One of the more depressing things about going to Israel was seeing the typical attitudes Israelis have toward the peace process. There are a wide range of political opinions within Israeli society, of course, but it’s quite apparent both from reading the news and from talking to Israelis that the center of the political spectrum on security issues (the issues that matter most) has moved far to the right in recent years, as shown by the current far-right government with its general lack of interest in pursuing negotiations with the Palestinians. This seems to clearly be the reason that negotiations have currently stalled; I’m not going to go as far as to say that every time the peace process has broken down it’s been Israel’s fault, but this particular instance of the process stalling absolutely is. It’s not just that the government has no interest in pursuing an agreement, or that the rising power of the ultra-Orthodox and the Russian immigrant community gives the right a major political boost, although both of those things are true and problematic. The bigger problem is that the majority of Israelis just don’t seem to care enough to push back against the far right. Basically, the status quo seems to be working fine for most people. The economy is booming, the borders are relatively quiet aside from the small-scale rocket attacks that have become somewhat routine by now, and there have been no major terrorist attacks within the heavily populated parts of Israel recently. There is no sense of urgency, no idea that the current situation is untenable. People are doing fine and don’t see any particular reason to push for change, so the right is free to throw whatever wrenches it wants into the peace process without losing political power. This is in striking contrast to the feeling among the Palestinians, whose lives are of course much worse and who are quite eager to make a deal. The Palestinian leadership has in fact made many concessions already in trying to get Israel to agree to a two-state solution, including agreeing that a Palestinian state would be demilitarized, and Israel is in a strong negotiating position from which to demand even more concessions, but the Israelis don’t seem interested in striking a deal. They would of course benefit from no longer living in a pariah state with a vast and burdensome security apparatus impinging on their daily lives in all sorts of ways, but they’ve grown used to living like that. When we were there we spoke to some people at the Geneva Initiative, and this is basically what they said: that one of the biggest challenges they face in getting the peace process going again is apathy on the Israeli side. They’re basically living in this weird, paranoid, heavily armed bubble, but they don’t seem to care and they don’t seem interested in doing anything to change that. Strange and depressing, but that’s the way it is.
January 22, 2011
January 21, 2011
January 17, 2011
Josh Marshall for some reason recently brought up the issue of how to transliterate the name of the leader of Libya. The basic problem here is that the name contains two phonemes that are pronounced very differently in different dialects of Arabic. I’ll try to briefly illustrate the differences using the International Phonetic Alphabet (ignoring vowel and consonant length). In Classical Arabic, and therefore in Modern Standard Arabic, the name is pronounced [qaðafi], which would typically be transliterated as “Qadhafi” or something similar. In North African spoken dialects such as Libyan, however, Classical [q] becomes [g] and Classical [ð] becomes [d], so people in Libya would pronounce the name [gadafi], for which “Gaddafi” is a very easy transliteration, especially since all the phonemes are also present in English, which is not the case for the Classical/MSA version. “Gathafi” seems like an odd and idiosyncratic mixture of the two versions. It’s not really that surprising that it’s the version the guy himself would choose, of course, given how odd and idiosyncratic he is.
Just to show that this by no means captures the full range of variation among dialects, in Levantine Arabic (spoken by Arabs in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine as well as by Palestinian refugee populations in North Africa and elsewhere) Classical [q] becomes [ʔ] (a glottal stop) and Classical [ð] becomes [z], so the very same name would be pronounced [ʔazafi]. I’ve never seen any attempt to transliterate this version, but “Azzafi” would be a plausible spelling. Now that’s outside the box!
One of the most often repeated tropes about Israel is the contrast between its two major cities. Tel Aviv is portrayed as the embodying the more cosmopolitan, secular, modern side of Israeli society, while Jerusalem embodies the parochial, religious, traditional side. There is a great deal of truth to this characterization, and the two cities definitely feel very different, but the contrast is really more complicated than people often imply. For one thing, as one of the Israelis who accompanied our group was very vocal in insisting, both cities are more diverse and complicated internally than the caricature has it. There are plenty of synagogues and religious people in Tel Aviv, and there are plenty of secular people in Jerusalem.
