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Arguing over Israel

I'm Israeli, though I haven't been there since I was a kid. As a result, I've been in my share of arguments about the Israeli-Arab conflict. In fact, I've argued on both sides, as my views on the subject have changed over the years. Another topic on which my views have changed is arguing itself. Nowadays, I prefer to avoid arguments of any sort, though at times I can't help myself.

Anyway, the idea behind this post is to share a little of my experience regarding how arguments about Israel can get stuck. My main basis is various arguments I've had with family members. They are pretty left-leaning. Not quite as much as me, but still to the left of Israel's Labor party. They are also strongly opposed to the settlements and are not especially attached to Jerusalem. If such people made up the majority in Israel, I think there would have been peace in the area long ago. But, in spite of all this, arguments between us about Israel's wars inevitably reach a dead-end. Here are some of the sticking points, as well as some other points.

WARNING: the following has not been proofread or properly edited and may not meet your standards for decent writing. My apologies, but that's the way it is.

1. Israel's moral superiority (perhaps you're familiar with the phrase "the most moral army in the world"). I think it's pretty clear that the morality of the two sides is an important and contentious issue. To many folks, it's a relatively simple issue: Israel is the oppressor, and the Palestinians are the oppressed. But to many others it's quite the opposite. They see things such as suicide bombings of buses and rockets attack on population centers, and conclude that the primary aim is to kill Israeli civilians. In comparison, Israel at least attempts to hit military targets. And when a unit kills an unarmed family, etc., this is viewed as an aberration rather than policy, and there is an investigation. Of course, the investigation is often complete baloney. And there may not even be an investigation if the incident isn't reported by the media or groups such as Breaking the Silence. But the mere fact that Israel pays lip service to trying to minimize civilian casualties stands in contrast to the 'terrorist' strategy of civilian casualties as the primary objective. Again, one can point to the blockade of Gaza and much of the rhetoric among politicians about making the Palestinians feel the pain and what-not. But, here too, there is typically an attempt to justify it using military necessity and so on, rather than coming and saying the goal is to kill civilians.

Now, my view regarding this is that this choice of tactics is a luxury that Israel can afford due to the extreme power differential. It's just the nature of asymmetric warfare. You can't expect Israel to adopt as a goal killing as many Palestinians as possible (it'd be called 'genocide'). Nor can you expect Hamas or Hezbollah to stop launching rockets at towns and cities (if they did, Israel would feel even less of a need to do anything about the occupation). But my point is typically not well-taken. Many Israelis see it as Israel having to fight with one hand tied behind its back while the Palestinians get to do whatever they're able to and still get sympathy as the underdogs. As a result, they consider that Israel's measures are justified by the restraint that they entail and the lack of restraint on the other side. And, of course, they can draw comparisons to other countries (e.g. exercise for the readers: what do you think the US would do if its towns were being hit with rockets from Mexico?).

2. You can't do nothing. This is one I find particularly unnerving. It is a variation on the idea of deterrence. Very few people are silly enough to suggest that a war with Gaza could lead to deterrence that is 100% effective. The more common view is that something like Cast Lead gets some level of deterrence for some time, and that at some point another war becomes necessary to reestablish deterrence. Now, we're a few days into this current war and there have already been 3 Israeli civilians killed. And Tel Aviv had now had its first real siren since the Gulf War. Even if (as many but not all Israelis are wont to do during a war) one ignores the casualties on the Palestinian side, it can't be denies that these wars cost a great deal in both human and monetary terms.

So why have them, then? Let's discard electioneering--though this may be a valid reason for Netanyahu, it would certainly not be considered valid by the average Israeli. One reason I've encountered is that doing nothing is simply not an option. For one thing, they claim that doing nothing would embolden Hamas since they wouldn't be taking any risk. Thus, as bad as war is, doing nothing would ultimately be worse. This is speculative enough that it becomes implausible to argue about it based on evidence (who of us actually knows what would happen if Israel restrained itself completely in the face of rocket attacks, weapons smuggling, etc.?). Another argument is that, even if doing nothing would actually result in less death and destruction, it's simply not an option. Defending its citizens is a vital role of the government (in fact, Obama often claims that's his first duty, not defending the constitution as in his oath of office), and one that can't be abdicated. I'm not sure if the idea is that the citizenry wouldn't accept it or what. But it is plausible. Just think back to how much trouble Gilad Shalit's captivity stirred up for the government because his family and many other people felt not enough was being done to get him back. Now imagine what would happen if the government adopted a policy of doing nothing in response to rocket fire from Gaza. At such a point, there's really nothing I can say. It seems like a genuine impasse: even if the government adoped the short-term policy I recommend, the only result would be it would get tossed out before too long.

