Israel

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I originally wrote this back in January. Gaza has flared up again. In addition to the work below, I've spoken at the Sydney Domain Speakers here ( about 3 minutes ) in August

This commentary is derived from a broadcast on Workers' Radio, Radio Skid Row, 14th October 2013; the broadcast itself derived from other sources, which are noted within. Given that Ariel Sharon has passed away recently, I thought it might be worth posting up my general commentary on Israel. I'm not familiar enough with Sharon's history to make particular comments, but I thought it might nevertheless be worthwhile to make a posting which considers the broader context and debate around Israel.

In making this commentary on Israel, I've read widely and have absorbed a lot of opinion on the web and facebook. I've listened to Professor Christine Hayes' lectures on the Hebrew Bible and also The Bible Unearthed by Neil Silberman and Israel Finklestein. Major references on Israel have been God, Guns and Israel by Jill Hamilton, and Extreme Rambling by Mark Thomas. Mark Thomas is a UK comedian and activist - I first heard him at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And there's My Israel Question by local author Anthony Loewenstein. Of web sites, the site which most resonates with with me is The Other Israel. It is mostly closed, but contains some interesting stuff - at http://otherisrael.home.igc.org/ .

I'll first be looking at the formation of Israel, and consider how Israel is viewed.

Jews were expelled from the UK in 1290 by King Edward the first, but over the next half millennia or so Jews managed to contribute the UK and its war effort. Chaim Weisman provided a way of fermenting starch to acetone for use in making TNT. We know it from the Road Runner cartons, but it was used in British armaments during the Great War. The Zion mule corps served at Gallipoli, and you can see its unit designation if you look around the museum in the war memorial in Hyde Park. I understand it was mostly a British army unit, but may have had some Australians in it; it would have supported the Australians at Gallipoli. In addition, Jews formed the 38th and 39th battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, which became known as the first and second Jewish legions, which saw combat in the middle east. There were also the 40th, 41st and 42nd battalions, but I don't know too much about what they got up to.

The nonconformist Christian denominations were also making their mark on British society and political thought. They were seeped in the stories of the old testament, as compared to the background of the aristocratic denominations, which split their interest with the Greco Roman tradition including philosophers like Plato. The nonconformists developed a fondness for the idea of Jews returning to their claimed homeland, and this dovetailed with initiatives by the Jews themselves.

For a time, British imperial interests and Jewish interests coincided. The history of claims is confused, but people make the mistake of thinking that British Foreign Policy was a consistent whole. It was rather more fluid. Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston said : "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

Yes, it was the Balfour declaration that kicked off Israel. But while initially supportive, the UK went cold on Israel, for reasons that we won't go into now. While Australia voted at the UN to recognise Israel, the UK abstained. Mark Thomas says that whenever he introduced himself as British to the West Bank occupants, the invariably brought up the Balfour declaration - then he started identifying as Scottish. But all he needed to do was point out the that the UK later abstained and delayed in recognising Israel.

Certainly, Israel has problematic origins, and some claim that Israel retains this legacy, making it invalid. I do not go this far. Whatever its origins, Israel is now a sovereign nation, and we need to accept that. In Australia, we have our own problematic demons with our Aboriginal legacy. Few countries have avoided these problems. Iceland was uninhabited at settlement, and in New Zealand / Aoetara, they had the Treaty of Waitangi.

While this is a reality to be recognised, I do not recognise the claims that some Jews have that "God gave us this land". What if someone else's God gave them that same land? You've got it because you've got it, and I accept that. But please don't put other layers on in pursuit of increased legitimacy.

Much discussion gets polarised into a simplistic "pro" or "anti" Israel sentiment, with the different sides lining up and spitting forth venom. There are certainly those whose support for Israel is one-eyed - or even theological based as above - and I'm sure I'll get on their nerves. However a more finessed position, which I embrace, is to endorse Israel's sovereignty at the same time as I disagree with Israel does with that sovereignty. However, this distinction is lost on many people, who try to make out that anyone who doesn't support "what Israel does", must as a consequence be "against Israel". There's a lot of superficial labelling along these lines, where the advocates do not actually work through any of the points held by the people they're trying to dismiss.

In reality, while these extreme positions do exist - and indeed, they do seem to be the voices shouting the loudest - there's in fact a range of viewpoints and you could easily miss the subtlety that does exist. In fact, I found an article in the May 2012 issue of Quadrant by Leslie Stein had quite a few points I could agree with, once you got past the thinking-of-all-lefties-are-the-same and imagining-lefty-consipiracies stuff, which you could only shake your head at. But wow, something in Quadrant I can agree with ... go figure. So, that's where I'm coming from. Further, rather than thinking that some people are right, while other people are wrong, I start out assuming that everyone is at least a little bit correct, and try to triangulate from there. Maybe it will start to appear on close analysis that someone is wrong, but I don't start off thinking that. I may have little personal experience, but I try to take a broad view of things, reading positions from both sides. I might make a few mistakes; but regardless I suggest that I can help people trying to make sense of the debate. I'm not trying to persuade anyone who already has their own strong views; I'd be careful engaging with them in any case, particularly if they want to pick holes in what I'm saying. Sure I'm going to make mistakes. But does that mean the whole exercise is no longer useful? Perfectionism rears its ugly head. In any case, I'm trying to help out people who are like how I was a few years ago - trying to make sense of a very confusing debate populated by some very passionate people. 