There is nevertheless a real difference in feel between the two, and one thing that I found somewhat surprising in visiting them was how much I preferred Jerusalem. I’m a pretty secular, modern guy, so I had kind of thought Tel Aviv would be more my kind of place than Jerusalem, but that was definitely not the case. It’s not that I disliked Tel Aviv; it’s a very pleasant city, but it’s also a very mundane city. Tel Aviv feels like a very typical European city, and this is no accident. It was deliberately founded 101 years ago by a group of Zionists who reasoned that Jews had basically always lived in cities founded by other people and who wanted to see what a city founded by Jews would look like. So they founded one, and it turns out a Jewish city looks and feels like a medium-sized European city along the Mediterranean coast. Pleasant, but not particularly distinctive. Indeed, Tel Aviv feels like it could be anywhere, and that’s sort of the point. The Zionists who started Tel Aviv were those who saw Zionism as a secular nationalist ideology, and while Palestine was the obvious place for their desired Jewish state full of Jewish cities, it was by no means necessary to them that it be there. The important thing was just that a Jewish state exist somewhere. When the British offered Herzl Uganda instead of Palestine these are the people who wanted to take it. Herzl himself was one of them, of course. Because of my lack of adherence to Zionism, I don’t have any particular love for Tel Aviv just because it’s a Jewish city, and there’s nothing else about it that would make it particularly appeal to me more than any other city.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, is amazing. Whereas Tel Aviv could be anywhere, Jerusalem couldn’t be anywhere else and it could never be mistaken for any other city. It’s unique in a way that Tel Aviv very much isn’t. Today it’s identified more with the religious portion of Israeli society, the ideological descendants of the religious Zionists who refused to accept Uganda and would settle for nothing but Palestine. Within the context of Israel, then, Jerusalem tends to stand for a religious rather than a secular outlook, and its position right on the border of the West Bank makes it an ideological flash point for more general issues of security, identity, and the peace process as well.
In a very fundamental way, however, Jerusalem is not a Jewish city the way Tel Aviv is. It’s governed and inhabited primarily by Jews today, of course, and at various times in the past it has also been primarily Jewish, but for most of its long history it has been governed and inhabited by non-Jews, and that history is very visible in the physical structure of the city as well as in the symbolism and importance it has for all sorts of people, Jewish and otherwise. Whereas Tel Aviv was founded 101 years ago as an experiment in creating a Jewish city as part of a Jewish nation-state, Jerusalem is thousands of years old, and no one knows who originally founded it, when, or why. It has passed through many hands over the millennia of its existence, some of them Jewish but most of them not. The way I see it, Jerusalem may currently be part of the State of Israel, but fundamentally it transcends that status and belongs to no one group. It is a Jewish city in some ways, but in other ways it is a Christian city and in still other ways it is a Muslim city. Overall I think it simultaneously belongs to no one and everyone. It is an international city, perhaps the only one in the world. It’s also just an amazing place to be and to explore, in a way that I can’t really articulate properly. I’m not generally inclined to agree with the idea that it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it personally, but in the case of Jerusalem I think that may be true.
In this context, while I think the most practical path to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would involve dividing Jerusalem and letting each side use its portion as its capital, I think the idea that sometimes gets floated of having Jerusalem be part of neither state but instead be an international city controlled by the UN or some other international organization is not nearly as unrealistic as it sounds. Indeed, in many ways I think that would be the most appropriate status for Jerusalem given its history and importance. Not that it’s likely to happen, of course, but at this point a divided Jerusalem as part of a two-state solution doesn’t look all that likely in the foreseeable future either.
January 16, 2011
One thing that visiting Israel has definitely not changed is my attitude toward Zionism. Basically, I still see it as primarily a type of secular nationalism that has little to no connection to Judaism as a religion, and I don’t like it because I don’t like any kind of nationalism. The whole idea behind Zionism is to make the Jews a nation like all the other European nations that were forming nation-states in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Israel is supposed to be the resulting state. Seeing Israel up close really just confirmed this view for me. There are certainly different types of Zionism, with the cosmopolitan intellectualism of Tel Aviv contrasting strongly with the agrarian romanticism of the kibbutz movement, but they all share this basic premise. Our guide on the trip was very good at explaining these different ideologies and approaches to Jewish identity, which I think ultimately helped me get a better sense of exactly what Zionism is and why I reject it. (Note that this is all on the moral rather than the practical level, and now that Israel exists I’m not proposing that it be destroyed or anything.)
Like other forms of nationalism, Zionism is largely about defining an identity for a group that the individuals in that group can use to define their own identities in contrast to those belonging to other groups. This is one of the main things I dislike about it. It becomes particularly problematic when the ideological nation becomes embodied in a physical state. There has been a lot of talk lately about the risk that Israel will soon cease to be a democratic state in order to preserve its identity as a Jewish state, and while that does seem like an increasingly plausible (though by no means inevitable) outcome, I don’t think it’s a dilemma unique to Israel. There’s something inherently problematic about the concept of a democratic nation-state. It only works as long as the overwhelming majority of the population of the state belongs to the nation, and when, through immigration, differential fertility, or other processes, the portion of the population that is not part of the nation begins to approach or exceed the portion that is the state has to make a fundamental decision about where its priorities lie. France and Germany have been dealing with this issue in recent years as their immigrant populations increase, and I don’t think either has yet found a satisfactory solution. One of the advantages the US has is that it is not a nation-state, and while immigration is a contentious political issue and always has been it isn’t inherently threatening to the ideological basis of the state the way it can be in nation-states.
