argue against the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

"Whoever supports a two-state solution should know that you cannot then evade the question of the legitimacy of the Jewish state. If you attack the idea of a Jewish national home as colonialism and imperialism, you are contributing to the conflict and to the price the Palestinians have paid. And clearly," Yakobson adds, "it is the Palestinians who have paid most of the price..."

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