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Saturday, March 16, 2024

Israel and the United States

 I have hesitated for a long time to write something like this post.  Chuck Schumer's speech the other day pushed me over the edge, because it exemplified one aspect of the American-Israeli problem that no one else seems to want to talk about.  I will get to that in due course, but before I begin, I want to quote a remarkable passage from the autobiography of Zora Neal Hurston.  I am indebted to the podcaster Coleman Hughes for first bringing it to my attention.

“There could be something wrong with me because I see Negroes neither better nor worse than any other race. Race pride is a luxury I cannot afford. There are too many implications bend the term. Now, suppose a Negro does something really magnificent, and I glory, not in the benefit to mankind, but the fact that the doer was a Negro. Must I not also go hang my head in shame when a member of my race does something execrable? If I glory, then the obligation is laid upon me to blush also. I do glory when a Negro does something fine, I gloat because he or she has done a fine thing, but not because he was a Negro. That is incidental and accidental. It is the human achievement which I honor. I execrate a foul act of a Negro but again not on the grounds that the doer was a Negro, but because it was foul. A member of my race just happened to be the fouler of humanity. In other words, I know that I cannot accept responsibility for thirteen million people. Every tub must sit on its own bottom regardless. So 'Race Pride' in me had to go. And anyway, why should I be proud to be Negro? Why should anyone be proud to be white? Or yellow? Or red? After all, the word 'race' is a loose classification of physical characteristics. I tells nothing about the insides of people. Pointing out achievements tells nothing either. Races have never done anything. What seems race achievement is the work of individuals. The white race did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison. The Jews did not work out Relativity. That was Einstein. The Negroes did not find out the inner secrets of peanuts and sweet potatoes, nor the secret of the development of the egg. That was Carver and Just. If you are under the impression that every white man is Edison, just look around a bit. If you have the idea that every Negro is a Carver, you had better take off plenty of time to do your searching.”

I happen to agree completely with that sentiment.  It was popular among minorities, I believe, in 1942 when she published it, and it was very much in the air for the two subsequent decades during which I was growing up.  Martin Luther King Jr. echoed it in his remarks about the content of our character.  The middle of the last century was an era of extraordinary human achievement--technological, industrial, and political.  Men and women focused more naturally on human achievement then.  Now they are focusing more on tribe, defined in various ways.

Now let me quote a very parallel remark from Albert Einstein--to whom Hurston referred--recording his own feelings about his own ethnic and religious group, the Jews.

“For me, the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything ‘chosen’ about them.”

If you enjoyed those quotes, you may well appreciate this post.  If you didn't, I doubt very much that you will.  And before I go any further, I happen to be the child of a Jewish-American father and a New England/Midwestern protestant mother.  They raised me without any religion at all, something that I have never regretted.  And that means, as you probably know, that the state of Israel does not recognize me as a Jew or a potential citizen, which I would have no desire to become in any case.  I have never had and never wanted any country but the United States, and I think that the observance of impartial laws--domestically and internationally--is the only way for the peoples of the modern world to live together in peace and happiness.

The decision to create the state of Israel in 1947-48 (six years before Einstein wrote those words, by the way), was an entirely understandable decision.  Jews had lived as minorities for many centuries, often in very cruel conditions.  Zionism had begun in the nineteenth century mainly to provide a new home for the Jews of the Russian Empire (including Poland), who were not regarded as Russian citizens, and who were already immigrating in large numbers ot the United States and elsewhere. (Two of my grandparents were among them.)  Initially Zionism aroused very mixed reactions in the Jewish communities in western nations, many of whom wanted nothing more than to be treated as equals in their current homes.  The rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, and the Second World War obviously changed the calculus.  Almost nowhere in Europe had the Jews been safe from destruction, and the United States had shut off large-scale immigration from anywhere in the early 1930s.  Perhaps in part because they could not welcome Holocaust survivors into their own country, many  more American Jews now became Zionists, and the US government played in important role in the international recognition of Israel after 1948.  No one, however, could force the Arabs then living in Palestine or the governments of the neighboring Arab states to accept the creation of Israel, and they did not.  Israel has lived under military threat for the whole of its 75 years of existence, first from the neighboring Arab states and later from the Palestinian population of the Gaza strip and the West Bank, both of which Israel occupied after the 1967 war.  Israel successfully made peace with Egypt in the late 1970s and Jordan in the 1990s, but attempts to make peace with the Palestinians in the 1990s failed, and the political organization Hamas gradually emerged as the center of Palestinian resistance, winning an election in the occupied territories in 2006 and eventually securing full control of Gaza.  A parallel Shi'ite organization, Hezbollah, developed in Lebanon under the patronage of Iran, which since 1979 has been an avowed enemy of Israel as well.

