17 October 2007 - Israel/Palestine: Weeks 5 & 6
There has been a bit of progress, perhaps, in our class discussions over the past two weeks. Last week (week 5) we began our discussion of international law and Israel’s post-1967 occupation. We considered the relevant provisions of the Hague Convention of 1907 (§ 43 – on the occupier’s duty to respect pre-existing laws unless “absolutely prevented”) as well as the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 (§ 49(6) – on the deportation and transfer of persons into occupied territory).
Israel’s interpretations of these conventions and their applicability (or not) to the territories have been controversial. Our readings included material by Eyal Benvenisti and David Kretzmer, who explored Israel’s arguments and the critical responses to them. We did not, however, read any official Israeli sources.
The Israeli argument did get a fair hearing in class. I challenged the focus on the issue, however, saying that this was one area where I felt the political questions were more important than the legal questions. The shape of a final peace settlement, the geopolitics of the region, the failures of Palestinian institution-building—all these were more important for the future on both sides.
The discussion in the seminar eventually broke down into an argument over whether Israeli settlements had made the two-state solution unviable. I disagreed with many of the comments, and simply asked why a Palestinian state would have to be Judenrein, pointing out that respect for minority rights would help Palestinian nation-building. One of the pro-Palestinian students actually agreed.
This week (week 6), we began with a lecture by a visiting Israeli academic who used Edward Said’s “Orientalism” to argue that discrimination against Mizrachi Jews was integral to Zionism and even caused much of the Arab-Israeli conflict. People were seemingly seduced by this re-telling of Israel’s history as a quotation-mark-riddled, ironical farce, another version of white-versus black, settler-versus native.
Few Mizrachi Jews, however, would agree with anything this person said. (There was an Israeli fellow among the auditors who wished to say something, but was not allowed to, though auditors certainly have been allowed to speak before.)
I happened upon an article by Meyrav Wurmser, who wrote the following response to the phenomenon of radical Mizrachi post-Zionism in the Middle East Quarterly:
“The Mizrahi post-Zionist allegations about the systemic ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic discrimination that marked much of Israeli society in its early years are truthful. The claim that Mizrahim continue to live the consequences of this type of discrimination is not a distortion. The examples they point to are neither fabricated nor taken out of context . . .
“With this in mind, the post-Zionist Mizrahi radical rejection of Zionism and the Israeli state is the wrong medicine for the disease. Rejecting Zionism is opting for a solution that is outside the Israeli political system. Such a solution will contribute little to solving the existing problems of Israeli society and its Mizrahi population. Destroying the state of Israel will not make the Mizrahim more equal or accepted by either Jewish or Arab societies.
“Taking a radical stand against the state of Israel means that the post-Zionists undermine the achievements and accomplishments of Mizrahim in Israel. Years of Mizrahi history in the Jewish state are dismissed by the post-Zionists as atypical or unimportant. Their many successes are ignored and belittled. In so doing, the post-Zionist Mizrahi writers portray the members of their community as the passive object of history. They are forever the victims, too weak to rebel and too naive to fight the system.
“Moreover, much of the post-Zionist Mizrahi outlook is based on nostalgic reminiscences of the Arab world rather than an unsentimental view of what it was then and now . . . . This exposes yet another weakness in the post-Zionist argument: the assumption that the Arab-Israeli conflict is one-sided and is only the result of the manipulations of Zionism. The post-Zionists Mizrahi writers forget that the Arab world continues to play a role in the conflict. The Arab world's version of Arab nationalism was inspired since its creation by both fascism and Islamic fundamentalism—two movements which have by no means been kind to Jews. Modern Arab nationalism—and not "Ashkenazi" Zionism—is no less responsible for the conflict between Arabs and Israelis. . . . The so-called liberation of the Mizrahi Jews will only expose them to new forms of oppression.”
I mentioned in the class that several of my relatives have married Mizrachis, many of my best Israeli friends are Mizrachis, and the issue of discrimination has never surfaced at all. I take that not as evidence of some kind of denial but simply of the fact that Jewish identity in both Israel and the Diaspora has become more open and dynamic over the years, despite some lingering internal tensions and resentments.
Also, Mizrachi Jews are generally intensely patriotic. Wurmser notes:
“Perhaps the greatest difficulty with the post-Zionist agenda stems from the fact that its proponents lack a substantial following among the Mizrahim in Israel. Mizrahim tend not only to view themselves as ardent Zionists, but they also tend to hold religious and nationalist views that lead them to support the Israeli Right in national elections. Perhaps rooted in their families' past experiences, most hold an antagonistic view of the Arab world and find the attempt to define them as Arab Jews rather than as Israelis insulting.”
Anyway, after that, we returned to the discussion of international law and talked about Israel’s regulatory changes in the West Bank, some of which allowed Israel to collect value-added taxes and customs duties on Palestinian exports. Israel’s critics argue that these duties were not spent on the direct needs of the Palestinian people, and that despite the improvement in standards of living from 1967-87 the Palestinians should have benefited from money collected ostensibly on their behalf.
It’s a strong and valid criticism, certainly on moral grounds. Let me be clear: I think the withholding of tax receipts from a terror-supporting government like Arafat’s Palestinian Authority or Hamas in Gaza is totally appropriate. There were also domestic and international political constraints on vast public spending by Israel in the territories. Even so, Israel’s fiscal policy there over the years is hard to defend.
Yet was it legally wrong? Or, more precisely, did Israel violate the Hague regulations by changing the pre-existing Jordanian regulatory system? One argument is that the Hague regulations were meant to be read narrowly. Israel’s courts had ruled that any changes had to be for the benefit of the occupied population, but even that went beyond the strict requirements of international law.
If the definition of a “benevolent” occupation would require the active creation of a thriving, semi-autonomous, economically independent Palestinian proto-state, then Israel would be found wanting. But if Israel’s only legal responsibility was to do no harm, then it had not violated international law in its economic policies in the territories, whatever their other flaws.
By now, I have run out of patience with the readings, many of which are just anti-Israel babble. And we have yet to devote significant attention—legal, political, moral or otherwise—to Palestinian behavior or the role of Arab states over the past sixty years. Aspects of this class continue to be intensely frustrating. However, I am encouraged by some of the opinions and responses of my classmates.