Sunday, February 1, 2009

A small disagreement about Israel

The piece:

The email:

"...Thanks for this piece. Itzik is right --it is shrill, but so it should be. It should be a wake up call to those for whom ethnicity supercedes our human commonality. As long as we hold that religion and ethnic origins are primary and our humanity is secondary there will be no peace in the Middle East or anywhere. History does march on and what was right and noble yesterday may not necessarily be so to-day. In Canada we have fought tooth and nail to protect ourselves from the concept of our country being a Christian country, not because we're Jews but because we have at least a sense that such a concept is not all-inclusive; toleration is not inclusivity. This means that the idea of a Jewish country or a Muslim country is inconsistent with the notion of inclusivity and hence democracy in full bloom (alas there is no country in the world that has yet achieved this state). What this means, therefore, to my way of thinking, is that peace in the Middle East (real peace, lasting peace, resspectful peace) will never come until the move to the idea of a secular state takes hold In israel and throughout the Middle East. Naive thinking? In our lifetime, with the wounds of the Holocaust still fresh in our minds? Not likely. Maybe the heat of the sun will incinerate the earth before that ever happens. I guess I'm just in a pensive mood and will snap back to reality and the comfort of more simplistic solutions when I get back to the routine activities of daily life and when I have fewer moments of contemplation about the state of our world..."

My response:

"...Jerry: With all due respect, I think this email is confused. No state exists without a national myth, a sense of identity, a sense of its own meanings and purposes. There is for all states an enduring tension between roots and rights, roots referring to the foundation of national meaning rooted in common understandings of origin. The issue is to balance the demands of rights with the need for roots.

Here is a long quote from an article that argues some of the world’s examples of such roots as an analogical ground for for Jewish roots in Israel.

'...But can a state be both Jewish and democratic? Israel’s Arab leadership says it cannot be, and many Western intellectuals and political commentators now agree. How, they ask, can a country, even if it operates on a one-man, one-vote basis, be democratic for its minority when its official symbols, holidays, heroes, and religion are those of the majority that this minority feels dispossessed by; when the minority must learn the majority’s language to get along but not the other way around; when the majority is linked to a diaspora any member of which can join it for the asking, while the diaspora to which the minority is linked is denied this privilege; when there are state-supported institutions that work for the benefit of the majority only; and when the majority has the political power to pass whatever laws, and conduct whatever policies, it deems to be in its own interest without taking the interests of the minority into account?

A Jewishdemocracy, it is argued, is a contradiction in terms. A country can be by contemporary international standards either Jewish or democratic, but not both.Not so, argue Alexander Yakobson, a historian at the Hebrew University, and Amnon Rubinstein, a professor of constitutional law and former Israeli minister of education, in a new book entitled Israel and the Family of Nations.

Not only, the two maintain, is the supposed contradiction between Israel’s Jewishness and its democratic nature a false one, it is also not true that Israel is an anomaly in today’s world, the only purportedly democratic country in which the religious and ethnic identity of a majority is given preferred status. The same is true of many other democracies, too, and while one can debate its desirability, it is clearly not incompatible with democracy itself. And yet, although the constitutions and political systems of numerous countries in Europe and elsewhere have ethnocratic features, these are never criticized in the same terms as they are when found in Israel.

Here are a few of the many examples that Yakobson and Rubinstein give:

• Greece, which has Albanian- and Turkish-speaking Muslim minorities, adopted a constitution in 1975 that designates the “Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ” as the country’s “prevailing religion” and Greek Orthodox priests, unlike other clergy, receive state salaries. Moreover, descendants of Greek families that have lived abroad for generations can apply immediately for citizenship upon establishing residence in Greece, whereas other would-be immigrants must wait eight years. (In the 1990’s, 200,000 ethnic Greeks received citizenship immediately upon arriving from the ex-Soviet Union.)Other countries favoring immigrants who are ethnic compatriots of the majority are Germany, Finland, Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, and Armenia. The German Federal Republic, for example, has laws extending automatic citizenship to all Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union), even though many of them, as Yakobson and Rubinstein write, “lived in those areas for hundreds of years, without any civic or geographic connection with the modern German state.” In contrast to which, one might add, it was only in the year 2000 that the millions of children of foreign workers born in Germany, mostly from Turkey, were given citizenship, which until then had been denied even to third-generation German Turks.

