Monday, October 17, 2016

Attacks On B'Tselem Hurt Israeli Democracy

B'Tselem director Hagai El-Ad's speech to the UN Security Council on Friday has generated a strong reaction from Israel's government. In his address on Friday, El-Ad detailed the human rights violations Palestinians suffer as a result of Israel's military presence in the West Bank. 

El-Ad presented a slightly paranoid view of Israel's legal pretense for being in the West Bank, arguing that it is a "legal guise for organized state violence." While arguably all legal systems legitimate state violence, El-Ad presents a cynical view of Israel's legal system. He paints due process in Israel as a legal guise for legitimating occupation. The real story is slightly more complex. For example, Palestinian teenagers arrested for dubious reasons are sometimes freed following a legal appeal based on due process. 

Despite these broad brushstrokes, however, El-Ad's speech - along with a speech by Americans For Peace Now's Lara Friedman - was a standard facts-based description of the harms of occupation on Israelis and Palestinians one would expect from a human rights NGO. It was supported by statistics and arguments that were sound, if slightly polemic, to a layperson's ear.

Israel's government and politicians, however, were highly incensed by the speech. Prime Minister Netanyahu accused B'Tselem of joining a "chorus of slander" and banned Israelis from completing their national service with the group. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called the group a "disgrace" and accused the group of cooperating with Israel's enemies in waging "political terrorism" against it at the UN. Even centrist MK Yair Lapid described the speech as a "declaration of divorce" from Zionism. 

To call the speech polemic or unhelpful would be fair. As Lara Friedman herself noted, the human rights records of many states that attended the meeting are themselves "abysmal." But to suggest, as a Labor party activist did Monday, that B'Tselem committed treason is an uncharacteristically chilling statement in what is normally a vibrant Israeli public discourse.

Two major factors shaped these political reactions. First, B'Tselem has been criticized in Israel for sending its activists abroad to criticize Israeli policy, which Israelis understandably feel is defamation against the state. B'Tselem was also among 25 NGOs targeted by a bill recently passed in the Knesset which imposes special requirements on those getting more than 50% of their funding from foreign governments. Second, the speeches at the Security Council came a day after UNESCO passed an absurd resolution devoid of reference to the Jewish character of the Temple Mount. Combine a biased bill with longstanding animosity in Israel toward both B'Tselem and the UN, and rhetorical fireworks are no surprise. Israelis deeply resent steps taken in the international arena to deny the liberal democratic nature of the state, and many see B'Tselem as contributing to the problem.

Yet Israeli human rights NGOs themselves were created by US Jewish groups - with the assent of Israel's government - to solve the de-legimization problem. Their purpose was to bolster Israel's claim to liberal democracy and to strengthen international human rights norms in the wake of the Holocaust. While the AJC supported Israeli policies in the United States and in the UN, it recognized that a network of Israeli human rights NGOs would strengthen the credibility of the state. In the face of false accusations by anti-Israel actors, these NGOs could provide credible data.

Governments often find human rights NGOs to be inconvenient, short-sighted, or petty. Yet the pure revulsion expressed by Israel's political leaders in the past four days reveals a concerning apathy toward the fundamental values on which Israel was founded. The idea that West Bank occupation is unsustainable is widely shared among analysts, former military officers, and activists within Israel and abroad. It is not radical. Showcasing the occupation's flaws is not the source of Israel's de-legitimization. Rather, it is the petulant reluctance of Israel's current leadership to address effectively the political realities Israel faces. These realities include systematic double-standards on Israel and global anti-Semitism. But going after B'Tselem will do nothing to mitigate either one.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Israel Isn't A "Settler Colonial" Project

Settler colonialism is a process by which a colonizing power sends settlers to depopulate a region of its inhabitants and gain control of land. While the applicability of the definition to Israeli history is dubious, the concept has gained popularity among anti-Israel activists and a small number of critical scholars. It has yet to be accepted widely in political science. Proponents of the term say it describes truthfully what has occurred in places like the United States, Australia, and Israel. In reality, it is a Marxist narrative of history which selectively ignores facts in order to draw sweeping moral and political conclusions.