Personally, I prioritize democracy over national identity, of course, so I think Israel should give up on being a Jewish state before it gives up on being a democracy. It’s not my country, though, so this is one decision that I think the Israelis really need to make for themselves, and I really don’t know what they’ll end up choosing.
One of the most important things I gained from my trip to Israel was a new way of conceptualizing the conflict there in terms of separate moral and practical levels. This comes directly from one of the Israelis who accompanied our group. He was the furthest left in politics of the Israelis, and he had clearly wrestled with issues of Zionism and the nature of Israel for a long time. Basically what he said was that choices can be evaluated on both moral and practical levels, and that in many cases a particular decision may be practically necessary but involve a moral price. This idea stuck with me, and I think it serves as a useful framework for evaluating all sorts of issues. The moral and the practical don’t always conflict, of course, but sometimes they do, and when that happens any decision involves trade-offs. Doing the most practical thing may incur a moral price, and vice versa.
I find it helpful to keep these two levels separate, especially when dealing with an issue as complicated and ambiguous as Israel. For example, I continue to see the creation of the state of Israel as a huge mistake in both moral and practical terms, but the state is now there and it isn’t going anywhere. Given that context, any decision the Israeli government makes about how to deal with the Palestinians or the neighboring Arab countries has to balance moral and practical considerations. Lifting the blockade of Gaza is clearly the right thing to do morally, for example, but it may well involve a practical price in compromising the security of the nearby areas of Israel. In the other hand, building a wall around the West Bank may be the most practical way to protect Israel from suicide bombings, but it incurs a big moral price in making the lives of Palestinians very difficult. In these two examples I’m really stating what seems to be the conventional wisdom within Israel about the practical effects, and I’m not at all convinced that it’s accurate. I think the moral and the practical may actually coincide more often in the choices currently available to Israel than most Israelis seem to think. The invasions of Lebanon and Gaza, for example, seem to me like unmitigated disasters on both the moral and practical levels in that they caused huge amounts of destruction without eliminating the threats to Israeli security that supposedly justified them.
Regardless of the extent to which moral and practical considerations align in many specific instances, I think it’s still useful to keep them separate conceptually when evaluating policy options. The distinction is also useful on a more abstract level in evaluating ideological positions such as the nature and value of Zionism. But that’s a big issue that deserves its own post.
First off, the trip was a fantastic experience. I encourage anyone who is eligible for Birthright to go ahead and do it. I was skeptical about it for a long time because of the ideology behind it, and that is definitely a factor in the way the trips work, but the tour organizer I went with, Israel Experts, did a good job of keeping that stuff to a minimum and showing a lot of the diversity of the country. I can’t vouch for any other tour organizers, and I suspect I would not have enjoyed the trip nearly as much with a different one, but Israel Experts definitely gets my recommendation. The trip is free, and in my opinion it was definitely worth doing even though I was a bit concerned about it.
That said, there definitely was something to those concerns. Our guide did a good job of showing us a lot of the country and the issues involved with it, but there was always a slight bias to the way he presented things. Not so much a far-right bias as perhaps a center-right one that likely represents something close to the opinion of the median voter in Israel, but a bias nonetheless. We did get to see several of the most contentious areas of Israel, including the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the border with Gaza, which was interesting. The guide certainly was not trying to hide the diversity of opinions within Israel from us, and he was always careful to acknowledge the existence of alternative opinions on a wide variety of issues even as he downplayed them. I do think I got a better sense of the issues involved. There was a wide range of background knowledge among the trip participants and I think I was among the more knowledgeable, but I still got a lot out of it.
Overall, my opinion on Israel hasn’t changed, but the trip did help me to clarify my thoughts and see what exactly I like and dislike about both the idea and the reality of Israel. Meeting the young Israelis who accompanied us for half of the trip helped tremendously with this. They reflected a broad spectrum of backgrounds and political beliefs within Israeli society, much as our trip represented a similar spectrum with respect to American Jewish society. My basic conclusion from seeing all the sites we saw and talking to the people we met was that Israel is a very interesting country but it’s not my country. I think this is basically more or less what I thought before, but I hadn’t really conceptualized it in those terms. It’s true, though. There’s a lot about Israel that I find fascinating, frustrating, or inspiring, but ultimately it felt like a foreign country rather than one where I could see myself ever feeling at home. My country is America, and while I was struck by a lot of interesting parallels between Israeli and American history and society, ultimately I felt like I couldn’t really identify personally with Israel and its problems. The relationship between Israel and the US is such that I can’t really avoid having some opinions on Israel, but I’m not inclined to push those very far and in general I think it’s up to the Israelis to solve their problems. They know the nature of them better than we do, after all, and we have no shortage of our own problems.
I’ll probably have more to say in the coming days about the specifics of the trip and my reactions to the things we saw, but I thought I should probably get some general impressions down first to start to organize my thoughts. The trip was a worthwhile but somewhat overwhelming experience, and it’s taking me a while to readjust to normal life after it.