Can the Liberal Democratic Project Incorporate Israel? Will It Survive If It Can't?
Israel is an ethnonationalist state and Zionism is an ethnonationalist project. This simple statement of fact is frequently met with anger, but obviously I’m not the one who set those terms. Theodore Herzl did. The British Empire did, back when there was an empire. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel did. Israel is the Jewish state, and “Jewish” denotes both an ethnic identity and a religious one. This isn’t a part of Zionism; it is Zionism. And in a political culture defined by our remarkable ability to redefine terms to our liking, this fact is one of the hardest to avoid.
Many defenders of Israel are unwilling (because unable) to deny that Israel is an ethnonationalist state. They’re just annoyed when you bring it up. Others try to quibble over what exactly that means - I’m frequently told that Israel is a Jewish state, but that designation has no material consequences. There are various examples of why this is untrue, most prominently in immigration - the very concept of Aliyah, for example, or Israel’s right to exclude immigration rights to Jews who “are or were involved in an activity that is/was directed against the Jewish people,” which amounts to a definition of political Jewishness in and of itself. There’s also the fact that very few liberal people would accept a law that named the United States as a European and Christian state, even if such a designation supposedly made no material difference. If Zionism has any meaning, then its interest in the Jewish people must be substantive. It’s hard to say what Israel could possibly be, if it’s not a Jewish state. This has consequences.
Take the settlers. While there are plenty in Israeli society who defend the settlers in the West Bank and dream of Greater Israel, officially the settlers are at least partially condemned, and certainly most American defenders of the current Israeli government regard the settlers as an illegitimate force that makes peace harder. (That the settlers are as a class ultra-religious, ultra-conservative, and ultra-nationalist makes this admission a little easier.) Condemning the settlers is often a little rhetorical move Israel’s defenders make to show that they’re reasonable, a bone to throw. Unfortunately, despite broad theoretical commitment to opposing the settlements, including from the seemingly-impotent American government, Israel refuses to really do anything of substance to stop them. The potential internal political backlash is apparently too great. But Israeli politicians need fear no such backlash when they contribute to scourging the Palestinians, as those in the territories have no votes and those who are Israeli citizens are a small portion of the electorate and subject to concerted efforts to fracture Palestinian political organizing.
This is, if you think about it dispassionately for five minutes, a good example of why Israel’s nature as a Jewish state is untenable in basic liberal democratic terms. The settlers have a political constituency that will fight for them, despite various official condemnations; the Palestinians do not. And the ethnic and religious identity of each group is directly responsible for this difference in status. Under any other scenario, this would be considered totally untenable. If the Hutus had established such systemic disempowerment of the Tutsis in Rwanda, the international community would never find itself struggling to call that an imposition on human rights. Or consider the concept of a one-state solution. I think the obvious (if incredibly difficult) solution is for Israelis and Palestinians to share the land of Canaan with an absolute commitment to peace and absolute political and legal equality. Then they can do politics under a representative parliamentary system like most democracies do. But people always say, you can’t have that. Why can’t you have that? Because the number of Palestinians in such a society would mean that Israel would no longer be a Jewish state. But if the rise in one ethnic population is threatening to a state’s identity, is that not inherently a premodern state? Does that not in and of itself suggest an incompatibility with modernity?
Noah Millman thinks the recent attacks means the end of “allyship.” But what he’s willing to give up on suggests something much deeper.
But it is transparently impossible to be allied in that sense with both Israelis and Palestinians, both Jews and Arabs. In a very literal sense, if you want to be a good ally of one side in the terms described, you need to adopt and use language that will be widely-perceived by the other side as marking you as an enemy.
Is this not, really, skepticism about the broader project of liberal democracy? The belief that neither Israelis nor Palestinians, Jews or Arabs or anyone else, can morally be systematically removed from Palestine - as indeed the Geneva Conventions insist - means that we in the international community actually do have to be allies to both. I understand that Noah is critiquing a certain 21st-century version of the concept of an ally. But his whole piece is suffused with a kind of resignation that I’ve encountered more and more from those who are inclined, at least in a qualified way, to defend Israel.
Now we’re seeing instances of people with pro-Palestinian views being fired from jobs, canceled from speaking engagements, denied awards, etc. All of this is entirely incompatible with pluralism, with being a liberal institution. But it’s just the metaphor of “allyship” working out exactly as you would expect: it is forcing people, and institutions, to make more and more enemies.
The concept of allyship in the social justice sense is incompatible with basic notions of intellectual freedom and political egalitarianism, yes, which is part of why higher education’s decade of capitulation to campus activists was such a mistake. But I suspect if I prodded Noah enough he’d acknowledge that, sooner or later, pluralism must come into conflict with support for an explicitly Jewish state. A Jew who once chanted “death to Israel” can be denied the right to immigrate to Israel, after all, suggesting that the framers of Israeli immigration policy knew that the whole project was vulnerable to political agitation from within. A political movement to alter Israeli immigration policy so that Jews no longer had unique immigration rights, consonant with most people’s position that democracies should not favor a particular ethnic or religious class of immigrant, would inevitably run aground on Israel’s fundamental nature. In The Atlantic, peace advocate Ned Lazarus despairs at a way forward that does not result in mass Palestinian deaths. But while I believe his sympathies are very sincere, I also think that like so many principled defenders of Israel he has failed to really grapple with the core of the problem: that ethnonationalism has consequences, none of them good, and that both the periodic violence and the growing international condemnation of the Israeli government are reflections of that core, unavoidable, irresolvable tension.