The creation of Israel was a remarkable political and economic achievement.  It also freed the Israelis from the relative powerlessness that Einstein referred to in 1954, with exactly the results that he seemed to anticipate.  It is easier for weak states to be virtuous than strong ones, as Tocqueville remarked in Democracy in America.  The Israeli government developed very significant military power and used it ruthlessly in 1956 and 1967--when it began wars with its neighbors--and in 1973, when it was attacked.  (I know some readers will dispute my characterization of 1967, when Nasser in Egypt created the crisis that led to the war, but it is not at all clear that war would have occurred if Israel had not begun it.)  In addition, the 1967 decision to occupy, govern, and partially resettle Gaza and the West Bank made the Israelis the rulers of a foreign people, a role that inevitably involves cruelty and injustice.  The current war in Gaza--triggered, of course, by a very cruel attack upon civilians by Hamas--has confirmed Einstein's suspicions.  Given enough power and provocation, any nation--including both Israel and the United States--can do terrible things.  That is human nature.

1967 was also a key date for some elements of the American Jewish community.  As historian Judith Klinghoffer pointed out in her book, Vietnam, Jews, and the Middle East, it deepened the feelings of many American Jews for Israel, and it helped create neoconservatism by convincing certain Jewish intellectuals that the United States had to be a strong presence all over the world because it was one of Israel's few friends.  The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) dated from 1959 but became much more powerful after the 1967 and 1973 wars, and by the 1980s it was using its political power to make it very difficult for elected officials to oppose anything that the State of Israel was doing.  In 2006 Michael Massing wrote the most detailed analysis of what AIPAC had become and the power it wielded that I have ever seen, and I don't think anything has changed very much since then. Massing emphasized that the small number of very wealthy individuals who controlled AIPAC were much more conservative and much friendlier to the Israeli right than the great mass of American Jews were, and that is undoubtedly still true today.  Yet they remain, effectively, the voice of the Jewish community in American foreign policy all the same.

I am not going to review the whole history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the attempts to end it.  I have said before that I doubt very much that the leadership of either side wants a peace that would recognize the rights of the other side--that is, a two-state solution.  The Israeli government offered less than that in 2000, when agreement seemed to be the nearest it had ever been, and we will never know whether that Israeli government, which ruled by a very narrow margin, would have been able to get those terms accepted by its own people or not.  And to the extent that various Palestinian leaders have shown a willingness to compromise, I am not convinced that this was anything more than a strategic move to get something now in order to try to get more later--the same strategy that the Zionist leadership used in 1948 when it accepted in principle the UN General Assembly's partition plan.  I will return later to the question of where that leaves the Israelis and Palestinians now.

The current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has explicitly rejected a two-state solution.  Some weeks before the October 7 attack he displayed a map of the Middle East before the United Nations in which the territory of Israel included the entire West Bank and Gaza.  In addition, several leading members of his government are calling specifically for turning most or all of the Gaza population of about two million into refugees in some foreign land and starting to resettle Gaza with Israelis.  Meanwhile they are once again expanding settlements in the West Bank and allowing settlers to terrorize Palestinians.  And in the five months since October 7, the Israeli air force and army have made most of Gaza almost completely uninhabitable, and are now preparing to finish the job.  I don't see how anyone can rule out the possibility that the Israeli government wants to complete the ethnic cleansing of the Gaza strip, or that it might carry out the same policy in the West Bank later on when a suitable provocation occurs.   And I don't want the US government to support that policy either openly or tacitly.