The modern study of settler colonialism is led by critical historians Edward Cavenaugh and Lorenzo Veracini. The term has been used since at least 1947 with passing references in UN documents and the journal Parliamentary Affairs. One of the most well-known texts on the subject, particularly as it relates to Israel, is Maxime Rodinson's 1967 text Israel: A Colonial Settler-State? Rodinson's text is a Marxist history of Israel, telling of a Jewish "bourgeois" in Europe who came to Israel to exploit the Palestinian proletariat fellahin. Critical scholars of Israel like Joseph Massad and Ilan Pappe have used this framing as well. 

The settler colonialist framing is useful for anti-Israel activists because it makes Israel seem archaic and fundamentally incapable of existing in a world of modern human rights norms. It also delegitimizes Israel's citizens in three ways. First, it reframes Israelis - many of whom are third and fourth generation sabras - as temporary settlers. Second, it implies that colonization is the ultimate goal of all Israelis, since they are settlers by nature. Finally, it erases the multitude of political viewpoints in Israel toward the Palestinians and Israel's future by implying that all Israelis are colonial settlers with a settler mentality. This obfuscation makes it possible for activists to avoid arguments rooted in the nature of Israeli society by writing off over 6.4 million Jewish Israelis as part of a settler colonialist project.

The common thread in settler colonialist accounts is that Jews or Zionists were sent by a colonial power (Britain) to gain control of historical Palestine by depopulating the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants. This story is the basis of justifying a broad range of opposition to Israel. Since the state is a settler colonial outpost, justice requires it be dismantled and its original inhabitants returned. This framing also allows strategic ambiguity because Israel also refers to its populations in the West Bank as "settlers." It's often unclear whether those using the term are applying it to the West Bank, or to Israel as a whole.

As a concept, settler colonialism raises three important questions. First, how much can such a broad concept really explain? Settler colonialism has been applied to the United States, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Iraq, Cyprus, and Turkey. For this level of breadth, the term must necessarily sacrifice significantly in terms of depth. Furthermore, Israel is consistently treated as a unique case in academic literature because of the unique historical circumstances out of which it rose. Settler colonialism, however, claims that Israel is just like a whole broad set of cases. That fact alone should raise suspicion.

Settler colonialism also tells us very little about what happens in the cases it purports to describe. If common historical processes were at play in the US, South Africa, and Israel, why are the indigenous populations of each in very different places regarding political, economic, and social status? And if the answer isn't clear, why do proponents of settler colonialist accounts cling to the term?

Finally, the policy implications of settler colonialism are unclear. Human history is replete with conquering and depopulation. Israel, for example, was established by European Zionists in conjunction with the British, but it was colonized by the Ottomans before that, the Mamluks before that, the Crusaders before that, Muslim armies before that, the Romans before that, and the Macedonians before that. Who counts as the indigenous population in this case, and who is the conqueror? How far back in history must we go before everything is returned "fairly" to its "original owners?"

As a way of understanding Israeli history, settler colonialism also has three problems. First, Jews who immigrated to Mandate Palestine didn't come only from Britain. They came from states across Europe and eventually from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia as well. British Jews weren't even a majority of immigrants - in 1948 the largest number of immigrants to Israel came from Former Soviet Union countries. The idea that Britain sent Jews as colonial settlers is unsubstantiated by historical fact. The idea that "The West" is a colonial power is a dubious assertion given centuries of competition between Western colonial powers.

Second, Britain didn't send Jews to Palestine as colonists, but rather to get rid of them. Britain was motivated to establish a Jewish home by domestic pressure against Jewish immigration before the first World War. Creating a Jewish home had support among Christian Zionists in Britain, and offered a compelling solution to the immigration issue. Jews were also not sent to Mandate Palestine to depopulate its Arab population. Britain and the United Nations offered multiple partition plans which included guarantees of national sovereignty to Palestinians and Jews alike. To assume Britain began letting Jews immigrate to Mandate Palestine with the intent of depopulating the area is inferring intentions without evidence. It also ignores how British colonialism worked in virtually every other state in the Middle East.