But - getting back to Israel and its "sovereignty". As a sovereign nation, Israel can do whatever it damn well likes. However, others can still judge their actions - and nobody can stop either of these things. Israel does need the support of other nations, and its actions do stand out for global analysis. There's a tension between what Israel does, and what is internationally recognised. Israel has borders which have been recognised by the UN, something it presumably appreciates as legitimation of its situation. However, the route of the barrier wall was declared illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Israel seems to be picking and choosing between different international judgements, endorsing only those that support it, and exceeding them when it can. Sure, Israel can thumb its nose at the ICJ judgement and nobody can stop it. But, into the mix, Israel tries to undermine the legitimacy of this judgement as part of a propaganda war. You wonder under what conditions international institutions could ever make valid judgements; or are they valid unless they go against Israel's judgements, in which case they are invalid - and for no other reason ?

You'll find signs of this propaganda war everywhere. There's an "incremental war of interpretation" on the bit-by-bit media coverage. Each act of violence is not seen as being sufficiently portrayed in the media by the other side, as though with sufficient "proper" coverage in the media the general public would then suddenly wake up. If the people of the world saw that Israel's actions were in fact responses to Palestinian aggression then the world would see them as justified and provoked, rather than as unprovoked. If only the world saw the reality of ongoing oppression by the Israelis they would then understand the validity of the Palestinian cause. The same book might be seen by one side as "apologetics for Palestinian violence" and by the other as "inspired by Zionism". A desire for "factual accuracy" also seems biased - to me if you are to consistently pursue truth, you ought to worry about the false information on vaccination, fluoride, cancer and even financial scams. But strangely people focus on just the inaccuracies about their favoured side.

This intensity can be overwhelming and scary. But, if you look at it differently, you can see both sides as putting forth roughly 10% factual content ( or at least reasonably defensible sentiments), 10% table thumping, 10% conceptual abuse and 70% linguistic abuse ... it can start to make sense. And, by the way, these percentages are subject to change.

So, Israel is prominent and is scrutinised. But you get a defence of "you're unfairly picking on Israel when there are other bad things going on in the world". Let's be careful here. There's a known fallacy, called "pointing out another wrong". Yes, it may be that your critic is hypocritical, and there may be a point to identifying it. But it doesn't get you off the hook either. If you're doing something bad, it is no excuse that someone down the street is doing worse. When I worry about Israel's abuses, I do so not because they're the worst ones on the planet (I'm sure they're not), but because I have a closer relationship to them through the structures around me. I am a citizen of Australia. Our foreign policy supports Israel. The US is our ally. Their foreign policy is even more supportive. Israel is different to some tin-pot nation out there abusing its citizens. It's like we're more concerned about a second cousin who beats up his wife, as compared to someone we just heard about incidentally. They're both bad - but we're going to be more concerned about our second cousin.

So, when I consider Israel, it's not because they're doing the worse things on the planet, but rather because they have a closer moral relationship to me and because they have higher standards to live up to which they're not. Peter Rodgers captures a similar sentiment : [Israel] "dines out on being the Middle East's only democracy, then resents being judged by democracy's theoretical high standards."

And yes, lets be careful. We shouldn't criticise Israel just because we're talking about Jews. Further, while Israel has much closer links than some tinpot dictator, we do have quite close links to China and Indonesia and of course other nations too. Maybe we need to look at their human rights records. I think, though, we can look at Israel. It is in the news. And further, Indonesia and China do not have networks of vigorous supporters on the ground.

Still, when it comes to the idea of equal treatment, an article by Adam Keller, "Is Israel singled out", captures a worthwile sentiment :

.... The proper course for a genuine upholder and defender of Human Rights should be to compile a full and comprehensive list of all violators (Amnesty International used to be a fairly reliable source for such, except that nowadays Amnesty has also become stained with "singling out Israel"). Then, a rota of pickets should be set up in front of all relevant embassies, with the Israeli one visited for three-quarters of an hour every third Monday, and anyone overstaying this quota by more than ten minutes would stand condemned as an anti-Semite (or a self-hater if a Jew oneself, or a traitor if an Israeli citizen, or all three combined...)

