Monday, May 09, 2005

Focusing on Israel's occupation: shrewd tactic or colossal blunder?

Dear Friends,

Many people who speak and write forcefully about Israeli oppression of Palestinians -- world recognized names such as Uri Avneri and Tanya Reinhart, and local personages such as (in the Boston area) Dr. Alice Rothchild -- choose to focus exclusively on the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and to ignore the apartheid nature of Israel-proper.

I had occasion to gain some insight into one version of this point of view when I went to hear Alice Rothchild give a talk at the Harvard Law school April 27. Dr. Rothchild, a gynecologist, has written Op-Eds for the Boston Globe and her recent talk was a powerful indictment of Israeli crimes against Palestinians in the occupied (post 1967, not post 1948, that is) territories, featuring slides of her recent trip there, with emphasis on Palestinian efforts to create a modern medical care system and Israeli attacks on such efforts. The audience was only twelve people so I was able to ask a couple of questions after her formal talk.

My first "question" was a comment that the Israeli crimes she described so movingly are justified by Israel (especially by its propaganda in the United States) on the grounds that they are necessary to ensure the security of a Jewish state. I said that therefore we need to challenge that propaganda argument by saying why a Jewish state in Palestine is a terrible idea. Later, I followed up by asking, "So Alice, do you think there should be a Jewish state in Palestine?"

Dr. Rothchild's response to my first question was that the occupation wasn't really about security for Israel-proper, as evidenced by the fact that the notorious checkpoints make life miserable for most Palestinians but not for the ones who, if determined, can still get into Israel and set off bombs. I'll discuss why I think this answer is missing the forest for the trees, but it did score her a debater's point for sure.

Her answer to my second question (did she support a Jewish state?) surprised me. She began by saying that in her travels throughout the occupied territories she never heard Palestinians talk about whether there should be Jewish state, only that they wanted the occupation to end. She said the question of a Jewish state was therefore not important to talk about now, and that she did not want to talk about it. This didn't surprise me because I suspected that she was a "left Zionist" who opposed the occupation in order to make a Jewish state more immune from criticism, and that she would therefore say anything to avoid criticizing the existence of a Jewish state per se. But what she said next did surprise me. She said that in her heart of hearts she thought theocratic states of any religion could not be democratic, that this included a Jewish state, and that it would be better if Israel, as a Jewish state, did not exist.

Why, then, does Dr. Rothchild not want to talk publicly about how a Jewish state is an anti-democratic state and not a good idea? Well, I cannot read her mind so I won't even try. But let's look at her arguments.

First, Dr. Rothchild says Palestinians don't talk about whether there should be a Jewish state, only about the occupation. I don't doubt that she is reporting her experiences honestly. But think about it. In the middle of a terrible rainstorm, do people say things like, "I really wish it would be a beautiful sunny day today."? People just don't go around saying out loud that they want something when they have no hope that it is possible, no matter how much they want it.

Everyone from Yasser Arafat and Clinton in the past to Mahmoud Abbas and Bush, not to mention Sharon, today, have worked to lower the expectations of Palestinians to the point where they are being told to consider themselves lucky if they get a postage stamp-size statelet to call their own. Palestinians probably didn't tell Dr. Rothchild that they wanted an end to the Jewish state because she probably didn't ask them the question directly. It would be as unlikely for them to spontaneously call for an end to the Jewish state as it would be for an American to spontaneously announce that he or she thinks we need a revolution here in the U.S. (because although most Americans do indeed believe we need a revolution, as one can ascertain by making a practice of asking them this question, they also believe revolution in the U.S. is impossible, so why even talk about it.)

Dr. Rothchild's claim that Palestinians only care about the occupation is therefore not credible, especially in light of the enormous evidence to the contrary, namely the passionate desire of Palestinians to obtain their right of return to their home towns and villages inside Israel-proper, a right which, if granted, would, as everybody knows, mean the imminent end of Israel's Jewish majority and status as a Jewish state.

But what about Dr. Rothchild's point that the occupation isn't really about ensuring the security of the Jewish state? There are two separate issues here.

First, whether it is true or not, Israeli propaganda most certainly does claim that it is true, and if we accept the premise that there should indeed be a Jewish state in Palestine and that it should be secure, then our only remaining argument against the occupation is that the occupation makes Israel less secure rather than more secure.

I know some people do make this argument. They say Israel would be more secure if it had a friendly Palestinian state on its borders rather than an angry population of stateless refugees bristling under Israeli occupation. But this argument would only make sense if Israel were something that it is not. Israel is not a normal state; it is an apartheid state that insists on having a Jewish majority. The present Jewish majority was created by ethnic cleansing in 1947-9. It requires the denial today of every individual Palestinian's human right to return to his or her country. It also requires that the one million non-Jews inside Israel-proper be viewed not as equal citizens but as threats to the Jewish state who must be controlled with discriminatory legislation and practices aimed at making them want to leave. This is why Israel's realistic leaders like Sharon know that friendly relations between Palestinians and the government of Israel will never exist, regardless of whether there is a Palestinian statelet next door to Israel.

Additionally, Israeli leaders also know that in order to control their own Jewish population -- a population that tends to conduct huge strikes (like the general strike of 1997 which virtually shut the nation down) when they aren't pre-occupied by fear of Palestinians -- it is necessary to keep Jews scared to death of Palestinians so they will view their Israeli rulers as protectors. Peaceful relations with Palestinians is just not on the agenda for the likes of Ariel Sharon. If those who talk about peace between Israel and a Palestinian state also talked about the need for a fundamental social revolution inside Israel to make such a peace possible by abolishing the entire apartheid project of a Jewish state, then they could be taken a bit more seriously. But these "land for peace" types don't even want to discuss the apartheid nature of Israel, never mind talk about abolishing it.

The second issue involved in Dr. Rothchild's claim that the occupation isn't really about ensuring the security of a Jewish state is that she is wrong. It is. Yes, determined Palestinians can get past the checkpoints to explode their bombs inside Israel. And yes, much of the cruelty of the occupation -- the gratuitous humiliation and attacks on ordinary Palestinians just trying to survive -- is, on the practical level of physical security for Israel, pointless. But this misses the point.

Elites know very well that the way to protect bad is with worse. Have we not had our hands burned sufficiently by lesser evilism here in the U.S. to understand this? If the occupation does nothing else than to focus world anger at the occupation itself, instead of the apartheid nature of Israel, then it will have done its job of ensuring the security of Israel more than any checkpoint or "Wall" ever could. The very fact that Alice Rothchild gave a public talk and (except for my forcing the subject) did not want to even discuss the problem of Israel-proper, but only the occupation, shows how effectively the occupation works to ensure the security of the Jewish state.

To those "left Zionists" in the "land for peace" crowd, all I can say is your defense of apartheid is morally repugnant. But to the Alice Rothchilds who apparently think it is a shrewd strategy to focus only on the occupation even though they agree that an apartheid Jewish state is a very bad thing, I say this: Don't you see that this is exactly what Ariel Sharon and company are hoping you will do? Also, don't you understand that the people you are trying to persuade are far more likely to be persuaded if they see the conflict truthfully as being about whether an apartheid theocracy should exist or not, rather than untruthfully as a morally ambiguous contest between the victims of the Holocaust who only want a safe place to live in the world versus Palestinian claims to statehood?

--John

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