Importantly, there is evidence that depopulation of Palestinian villages occurred separately from legal acquisition by Zionists of land. Israel's early leaders (David Ben Gurion for example) wanted to prevent Palestinians from returning to their homes. Israeli revisionist historians have documented processes of depopulation, and archival documents make this history undeniable. This depopulation, however, occurred in the process of Israeli state formation - not as a deliberate strategy of settler colonialism. It is a history with which Israelis must reconcile, but it is not settler colonialism.

Finally, Israelis are not motivated by land claims alone. To frame Israelis as motivated by a desire to depopulate and conquer land completely misunderstands the Israeli national project. Rhetoric from Israelis about homeland, nationalism, and security cannot reasonably be written off as "propaganda." They speak to a complex set of motivations Israelis have that go far beyond the desire to control land as settler colonialism claims.

Ultimately, settler colonialism as a concept proves little insight for explaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While interesting as a concept for critical theory and useful for anti-Israel activism, there are better ways of understanding Israel's formation as a state and subsequent treatment of Palestinians. Academic writing on insurgency, nation-building, state formation, and military occupation offer a much more robust language for removing, not adding to, the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Olympic "BDS" And Israeli Personhood

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, there were two separate occasions on which Israeli athletes were targeted for their nationality. On Friday August 5th, Lebanese athletes attempted to block Israeli athletes from boarding a bus to the opening ceremony. Separately, on August 12 an Egyptian Judo athlete refused to shake his Israeli opponent's hand.

Members of the BDS movement have hailed both of these actions as forms of solidarity. By refusing to associate or engage with Israeli athletes, so the logic goes, the Arab Olympians express solidarity with Palestinians and increase international pressure against Israel for its policies toward them. The continued isolation of Israelis, conceivably, would culminate in policy changes that could benefit Palestinians.

There are three flaws in the premise of this argument, which are instructive with regards to the broader problems of the BDS strategy toward Israel.

First, there is no evidence that either incident was motivated by pro-Palestinian concerns. The BDS community has projected its own interpretation onto the incidents but facts supporting this interpretation are sparse. The athletes in both cases were motivated by anti-Israel sentiment, but whether there was a deliberate pro-Palestinian element of their actions is not at all obvious.

Second, the incidents are being understood among the pro-Israel community, predictably, as evidence of anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic sentiment. In other words, the community understands these incidents as motivated not by occupation or oppression, but by Israel's very existence as a state. The incidents also evoke the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre in which Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes. Being targeted for being Israeli at the Olympics has deep resonance for Israelis, and not in terms of political activism. Rather, it entrenches the Israeli public's siege mentality and bolsters the narrative that no policy change would ever erase the intrinsic prejudice of Arab people against Israelis. BDS may have good intentions, but there is no evidence that in these cases it will have the desired effect of improving Palestinian lives.

Thirdly - and most importantly - the incidents contradict what BDS is supposed to stand for. The BDS movement claims to support empowerment and humanization. But the snubbing of Israeli athletes at an international event designed to bring people together represents the opposite. It's one thing to boycott a government, a company, or an institution - it's quite another to snub individual Israelis. This is because such actions construct individual Israelis exclusively as subjects of the Israeli state. If we agree that people are more than their passport, it is illegitimate to essentialize Israeli men and women to a passport or National ID. In that BDS deconstructs the identity of Israeli people, it isn't humanizing oppressed Palestinians. Rather, it's picking and choosing who is a person and who is merely a "state agent." If BDS seeks the moral leverage to argue that Israel is denying Palestinian people the right of self-actualization, it cannot simultaneously advocate denying that right for Israeli people too.

While these incidents are unlikely to have a lasting effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are an important example of flawed elements of the discourse surrounding it. On both sides, it is critical not to use either words or actions to deny agency to multifaceted human beings, especially those with a genuine desire for positive political change.

