Archive for the 'Politics' Category

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“Interesting but kind of depressing” – Part II: Do the Right Thing?

Ok, on to part 2 of my series on “the Palestinian problem.” Here I am going to discuss the various value judgments usually used in the course of arguing about the current situation. I will discuss later how much all of this should be taken into account, when actually trying to deal with the situation. I must request the apologies of the reader that I am not doing the requisite research required to footnote and annotate all of this, arguably the most responsible way to present this information. Such is both the benefit (and detriment) of the blogger over the so-called “conventional media”: we can say just about anything we feel like saying. That said, I hope you understand that my words are not expressed out of some vast ignorance, at least not one that I myself am aware of. If I have made an error of facts, I hope that those reading this will correct me.

The general idea put forth by the Palestinian side is that a person living in a certain place – for whatever reasons, for a certain amount of time – has some sort of claim of ownership to that place. In a general sense, I think we can agree that this is valid, all else being equal. On occasion, the Palestinians may reference the centuries-defunct claim of ownership conveyed by their connection to the ancient Philistines (who bear a nomenclatural resemblance to the Palestinians, but no more) but more often the claim is simply: “we lived there from [some time, say in 1800-1900] until 1948, when the Zionists kicked us out, we deserve to have our homes back.” The factual nature of the first part of this statement seems to not be disputed too much. Yes, there were many Arabs, who now define themselves as Palestinians (or even did so then) who do not live currently in Israel proper. The second claim is the more controversial one.
Side note: when I say “Israel proper” a slight confusion may arise. This is partly due to my own ambivalence, and partly due to the long-standing ambivalence of the state of Israel itself. You see, technically speaking, with the exception of Jerusalem, Israel never formally annexed what is known as the “West Bank” in some circles, and “Judea and Samaria” in others. This land was last internationally recognized as the property of one single country back when the British owned it as part of the Palestine madate, up until 1947. Since then it was controlled by Jordan from 1948-1967, and by Israel from 1967-present, with certain parts of it under Palestinian control at various times. From 1967 until now, the Israeli government’s attitude towards that territory has been a confusing one, alternately encouraging/supporting and discouraging/uprooting Jewish settlement in the area. The attitude of the Palestinians (for as long as one has been able to speak coherently of an entity called “the Palestinians”) has generally been that they own the area, and like much (or all) of the current state of Israel, they should have jurisdiction and everything that goes along with that.
So now the basic question arises: what do various people or groups of people deserve, land-wise? It’s the question not of what will make people happy, or what will stop violence on either side but what is fair. And this is where things get very, very complicated. Because on one hand, you have the Jews who claim some sort of ownership/connection to/sovereignty over the area as far back as King David, around the 10th century BCE. (Those claims are only disputed by arguing that those calling themselves Jews nowadays aren’t the same group of people as those in King David’s time. I don’t think that this theory is really accepted by many, and besides, that starts getting into ideas about self-identification and group consistency that just muddle everything up further.) On the other hand, Arabs constituted the majority of the population of the Palestinian Mandate up until the Israeli War of Independence. Even though the gap in numbers between the Jewish and Arab populations was closing at that point, the Arabs were a majority. The British, for their part, see-sawed a lot between being pro-Jews and pro-Arabs, due to a long list of pressures from each side. Consequently, nowadays, Jews will point to the pro-Jews moments (e.g. the Balfour Declaration) and the Arabs will point to the pro-Arab moments (e.g. the 1939 White Paper). Let’s be honest, this doesn’t really get anyone anywhere.
Nevertheless, various historical ownership claims come into play in the public discourse about these issues (and basically any land dispute worldwide), so I thought it might be useful to kind of “zoom out” and categorize them:

1) Religious claim. This is very simple. It’s usually some variation on the argument that God gave the land to one group or another, and therefore they deserve it. Needless to say, this argument doesn’t really hold much water in modern diplomacy, the truth of the matter notwithstanding.
2) Ancestral claim. This argument says nothing about recent history, but claims that land is the ancestral property of a group. Somehow, it would seem, by living in a place for long enough, that place becomes ethnically ‘owned’ by that group, even if they are later displaced. It’s kind of a “we were here first/longest” argument, as are a couple others in this list.
3) Demographic claim. This is what I hinted at above, when I discussed the demographics of the area prior to statehood and post-statehood. The argument is that based on self-determination ethics and such, the group that constitutes the majority should be in control of the area. Since both Jews and Arabs were the majority demographically at some point, each side easily brandishes this one.
4) Ownership claim. This is a slight variation on (3). It says that whichever group owns the most land (presumably under some mutually recognized rules for land ownership) should have control of the area.
5) Group ownership/sovereignty claim. I wasn’t sure whether to separate these two, but decided to keep them together, because the idea that a group owns land is basically the same as saying that the group controls the land, and vice-versa. This argument claims that since the ethnic group at one point controlled the area and effective owned the land as a group, they should once more.
6) Third-party claim. This one argues that a third party that has some say about the fate of the area has bequeathed the area to one group or another. This argument would be the easiest to use in public discourse, due to the explicit written nature of the various declarations of the involved parties (usually the British Empire or the U.N.). However, problems arise from the simple fact that the various third parties contradict each other and themselves.

