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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict on MyDD: State of the Debate

[Dear Moose Brigade, I posted this diary over at MyDD in an attempt to improve the I/P debate over there.  Fat chance, you say?  Sure.  But I am a fan of experiments in impossibility.  That’s why I love being a parent.  Anyway, I think this issue WAY too important to be treated as it is over there.  If you want to comment here, using it as a repectful I/P open thread, please do.  But comments from those of you who haven’t completely sworn off that site or this issue would be most welcome over there where it may be more relevant.]  

Something has gone seriously awry here and I want to try to correct it.  This requires your help.  Please forgive the `meta’ tone of the current diary and the personal narrative it contains.  Its purpose is to widen active engagement of one of the most entrenched twentieth-century conflicts and human rights disasters that endures into the twenty-first, one of the greatest foreign policy challenges America is embroiled in, and one of the most important stages upon which the structural tensions between liberal nationalisms and principles of human rights are being exercised at this historical juncture.  This conflict is at one and the same time idiosyncratic and representative, peculiar and paradigmatic, unique and influential.  That its discussion has been limited on this progressive blog is not due to a lack of recognition of its importance.  Rather, it is because participants in this discussion – and I do not absolve myself here – have shown insufficient consideration for one another, insufficient humility with regard to their own understanding and knowledge, insufficient appreciation for the cultural-historical complexity that underlies this conflict, and insufficient faith in their opponents’ intentions.  

The discussion has thus been limited to a handful of participants.  Most others are reticent to read and participate.  No one is learning anything.  All that it produces is heightened division, entrenchment of already formed positions, and ad hominem demonization.  As such, our discussion of the conflict here seems to mirror some of the least productive aspects of the conflict itself.  Given the international importance of this subject – the involvement of our tax dollars, the ramifications for our foreign policy and our position in the world, and the progress we seek as progressives with regard to international human rights and civil society – we have a responsibility to do better.

My own engagement with this conflict is protracted and personal.  I am a dual Israeli-American citizen.  From January 1987 through December 1989, I served in an infantry division of the Israel Defense Forces, much of it as a squad commander.  Readers familiar with the history of the region will immediately note that this period included the first Intifada.  I had always been on the left side of the political spectrum.  I always saw Zionist nationalism as a means to an end.  I saw it as part of an optimistic historical process wherein it would prove a means to the transcendence of nationalism, to its obsolescence, to an ethically superior mode of cultural self-determination that included emphasis on productive cosmopolitan participation.  I admit that this was na├»ve and plead youth and good intentions, as well as my enduring commitments both to Jewish cultural life and to ethically engaged cosmopolitanism, as its primary motivations.

The events of the Intifada were educational, though devastatingly so.  My Marxian background made it clear that this conflict was not merely national and cultural.  It was also a conflict between a working class and the owners of the means of production.  That these classes were determined primarily based on ethnicity and religion made the repression and injustice that much more offensive and toxic.  I considered conscientious objection, but it seemed a cop out.  I knew first hand the thuggery and abuses of many of my comrades.  What if all the leftists refused to serve?  I thought the more challenging and heroic response was to be there to intervene.  Given that the failure of the politicians, those old and incompetent men, had dumped the conflict primarily into the hands of us teenagers and twenty-somethings, I determined that my duty was to maintain as much humanity in the midst of inhumanity as I could and hope that the old men would finally do something helpful, something progressive, something that justified their authority and furthered the interests of the people they were empowered to lead.  In the mean time, the Minister of Defense was giving us orders in the headlines: “Break Their Bones.”  His name?  Yitzhak Rabin.  

One of the things I discovered was the deep cognitive dissonance running through the psychology of much of the Israeli right.  On the one hand, its members cursed and degraded Palestinians for their violence, comparing them to beasts and animals.  At the same time, when asked what they would do if the situation was reversed, they invariably suggested they would do it `better.’  So in their twisted fantasy, Palestinians in occupied villages, cities, and refugee camps were dehumanized both because of their violence AND its insufficiency.  

In the mean time, I cannot claim that my conduct was always as exemplary as I intended.  I indeed intervened to stave off or at least minimize abuses many times.  But the whole context was abusive.  As a famous axiom found in the Mishnah reads: In a place where there are no humans, strive to be human.  It’s even harder than it seems.  And beyond that, anyone who has ever commanded troops knows that commitment to carrying out one’s mission always co-exists with and often complicates one’s commitment to one’s soldiers.  The thing that was always foremost in my mind was my responsibility to get all of my men (boys really) home safely.  My greatest fear was having to face an ’em sh’kulah,’ a bereaved mother, and to relate to her the events that shaped her child’s last moments.  The tension between my effort to perform my duties as ethically as possible, and to protect my charges as conscientiously as possible, did not always resolve simply and satisfactorily.  I will not tell those of you reading this who think it was a mistake not to refuse, who don’t understand how I could have failed to choose jail over participation in the suppression of a popular revolt, that you have no right to judge.  In retrospect, refusal indeed seems like the correct choice.  Who then would have led my soldiers?  What kind of commander?  How would he have responded to those rising up and the civilian population all around?  I don’t know, but I do think that if enough soldiers had refused back then, the crisis might have forced a settlement.