Friday, July 22, 2016

MENA Scholars And The US Election

American analysts of the Middle East think frequently about our ethical obligations to people in the region. While we often overestimate our influence, it doesn't excuse a sense of impunity. Analysts do not get to sit on the sidelines when people's well-being is at stake. We are members of society and what we say can have an impact, however small, on those around us. We disagree about the nature of these ethical obligations but not about their existence.

Our obligations don't end at the water's edge. We have obligations to our students, university, our friends and family, and a country that protects our freedom to speak, write, publish, and debate. The affairs of our own government matter just as much as those of the governments we study.

Three facts about last night's Trump acceptance speech are undisputed. First, a candidate for President of the United States gave a speech. Second, that candidate claimed that the country is in a state of lawlessness and that he would restore law an order. Third, this candidate's plan to restore order involves severe, unprecedented restrictions targeting specific groups of Americans. This includes explicit restrictions on the rights of Muslim Americans and de facto limitations on the rights of African-Americans. In the United States, limitations on the rights of one group are a limitation on the rights of all Americans.

This kind of speech from a presidential candidate is unacceptable in the United States of America.

Middle East analysts have seen this story before. America is not the Middle East, but populism is not uniquely a Middle East phenomenon. Our colleagues in the region have risked their well-beings, their physical safety, and their lives to speak against populism in their own countries. Turkey is the latest example but not the only one. 

Our obligation in the United States is to recognize the importance of these efforts by replicating them here. 

It is time for analysts who have seen the slippery slope of populism to call Trump's dangerous speech what it is: An attack on the Constitutional rights of Americans and a threat to our democracy. We respect our MENA colleagues who do the same, but we do not truly respect them if we fail to act in their image when it is our time. This is our time.

In calling out Trump, we must respect (as we have often failed to do), conservative and Republican points of view. But Trump's speech is not the position of the Republican Party. It is a slap in the face to decades of policy designed to promote freedom and liberty as Republicans envision it. And it is impossible to protect the freedom of any point of view - liberal, moderate, or conservative - when populism threatens to censor discourse and silence members of the debate. 

You need not disavow support of Donald Trump. If you plan to vote for him, that is respectable and your point of view is respectable and important. But neither can you ignore the facts as they stand, and the consensus of decades of research on populism and its dangerous path.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Elie Wiesel, Israel, And The Politics of Trauma

The passing of Elie Wiesel yesterday at age 87 leaves a gaping hole in the human family. A professor, author, Nobel Laureate, and activist, Wiesel challenged humanity to find light among the darkness. Elie Wiesel was not content to memorialize the past. He was determined use the lessons of the past to shape a brighter future.

While he was a voice for the downtrodden, Wiesel's views on Israel were not always "progressive." He was a staunch opponent of a divided Jerusalem, the Iran nuclear deal, and attempted to publish a controversial ad against Hamas' use of children as human shields. Such views have been the subject of critique on this blog. Yet Wiesel's views on Israel were similar to, if not more moderate than, many of his peers. They were certainly not more extreme than the views of the median Israeli. Even if one disagrees with these views, they were certainly not radical enough to overshadow his legacy of advocacy to better the human condition.

But this is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where respect for the deceased is not more valuable than the opportunity to score points in a meaningless war of rhetorical attrition. Already, some have come forward to voice their opposition (to phrase it politely) to the sanctification of Wiesel on the basis of his political views. The level of cynicism in the conflict is too high to expect that an appeal to such a trite concept as basic human decency would make a difference to those who hasten to defame the dead. However, there are two further considerations that expose such attitudes for the danger that they are.

First, no camp in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a monopoly on human rights, justice, or morality. Attacking Wiesel because he belonged to a different political tribe is the height of arrogance. A willingness to claim to moral superiority over a Holocaust-surviving Nobel Laureate human rights activist takes a special brand of narcissism. If the seeming disconnect between Wiesel's principles and his policies is puzzling or disconcerting, it should prompt introspection and a willingness to consider how the same facts can underlie different political views. And as it turns out, it is also possible to criticize Wiesel's politics without being rude.

