a light unto the nations

Richard Cohen’s Washington Post piece last week began, “The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now.”

As you would expect, this opening sparked some fire in the blogosphere. In fact, it was the most blogged-about statement of the day, described variously as “poison,” “projectile vomiting,” the “asinine quote of the century,” and a “bizarre attack on Israel,” written by a “self-hating terror enabler,” a “Jew who can be relied upon to provide cover for … malignant pyschosis and racism.” (I quote from half a dozen different blogs.)

Cohen could have argued against the current Israeli military action without calling the country a “mistake.” I doubt that the debate he launched will be productive. It would be more timely to discuss whether the bombing and ground invasion of Lebanon comport with just war theory. We should also debate whether these actions can possibly advance the interests of Israel, rightly understood. As the Israeli Meretz Party is asking, Is there an exit strategy? Is there a plausible scenario in which the invasion leads to peace and security?

However, over the longer term, the question of Israel’s legitimacy is unavoidable. The Jewish state is a democracy that needs the voluntary and enthusiastic support of its own people and the authentic friendship of at least some foreign countries. Therefore, it is not wrong to raise the question of whether Israel is a “mistake”–and if not, why not.

Some complain that Israel is singled out for criticism, even though the neighboring tyrannies receive less scrutiny. But the governments of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt have no legitimate moral claims; they merely have guns. Men enlist in the Syrian army because they are drafted. Subjects obey the Syrian state because otherwise they will be tortured. Other countries deal with Syria because they have no alternative.

A democratic state is a different kind of project. It asserts a right to govern on the basis of justice. It is therefore an appropriate question whether the State of Israel state is just, whereas there is no need to ask that question in relation to Syria or even Jordan and Egypt.

Israel was created by a vote of the United Nations, and its citizens still want to be a nation. Even if the original Zionist project was a mistake, the state of Israel has a presumptive right to exist, just as the USA is legitimate regardless of the merits of Manifest Destiny. America was built on land stolen from the indigenous population so that it could be worked, in significant measure, by imported slaves. We nevertheless have a legitimate–indeed, an excellent–polity that rests today on the consent of the governed. Israel’s foundation was, at the least, less bloody that our own. Like any democracy, Israel must show that its current behavior and laws are just; its origins are history.

Thus, as a friend of Israel, I worry about the defenses of that nation that I read on English-language blogs in response to Cohen’s post. I don’t know how much of the Israeli population these blogs represent, but I have also encountered the same views in offline conversations. The main arguments are: (1) God gave Israel to the Jews in perpetuity; (2) Jews lived in what is now Israel for many centuries of antiquity; and (3) There were hardly any Arabs in Palestine before the Jewish immigration of the late 1800s.

I cannot accept the premise that Israel is God’s gift, nor should the United States or the global community. Unlike the argument that Israel deserves respect because its constitution is just, an appeal to scripture can move no one except fundamentalists. The premise that Jews are the original occupants of Israel is of dubious relevance. Similar logic would imply that those of European ancestry who live today in North and South America, Australia, and South Africa must go back “home” and leave those lands to the native populations. As for the argument that Palestine was “deserted swampland” between 68 CE and 1870–this raises a host of problems.

First, I doubt it’s true. It is hard to tell from the World Wide Web how many Moslem and Christian Arabs really lived in what would become British Palestine in 1890 or 1910. This is an intensely touchy subject, and many people have created responsible-looking websites that provide radically different estimates. Yehoshua Porath’s estimate of more than 200,000 sounds well-argued to me; it appeared in a respectable publication; and it’s perfectly consistent with contemporaneous descriptions of Ottoman Palestine quoted on the Zionist websites, which make the area seem relatively lightly populated but far from “deserted.”

I am not learned about Middle Eastern history and cannot settle the debate about how many Arabs lived in Palestine before the big Jewish immigration. But it does seem risky to tie one’s national self-respect to a claim that there weren’t many of another people present on your land before your countrymen arrived. Mrs. Netanhayu once told Queen Noor of Jordan, “When the Jews came to this area, there were no Arabs here. They came to find work when we built cities. There was nothing here before that.” What if that turned out to be false? Given her rationale for the Zionist project, must Mrs. Netanyahu reject the state of Israel if someone shows her that there were Arabs in Palestine in 1880?

Not only bloggers, but people I have known offline denigrate the old Arab population of Palestine, claiming that the few resident Arabs were pathetically poor and illiterate until the Jews arrived. This is an empirical claim that could, for the little I know, turn out to be true. But it’s morally dangerous to want to believe that another group was so bereft and despondent that their defeat at your hands was a blessing for them. That is a deeply condescending assumption that can easily become habitual.

The Jewish state needs a proper sense of self-respect and a national project that it can confidently defend. It still has a chance, I believe, to embody an inspiring story that unites and motivates its own people and impresses fair-minded outsiders. Its national narrative can still be about an oppressed but peace-loving people who have built a decent society in the face of adversity. But that self-image depends upon just behavior. To be the light unto nations, Israel must be law-abiding, moral, democratic, and a force for peace. Then when someone questions (or seems to question) the nation’s legitimacy, Israelis can reply by emphasizing its goodness.

It seems to me that in the first thirty years of the Jewish state’s existence, it was more sinned against than sinning, and its accomplishments were remarkable. But once Israel became an occupying power with a substantial and restive subject population of Moslems and Christians, the national narrative became untenable. At that point, claims that the country was a “mistake” really started to sting. Some defenders took refuge in caustic arguments about the inferiority of “the Arabs.” Those claims would, at best, provide a poor foundation for national unity. Because it is a democracy committed to the rule of law, Israel must be just if it hopes to survive at all.

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2 Responses to a light unto the nations

  1. Peter,

    I basically agree that our moral and policy frame should be prospective. But how to respond to critics who ask for reparations for past injustice, like slavery reparations? Does history really have no place in resolving these conflicts? I’m asking these questions as a devil’s advocate.

    – Mike

  2. Peter Levine says:

    Mike,

    It’s a good and difficult question. I could be persuaded that Palestinians displaced in the Israeli War of Independence (or their heirs) deserve compensation as a matter of distributive justice. I’m not convinced, however, that money would mitigate their problems or those of the region. By the same token, I agree with this specific case for reparations in the US context. But I don’t think it’s the path to solving racial injustice in America.

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