The Promises You Meant to Carry Out Leave You Tasting Doubt

I agree with what Ygz, Spencer, and Rob say on the one-state solution as far as it goes. Obviously, a binational state would be an utter disaster and result in the relocation, most likely forced, of one or the other ethnic group between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. And I agree whole-heartedly with Spencer when he says that the real threat to Israel’s continued existence comes from continued occupation of the West Bank, not Iran or some invisible army of Tony Judts coming to give Abu Mazen a seat in the Knesset.

My problem comes when we start making statements like this one of Matt’s:

Readers will know that I’m not a big fan of nationalism and I am a big fan of trans-national projects like the European Union and the United Nations. And it’s even true that I really kind of hope that hundreds of years from now there won’t be national states at all, instead we’ll all be lumped in with the Vulcans and the Andorians in a United Federation of Planets and off we’ll go. But there’s clearly no prospects for the abolition of the nation-state in the short-term. And the Jewish people’s claim to a nation-state is just as strong as the Finnish or Dutch or Thai claim. Or, for that matter, as the Palestinian claim. By far the best way to secure a just resolution of those conflicting claims is through a two-state solution—an independent Palestine, and a democratic Jewish Israel.

There’s something bizarre about a two-headed cosmopolitanism that accepts the end of the nation-state as its goal while backing all manner of nationalist claims in the short-run. And more to the point, the comparison to Finland and the Netherlands seems quite off base. This is a live issue for Israel in a way it simply isn’t for, say, Finland. You don’t hear Finnish politicians referring to the reproductive rates of ethnic minorities as a “demographic threat” and frantically planning ways to thin their ranks. I suppose if some of the Russians who stayed in Finland after the partition began reproducing at a clip that threatened to end ethnic Finns’ hold on the country, one could say that the Finland will cease to exist as a Finnish state in some technical sense. That said, all cosmopolitans would condemn as racist calls for expelling Russo-Finns or for a redrawing of Finnish borders in order to make them Russian citizens again. Cosmpolitans would similarly condemn an argument that Russian refugees from the war should not have a right to return based not on the grounds that the historical moment is too far gone or that such relocation would be wholly impractical, but on the grounds that such a right would threaten Finland’s Finnishness.

Yet these are precisely the conversations going on about Arabs, both (second-class) Israeli citizens and those suffering occupation. To be sure, one can dismiss the expulsionist rantings of Benny Morris and Avigdor Lieberman as representative of the extremes (though given Lieberman’s current gig as foreign minister, the latter’s a stretch). But even Matt endorses the notion that we should reject the right of return not on practical grounds but to “preserve its Jewish character”. Unless one advances some form of Israeli exceptionalism, I can’t see how this can be reconciled with what cosmopolitans like Matt and I believe about ethnicity and national identity. In any other society, this endorsement of policymaking based upon preserving an ethnic majority would be seen as completely repugnant. Because it is.

5 thoughts on “The Promises You Meant to Carry Out Leave You Tasting Doubt

  1. Certainly I agree that the two-state solution is really the only solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
    But after that, you frame the problem as poisoned thinking among Israelis and defenders of Israel. You argue that Israel enjoys unique exemptions from criticism and that Israelis are uniquely racist among Western allies. This is all nonsense. I’m not an apologist for Israel; I certainly agree that Israel is making some serious strategic errors and some serious moral errors. However, a less contrived example than Finland would show that there is nothing unique about Israel’s sins, not even among Western allies and not even in 2009. What is almost unique (among Western allies) is the degree to which Israel is criticized for its sins and might one day be punished for its sins. I’ll allow almost, because there is the example of Rhodesia.
    Russia is not at the moment threatening to destroy Finland. Even when the Soviet Union did make such threats, they were based on the Cold War and Communist ideology, and not on ethnic arguments.
    Latvia and Estonia are a different matter. Russia is implicitly and explicitly threatening these countries, and it is using an ethnic strategy. Ethnic Russians in these countries are denied citizenship. They are also subject to language restrictions. The analogy with Israel is not lost on Russia. Russia has tried to get the UN to condemn Estonia and Latvia for racism.
    With the difference that the UN hasn’t listened to Russia. No one thinks that Estonia and Latvia treats its ethnic Russians, many of whom are hapless retirees, all that well. However, even if prejudice is never right, it is somewhat understandable when friends of the disenfranchised threaten to kill you.
    How has the West responded to undemocratic ethnic policies in Latvia and Estonia? By granting Latvia and Estonia membership in both NATO and the European Union. The West has identified Russia as the real belligerent. It is not impressed by the elements of truth in Russia’s victim arguments.
    I agree that ethnic disenfranchisement is repugnant. I also agree that it always goes hand in hand with prejudice. But “completely” repugnant? Israeli “exceptionalism”? The United States has its own expulsionist rantings, largely motivated by a desire to preserve our English-language character. Not just rantings, but also actual expulsions. It would be interesting if there were more than 100 UN resolutions condemning America’s treatment of undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens or whatever you want to call them. I don’t know that there has even been one.