But more importantly, it is vital to consider the life experiences that shaped Wiesel's views. Given the extent of trauma Wiesel describes in his memoir Night, its role cannot be overlooked. Trauma is also important in national politics. For both Wiesel and for Israeli nationalism, the legacy of the Holocaust is trauma. This trauma shapes Israeli policy-making. While trauma can never excuse the abuse and violation of others, it can frame decisions governments make to engage in such behavior.

In this regard, there is an important parallel between disregarding Wiesel's personal trauma and disregarding Israel's national trauma. This national trauma comes from Israel's many wars as much as it comes from the Holocaust, but both sources affect policy-making there. The point is not that trauma justifies Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians, who themselves suffer from the national trauma of 1948 and 1967. Rather, it is that trauma shapes political calculations in Israel in observable ways. Ignoring the fact that trauma is at the heart of much of Israeli policy-making is a dangerous oversight that may perpetuate ineffective approaches to desperately-needed political change there.

Engaging with both Wiesel's legacy on Israel and Israel's politics more broadly requires acknowledging and accepting the validity of Holocaust trauma as a political context. Regarding Wiesel, this means considering his political views in the context of the crucible in which they were formed. One need not agree with Wiesel to respect the weight of his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and survivor of one of the worst genocides in human history. 

For Israel, serious engagement with national trauma is critical to improving a broken status quo. Tactics of isolation and antagonism may be less effective on nations with a history of trauma. BDS, isolation at the UN, and framing Israel as a rogue state may only serve to magnify the harmful impact of trauma on Israel's decision-making. Downplaying trauma or muddying the waters with arguments of moral relativism is the wrong approach to states suffering from national trauma. A better approach is to acknowledge the validity of the trauma, reassure nations (including the Palestinian nation) who suffer from it, and reinforce messages of just politics as national empowerment. Such an approach is not only more respectful, it is more effective in improving the collective human condition. It orients us toward a legacy of which Elie Wiesel could be proud.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Knesset Coalition Instability Is Secondary

In the wake of Yisrael Beiteinu joining Israel's governing coalition, some worry that this time Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has gone too far. Since formation of the newest coalition last week, analysts have pointed out that it is shaky, tenuous, and unstable.

These characterizations are decidedly true. Lieberman and Netanyahu have different constituencies and personal political interests. Their differences are so great that upon joining the coalition, Lieberman reassured the Israeli public that he had lengthened his short fuse. The coalition has also drawn criticism not only from the left but from within the Prime Minister's own Likud party. History (ie 2015) has also shown Likud Beiteinu to be is an unstable political isotope.

At the same time, these analyses miss two important political factors at play.

First, Prime Minister Netanyahu is setting the tempo of Israeli politics. This coalition deal is proof positive. The latest coalition shuffle does not give the Prime Minister a substantially stronger coalition - he has 66 now compared to 61 a month ago. This boost is enough to reduce the damage of a few MKs defecting on a vote, but it is not a mandate by any stretch of the imagination. The Prime Minister also switched his offer to join the coalition from Labor to Yisrael Beiteinu at his leisure. With this brilliant political play, Netanyahu simultaneously hurt Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog's credibility, strengthened his coalition, and demonstrated his control of the political system. When ties with Yisrael Beiteinu inevitably break down, the Prime Minister will be directing the path of politics in the Knesset, not reacting to them.

Second, the effects of an unstable coalition are limited without a viable alternative. As the previous post details, Prime Minister Netanyahu has remained in power by systematically dismantling alternatives to his leadership. In Israel's Knesset the left is de-fanged, the center is fractured, and the right is coopted. This is a favorable state of play for the Prime Minister and one which he had a hand in engineering. Thus, while a coalition that includes Yisrael Beiteinu is unstable, there is no serious pressure from outside the coalition that will exacerbate this instability in a meaningful way. While the public may be concerned or even dissatisfied with the current coalition, there does not exist a better option for the immediate short-term future. This lack of alternative gives the Prime Minister breathing space to mitigate the harms of an unstable coalition.

