Sunday, February 13, 2005

Sunday Reading, Serious Edition 

I don't pretend to know a goddam thing about the Israel-Palestine conflict, but I thought this Harper's article from last month was quite good.

It's a very touchy subject for a goy in New York, and it's safest, when pressed, to claim to be ignorant of the whole matter. This is a town where the left-est of the lefists can be more hawkish on matters Israeli than Richard Perle -- you just never know until the shouting begins and the insults start flying, at which point it's best, if one can't extricate oneself from the debate, to change the subject (if possible) to something a little less contentious; like, say, abortion. Or affirmative action.

An exerpt, though you should read the whole thing:
Wistfulness goes well with what is probably the most common conception of Israel that educated people in the West have: that it was once a nicely social-democratic state that is being ruined by the blowback from its occupation—by its quickly multiplying and pietistic settlers, whom successive governments somewhat naively tolerated—that if only Israel could end most terrorist attacks, emancipate itself from the occupation, and replant most settlers back within the Green Line, the internationally recognized border prior to 1967, then Zionism could get back to being itself. This half-truth often is posed against the big lie—that Zionism was just a remnant of great-power “colonialism”—and so Jews have an understandable reflex to defend the moral prestige of historic Zionism and deflect criticism of its legacy. But even David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, knew that Israeli democracy had serious problems before there was an occupation: specifically, that ultimately it would be folly to preserve the Zionist movement’s improvisations and institutions in a democratic state. Thinking back to 1967, certainly, it is obvious that the settlers’ ideas and stridency did not just grow out of thin air. Both emerged from a revolutionary Zionist logic and a powerful Zionist bureaucracy—right for their time, in the 1930s and ’40s, but terribly wrong once the state was firmly established, after 1967—a Zionism that automatically assured Jews privileges that other people, non-Jews subject to Israeli sovereignty, could not get.

I am not speaking here of the reasonable discrimination of a nation-state in favor of a dominant national culture: a day off for the Jewish Sabbath, support for the Hebrew University, the Star of David on the flag. I mean material discrimination by the state in favor of Jews as individuals. Settlements may seem part of a grand, premeditated national project, and were to some extent, especially around Jerusalem. But they were more often a spontaneous series of decisions by quasi-official Zionist offices to continue putting families formally defined as “Jewish” in and around where Arabs lived, or to support Jewish squatters, while excluding non-Jews from living there.


And what exactly is Jewish nationality? Now we are getting to the other side of the problem, the Zionist movement’s historic (and largely opportunistic) merging of rabbinic and state power. From its inception, Israel recognized two forms of personal status, ezrahut, most commonly understood as “citizenship,” and leom, which meant “nationality” or “peoplehood.” All citizens are entitled to equality in civil society, but people legally designated a part of the Jewish nation are entitled to immediate citizenship, and supplementary material benefits start from there. The courts came to rule that, insofar as the Law of Return applied, the child or grandchild of a Jew, or a convert by a recognized rabbinic authority, is a Jew. Under the pressure of the National Religious Party—to which Ben-Gurion pandered in order to maintain his own party’s hegemony in the early 1950s—other privileges were reserved for Jews as they are defined by Orthodox rabbinic courts. Moreover, a burgeoning, official rabbinical caste now supervises marriage, burial, and kashruth—critical for the restaurant, food-processing, and tourist industries. There is no civil marriage in the country, so no state official will marry a Jew to a non-Jew. Today, some 80,000 children in Jerusalem alone study in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, which are state subsidized in numerous ways. The state directly supports an even larger Dati Leumi (“national religious”) school system. Arabs have their own system, segregated and underfunded.

One Arab Israeli friend, the novelist Sayed Kashua (author of the Hebrew novel Dancing Arabs), told me recently that his childhood friends are feeling hemmed in and enraged, their towns in commercial despair, many coming under the threat of youth gangs. “When these towns blow, Israeli Jews will no doubt say it is for political reasons. But if the government would give us two meters for development, we’d all be volunteering for the army. Every time there is a suicide bombing I think two things: thank God my daughter is not among the victims, and I hope there is an Arab Israeli among the victims, so they won’t blame my daughter.”

The whole piece is from, I think, Bernard Avishai's upcoming book. And once you read it, you'll know more about Israel than Jonah Goldberg knows about Iraq.

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