Monday, December 28, 2015

The Lynchpin - Understand the “Other”

The Middle East is a complicated neighbourhood, often making it difficult for Westerners to understand. However, there are two conflicting outlooks that lie at the heart of the Arab/Israeli conflict. To understand this disagreement is to hold the key to understanding all aspects of this lasting crisis. It comes down to this: 

There are two ways to understand the modern state of Israel. 
  • The Jews are a semitic nation returning to their homeland in the Middle East. 
  • The Jews are a religious community stuck in the Middle East by Western colonial powers after the Holocaust. 
Let’s call the first opinion “Z”, as it is the underlying belief of Zionism. We’ll call the second one “A”, as it has been adopted by the majority of Arabs and Muslims around the world. Once one of these perspectives is chosen, one can understand both sides of the conflict. 

Consider the classic questions debated on this topic, and you will see how A or Z will determine your answer. 
  • Is Israel a colonial power? According to Z, it can’t be. According to A, it can only be. 
  • An Apartheid state? According to A, Israel is racist and discriminatory based on religion. According to Z, the Jewish nation treats its Arab citizens as equal, and allows Jewish nationals to return home. 
  • Should five million Palestinian refugees be told that they will receive homes throughout Israel? According to A, the Right of Return is the only just solution. According to Z it would mean the destruction of our third Jewish State, and Arab refugees should be treated the same as any other refugees after a war. 
  • Should there be one state for Arabs and Jews in Palestine? According to A, there is no reason people of the Jewish faith couldn't live in a Arab/Muslim country as they have for ages. According to Z reestablishing our national statehood after 2,000 years as wandering refugees is not something to be surrendered for any reason. 
  • What was the Zionist movement doing for decades before the Holocaust, starting in the mid 19th century? And why were so many of its members and leaders non (if not anti) religious? According do Z this is self explanatory. It was trying to reestablish Jewish self rule in their national home, and break with Rabbinic acquiescence to exile. This is often ignored by A. 
One can continue along the same lines ad infinitum. If there is an aspect of this conflict that these two understandings don’t explain, I haven't figured it out yet. I’d be happy to learn if this is not the case, but it seems clear that this a major point of contention, if not the major point. 

The tragedy lies not in the Arab and Muslim world not accepting premise Z. One can argue with reasonable people in support of A or Z, but ultimately they can decide which approach is best. This decision can be based on which is better supported by facts as evidence, which will create the possibility for better outcomes, or really any criteria they see fit. 

No, the tragedy lies in the fact that so many of those who have chosen A refuse to believe that those who have chosen Z really believe it! That they have devoted their lives to this idea, and are willing to die for it. Even sacrifice loved ones for it. Violence and public relations attacks work as tactics to remove a colonial power. Against a native population, however, it will only entrench and marshal the people. 

One can be concerned about Palestinians and subscribe to approach A or Z. But to deny the reality that millions who live in (and out of) Israel hold Z to be self evident, is to doom Palestinians to a future of failure and suffering. 

Is that a goblet, or two Semites arguing?
I'm just saying. 
MNUnterberg

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A time to be polite, and...

This post will be a response to a Facebook post that I read today, so let me first quote it for context:
Have to get this off my chest: with much respect, not a big fan of the Zionist sentiments being expressed by some in response to the horrible tragedies in France.  
First, sadly, it's not as though Israel is some bastion of security from terrorism. This, imho, is not a reason to make aliyah. (That we have an army and control our fate to a greater degree IS - but that is a different point, I think, than the argument that seems implied by some recent statements.)  
Second, there is a time and place. To tell a community in trauma and in mourning - Come make aliyah! - just feels a bit insensitive. Let's talk about that (if at all) later, but not now. To be clear, I respect where these statements are coming from, but I think these kinds of reactions may not be the most appropriate right now.  
Later:
...refuge per se doesn't really work anymore. Honestly, /i was probably safer living in Beachwood Ohio than I am living where I do today. As Daniel Gordis has argued (cant find in writing right now-I've heard him say this in person) you can't really base Zionism on safety and refuge, like we once did. It just doesn't ring true in this day and age. We are a sitting target for Iran, not to mention Palestinian terrorism...That being said, it's all worth it to me because the very fact that my nation controls its destiny in being able to defend itself as best as possible is a mark of national dignity and health. (Besides for the other reasons that led me to make aliyah.)

I believe that these are the various points raised in these quotes and in other comments from the thread. (I am open to correction or tuning if I am erring in any way)

  1. "Now is not the polite time". 
  2. "Israel is not really safer than elsewhere in the free world".
  3. "Refuge is not a good reason to make aliya". 
  4. "Recommending Aliya by people who live in Israel sounds boastful."