3. Double standards and anti-semitism. Here I have to say I'm torn. There is little doubt in my mind that Israel gets a disproportionate amount of criticism. The Israeli government's admittedly outrageous policies get much more attention that far more outrageous policies in other countries. Israelis often make the claim that Israeli Arabs are freer than Arabs in any of the Arab countries. And even if this isn't quite true, there is something to that. e.g. torture in Bahrain:

Torture during the Bahraini uprising (2011–present) has been described in many human rights reports as being widespread and systematic; 64% of detainees (1866 individuals) reported being tortured. At least five individuals died as a result.

Or consider the genocide in Darfur: granted it has at various times received a lot of attention, but I'd say it involves what is an entirely different level of atrocity. Now, the thing to say about the double-standard is that it doesn't justify Israel's actions. That's true. But, at the same time, it is always there in the background.

4. Zionism and the Holocaust. We must keep in mind that Israel is the only Jewish country in the world. Many people think that Israel being official a Jewish country is racist, etc. And maybe they're right. But the vast majority of them live in a country where their religion (or their family's religion) makes up the majority of the population. And anti-semitism is very real (though it's far less of a problem in the US than in Europe), as the bar scene in Borat vividly made clear (UPDATE: apparently the scene might have been misleading in that it was only part of his perfromance, but there are many real examples of anti-semitic incidents every year) , as did the Holocaust of course. Comments such as Helen Thomas's, besides the hypocrisy involved in light of the US's own history with America's natives, betray a lack of understanding of the fact that the Jews simply have no home outside of Israel.

Now, to wrap up, let me point out that I've avoided completely any talk of peace or ending the occupation. That is a separate matter. Of course, that is the only real solution, so the issues are intimately related. However, when there's a war, the focus of discussion is naturally the war itself.

Disclaimer: as usual, YMMV. And if I come off as too pro-Israel here, all I can say is it's all relative. For some perspective, try conversing with a Likudnik and then reread what I wrote.

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Neil in Chicago's picture
Submitted by Neil in Chicago on

The only thing unpredictable about the Israeli overreaction is just how over the top it will be. So if anyone would know what would happen if Hamas kept shooting off rockets, why did they?

Submitted by YesMaybe on

I suppose most Correntians don't read the Israeli press too much. So here is a good article from back in March:

Haaretz is a left-leaning paper, and Levy is one of their more left-leaning columnists. I suppose Likudniks would describe him as being very anti-Israel. Haaretz's more recent articles aren't available for free, but it seems older ones like this one (from before the website moved to requiring subscription) still are.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

it really is a breath of fresh air to hear from someone who has first hand knowledge and manages to keep their perspective.

mtngun's picture
Submitted by mtngun on

... for the anti-Semitism/homeland/Jews-are-a-race angle

Yes, Jews are discriminated against. But atheists like myself are discriminated against far more. People of color are discriminated against. People are discriminated against based on their economic status, their age, their gender, etc., etc. It's important to acknowledge the discrimination and try to overcome it, but discrimination does not justify committing wrongs.

Yes, millions of Jews were killed. As were millions of Poles and Russians and Gypsies and homosexuals and the mentally challenged. And millions of Native Americans. And millions of blacks were forced into slavery. It's important to acknowledge those wrongs of the past, and to learn from them, but they don't justify committing wrongs today.

"the fact that the Jews simply have no home outside of Israel."

BS. Last I heard, there are more Jews in the US than in Israel. America is the real Jewish homeland.

Speaking of homelands, where's the atheist homeland ? How 'bout the Mormon homeland ? How 'bout the KKK homeland ? The Native American homeland ? Does every religious/racial/political sect require its own homeland ? Where is this written ? I'll tell you where it's written -- it's written in the segregationist principles of Zionism -- and those segregationist principles were spelled out long before the holocaust.

The US was founded on the principle of separation of church and state. US law requires integration, and forbids segregation, not even "separate but equal". American law is fundamentally opposed to Israel's embrace of the Jewish religion and Israel's embrace of apartheid. True, many other countries besides Israel have an official state religion, as is their right, but just don't ask me to have any sympathy for that kind of a government, because I don't.

While you didn't come right out and say it, your framing of the issues implies that you buy into the "Jews are a race" theory. When in fact, a good percentage of people who self-identify as Jewish are agnostic or atheist (20% of Israelis).

How can an atheist be a Jew, if Judaism is a religious choice ? It doesn't make any sense .... unless you believe, as the Nazis did, that Judaism is a race (the Nazis considered even practicing Christians to be Jewish if even one grandparent had been a Jew -- CRAZY !!!).

So if I converted to Judaism tomorrow, would I then be considered a Jew ? Or would I be required to pass a DNA test to prove that I had Jewish blood ? You know the answer to that question -- being a Jew is simply a personal CHOICE. It's not a gene that you inherit from your parents. It's your right to make that CHOICE, but I don't identify with it, and I don't want my government to prop up a country that's all about choices that I disagree with, whether that country is Israel or Bahrain.