For years, advocates for Palestinians have said that Israel can remain a Jewish state or a democratic one, but not both. And people tend to hate hearing that. But the notion has become a meme for a simple reason: it’s plainly true.
Should you think that I spare Hamas here, I will again point out a few facts. The first is that Hamas does not even pretend to be other than a ethno-theocratic enterprise, and thus cannot be reformed. I wouldn’t waste my time. It’s also one that enjoys far less democratic support than people suppose. And, again, the burden falls on Israel to take the biggest steps to ending this horrible scenario not in moral terms (which do not interest me) but in purely practical ones. Israel has the power to make immediate and serious change in the political composition of Palestine, particularly in terms of the integration of the territories into a legitimate democratic order, and for that reason the burden falls on them. Those are the wages of power. Yes, it is a burden that most average Israelis didn’t ask for. But there is no path to peace for them that does not involve shouldering it.
Let me also take a moment to say that the whole concept of indigeneity, constantly invoked by a certain species of pro-Palestine activist, is an utter waste of time. Neither side has any clear historical claim to being the first people there, as neither are descendants of the Canaanites described in the Torah. (The notion that Jewish people are indigenous to Palestine is denied by their own holy book - Abraham was from Iraq!) We will never, ever resolve the historical debates to anyone’s satisfaction. More to the point, though… rights do not stem from indigeneity. I understand that, to a large degree, academics essentially reverse-engineered the concept in order to give moral heft to the plight of the Native Americans, who were the victims of a largely-successful genocide. But the rights of the Native Americans did not depend on their indigenous nature, especially considering that like all people they came here from somewhere else. We shouldn’t have slaughtered them not because they had some sort of unique connection to the land that they were on but because they were human and in possession of rights. The same applies to Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs - they are there, they have the right to stay and to live in peace and prosperity. There is no lawyering our way out of this by pretending we know who was there first. The concepts of democratic rule, human rights, egalitarianism, and international law must be enough.
I am increasingly moved to dark thoughts about the European powers, pushed there through desperation. I think of the British, so magnanimous, who no doubt were motivated to make the Balfour Declaration by a desire to destabilize the broader region in order to maintain access to oil. (I’m sure they also hoped that British Jews would immigrate to Israel, leaving their decaying empire to the Anglos.) And I simply cannot stop thinking of the status of Germany in comparison to that of Israel and of Palestine - the latter having lived for 75 years in an untenable and violent cycle, the former having enjoyed the benefits of billions of dollars of foreign reconstruction funds and the defensive shield of the United States military, to the point that in fairly short order they became one of the richest, most stable, and safest nations on earth. There is something deeply tragic about the way the moral burdens of the Holocaust, induced by German slaughter of the Jews, fell so quickly onto the Palestinians. But then, almost nobody in Germany was alive when that happened. And as much as I wish that a home for the Jews was carved out of the American West, or simply that Jews were given unfettered immigration rights into the United States after World War II, that didn’t happened, and we are where we are. We must move forward.
That is, for the record, the key distinction. We had a moral duty to create a home for the Jews. Insisting on creating a Jewish state simply perpetuated the philosophy of ethnonationalism that had caused so much carnage, the international community should have understood that the Jewish people could have best been protected by liberal democracy. I have to say again: it is precisely the stateless dispossession of the Palestinians that makes violence against Israelis inevitable. Until that condition is reversed, there can be no peace for either.
In terms of the in real life interlocuters that I’ve debated over these questions, one of the more disturbing and yet more affable was someone I met randomly during grad school. He was a reservist with the IDF. He was indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians and felt that the long term solution was to expel them from the region, into Egypt or Jordan or wherever else. I pointed out that this was ethnic cleansing, and to my surprise he agreed; he acknowledged that what he was describing was ethnic cleansing, but maintained that Palestinians deserve no Geneva Convention protections, and anyway, it was necessary. And when I said to him that Israel is an ethnonationalist state, again, he readily admitted that was true. That was the whole point. Over time, as I poked and prodded about human rights, and the egalitarian ideal, and the basic concept of liberalism, he made himself very plain: he acknowledged that those ideals were in conflict in the concept of a Jewish state, and he chose support for the Jewish state. That was more important to him. Israel was a reality; universal human rights were an abstraction. An abstraction, and a luxury for others.
After the conversation, which I chewed on for long hours, I thought of the point that I should have made - that of course the question of human rights was not an abstraction for the Palestinians, who lived with the consequences of our failure to protect those rights every day. But we’re always thinking of clever things to say after the fact, aren’t we. Moving forward, I do think that we’ll see more people in the public conversation speaking the way he spoke. I think more American defenders of Israel will affirm the fact that Israel’s Jewish identity is at odds with its democratic ideals, and insist that the Jewish identity is more immediate and more important. They won’t have to wriggle on the contradictions of Israel, Jewish and democratic, because they’ll firmly choose the former. And while I don’t think this will be good, exactly, I do think it will lead to some more honest and more pragmatic conversations. Of course, I want people to choose democratic rule, egalitarianism, and the liberal ideal. I believe in those things; I don’t believe in ethnicity or religion. But I’m afraid the conundrum for liberal Zionists will endure.