But in terms of language abuses, let's consider one issue : is Israel "apartheid"? Well, the short answer is, no. But there's a lot more to be said. Lets look a little closer ...

Apartheid is, to my way of thinking, significant discrimination based solely on race. Within Israel, there's minor discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel, which represent about 20% of the population. However, they have equal access to services, and are represented in parliament and the court. They have an ability to participate in life which exceeds that of many Arabs living in neighbouring states, and certainly women are treated better in Israel than they are in Islamic Republics. They would certainly have a status better than US blacks in the south in the 1960s, and probably better than many ethnic minorities in the US today.

However, I understand there's a dearth of Arab citizens in Israeli academia. Particularly in Jerusalem, there are limits on the ability of Arabs to own land, and unless there are special considerations, the ability to become an Israeli citizen is limited to Jewish people. Here, there's a discrimination of non-citizens to become citizens, but not of current citizens. Then there's military service. Jews are compelled to serve in the Israeli defence forces ( or IDF ), though maybe there's ways around that through community service or other means. For Christians it's optional, and for Arabs not normally done. However, minorities such as Druze and Bedouin make a point of serving in the IDF; that may well be voluntary but I'm not sure on the exact details. It's rather complex. But you can't say Israel is "apartheid" in a broad brush way.

However, it's arguable that Israel has apartheid policies in the West Bank. That's a matter of definition, and we don't have time to consider it in detail. Certainly, it is not pleasant. There's discrimination, but not soley on the basis of race. Not only do you need to born an Arab, you also need to also be born on the wrong side of history.

Is Israel "Apartheid"? To the extent the sentiment has meaning, it is problematic because you're trying to apply a simple emotive word to a complex situation. A finessed possible valid statement might be something like "Israel treats its own Arab population better than many other states, though it could be said to have apartheid policies in the West Bank". However what we usually hear is an unfinessed claim like "Israel is an apartheid state". Here it seems people are trying to take advantage of the negative associations with that word rather than trying to properly understand and describe what is going on. It's usage seems to be more a case of language abuse than anything else.

An issue of conceptual abuse is the barrier wall. I don't approve of it, and I sure endorse the ICJ judgement. However, it does have a certain internal logic which I think people deny, and this shows wooly thinking and a willingness to indulge in conceptual abuse. A criticism of the the barrier wall is that it is "ineffective". Statistically speaking, suicide bombings have declined with the introduction of the barrier wall. Of course, correlation is not causality, and there could be other things at work. It could also be the barrier wall too. However, the mistake is to assume that the barrier wall must be 100% effective to be useful. It can still be useful in reducing rather than eliminating suicide bombings. And if you can't eliminate suicide bombings, it is still worthwhile to reduce them. If there are several elements to a multi-layered defence, each of them having a less than 100% effectiveness, their combined effect could still mean a worthwhile reduction. Again, I don't approve of it, and there are valid criticisms to be made. But people are happy to mix valid criticisms with conceptual abuse.

The Gaza War in 2008, whether you want to call it Operation Cast Lead or the Gaza Massacre, was what prompted Mark Thomas to re-enter the fray around Israel. In contrast, while I wouldn't want to endorse it, I do find it understandable, and would cautiously accept the principle of it, but perhaps not the execution. I've been pulled into the vortex around Israel, not because of some deep seated ideas about justice and injustice, but rather because of the passion of the debate and the distortions I see thrown all around. My interest is only obtained through reading and trying to "triangulate" the different views in pursuit of the truth. I see that anyone - of either side - who pounds the table about their view of things, invites you to critically review what they're saying and perhaps challenge them. A strong assertion does not oblige you to sit there and believe it, and defer to the fact that they've been there or have an actual interest; it obliges you to think about it and perhaps push back. Which is what I've done, and I hope you will too.

Prior to the Gaza War, missiles were being fired from Gaza into Israel. I don't like the route the barrier wall takes, I don't like how outputs in the West Bank change into settlements, let alone the settlements already there, amongst other things. But I don't believe that these problems - or indeed the other historical issues that people place at Israel's feet - mean that it should ignore such provocations. I think you can - temporarily - quarantine these issues in order to further the analysis. Morally speaking, I think the provocation does license a response. However, you can wonder about the execution. Was it proportionate? Were the targets actually responsible for the rocket attacks? But more to the point, how would you tell if these things were true or not?

One criticism along the way was the weapons used. I think that either it is right or wrong to kill someone, and the exact weapons used are a secondary issue, with the criticisms missing this point. Yes, some weapons violate international conventions - chemical and biological weapons, dum-dum bullets - and also land mines and cluster munitions ( see a pdf from the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons here). Beyond that, the actual weapons are a neutral issue.

You'll find a lot of that from both sides if you start to examine the debate. It seems that both sides are wiling to let truth and logic play second fiddle to distortions, intimidations and bullying which they each hope will change the terrain in their favour.