Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Is Zionism the problem?

On March 15th, the LA Times published a pair of op-ed essays by two American Jews with diametrically opposed views of Zionism. Their opposing views are worth reading, in part because they have been given prominent space in a major American newspaper; the discussion needs to be extended, however, beyond the confines of intracommunal debate. More importantly, the wrong topic -- Zionism and anti-Zionism -- is under debate. This ideological argument serves to distract attention from the desperate need for a renewed discussion of human and political rights that must set the agenda for any negotiations toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One of the two interlocutors in the LA Times debate is Judea Pearl, father of the late journalist Daniel Pearl (and president of the memorial foundation that bears his name), and a professor of computer science and statistics at UCLA. Pearl asserts that it is anti-Zionism, rather than anti-Semitism, that "poses a more dangerous threat to lives, historical justice and the prospects of peace in the Middle East." He claims that the perniciousness of anti-Zionism lies in the fact that it "rejects the very notion that Jews are a nation -- a collective bonded by a common history -- and, accordingly, denies Jews the right to self-determination in their historical birthplace." Pearl says nothing about the twenty percent of Israelis who are not Jewish, and one wonders how he reconciles the rights of Jews to self-determination with the rights of Israel's large non-Jewish minority population. His most troubling assertion is that "the anti-Zionist plan to do away with Israel condemns 5 1/2 million human beings, mostly refugees or children of refugees, to eternal defenselessness in a region where genocidal designs are not uncommon." Any future "anti-Zionist" -- that is, single state -- plan which fails to fully protect the rights of the demographic minority would (and should) be rejected out of hand by Israelis. Pearl's apocalyptic scenario is therefore primarily a rhetorical stick to beat those among the "academic and media elite" whom Pearl, ironically exhibiting the lack of public civility he criticizes in others, prejudiciously characterizes as hatred disguised within the "cloak of political debate."

The other position in the debate is articulated by Ben Ehrenreich, a novelist and freelance journalist, who writes that "The Zionist ideal of a Jewish state is keeping Israelis and Palestinians from living in peace." His argument is that Israeli Jews' adherence to political Zionism has underwritten policies practiced by the right and the left of the Israeli political spectrum that are incompatible with democracy. In Ehrenreich's view, neither the Israeli left nor the right can lead the country to peace, because both camps endorse what one might describe as a mystical view of the nation's territorial rights. "The problem is fundamental," writes Ehrenreich. "Founding a modern state on a single ethnic or religious identity in a territory that is ethnically and religiously diverse leads inexorably either to politics of exclusion (think of the 139-square-mile prison camp that Gaza has become) or to wholesale ethnic cleansing." While Ehrenreich very accurately describes the essential problem entailed in founding a modern nation-state on ethnoreligious affiliation, this ethical argument alone will never be enough to convince Israeli Jews to abandon their national and territorial claims, because such claims are linked to profound and historically rooted existential fears. One may argue that these fears are grossly exaggerated, but such an argument is merely theoretical. One may also argue that demagogues have frequently whipped up such fears among Israeli Jews in order to justify the expropriation of more Palestinian land; while undoubtedly true (and deeply destructive to any possibility of eventual reconciliation), this does not speak to the persistent difficulty of guaranteeing equity in societies deeply riven by ethnic or religious conflict.

In the end, the debate between Zionists and anti-Zionists is a red herring, in my view, a diversionary tactic that merely postpones crucial negotiations and decisions that could enable an equitable and peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians. The real debate needs to be over how to politically enshrine -- with the necessary help of the international community -- the rights of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews in a future political compact. Unless Israeli Jews can be presented with a plan, whether national or confederational, that guarantees their political freedoms and allows them to live without fear of being politically overwhelmed by shifting demography, then peace, with reparative justice for the Palestinians, will remain elusive. Without such an internationally backed guarantee of rights and security, negotiations can only be experienced as a zero-sum equation in which Israeli Jews have everything to lose. This far more important debate over how to assure the rights of Jews and Palestinians will not happen without the impetus of broad-based popular political activism, the involvement of the key global political players, and sincere compassion for both sides. Until widespread demand mounts for the negotiation of an internationally backed agreement that preserves the mutual rights and political freedoms of Israelis and Palestinians, the stronger party in the conflict will continue to prevail -- at an inexcusable expense to itself, to the weaker group, and to the entire region.

--Lincoln Shlensky

Ben Ehrenreich's op-ed essay is here:,0,6684861.story

Judea Pearl's op-ed essay is here:,0,6323783.story

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Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
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