Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Pathology of State Victimhood

Henry Siegman, former executive director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America, is an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and currently president of the US Middle East Project; he has authored numerous articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (see, for example, his noted 2007 critique of peace negotiations under President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, "The Great Middle East Peace Process Scam"). I want to comment briefly on Siegman's response yesterday to Ha'aretz columnist Bradley Burston's recent charges that Siegman's views make him an Israel-hater.

Siegman's offense, in Burston's view, was to have claimed recently in the New York Times that Israelis dislike President Barack Obama because they fear that he "is serious about ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza." More fundamentally, Siegman asserted in the Times article, Israelis' refusal to support ending the occupation and removing illegal settlements demonstrates that they are unable "to adjust to the Jewish people's reentry into history with a state of their own following 2,000 years of powerlessness and victimhood." In light of such commentary, Burston claims that Siegman inexcusably must believe that there is something "fundamentally defective" about the Israeli people themselves.

In his response, published in Ha'aretz, Siegman counters that Ha'aretz's Burston himself has repeatedly made similar points about Israel's dysfunctional approach to negotiations: Israelis are resorting to their "aging instincts" in defining the conflict with the Palestinians in terms of the Holocaust, Burston has argued in the past, and Israeli politicians are willing to portray any compromise as a potentially mortal sacrifice, thereby negating the need to ease the suffering of others. Siegman reminds us that this sense of victimhood is called "galut [diaspora] mentality" in Israel; I say it should really be called "bunker mentality"—or perhaps "Hummer mentality"—to indicate the hypermilitarized doctrine that has arisen in tandem with the messianic territorial claims of Greater Israel ideology. For just as, in recent American military conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Humvee (a kind of moving bunker) is a synecdoche for the problem that external strength is never sufficient to protect obtruding human cargo from a determined resistance, likewise the Israeli "Hummer approach" to territorial control relies on brute force but exposes the country to the hazards of unjust occupation and international condemnation, ultimately weakening national existence. And like the Hummer's American sociological and economic trajectory from restricted military equipment to gas-guzzling consumer status item, the Israeli occupation has gone from being a relatively discreet project of the extreme right to one that now orients social values and dictates national policy.

Siegman reiterates, most crucially, the extent to which Israeli negotiations have relied on public declarations of sincerity accompanied by duplicitous state-supported expansion of settlements. Regarding Gaza, Siegman excoriates American and Israeli leaders for having disputed the veracity of the Goldstone fact-finding report, given that the deteriorating conditions Israel imposed on Gaza during the preceding ceasefire render hollow its claim to have launched the assault defensively. This, too, Burston himself earlier had affirmed, against the spin emanating from the Israeli government and media, in reporting the accusations of Israeli Brigadier-General Shmuel Zakai. Zakai, who commanded the IDF's Gaza division, minced no words: Israel had stoked Palestinian outrage during the period of truce. As Zakai put it clearly, "You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they're in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing."

The current Israeli government has refused to consider anything like a viable state for Palestinians, and has rejected even the minimal compromises previous governments had considered, while settlement construction continues at a torrid pace. This is evidence that Israel is not committed to a realistic peace settlement, despite its soothing public pronouncements. "If Israeli policy had truly aimed at a two-state solution, it could and would have happened long ago. Nothing would have more encouraged Palestinian efforts to overcome their many shortcomings, or to oppose their rejectionist groups, than a credible Israeli commitment to such a state." In light of what actually has occurred on the ground,, "blaming Palestinians for their misery," as Burston spuriously recommends, "is nothing more than a pretext for the continuation of a colonialist enterprise."

Siegman, who is known internationally as one of the most well-informed commentators on the Middle East, has not "gone off the rails," as Burston claims. He has spoken honestly at a time when, as Judge Richard Goldstone also knows, truthfulness and objectivity are not politically desirable qualities.

—Lincoln Z. Shlensky

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