Senator Schumer's very strong criticism of Netanyahu and his government took courage, but it disturbed me because it reflected a fantasy that occurs among liberal American Jews who oppose what Israel is doing but want to continue to support it.  They tell themselves that Netanyahu does not represent most Israelis, that most Israelis oppose his policies, and even--as Schumer said openly in his speech--that Netanyahu has only adopted those policies to please the extreme elements of his coalition and stay in power.   I do not believe that.  My main source for what is happening in Israel is the liberal daily Haaretz.   It violently opposes everything Netanyahu stands for, and many other Israelis do as well--but they definitely appear to be in the minority now, and the Haaretz writers know that.  Netanyahu is personally unpopular, but were he to resign or be forced out of office, he might easily be replaced by someone whose views and policies were similar to his.  Schumer is apparently one of a number of liberal American Jews--exactly how many, I cannot say--who need to feel that Israel is made up mostly of Jews like themselves.  I do not think that that is true, and I don't think it made any sense for him to demand that the Israeli electorate choose someone else.   George W. Bush demanded the same thing of the Palestinians in 2002--and four years later they elected Hamas.

And what would a responsible Israeli policy look like?  Peace will be impossible unless both sides genuinely accept the other's right to exist.  Violence will continue at least intermittently until that day--if it ever comes.  Israel could in the meantime renounce the policy of making Gaza uninhabitable and stop further expansion into the West Bank--but no Israeli government has been willing to do that for a long time.  What both sides can do, and have done for long periods, is to make every effort to keep the level of conflict at the lowest possible level, even when seriously provoked.   Hamas would be in a much stronger position today, I think, if they had only killed Israeli soldiers on October 7.  Israel had to retaliate for that attack, but not to the extent of killing nearly 30 Palestinians--most of them civilians--for every Israeli who died on that day--a total that continues to increase. Yet having stated those views, I will do what Schumer did not do, and acknowledge that neither side cares what I think or shows any signs of adopting them now.  We are in the midst of a continuing tragedy.  I have found all my life that tragedy, real or imagined, can be cathartic in retrospect.  I don't know if there is any catharsis to be had from ongoing tragedies.

1 comment:

Energyflow said...

The differences bewtween ethnicities and races is some, individuals I have found have huge correlations due to personality, regardless of race, class or religious background. Upbringing, large or small family, poverty, generous or narcissistic parents or siblings and even general culture, decadent or strict and moral can encourage repressed traits, good or bad, to come to the fore. Similarly with nations. German, Japanese exactitude, precision were in WWII an excuse for dominion, racism, arrogance, as both countries were excluded from the colonial rush by others of similar weight. Now the Jews, a great historical culture, denied land for millenia, feel the same drive to colonize. Unfortunately they come late to the table. All the nice tidbits have been taken and odd bones are left gnaw upon. Vultures hang in the air over the hyena heads of Israel and lions lurk nearby demanding respect. Tragedy seems inborn into their situation. First worst victim, then committer of atrocities. Their protector in the West weakens, economically and morally, while the old Eastern powers regroup after a half millenia as slaves. Israel is an afterthought in this great historical conflict, as in the days of Rome, when the first Israel was destroyed. It seems that a slow decline will ensue, as the economy succumbs to a long term confict and many will emigrate to Europe or America. If the experiment completely shatters and some refugees buy an abandoned island somewhere to renew it, none can tell. Living in some sort of peace with our neighbours is a necessity however. The iriny is that Islam and Christianity sprang from Judaism's bosom and are always at odds with it. So it is among sects and their offspring, catholics vs. protestant, sunni and shia. My personal worry being N. Ireland, my wife's Russia/Ukraine. Civil war, as in Palestine is a nasty thing. Americans seem to be living it at low boil now.