I would like to respond without hyperbole or false analogies, so please let me know if I have failed in that attempt. (I am a moderate fellow by nature and inclination, and rarely find myself as the advocate for intemperance or any level on insensitivity, so please excuse these caveats)

Here goes:

I sympathise with the sentiments expressed as a person living today.
By that I mean January 11th, 2015 C.E., not modern times in general.
Because when I look at history more broadly, my perspective is entirely different.

1. "Now is not the polite time". 

This in and of itself is not compelling, and troubles me a great deal. When life and limb are at risk, there is no time to worry about politeness.

When the NRA says after the Sandy Hook shooting, "Now is not the polite time", I think that is an attempt to avoid the uncomfortable truths at hand.
When there is an entrenched social ill, and cultural inertia makes it almost unchangeable, then the time of pain after tragedy may be exactly the time to raise the issue. An incident that gives an opening for an intervention may be too precious an opportunity to waste.
If someone thinks that Aliya will not make French Jews safer, then there is obviously no reason to recommend it. But if they think it will, it may be their responsibility, if not obligation.

Obviously, people who are direct victims of a tragedy should not be lectured to. People with their loved one's bodies before them cannot learn, they can only mourn. That is a side issue though. With the exception of a few families, the Jews of France are not direct victims.

Forgive me is I seem callous. But not everyone is a victim. There are apparently around half a million Jews in France, and around half of those live in the greater Paris area. They must be shaken, but few are experiencing trauma of personal levels.

Doctors commonly used to withhold upsetting information from patients. We no longer do that for good reason.

2.  "Israel is not really safer than elsewhere in the free world". 

Perhaps this is true on an individual level. Perhaps not.

But if we are talking about the Jewish people over time and generations, then this is, from a Zionist perspective, absurd.

Zionism can be reduced to the following four beliefs:
  1. The Jews are a Nation.
  2. Nations have a right to self determination.
  3. A Nation without a homeland is an unwelcome stranger, and will be treated as such. 
  4. Jews need their own land.
You can add other idealistic layers on top of this. Most do.

But from when Herzl called together the first Zionist Congress till today, these are the uniting principles that unite all believers in the movement. The pioneers of Aliya risked their lives, because they believed that individuals must do so for the greater security of Jews in the future!

So this or that Jew may or may not be safer in Israel. But the Jews certainly are. (according to Zionists) And so Jews should come here.

A true story:
I have a friend from high school who lives in Paris, France. (unusual for a boy from Brooklyn, but there you go) He wants to make aliya, but is having trouble convincing his wife. She does not want to leave her parents, and they want to stay in Paris.

"What do they say when you talk to them about safety", I asked him.
He answered, "They say things things happen from time to time. You have to be patient and wait for them to blow over, and things will be better."

Needless to say, this sent chills up my spine. As it should anyone who knows that the 20th century happened.

And safer in France? FRANCE? France is not Beachwood.

Let's leave aside the medieval history of pogroms, book burnings and expulsions. Let's say that their leading the Emancipation absolved them from that history.
Let's forget that when the allied Italians dragged their feet and handed few Jews over to the Nazis, the conquered French immediately helped organize and deport 75,000 Jews. Well, to be fair, adults, as they didn't want to deport children. Then they waited till they got too difficult to take care of all those orphans and departed them too. Au revoir, les enfants.
Let's forget all of that as ancient history as well. Forget all of that.

France has been dealing with terror for decades, arguably far less successfully than the IDF. The terrorist from the Jewish supermarket was convicted for plotting to break out the mastermind of the 90's bombings by the GIA. And he was released early. In 2013.

Why is France in Islamist cross hairs? Is it their war against terror statehoods in Africa, Mali in particular? Is it the size of the muslim population? Is it the deeply pervasive secularism? Probably all the above and more, and don't expect it to change soon.

And ask a kippa wearing tourist about the advice he receives when in France. It is recommended that he behaves as French Jews do, and take it off in public for fear of safety.

France is not Ohio. Israel is not France.

And I think Gordis is wrong as well. As I have in the past. 

3. "Refuge is not a good reason to make aliya". 

Really? We are judging good reasons to do what's right? Most olim have moved here ideologically? 3rd, 4th, 5th, Morrocan, Yeminite, Russian and Ethiopian aliyot aren't as good as the ideological ones? Mitoch shlo lishma is irrelevant?

Do I need to quit smoking or protect the environment for the right ideological reasons?

I really didn't get that one.

4. "Recommending Aliya by people who live in Israel sounds boastful."

So do it carefully and sensitively. The fact that Hocheach Tocheach, rebuking your neighbour, is a difficult mitzva does not mean we are not obligated to attempt it. Do it humbly. At least do it a lot more humbly than Ben-Gurion did it. Jabotinsky didn't live in Israel, and delivered it pretty directly.

