Sunday, August 23, 2009

Update: Paranoia and Apartheid

This weekend has been a pretty good one for radicals in Israel.

From the right: Avigdor Lieberman et al.

Commenting on the Swedish newspaper issue,
Interior Minister Eli Yishai saying he would act to prevent Aftonbladet reporters from receiving work permits in Israel.

This ridiculous show of bravado is little more than retaliation. And it is the kind of petty control-wrenching which typifies a petty Arab dictatorship more than a liberal democratic state like Israel. Furthermore, for the Israeli right to be hounding the Swedish government because it issued an "apology" not a "condemnation" is a petty distinction which is being used as a Gulf of Tonkin to instigate a war which is very unlikely to end successfully for the right wing.

To some extent, the Swedish government's claim that its hesitancy stems from free speech is questionable. Free speech is important, but reasonable people agree it does not extend to protection of libel. On the other hand, the Israeli government has certainly not acted to dispel the claims in the article by providing facts to the contrary. And in a diplomatic sense, Israel has far more to gain by pulling Sweden and accepting the apology than by pushing it away.

The "siege" mindset of the Israeli right is heavily at work in this instance, and the paranoia of those who see Israel's stubborn intransigence as a righteous crusade for justice is misplaced. Israel was intended to be able to survive a siege on Jews, not to propagate one. Right-wing Israeli leaders are only creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by hounding a government whose very intentions were to dispel anti-Semitism. Their actions are likely to isolate Israel rather than create the place among nations that Israel is destined to take. Fear of anti-Semitism is understandable, but it is a poor motivation for foreign policy. And fear is at work in the minds of the Israeli right.

From the left: Professor Neve Gordon

Ben Gurion University Professor Neve Gordon published an Op-ed in the LA Times
calling Israel an "apartheid" state and using this label to call for a boycott of Israel. Professor Gordon has a long history of making far-left statements, but this statement is one of his more high-profile ones, and is sure to get a lot of attention. The far left may call his claims "brave." The far right may call them "treasonous." But examining the facts behind the issue allows for a much more reasonable synthesis.

Firstly, boycotts are ineffective against Israel because, as mentioned above, the people and government generally adopt a siege mentality. Boycotting Israel will only entrench this mentality and make the government even more intransigent than it already is, a move which will be supported by many Israelis and a wide swath of the American public. It's hard to believe that even a more liberal American pro-Israel group like J-street would support a boycott of Israel.

Secondly, despite what Jimmy Carter says, to call Israel an apartheid is inaccurate. Inside Israel, Jews and Muslims share the same roads, use the same hospitals, shop in the same stores, and vote for representation in the same parliament. This is not to say that discrimination against Muslims and Arabs exists in Israel, but it's a far cry from apartheid. Gordon justifies his claim primarily by speaking about the situation in the Palestinian territories. In this case he is correct that there are two systems of roads, and two separate legal systems. However, this is a condition of belligerent occupation, not apartheid. Palestinians are not full citizens because they live in occupation, not because they were somehow defined out of the legal system.

This distinction is important for two reasons. First, it preserves use of the shock-word "apartheid" for conditions which factually merit it. Secondly, it allows us to identify the most effective solution. Palestinian human rights would be improved by ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state, not by trying to shame Israel into action.

The Feel-Good Takeaway:

On both the far left and far right, the extremely complex situation in the Middle East is over-simplified to present a case for radical action based on emotion rather than rational discussion. The right is not wrong to ask Sweden to sustain efforts against anti-Semitism. The left is not wrong to call attention to the institutionalized discrimination against Arabs and Muslims in Israel. But ultimately, both sides must begin with a recognition of the complexity of the conflict and offer solutions which do justice to the Israeli and Palestinian people who experience the conflict as a way of life.

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