The main reason I’m going through all this is to get to one point, a point that I will expand upon in the follow-up to this post: the various historical claims can be made with various degrees of accuracy by both sides, and besides, history never forced anyone’s hand. So the relevance (not the truth) of these claims to any attempts at peace-brokering is in question. Like I said, more next time.
Ok, so if you’ve made it this far, I’ll acknowledge that this little essay (or whatever it is) wasn’t constructed in the best manner, for many reasons. But if I took the time to go through and add in references and edit for structural coherence, etc, I probably wouldn’t get around to posting it for a while. So I figure you can take this for what it’s worth, and let the comments roll.

“Interesting, but kind of depressing”

Story time again. I’m thinking that it’s unfortunate that I don’t really get discussions going in my comment sections, because for once I’m going to address controversial stuff, beginning here, but more so in the next or the next few posts.
On to the story.

I was at work, sitting in a room with a bunch of other engineers, running tests on the system we were working with. While there, two of my colleagues got to talking, one of them Israeli, and the other American. I did my work, and listened in on their conversation, because these meetings of cultures are always interesting. Wouldn’t you know, they started discussing the Native Americans. The American dutifully explained how we wiped out most of the Native Americans – largely through disease. Then the conversation went where you always knew it would:

American: Yeah, the kids learn about all this in school. It’s required. It’s really interesting, but kind of depressing.
Israeli: Yes, we have the same thing with our history.

And that was it. The conversation ended there, mostly because both people were busy and not too invested in the discussion, but I couldn’t help but be curious as to how it would have continued.
Because the Israeli was right. For better or worse, no matter who is to blame, there were many people who were living in Eretz Yisrael, in what is now the State of Israel and was then called Palestine, who are not living there now but never really wanted to leave. Whether by the Jews or by their leaders or by themselves, they were displaced, and their displacement paved the way for the creation of the State. It also created a fairly untenable problem which lasts until today: what to do with these people. The upshot of all of this is that the comparison to the Native Americans is valid, but the Palestinian problem is far more present, and far more pressing than that. As the Israeli hinted to, I suspect it’s an ethical discomfort – something that rankles at the edges of the conscience – for many Israelis. I believe that this is one of the reasons behind the pullout from Gaza last year: we just wanted to put our consciences at rest.

I know this is bound to get a bunch of people disagreeing (cuz dys? You there?), but bear in mind that I’m continuing in future posts. I’ll discuss more later about what we should feel bad about, whether pragmatism, idealism, or some combination thereof should be our guiding star, as well as some of the various typical responses to this problem.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Days until departure: 2

I’ll have a better sense of it when I’ve been in Israel for a few weeks, but between my observations when I was there in January and otehr anecdotal evidence, I feel that there was a large number of dati leumi Israelis who have been disillusioned by the Gaza pullout last year. As well they should, because they felt very much betrayed by a government of a country to which they previously felt a deep-rooted loyalty. The widespread wearing of the orange bracelets with the after-the-fact message “לא נשכח ולא נסלח” (“we will not forget and we will not forgive”) points to a terrible feeling of despair and anger. And don’t get me wrong; to the degree I can understand their hurt, I see where they’re coming from, and to the degree that I cannot, I am definitely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The question that remains is where this leaves their philosophy, which by some accounts, is in a shambles. Some believed that such a thing simple could not happen, and when it inexplicably did, all Messianic possibilities for (or even religious significance of) the state disappeared. Granted, this may lead to total disillusionment for some, and thereby an abandonment of Religious Zionism altogether. However, I can’t help but wonder whether it will lead to a shift away from the philosophies of ‘Greater Israel’ preached by many of the popular religious leaders, and towards a more moderate (but still dedicated) philosophy, such as one of those preached by R’ Aharon Lichtenstein or R’ Yehuda Amital.

I recall visiting relatives who found out that I went to R’ Aharon’s yeshiva, and immediately dismissed him as a smolani, a leftist. R’ Aharon himself has admitted to being in the peculiar position of being perceived as too Zionist for the American community and not Zionist enough for the Israeli community. This is, of course, unfortunate, as he articulates a clear and firm religious Zionist doctrine, one that can even accept a disengagement when necessary. As for R’ Amital, his (former) association with the left-of-center Meimad party seems to taint him in the eyes of many, even though he also presents a compelling and unique point of view that can withstand an event such as the Gaza pullout. (For an interesting analysis of R’ Amital’s though – whose accuracy I neither vouch for nor deny – look here.)

I happen to know about these two rabbis because I was in their yeshiva. However, I am sure that there are other prominent rabbis who can lead the way in teaching a new model for popular Religious Zionism, some of whom I know of but cannot comment on enough to say much (R’ Yoel Bin-Nun comes to mind), but one thing seems clear: a new philospohy of Religious Zionism must develop if the State of Israel is to retain some of its most dedicated citizens, and if those citizens are to retain their faith – and their hope for a future where we can say “לא נשכח, ונלך הלאה בכל זאת” (“we will not forget, and we will go on nevertheless.”)