While this coalition, like all coalitions, will eventually succumb to the dynamics of Israeli politics, there is no reason to believe that including Yisrael Beiteinu puts it in danger of short-term collapse. Analysts were surprised by the last-minute including of the party, but the effects of that surprise will die down as the news cycle moves forward. An analytical focus on instability should be redirected at what policies the Prime Minister actually pursues, and what (if any) opposition he faces.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Bibi Kills Two Centrist Birds With One Stone

Israel analysts have spent the day speculating about the consequences of PM Netanyahu's decision to offer the Defense portfolio to Avigdor Lieberman and bring Yisrael Beiteinu into the coalition. The offer, which comes days after talks with Labor party leader Yitzhak Herzog appeared to be going well, is a huge surprise. Assuming Lieberman accepts the position, Israel's domestic policy will likely shift to the right, its foreign policy will exacerbate international tensions, and Netanyahu's position as Prime Minister will be solidified.

But even if the offer were to fall through, it is an example of Prime Minister Netanyahu's strategy of destroying viable centrist alternatives to his leadership. Today's deal kills two birds with one stone. It makes it extremely difficult for Herzog to maintain leadership of the Labor Party, and it potentially pushes center-right Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon out of the cabinet. It also punishes Ya'alon for urging IDF soldiers to exercise integrity in thought and expression, and sends a message to those who would challenge the Prime Minister. 

This is not the first instance in which Netanyahu has undercut centrist politicians to prevent a viable alternative to his leadership.

In 2012, Yair Lapid announced the creation of the centrist party Yesh Atid. Days later Netanyahu formed a national unity government that would have pushed off elections and delayed Yesh Atid's entrance into politics. When elections did occur in January 2013 and Yesh Atid did unexpectedly well, Netanyahu coopted Lapid. He offered Lapid the Finance portfolio in the context of deep discontent over the government's response to the 2011 economic protests. Lapid went from leading the second most popular party in the Knesset in March 2013 to having a 75% disapproval rating in December of that same year.

Tzipi Livni, after forming the HaTnuah party in 2012, was appointed Justice Minister by the Prime Minister. However, after gaining substantial power - and criticizing several government decisions - Netanyahu fired her along with Lapid on December 2, 2014. Livni, however, was not done with politics. HaTnuah formed a joint list with the Labor Party and its new leader Yitzhak Herzog for the 2015 elections. Since the elections, she has laid low, taking on diplomatic pressures against Israel at the UN and issuing few criticisms of Israel's government. In the long term, Livni is a threat to Netanyahu. In the short term, however, she has shown no interest in challenging him.

Moshe Kahlon and the Kulanu party were coopted by Netanyahu and joined the coalition in 2015. To achieve this cooptation, Netanyahu played Kulanu and Yesh Atid off each other. Yesh Atid and Kulanu are centrist pro-reform parties. Yet by design of the Prime Minister, Yesh Atid is in the opposition and Kulanu is in the government.

Over this past weekend, PM Netanyahu had been in talks with Herzog to bring Labor into the coalition under the pretense of a unity government. Such a move would have coopted an already weak labor leadership. However, by bringing in Yisrael Beiteinu instead, Netanyahu keeps Labor weak and in the opposition, while simultaneously dealing a serious blow to Herzog's political career. By offering Defense Minister Ya'alon's position to Lierberman, he denies Ya'alon a platform to build centrist support.

The fracturing of Israel's political center is not entirely Prime Minister Netanyahu's doing. Egos, party politics, and public opinion play an important role as well. However, today's move is consistent with the Prime Minister's strategy for remaining in power. While it is undoubtedly a brilliant political move, it remains to be seen whether it can create meaningful change for Israelis. Economic hardship, war, international pressure, and lack of a future vision are all real problems facing the Israeli public. Ultimately, the Prime Minister should be judged not by how he attains political power, but how he uses it.