  2. You should know as well as anyone, Greg, that I have no patience for the anti-Mexican rhetoric that sometimes infests the American immigration debate. But I have no idea what your Latvia/Estonia parallel is meant to prove. Their governments’ actions are wholly unreasonable, but that being said there is no “Russia” in the case of Israel. The security threats it faces related to its occupation of Palestine come solely from those occupied, not from a powerful outside force. Israel is at peace with Jordan and Egypt, and the chances of the Palestinians joining with Syria or something as part of some attack seems low at best. More to the point, the balance of power is completely different. Russia can at any moment conquer either Latvia or Estonia. No one in the West Bank has anything approaching the ability to conquer Israel. That makes the latter’s ethnic paranoia seem far less “understandable” even on your terms.

  3. Their governments’ actions are wholly unreasonable, but that being said there is no “Russia” in the case of Israel.
    First of all, in saying this, you’re already switching arguments. Your first argument was that no other Western ally is doing what Israel is doing, and if there were such an ally, all reasonable intellectuals would condemn it. You used Finland to make your point, but that’s contrived. There are two clear counterexamples to your thesis only a few hundred miles away from Israel.
    Your new argument is yeah, Latvia and Estonia are doing these bad things too, but the parallel doesn’t work because there is no equivalent of Russia to threaten Israel. To that I would say that a number of Arab countries, and Iran as well, don’t really support your case. They have often claimed that they can threaten Israel, and when not making that claim, they have openly wished that they could threaten Israel. When Iran paints remarks about Israel onto its missiles, that’s meant as a threat. When Arab countries sponsor suicide bombings as charity work, that’s also meant as a threat. Denying the Holocaust as a foreign policy is also meant as a threat. Given that in the the Mufti of Jerusalem enthusiastically supported the Nazi terror against the Jews in the 1930s, denying the Holocaust is really a tacit endorsement of the Holocaust.
    The harder question is whether to take these threats seriously. You could argue that Israel is well-protected and that these threats are moot. But then, since Latvia and Estonia are in NATO and the European Union, they’re also well protected. Russia can’t really conquer them, for the same reasons that it can’t reconquer Poland. What’s the difference?
    Moreover, conquering Israel isn’t the only concern. It’s also a concern that a terrorist group might destroy Israel or a city in Israel with a nuclear suicide bombing. It’s not out of the question.
    Let me also say that I’m less dismissive about actual persecution than intimations of persecution. You say that Israeli Arabs are second-class citizens, but I’ve actually met some of them and they are not all that oppressed. I saw Arabs women in full hijab at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I saw a lot of trilingual road signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English; whereas these road signs in Estonia have Estonian and English, but not Russian. I was woken up at 4am by muezzin calls in Jerusalem, whereas muezzin calls would violate noise ordinances in most of the United States. While it is true and unfair that an election committee has theatrically banned Arab parties, the article that you linked said that the ban is unlikely to stand up in Israeli court.

  4. Sure, sure, there are these threats to Israel from utterly unmatched nations who can’t possibly touch it. I think it’s all so much talk, you take it serious, etc. We’ve had that debate before. What I fail to see is how this justifies or renders “understandable” racially charged internal politics. It’s absurd to argue that Arabs within Israel and the West Bank are somehow helping some illdefined Persian menace. And I’ll believe that there’s racial parity within Israel when Arab parties are allowed in government and the growth of the Arab population is not treated in this horrifying terms.
    Then again, we agree on this, I think. We find racialized internal politics abhorrent in both Israel and Estonia/Latvia. Other than this attempt of yours to pass that abhorrent politics off as “understandable”–which doesn’t strike me as a morally relevant category–what exactly do we disagree about concerning the real issue here?

  5. what exactly do we disagree about concerning the real issue here?
    I don’t agree with your tone that there is any such thing as Israeli “exceptionalism”.
    Yes, I’m against ethnic discrimination, but no, in the context of serious hostilities, I don’t view it as abject perfidy. To the extent that you do view it as abject perfidy, your thinking is so rigid that I don’t think you’d behave any better if you were seriously tested. It’s easy for you to pass judgment on people who want to preserve their majority language and their majority religion, when yours have been secure for centuries.
    And certainly your anger on this has been selective. Israeli Arabs have it better than Jews in any Islamic country. They have more language rights and more religious rights. Gaza, in particular, is at the opposite extreme; it is utterly intolerant of any religion other than Islam and any language other than Arabic.

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