The who matters. I think Israeli political leaders have a responsibility to represent the welcoming aspect of the Jewish home.

A Zionist has an obligation to preach the dream. Just do it like a mensch.



And kol hakavod to the French PM on his handling of the situation. But I don't see it as our mission to save the French Republic.



MNUnterberg

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Herzl’s Hypothesis

I think that there is a basic principle of the Zionist argument that is often misunderstood. Daniel Gordis misrepresented it in his powerful recent column in the New York Daily News. Arguing that the three murdered Israeli teens were killed because they were Jews, Gordis states,

This would not happen anymore, Jews once told themselves, once we had a state. A century ago, when political Zionism was relatively young, some actually believed that if only the Jews had a country of their own, Jews would be seen as ‘normal,’ and anti-Semitism would end. And even if hatred of the Jew didn’t end, we believed, we would at least be able to protect ourselves. ‘Give us a state,’ Jews said to one another, ‘and we will stop dying just because we are Jews.’ But matters have not worked out that way.”

This may be a misreading of the case for Zionism as a resolution to the Jewish question. If one reads Pinsker and Herzl, one see the case being made for the full normalization of the Jewish people. They saw the weird life of Diaspora Jewry as the cause of anti-semitism. They did not claim that this was fair, but argued that it was normal to fear and dislike a strange wandering people. Pinsker argued that just as a disembodied ghost would frighten and repel a normal person, so are normal nations ultimately appalled by a landless people. In the words of Pinsker:

“Among the living nations of the earth the Jews are as a nation long since dead.
With the loss of their country, the Jewish people lost their independence, and fell into a decay which is not compatible with existence as a whole vital organism.  
The state was crushed before the eyes of the nations. But after the Jewish people had ceased to exist as an actual state, as a political entity, they could nevertheless not submit to total annihilation -- they lived on spiritually as a nation. The world saw in this people the uncanny form of one of the dead walking among the living. The Ghostlike apparition of a living corpse, of a people without unity or organization, without land or other bonds of unity, no longer alive, and yet walking among the living -- this spectral form without precedence in history, unlike anything that preceded or followed it, could but strangely affect the imagination of the nations. And if the fear of ghosts is something inborn, and has a certain justification in the psychic life of mankind, why be surprised at the effect produced by this dead but still living nation.
A fear of the Jewish ghost has passed down the generations and the centuries. First a breeder of prejudice, later in conjunction with other forces we are about to discuss, it culminated in Judeophobia.”

Leon Pinsker
Essentially, the early Zionists argued that a national return to normal statehood would resolve this problem. Gordis argues that history has proven them wrong. But is that fair? Have we returned to the status of a normal nation? If not, then the Zionist hypothesis has not been tested in a fair experiment.

Assuming that there is any validity at all to Jewish population statistics, I don’t see how the state of Israel represents a normal nation at all. Of approximately fourteen million Jews, around six of those millions live in their homeland. That’s not normal. 

Is there another nation on earth that has 57% of it's population living outside of it's homeland? And that diaspora population continues to grow, build institutions, take positions of power and see itself as a permanent part of their host nation’s culture. Even putting aside dual loyalty concerns, this is truly odd. Creating a home that 43% of a people live in, and most of the rest feel connected to is, I would argue, not the Zionist answer to the Jewish Question proposed by the Zionists.

Since the destruction of the First Temple, the Jewish majority has lived outside of it's homeland and saw that as normal. That comes to around 2,600 years since Israel contained most of our people. How did Pinsker describe the problem?

“In the case of a sick man, the absence of desire for food is a very serious symptom. It is not always possible to cure him of this ominous loss of appetite... The Jews are in the unhappy condition of such a patient. We must discuss this most important point with all possible precision. We must prove that the misfortunes of the Jews are due, above all, to their lack of desire for national independence; and that this desire must be awakened and maintained in time if they do not wish to be subjected forever to disgraceful existence -- in a word, we must prove that they must become a nation.”

Again, I would argue that regaining our homeland is a crucial step towards normalization, but not the achievement of the goal itself. Did those early Zionist thinkers promise that this process would go quickly and easily? Quite the contrary. Give them their due. I think that they have been right on target so far.

It took three hundred years, from Joshua to David, to build a stable base for our people in the first commonwealth. After centuries of Judean life in the second temple period, we never managed to achieve all of our goals. Why would we expect a two thousand year exile to lead us to a speedy renormalization from wandering ghost people to healthy stable nationhood?

In short, everybody should read Auto-Emancipation and Der JudenStaat. They are short, brilliant and powerful. (and I skipped all the economics stuff)

Theodor Herzl
MNUnterberg