05 July 2007

05 July 2007 - The human rights case for Israel

On the bus to work this morning, I dug into a book of essays that had been recommended to me by Professor Gideon Shimoni, who is one of the foremost scholars on the history of Zionism and also of the South African Jewish community. The collection, entitled New Essays on Zionism, was published by Shalem in 2006, and is part of an ongoing effort to reclaim and redeem classical Zionist thought.

The book does not devote much attention to the occupation, but an essay at the end by historian Michael Oren, “Ben-Gurion and the Return to Jewish Power,” considers the “confusion over sovereignty” that has seized Israel for decades, and which became especially pronounced since 1967. Like Ruth Wisse, Oren is concerned about the Jewish struggle to wield power appropriately after millennia of powerlessness.

David Ben-Gurion, Oren writes, even invented a Hebrew word to capture the problem: mamlachtiyut, or “acting in a sovereign-like manner.” (408). He recounts how prior to the establishment of Israel, religious Jews had developed a cult of powerlessness, while secular Jews abandoned power through assimilation. Later, after 1967, leftists sought to abandon power while religious Zionists venerated it.

Oren also points out that just as the settlement enterprise was undertaken in defiance of the law, so, too, was the Oslo peace process, which was negotiated by a small group of self-appointed Israeli emissaries. This confirmed, for me, the idea that Israel’s core problem may be its internal centralization of power, leading to tendencies toward both authoritarianism and anarchy—and political paralysis.

Another one of the outstanding essays in the collection is the opening piece, “The Jewish State: A Justification,” written by Israeli human rights lawyer and ACRI founder Ruth Gavison. Gavison seeks to justify Israel’s founding and continued existence on “universal moral grounds,” specifically the “discourse of human rights, including the right of peoples, under certain conditions, to self-determination.”

Gavison first dismisses the view that Israel must be neutral with regard to its religious and cultural identity. Neutrality, in the first place, is an illusion—but more than that, the tension between being a nation-state and a liberal democracy need not be fatal, she argues. After all, other countries have similar tensions. The real issue, she implies, is how and whether Israel chooses to resolve that tension.

The benefits of Israel to Jews—protection against persecution, and prevention of assimilation—must be weighed, Gavison says, against the costs to Arabs, who “lack the ability to control their own public domain.” In the early years of Zionist settlement, she allows, this balance weighed against a Jewish right to self-determination. It did not, however, limit their liberty to settle the land.

The violent resistance that Palestinian Arabs then used to try to dislodge the Jewish community actually “lent significant weight to the Jewish claim to a sovereign state,” she argues, because it suggested sovereignty was necessary for Jewish security. Over the next several decades of diplomacy and war, Zionism and the Jewish state “made a critical transition” from liberty to right.

Since 1967, she points out, questions about the formula for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have re-emerged, with some sticking with partition and the two-state solution, some arguing for s single state (controlled by one side or the other), and others pushing for a bi-national state. However, Gavison argues, this does not undermine the case for Jewish statehood where Jews are a demographic majority.

The two-state solution, she says, would not only help end the conflict but would also secure Israel’s own identity and right. “In other words, so long as the Jewish character of the state does not infringe on the basic human rights of those Arabs living within Israel, and the state is the only guarantee of certain Jewish rights—both individual and communal—then the continued existence of Israel is justified.”

To this contingent but consistent formulation, she adds: “Palestinian self-determination, therefore, should be recognized if it concedes the right of Jews to self-determination. At the same time, a Palestinian nation state living in peace alongside Israel is preferable to the present situation, for this would mean that the rights of both Jews and Arabs to self-determination are honored.” (18)

Israel must remain a Jewish state, she argues, because that is the preference of the majority. However, it must also be a liberal state, which means it must protect the rights of minorities, particularly the Arab minority. That means recognizing the burden of Israeli statehood for Arabs; promoting civic and social equality between Jews and Arabs; and using dialogue to resolve and manage disagreements.

It does not, however, mean denying the reality that Israel provides benefits to its Arab minority that are greater than those Arabs would enjoy in any Arab state; nor does it mean tolerating outright promotion of the interests of Israel’s enemies, or celebrations of Palestinian terrorism, which certain Arab political leaders have sometimes indulged in despite enjoying the rights and privileges of public office.

I should add, in this note, that what I find alarming about the narrow sectarianism of many Arab politicians in Israel is something that bothers me about most other political groups as well—namely, that each proudly claims to represent a narrow constituency. There is no recognition that public representatives, even those elected on narrow support, bear responsibility for leading the nation as a whole.

As for Diaspora Jews, Gavison says that they should not have the same right as Israelis “to participate in Israel’s decision-making process,” but acknowledges that they certainly have an interest and that Israel is “obligated” to maintain and build its connections with them. She also defends the Law of Return, which “does not discriminate among citizens. It determines who may become one.”

Similarly, she defends other attempts by the Israeli state to preserve the numerical strength and territorial contiguity of the Jewish population by, for example, building Jewish town in various parts of the state. (I am sure, however, that by the same token, she would disagree with building Jewish towns on top of Bedouin settlements—a clear case of the majority’s interest violating the minority’s right.)

Arab citizens of Israel, she says, have the right to try to change the character of the state, but must do so within the democratic rules, and must accept the decision of the majority as legitimate. The key to resolving tensions around these issues “will be our ability to preserve the delicate balance between what unites us and what makes us different”—between Jews and Arabs, and among Jews.

Gavison does not address the question of whether Israel’s treatment of the rights of non-citizens in the occupied territories has any bearing on the right of the state to exist. Perhaps that omission itself is the answer: no. However, Israel’s external rights record may reflect or have consequences for its overall respect for rights. As I have suggested, both issues may relate to the primary issue of the rule of law.


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