Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dreams of binationalism: fisking Judt

Historian Tony Judt wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books advocating the merging of Israel into a binational state. There are a few problems with what he says.

The dream of an appropriately sited Jewish national home in the middle of the defunct Turkish Empire had to wait upon the retreat of imperial Britain: a process that took three more decades and a second world war.
Compresses a great deal of history, since Jewish settlement of Palestine started in the 1890s. Indeed, the British authorities turned out to be, in many ways, more hostile than the previous Ottoman authorities to Jewish immigration. Also, the influx of population, skills and money increased wages and job opportunities, encouraging Arab migration to Palestine. (Many Palestinian families are as recent arrivals as Israeli families.)
The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European "enclave" in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.
Which world has moved on? The Turks, with their treatment of the Kurdish minority? The Arab states, with their effective expulsion of their Jewish minorities? Their authoritarian, tyrannical regimes? The Balkans? Israel may be an affliction to those who would like to delude themselves that ‘the world’ has moved on, or that common perspectives within the Western intelligentsia are becoming universal, but that’s a different matter.
There are indeed Arab radicals who will not rest until every Jew is pushed into the Mediterranean, but they represent no strategic threat to Israel, and the Israeli military knows it.
It is always dubious to claim that a group (especially a violent, well-organised group tapping into serious sentiments in a larger population) will never be in control. Hamas et al enjoy a much higher level of support among the Palestinian population than did the Nazis in Germany in, say, 1928. Moreover, the dissolving of Israel would be seen as a tremendous victory and encourage further action, not forestall it. It would also require the dissolving of the Israeli military, which would enormously change the strategic equation.
Washington's unconditional support for Israel even in spite of (silent) misgivings is the main reason why most of the rest of the world no longer credits our good faith.
US support for Israel has never been unconditional. And the US tends to be driven back to Israel by the difficulties, at times impossibility, of dealing with Arab (particularly Palestinian) alternatives. Such as President Clinton’s fury after Arafat’s no-offer, no-response-but-“No!” performance at the Camp David peace talks Clinton brokered at the end of his Administration.
For many in the current [i.e. Bush II] US administration, a major strategic consideration was the need to destabilize and then reconfigure the Middle East in a manner thought favorable to Israel.
No evidence is offered for this: nor have I seen any evidence cited for this frequent allegation (which often becomes a fairly direct attack on the patriotism and loyalty of Jewish officials within the Administration. I wouldn’t have thought Tony Judt would want to be caught echoing Pat Buchanan.)
The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.
There is an argument that this is so. Unfortunately, it can only be made by looking Palestinian intransigence square in the face, which Judt doesn’t do, because it fatally undermines his own conclusion. After all, Palestinians are, almost certainly, the population in the world today most marked by Jew-hatred. What Israeli Jew in his or her right mind would want to put their entire social existence in the hands of such a population, especially as it would probably rapidly become a majority in the putative state? A population a large percentage of which clearly endorses murder of Jewish women and children as a legitimate political tactic? Especially given that 1300 years of Islamic tradition says that Jewish political activity (except in a very second-class subject sense) is illegitimate while the only rival ground of political action is Arab nationalism, that the Palestinian national identity has been entirely created around opposition to Zionism and that the most obvious fact about Arab democracy, with the partial and unhappy example of Lebanon, is its non-existence. Indeed Lebanon – an Arab nation divided by religion – is not an encouraging example.

Moreover, given the comparisons with apartheid that are frequently made, it is useful to compare the tactics Nelson Mandela endorsed against the apartheid regime and those undertaken by Palestinian groups. Mandela was always in favour of limited action, at least in part for the eminently practical reason of, when it was all over, blacks and whites would have to live in the same South Africa. By contrast, the tactics of Palestinian ‘armed action’ clearly pay no heed to such concerns whatsoever.
Israel is an oddity … because it is a Jewish state and no one wants the Jews to have a state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one community—Jews —is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.
Which is back to what ‘moderate’ critics of Zionism have always said; the Jews are safe, they need no special refuge. It turned out to be hollow before the Holocaust, it sounds hollow in a time of rising anti-Semitism. Judt does talk about the Holocaust and its implications, but he doesn’t really face a central fact about Zionism: its first proposition was that Jews weren’t safe in Europe, and that turned out to be true. One of the Europundits outlines the history Judt glosses badly.
The depressing truth is that Israel's current behaviour is not just bad for America, though it surely is. It is not even just bad for Israel itself, as many Israelis silently acknowledge. The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.
If only the Jews will do X (convert, speak the language, don’t make a fuss, blend in …), people will stop hating them. Sorry, that has again and again proved to be false and anyone with a knowledge of the history of anti-Semitism would be aware of it.
In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism.
That is a very Western-intelligentsia perspective. ‘The world’ is not even close to all like that, the West is like that, and those who have been following election returns will see that, even in the West, there is angst about it. Again, Judt fails to distinguish the way he would like to think the world is, or is rapidly becoming, and how it actually is.

Judt likes to pretend he is being tough-minded. In fact, there is a disingenuous sentimentalism running right through his piece. He treats Israelis as Westerners, and judges them accordingly. This would be more impressive if he attempted to be as critically acute about the Palestinians and the Arab world but – as is too often the case among the contemporary Western intelligentsia – his critical faculties seem to stop at the border of the West. This fatally undermines his argument.


  1. Lorenzo,
    I noted your interest in gay affairs. Here is my blog post on the recent murder of two young people at a gay youth center in Tel Aviv.

  2. Yes, I am interested in such matters. The killings were dreadful, but your post seems to be drawing very large conclusions from not enough evidence.