While some of my comrades drifted rightward out of fear and frustration, I moved left.  I went from voting Labor to voting Ratz, the “Citizens’ Rights” party that was the forerunner of Meretz.  Had I been in Israel during this past election, given Meretz’s initial support and subsequent silence with regard to “Operation Cast Lead” (as the most recent calamitous Gaza offensive was named) I would have voted for the mixed Jewish-Arab party Hadash.

A few years later, while studying in New York, I began to begin to come to terms with many aspects of my personal and political Zionist engagements.  Where once I saw political Zionism as a necessary and temporary means to a cultural project, I came to see how Cultural Zionism was increasingly undermined by the ethical compromises of Israeli politics.  The mythologies of political Zionism seemed clearer, both with regard to strengths and weaknesses.  I engaged with Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and activists.  As the “peace process” took flight, I was guardedly hopeful.  But when even Labor governments r
efused to slow the expansion of the settlers’ repressive sub-state in the occupied territories, I began to appreciate arguments by its critics who suggested that all the two state solution would produce was a formalization of a system of economic and political domination that was physically and culturally devastating to Palestinians and morally degrading to Israeli Jews.  Why would two nationalisms be so much better than one?  

I began to consider bi-national approaches.  Left-wing friends of mine, Jewish and Arab and neither, told me that such approaches were utopian, impractical, irresponsible.  They were vestiges of outdated Marxist perspectives.  Even Chomsky is for two states, they told me.  Some of their arguments are indeed sound.  If the Flemish and the French can’t make it work smoothly in Belgium…?  Most significantly, as a majority of the populations that reside in the region seem to desire a two state arrangement (I hesitate to call it a solution, because solutions to such a conflict are always more prolonged and partial than negotiations leading to treaties) I feel bound to support it.  But in the past decade, several people I admire have begun to consider that the two state approach might be dead in the water based on the extent of settlement expansion.  These include Meron Benveniste, founder of the Israeli Human Rights Organization B’tzelem, Jeff Halper of ICAHD, the Israeli (or International) Committee Against House Demolitions, Lama Abu-Odeh, a Palestinian-American Professor of Law at Georgetown, and others.  I still support two state negotiations.  But this does not exclude critical analysis of its viability and defects.  Nor does it preclude consideration of other alternatives if it ultimately fails, as well as prospects toward which it might be improved if it is finally implemented.

And after all of this, I woke up a few days ago to find out that I am a right-wing Likudnik.  Despite all attempts to clarify my positions, they have been aligned on this blog with Netanyahu’s deluded and/or cynical chauvinist minions.  Support for the two state process along with openness to more radical, more progressive approaches now is part of Revisionist Zionist nationalism and rejectionism.  No amount of protest to the contrary put an end to this canard, which I personally find as offensive as being aligned with the KKK.  In fact, I was then accused of undermining and distracting the debate for defending and reiterating my positions.  A context where this is possible is one in which things have gone off the rails.  

I am convinced that the majority of users on this site feel great compassion for the dire plight or the Palestinians.  Most also oppose right wing Zionism and see it as working against the valid interests of Jewish Israelis.  It’s not hard to see this.  We may differ on who bears responsibility and/or to what degree.  But we all want a peaceful resolution that frees America to lead the struggle for international human rights and civil society once again.  Most of us do not want our tax dollars going towards bombs dropped on children.  But that’s easy.  There is much to debate and much to be learned.  Whatever solutions and impediments lie before us, they will not be determined here.  This forum can, however, facilitate education, coalition building, and publication of activist opportunities.  None of that will happen if we only seek to proclaim our moral purity to one another, to demonize our interlocutors, and to shut down or dismiss anything that challenges our perspectives.

We can do better.


9 comments

  1. And though we don’t have the same divisiveness on the Moose as MYDD, perhaps something that can cut through the gordian knots of this debate.

    There’s so much in your diary I want to highlight and requote, Strummerson. But two of the most salient things are:

    1.) It’s also impossible to enter this debate without justifying yourself through personal connections (i.e. identity politics). You have had to explain your personal history to stop being cast as a racist right wing likudnik. Other Jewish friends of mine also have to preface their comments with lines such as “I served in the IDF…” And most tragic of all, given the context, non-Jews/non-Arabs, stand back, and let this conflict rage on the fixed barbs of ethnicity. I only engage in this debate because, as friends with similar histories to yours tell me, it’s vital non combatants have a say in this.

