25 September 2007

25 September 2007 - Israel/Palestine: Week 3

This week’s readings were perhaps the most “pro-Israel” of the syllabus. Though they examine whether Israel can be both Jewish and democratic—perhaps a loaded question—two of the readings answered strongly in the affirmative. A summary of the readings follows (apologies to the professor, who tells me he drops in on this blog, and will have read some of these comments in my reaction paper already).

Ruth Gavison defends Israel’s legitimacy on “universal moral grounds,” both categorical and utilitarian. The categorical argument rests on the right of all peoples to self-determination in their own land, which Jews exercise in Israel and Arabs should exercise in a Palestinian state. The utilitarian argument holds that the benefits of Israel for Jews outweigh the burden of Israel for its Arab citizens.

This balance has changed over time, she argues; the right of Israel to be established and maintained as a Jewish state only matured during the course of the twentieth century. Jews could, however, always claim the liberty to settle in the interest of creating a future state. Arabs today enjoy a similar liberty, she says, to oppose Israel’s Jewish identity, but that identity violates their interests, not their rights.

Alan Dowty opposes the definition of Israel by Oren Yiftachel, et al., as an “ethnocracy,” which he describes as both atypical and overly “unforgiving.” Dowty agrees with the “acid test”—the measure of Arab minority rights—but not the “either-or” approach of Israel’s critics. He notes that Israel is democratic and free by most measures, but should include Arabs in power-sharing and national identity.

Meanwhile, Hassan Jabareen asserts Arab rights of self-determination within Israel by arguing that the Palestinian identity of Arabs is suppressed by legal norms of equality. Yet he wants Jews to give up their right of self-determination to accommodate Arabs who don’t have to give up theirs. This failure to reciprocate recognition perpetuates the overall conflict and is rightly dismissed by Gavison.

The discussion today—again, without getting into too many specifics—was the liveliest we’ve had thus far. I also found it the most frustrating, because I felt that people were not being specific enough with the terms they used. Without quarreling with the right of Arab citizens of Israel to identify as Palestinians, for example, it is necessary to specify which group and which Palestinian claims one is talking about.

I seemed to have a fundamentally different reading of Gavison from most other folks. She lists the physical and cultural survival of Jews as important reasons for Israel’s existence, but I think what is also important to her is the idea that Jews earned the right to self-determination by creating a self-governing political unit before 1948. Hannah Arendt, binationalist that she was, took that position also.

The problem I have with a debate that focuses so much attention on the “Jewish vs. democratic” question is that the Jewishness of Israel is not, to me, the fundamental issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There may be negative consequences for Arabs that flow from Israel’s Jewishness, but Israel’s Jewishness is not the reason Palestinian Arabs do not have a state alongside Israel or even in all of Palestine.

I spoke about five or six times, which makes me a bit uncomfortable. Every week I tell myself I’ll sit back and listen awhile, and yet every week I obey the urge to intervene. I once tried organizing an “Israel section,” but failed. The professor challenges everyone’s views, even those he agrees with, which is great, but it can be hard being in the minority even when the readings provide a good basis for Israel’s case.

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