• The constitution of Spain refers to Castilian as “the official Spanish language of the state,” which “all Spaniards have the duty to know.” Catalan and Basque, on the other hand, are included among “the other languages of Spain” and are official only in their own regions. Hindi is, alongside English, one of the two official languages of India, even though it is spoken by only a third of the population. Canada has permitted Quebec to declare French its sole official language, although 20 percent of the province’s inhabitants are English-speakers. Quebec’s laws mandate the use of French but not English for all public and commercial notices and require non-English-speaking immigrants to send their children to French schools. Most other democratic states and nations also relegate minority languages to a secondary status.

• Numerous democratic countries, among them Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, retain the Christian cross on their flags even though they have non-Christian populations, including large numbers of Muslim immigrants. Other countries have national anthems that might be considered offensive to minorities. Italy’s, for example, glorifies the Italians’ war of independence against Austria, even though northern Italy has a German-speaking population that is ethnically Austrian in origin.The point that Yakobson and Rubinstein wish to make is not that Israel’s situation is the same as that of other democratic countries. This situation is indeed unique, and even in a country like Spain, where tensions between the Spanish majority and the Basque and (to a lesser extent) Catalonian minorities are considerable, they do not begin to approach those of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. This is partly because Basques and Catalonians, though their aspirations for full independence may be thwarted, do not suffer discrimination in Spain and partly because they are not linked to Basque and Catalonian nations on Spain’s borders that are hostile to it.

And that is Yakobson and Rubinstein’s point—namely, that the privileging of a majority and its identity need not be harmful to a country’s democratic functioning as long as members of minority groups are dealt with on an equal basis as individuals, even if their corporate or collective rights fall short of the majority’s. But can what works fairly well in Spain be made to work in Israel, too?

Or has Israel, demographically and politically, already missed that train, which can now no longer be boarded?...'

by Hillel Halkin

The issue is misconceived when posited as religion and ethnicity as primary and humanity as secondary. There is no humanity as such. There are principles of justice, and the rule of law, and civil rights and liberties, notions of private property, of the freedom to enterprise, of no establishment of religion and so on, the hallmarks of liberal democracy--all of which Israel strives to fulfill however imperfectly—as manifest in the flesh and blood of particular states and their founding myths and senses of themselves.

Canada, your example, bears its founding myths everywhere in its policies, in its national identity, in its tensions with Quebec, in the contours of its public spaces. Talk to me when we no longer have an official language or two official languages, a flag emblematic of our past, a particular Canadian history and so on. So we need to strike balances between roots and rights and both not privilege one over the other and not erect meaningless abstractions such as an untethered humanity as a near absolute criterion to measure the morality of national actions.

In time, Israel, if it survives and its neighbors let it be, may evolve into a more ecumenical state with as sure a sense of its Jewish identity as Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, England, etc. etc are of their ethnic identities. But that time is not now given the bracket ends of the Holocaust, the existential war for survival in 1948, the existential wars for survival since then and the existential bellicosity it now faces.

Jimmy Carter has just written a book I have not yet read. But I heard him interviewed. He sounded reasonable. He laid out a vision of a two state solution that even has Israel maintaining some of its settlements adjacent to Jerusalem. He does not, I understand, insist on a Palestinian right of return. He says he does not favour a solution that denies Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, which a one state solution does.

I am not sure from your comments you have come to terms with the deeper meanings of a two state solution. For one, it fulfills now the 1948 Partition Plan and renders arguments about the illegitimacy of Israel’s founding irrelevant. For two, and a necessary condition of one, it insists on the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Now how do you put that together with: “…This means that the idea of a Jewish country or a Muslim country is inconsistent with the notion of inclusivity and hence democracy in full bloom (alas there is no country in the world that has yet achieved this state)…” Your bracketed phrase conflates an impossible, unrealizable abstract ideal with what needs to get done for peace. Your email translated into everday terms is a one state solution. If you do not favour a one state solution, why go on, respectfully, rather airily, about our commmon humanity etc.?

What in the broadest terms needs to get done for peace is for Israel in good faith to want it, while insisting on its predominately Jewish right to exist, and for its Palestinian and adjacent Arab neighbors and Iran to grant it that existence, forgo a right of return, make Israel confident of its general and particular security, and throw off their shackles of corruption, despotism, jihad, theism, the oppression of women and so on, in a phrase, make some first baby steps to liberal democracy. Till then, intractability is the order of the day, and roots-denying preachments about our common humanity are useless.



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