I give you credit, YesMaybe, for being able to consider the Palestinian's point of view. Having empathy with others, even if they are different than you, is what humanism is all about. But you need to face up to the fact that Zionism is evil, no morally different than the KKK. That Zionism predates the holocaust. That most of the people in this world do not have a "homeland." That instead, we have to try to get along with people who are different than us. That integration is good and segregation is evil.

My own take on the Mid-East conflict, FWIW: I despise Israel for all the reasons I've discussed. However, I have no illusions that the Palestinians are saints. I don't want to take sides, and I don't want my government to take sides. I think the US should stop propping up Israel. Cut off the aid. Call out Israel's nuke program. Let the UN general assembly address the Palestinian question. Urge both peoples to embrace separation of church and state, and integration.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

but anti-semitism played a unique role in the rise of Hitler, plenty of others were swept up, but anti-semitism was the driving force. Moreover, the holocast of WWII was only the most extreme of anti-Jewish massacres, which contrary to legend, are not confined to Europe. There simply has to be a place for Jews to go when Jews have to go there, and Israel is the only place that makes sense.

This is not to defend all actions of Israel, and especially those actions post 1967, only that there has to be a place for Jews to go when Jews have to go there.

Submitted by YesMaybe on

As I mentioned in the post, I'm not the arguing type nowadays. So I'll just point out those places where I do agree.

1. I was not justifying Israel's crimes.

2. I was not justifying or arguing for US support of Israel.

3. I am not a zionist myself, and I would be perfectly happy if there was a peaceful one-state solution and Israel ceased to exist as a Jewish state.

coyotecreek's picture
Submitted by coyotecreek on

I have been trying to separate fact from fiction - I have a friend who lives in Israel and have been getting his reports - at the same time I am reading so many other reports that describe a very different situation/background. I particularly appreciate your input on your points 1 and 2 - I had not thought about it from those perspectives.

But I also agree with some of what mtngun says. I do not want the US to fight Israel's battles, sacrifice US lives, and I do resent (yup, I guess that's what I mean) the billions of dollars in aid that the US gives to Israel.

I would also appreciate it if you would continue to comment on ongoing developments here are Corrente. I don't know if you've seen this, but if you have comments about what Juan Cole writes, that would be great. (BTW - I'm pretty sure that Cole was one of Obamney's biggest cheerleaders this year....I guess in his mind, Robama was, indeed, the lesser of two evils.)

Submitted by YesMaybe on

I stopped reading Juan Cole when I realized that he's totally ok with imperialism and militarism so long as the wars are backed by UN resolutions. Specifically, his writings on Libya and Syria.

Kathryn's picture
Submitted by Kathryn on

...inner dialogues committed to print. So thank you for this.

I would point out a few things for consideration:

You wrote: "(e.g. exercise for the readers: what do you think the US would do if its towns were being hit with rockets from Mexico?)."

Well on this one, you've got the players wrong. The US is basically what Israel is; a big white colonial land grab. So if you're going to use this analogy, it would be "what if Native Americans were shooting off rockets at towns around them." Seriously. I'm not kidding. The US was largely founded by white european christians with a serious case of religious manifest destiny. The native population was exterminated or herded onto small unsustainable plots of land and held there for generations, and generally abused as the powerless in the relationship. It's actually quite similar. Just 200 years older which means history is fuzzy enough to rewrite anyway you want to. Israel was much the same. As for the world's most moral army, well let's remember that the King David hotel didn't blow itself up, and so at a point in time as the powerless in the political relationship, maybe Jewish Palestinians weren't all that moral either. Neither was George Washington's "hit and run" army.

The US and Israel (and Iran for that matter) are divided ethically, and pretty evenly. You have the religious populations which see everything in terms of "us" vs the "other" and the other is just not worth as much. You have the left populations which are more geared to life as "infinite and equal." And you have the toss up generations in the middle. Power is held right now in most places by those in the "us versus other" camp. This was very clearly demonstrated by Robert Gibbs recently when he basically stated that killing muslim children with drones was perfectly fine if it meant that american children were safer. This is the dehumanization of the "other." The Obama crowd is a religious administration, not evil, just religious. Their actions are completely predictable in this view. The same is true of Israel.

The one difference that is coming forward, is that many of the Left in Israel have left the country. The birthrates of Muslims and of Jewish fundamentalists are quite high. 60% of Jews worldwide do not live in Israel nor could they because already there is not enough water to support the population. This is creating a boiling pot in the area -- the religious fundamentalism is powerful enough that something like 70% of Israelis get married in Cyprus because they are not sufficiently Jewish to marry in Israel.

The biggest problem worldwide Jewry has is "what does it mean to be Jewish?"

The second biggest problem would be the increasing movement of the first world away from religious thinking and towards humanity in equality. Ideas lead the way. An independent Israel with Jerusalem at the center was wholly supported by Christian religious populations. Those Christian gens are rapidly dying out.

And to answer your question, which I started this comment out with, the current administration would blast those reservations back to the stone age. Which would be equally horrific and for the same reasons... to the Left. Manifest Destiny for the Right.