    2.) Polarisation. It suits both extremes of the conflict to cast everyone who is not for them, as being against them. Hamas benefit by casting all Fatah supporters as appeasers. Likudniks have done the same with moderates. Both extremes have managed to make this debate an either/or, and the first sign of a tyranny in the making is the threat of an either/or.

    3.) All possible routes to peace should be explored. When Tony Judt mooted a binational solution in the NYRB six years ago, he was sacked from the NYT and the New Republic. He received death threats, and a rabbi picketed his lectures with ‘holocaust survivors’. This is not the profound Jewish tradition of debate I love and admire. These accusations of being self-hating Jews are a betrayal of the contentious, exploratory spirit of both the schul and the kibbutz.

    Discussing I/P issues is, as I’ve discovered in the last few years, almost impossible in the US. It used to be different in London, but the net effect of Gaza is to make even some intellectuals here (Melanie Philips and Nick Cohen) begin to fall back into the non debatable, undiscursive “You’re not Jewish so you can’t talk…”

    And with that reasoning, all debate ends. What’s a Brit doing on a US blog? What is an American doing talking about Salafism? What are we doing questioning our rulers?  And why the hell would the Samaritan cross the road for an injured bleeding Levite?

    Thank you for explaining where you come from in this debate. I wish I knew better where some others on MYDD came from, but this is not that place, and here even the most difficult intractable heated debates are still conducted in good faith.

  2. This is a topic that doesn’t lend itself to rooms that are already a hair-trigger away from a catfight.  Even among calm and thoughtful friends it can end up being a heated debate.

    Brit touches on an important point that should be remembered when discussing topics which are so full of potential energy.  Caveat.  Explain where you are coming from before saying what vector you are suggesting.  It makes for awkward prose, perhaps, but unless a given speaker obviates latent accusations upfront s/he will be compelled to refute them retroactively when the discourse has already jumped the rails.

    In that spirit, I come from a long history of arguing for and against both sides, founded on an American Christian or post-Christian viewpoint almost completely lacking any direct involvement or understanding of the tactical or historical realities at play.  For all practical purposes my opinions are as intrinsically armchair-quarterbackish as an Albanian goatherd’s views on military service in Swiss Cantons.  That being said, I fervently wish everyone involved would cease to kill each other and would instead focus on enabling their own and their neighbors’ children to grow up into healthy, fulfilled and successful adults equipped to care for themselves and the world around them.

    My level of exasperation with everyone involved is typically a direct correlation to how much emphasis they are placing on the theological aspect of the conflict.  The simple fact that so much of the I/P issue fundamentals are related to Blessed Piles of Rock, Holy Geographies, Chosen Peoples and Ecumenically Approved Spring Fashions makes me – as the saying goes – just a little bit mental.

    All of that being said, I tend to be – on average – more cranky with the behavior of Hamas leadership than the Israeli leadership there days due to the (accurate) assessment by Hamas leadership that their success is directly (as opposed to inversely) related to the quantity of suffering Palestinian citizens experience.  It would seem very productive if it were possible for circumstances to enable a Palestinian leadership to actually profit from increased stability, longevity, productivity and happiness of Palestinian citizens.

    But, again, all of that is about as authoritative as your own thoughts on Vietnamese lentil production (assuming of course that you are not in fact a Vietnamese lentil farmer).

  3. Strummerson

    for your support both here and over there.  I’ve never included this much personal information in a diary on the subject before this.  Some of my background still sits uneasily with me.  But in this context, I thought it might be helpful.

    Your responses are very much valued and appreciated by this ‘likudnik.’

  4. i commented in that other place – although it probably wasn’t v. helpful.  that said, this:

    I am convinced that the majority of users on this site feel great compassion for the dire plight or the Palestinians.  Most also oppose right wing Zionism and see it as working against the valid interests of Jewish Israelis.  It’s not hard to see this.  We may differ on who bears responsibility and/or to what degree. But we all want a peaceful resolution that frees America to lead the struggle for international human rights and civil society once again.  Most of us do not want our tax dollars going towards bombs dropped on children.  But that’s easy.  There is much to debate and much to be learned.  Whatever solutions and impediments lie before us, they will not be determined here.  This forum can, however, facilitate education, coalition building, and publication of activist opportunities.  None of that will happen if we only seek to proclaim our moral purity to one another, to demonize our interlocutors, and to shut down or dismiss anything that challenges our perspectives.

    We can do better.

    wow – brilliant.

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