Thursday, March 14, 2013

On "On Questioning the Jewish State"


Recently a piece appeared in the New York Times that has caused a bit of stir. Its called  "On Questioning the Jewish State" by Joseph Levine. Its worth a read. (Even though it could have used a good editor: it does ramble a bit.)

No doubt Mr Levine meant his article to be provocative. And, indeed, it has elucidated no shortage of attacks. One of these is called "An Ahistotical Tantrum" by Gil Troy and appears in Open Zion. In it Mr. Troy labels Mr Levine's article "a screed." Troy's article too is worth a read - if only to see how panicked and dishonest the "pro Israel" arguments have become.

I was so annoyed by Troy's article, that I wrote a long reply, intending to add it to the comments section of the article. But then I found that there is no comments section. And I couldn't see any way to add a comment. So I am publishing it here. Hopefully it is worth reading too.

Talk about screeds? Gil Troy does his usual hack job, even throwing in a good deal of "poor me" victimization: complaining at the end that "nuanced" articles by people like him never appear in the N.Y Times and that only one sided anti-Israel pieces like these appear in the Times. Anyone who regularly reads the Times knows this is crap. Searching the NYTimes web site shows 39 articles by Gil Troy! 17 mention Israel. How many articles has Professor Levine published in the Times? One. I would say, based on impressions of a regular reader, that 17 to 1 is a representative ratio of Zionist to anti-Zionist article in the Times, and if anything an over representing the anti-Zionist articles. 
We can also tell who is writing screeds by counting the number of times words like "facile", "distorted", "slanted", " ignorance", and yes - "screed" are used. None of these words appear in the article by Mr Levine's that Troy is attacking. Troy's article is chock full of these words and more. Mr Troy is Angry! And he thinks his anger makes him right - or at least that it will convince others that he is right.

But "l'goofo shel inyan":

Troy states correctly that modern European States grew out of ethno-nationalism. Yes they did. And that trend reached its apogee with the ethno-nationalism of the Nazi's. Since then, Western European states, at least, have moved away from ethno-nationalism and towards civic nationalism. Despite all the problems of integrating minorities into the fabric of Britain, France, Italy, Spain etc - they are allowed a path to full citizenship, and legally they guaranteed full rights and equality once they do. There are currently three black cabinet ministers in the French government. How many Palestinian Arab cabinet ministers have there been in the history of the State of Israel? (Answer - 1; two if you include Druze.) Arabs are over 20% of the Israeli population. Non-Europeans make up less than 15% of Frances population. In France the minorities are immigrants or their descendants. It takes time for any immigrant group to integrate. In Israel the minority population is indigenous. So this excuse does not hold. 
Moreover, the Palestinians are the indigenous people. The Jews are the immigrants. The UN convention of the Rights of Indigenous People emphasizes "the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations." In other words, indigenous people have collective rights - where they choose to pursue them - and the State cannot force the dominant culture on them, or make their acceptance of the dominant culture a condition of full civic rights and equality. The Palestinians did not, after all, choose to move to Israel, Israel chose to take them over. If anything, they are owed more rights, not less, than immigrants. 
Troy argues that Levine "overlooks the flourishing liberal nationalism of the 1800s". But these nationalism were ultimately jingoistic (see WW 1) and racists (see the Dreyfus case!). Zionism began precisely as a counter to the failure of these states to integrate ethnic and religious minorities - in particular the Jews. That the proper Jewish reaction should be to emulate such states, but this time with the Jews in top - is exactly what Levine objects to. 
Troy argues that "Levine misses the fact that most nations, through their flags, their languages, their national holidays, tell a particular story that includes some and excludes others." But most state symbols tell the story of the people in the land, not the story of a people half in the land and half somewhere else. The French don't -as far as I know - extol in their schools and in their national days and in speeches in the legislature and on state TV stories about their ethnic brothers in Canada. And most nations tell, through their symbols,  a civic story, not a religious story. (I will grant there are minor exceptions to this in the crosses that appear on many European flags) Immigrants to France can become fully French and fully embrace France without converting to Catholicism. Israeli Arabs however cannot fully embrace Israel (or be embraced by it) and identify with its symbols without converting to Judaism. (And I doubt most would be allowed to, even if they wanted to.) 
Troy states - as if it matters - that "states, like clubs, have “admissions policies” distinguishing between humans by designating some members or citizens." But Israel distinguishes - both de jure and de facto - between its own citizens. (Imagine the uproar if the Spanish government spend millions trying to "Castillianize" Catalonia , or the Basque provinces. but the Israeli government has spent millions, and continues to do so, in attempts to "Judaicize" the Galilee and the Negev.) And of course Israel has de facto annexed the West Bank and refuses to grant citizenship to the Palestinians living there. It tries to have it both ways - keeping the land while excluding (or depriving of rights) the people. 
Troy claims that Levine is "obsessed with Israel." and ignores greater injustices in other countries. This is a tired old argument. Levine is Jewish. Most Jews are obsessed (or at least overly concerned) with Israel. That only makes sense. We have relatives and friends who live there. Israel claims to act in the name of all Jews word wide. Many of our fellow Jews equate being Jewish with supporting Israel. Of course we focus, at least sometimes, on Israel. But Jews aside, would anyone argue against the current campaign to stop anti-Roma discrimination in Hungary, that the organizers are obsessed or biased because - after all there are worse problems in say ... Israel/Palestine? Are pro Tibet activists be accused of being unfairly obsessed against China because they do are not focused one the horrors in the Congo?

Further how does Troy know that Levine is not also active in other causes and focuses only on Israel? How does he know that the overwhelming weight of his opinions and writings and activism (conditions that would justify the word "obsessed") are about Israel. I bet he doesn't know any of that. Certainly the same charge of "obsession" has been made against other public intellectuals who have criticized Israel (Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler come to mind.) Yet these two are in fact famous for being actively critical of very many aspects of the modern world order. It is only the Israeli obsessed defenders of Israel that seem to not be aware of their activities in other areas. Their criticism of Israel is completely consistent with their general progressive and critical world view. 
Troy defend Israel by appealing to its Declaration of Independents - which indeed has some nice words - though it is, as Troy admits, full of mixed messaged. Troy calls these mixed messages "delightful." (Oh how quaint of him!) Others call them fatal flaws. And in any case, Israels' Declaration of Independence has no force in law, and has been more honored in the breach than in the observance. 
Troy writes "Israel seeks to build a rich, thick, public life and culture mixing the Jewish and Western traditions, with a trace of an Arabic accent, acknowledging that not everybody living in the Jewish state is Jewish. As a result, a notion of Israeliness has developed which is not just Jewish. As a result, Arabs have enjoyed the fruits of the Declaration’s civic equality ..." I can only say that Troy must be speaking of a different country than the one I lived in for 15 years and continue to read about and study "obsessively" I would ask any Israeli Arab if they agree with this. I cant imagine more than a handful would agree. In this passage Troy sound like more like an apologist than anywhere else in his piece. Is he really living in such a bubble? 
Finally, Troy appeals to that final respite of those who really have no good argument: "Its complicated." Well, yes it is complicated. So is the Turkish relationship to the Armenians or the Chinese relationship to Tibet or the Serbian relationship to the Kosovars, etc. So what? relationships of power and discrimination are often complicated, and not black and white. So what? They are still wrong and should be, labelled as such. How or if you fix them is a practical problem. But first you must define the problem. Levine is after all a philosophy professor and he is trying to clarify a point in political theory about "rights" and wrongs. Troy, on the other hand, is a historian, who when it comes to Israel at least, is mostly concerned with apologetics.

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