I want to put my discussion of Israel to bed for the week, as some emailers are complaining that I’m “fixated” on the issue. I’m writing about Israel and Palestine a lot in part because I’m getting the most emails on that question.
Many people who have written wonder, with various degrees of indignation, why I don’t perform the typical preemptive apologetics that so often come with criticism of Israel. Why don’t I take time to balance my complaints about Israel by mentioning all the bad things about Hamas? Where are my explicit denunciations of anti-Semitism? Why don’t I come out and say whether Israel should be wiped off the map? I don’t do these things for two reasons. One, because I think it’s in the best interest of everyone– including those committed to the defense of Israel’s government and policies– to return normalcy to this debate. On what other issue am I expected to explicitly disclaim attitudes that I don’t believe and haven’t mentioned? No, it’s true: I’m not anti-Semitic, I don’t think Jews secretly run the world, I don’t believe in Islamic governance either, and I don’t want Israel “wiped from the map.” But when did I suggest such a thing? Acting as if this issue has to be treated with kid gloves in a way that is wholly unique in American politics does no favors to either side of this debate. I have been counseled many times in my life to avoid this specific issue because of the potential professional consequences. I appreciate that people are talking out of a desire to help, and situations like that of Steven Salaita and Norman Finkelstein demonstrate the sense in this advice. But to not engage out of fear of the consequences exacerbates the problem, and incidentally plays into the hands of anti-Semitic tropes. My country spends billions of dollars and an enormous amount of diplomatic capital on Israel, that makes Israel my business, so let’s hash it out. We are adults. We are capable of arguing as adults. So let’s just argue the way we usually do.
I also don’t seek balance because I don’t pretend that there is equality of blame in this issue. Many smart, decent people I know treat this issue with a “plague on both houses” attitude, talking about a “cycle of violence,” or “ancient grudges.” They speak as though this issue is so polarized and so complex that we can’t make meaningful judgments. I find that, frankly, bullshit. I’m not usually a big fan of Max Fisher’s work, but he had this perfectly right: the occupation is wrong, it is the problem, and Israel is to blame. Israel has been illegally and immorally occupying the Palestinian territories for almost 50 years. And Israel has the ability to end it. The Israeli government could unilaterally withdraw from the territories and leave the Palestinians to build their own state, or they could fully incorporate Palestinians into a new unified Israeli-Palestinian state that recognized total and complete political and social equality between all people. If you find those ideas radical, consider that they are merely what basic liberal democracy requires. I am completely agnostic on the notion of one state or two, but I know that what our most basic political ideals require is a world where we have achieved perfect political equality between Arabs and Jews. Israel is capable of creating such a world. Palestinians are not.
For those who fear Israel’s annihilation, I would say that while your fear is understandable, given the facts, it is not rational. No one disputes that Israel’s military capacity is incredible for such a small nation, and that’s true even setting aside its secret nuclear arsenal. The Western world is totally committed to the defense of the modern Israeli state. The United States would go to war to defend Israel’s right to exist. NATO is committed to Israel and the UN, for all its criticisms of Israel, would support an American defense of Israel. We’re talking about a commitment to defend Israel with nearly limitless military power. Do the Palestinians enjoy any such equivalent protection? Yes, you are entitled to consider the sweep of history when you think about Israel’s future, but you are also required to consider facts. And the facts tell us that the people who should truly fear annihilation are the Palestinians. They are the ones who are existentially threatened. They are a nation of refugees. They are a people without a state. To insist on this reality isn’t extremism. It’s just taking an honest look at the world around you.
What American defenders of Israel must recognize is that it is Israel’s diplomatic isolation that threatens it in the long term, not Hamas’s rockets. And the occupation will always isolate Israel, because the occupation is wrong. Some emailers have suggested that anti-Semitism is behind all of Israel’s international critics. To which I say, really? Criticism of Israel from South America is all anti-Semitism? From Western Europe? From sub-Saharan Africa? Did tens of thousands of South Africans march in protest of Israel’s assault on Gaza because of anti-Semitism? America’s protection is powerful, but it is not limitless, and its hegemony is slowly crumbling. In the next century, Israel must secure its future not through the blessing of a superpower but by earning the reputation of a moral nation. That cannot occur while Palestine is occupied.
And more than securing Israel’s security, ending the occupation is a matter of securing Israel’s soul. What strikes me most about interacting with Americans on this issue, even political and informed Americans, is how many don’t fully comprehend the rise in ultra-conservatism and ethno-nationalism in Israel. People don’t want to think of Israel as that kind of country, and so they shut their ears to it. Yet the evidence grows every day; Netanyahu’s cabinet is virulently extreme, the fringe right-wing parties grow more powerful, the racism and bigotry of the street protests more and more explicit and unafraid. Look, just today, we learn that the Israeli government is targeting the family of Mohammed Abu Khder, the 16 year old Palestinian who was burned to death by Israeli terrorists. This is the type of ugliness, of nastiness, that is seeping into the firmament of Israeli society. This is what journalists like Gideon Levy and Max Blumenthal have been investigating in their work, and this is why they are considered so dangerous: because they threaten to expose to progressive people the reality of the growing reactionary nature of Israel’s internal politics.
50 years from now, and 100, there will still be Jews and there will still be Palestinians in this region. The question is, what form will their relationship take? Will an independent Palestine have been given complete self-determination and diplomatic recognition, a two state solution? Will it be a unified state that recognizes the complete equality of all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, a one state solution? Or will Israel continue to be an apartheid state, brutalizing a stateless people? The latter is the possibility that most threatens Israel’s future, make no mistake. And so the question is what future we, as a nation that subsidizes the occupation in every way imaginable, are willing to argue for, and how long we are willing to ignore what’s staring us in the face.
(Photo: A demonstrator prepares to march across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest against Israel’s continued military campaign in Gaza on August 20, 2014 in New York City. By Spencer Platt/Getty Images)