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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Identity and Israeli Exceptionalism

In 2011 Mick Davis, a leader of the Anglo Jewish community, created a firestorm of controversy when he urged the prime minister of Israel to “find a way to take a great advance” in the Peace Process.  His entreaties to Bibi Netanyahu would have had greater currency if he had acknowledged the issues that weigh down the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was a huge failure for him.  To understand why this relationship between Israel, Diaspora Jewish communities and the non-Jewish communities remain so sodden with complexity we need to examine it from Israel’s side.

Transparency is a difficult concept to reconcile with security in a country surrounded by enemies whose theological and philosophic constructs are racist (pan-Arab) and religiously supremacist (Islam). A nation that is reliant on secrecy and ambiguity to survive must display sophistication in its approach to both enemies and friends.  Israeli politics is unfortunately too often neither of these things. It is loud, intemperate and usually lacking in nuance.

Leadership has been undermined because Jewish values which should unite the nation have been relegated to the home where they have no chance of impacting the external environment.  Sectarian point scoring and one-upmanship has replaced ethical debate, leaving most secular people to have little faith in the religious establishment. But this also weakens identity. The clergy cannot reflect on matters of a spiritual nature while they sup at the table of government. The Rabbis of old often warned against the dangers of corruption that power wrought. The Jewish people were powerless for most of the last 2½ millennia. Today religious and secular politicians co-habit the same political space and they do so without reference to traditional Jewish values.  Ethical guidance is reserved for tribal kith and kin or is wholly absent.  Each speaks a language which is separate to and limits the possibility of communion with others outside of their community of interest.  Our politicians should lead from the front. By creating consensus they can unite not just their own ideological community but the nation too. Their failure to effectively communicate across multiple divides is an overwhelmingly political failure of vision, both personal and national.

My father said that you build your life around your family; you do not build your family around your life.  This works at every level of identity.  The politics of provincialism creates conflict and disequilibrium because there will always be winners and therefore losers in the whore-house of coalition government.  With increasing factional division there occurs an escalating probability of obstructed justice. Communities compete against each other rather than supporting each other.

The debate in the USA between isolationism and its opposite, American exceptionalism, is mirrored in Israel. The difference is that America is a willing participant in the debate. Israel is not. The idea that any country is unique (hence exceptional), that it has a mission to spread its world-view (in the case of the USA it is democracy, freedom and equality) outside its borders will only work when that nation willingly has a vision to extend past those borders.  The task of surviving in a hostile geopolitical neighbourhood does not prevent Non Government Organisation’s (NGO’s) from participating in Israel’s national debate nor does it prevent them from holding Israel to account when it violates its own laws. But one-sided criticism is not constructive; it is interference, and it inevitably achieves the opposite by highlighting the dishonesty and therefore the clear conflict of interest in the argument.  Preaching someone else’s values only works when one is consistent and not influenced by a perceptually dishonest agenda at variance with the truth, or at least, with a different version of the truth.

Israel, by virtue of its emergent identity constantly defines itself by comparing and contrasting its actions and behaviours with that of other nations. As a Jewish island buffeted by an Islamic ocean; as an ethnically kaleidoscopic state threatened by a monolithic and aggressive Arab hegemon; Israel is a society of immigrants and refugees, of Israelis whose history is denied and falsified for the convenience of others. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that most Israelis do not willingly engage in a debate about identity except at the fringes of society. And even then, it is with the intent to nullify any progress towards equality. For example, Neturei Karta (a Jewish anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox sect) regards the Jewish Nation as being obliged to live in exile until the coming of the messiah. But by their appearance at Holocaust denial conferences in Iran, in support of their passionate hatred of Israeli sovereignty, they repel most secular Israelis and keep them from the synagogue. A further example is the extreme Left which demands that Israel behave in an exemplary manner even while the pressures of external threat and nation building continues unabated.  By refusing to acknowledge any but a myopic Arab or racist Muslim narrative they lose any right to contribute to the debate.  This is the reason NGO’s object so strongly to their programs inside of Israel and the Palestinian Territories being distinctly identified with donor detail.   Israel is often forced to practise ‘havlagah’ (self-restraint) in the face of enemy action but belligerency by Israel’s ‘friends’ creates fatigue and diminishes the influence of those who demand it.

While I may be embarrassed by some of the more awkward acts carried out on behalf of the State of Israel I do not live there and my right to a visceral reaction is tempered by acknowledging the emotive and therefore personal nature of my response.

Israel is only a disaster to those people who demand Israeli Exceptionalism, knowing it can never be delivered.  Nations may hold themselves to different standards and that is their crutch which we choose to share, or not. The Nakba (the Islamic loss of territory to the infidel in Palestine in 1948) is the narrative many in the West support even as they arrogantly interpret the event as a Jewish land-grab. But the Arab defeat in 1948 can only ever be viewed in theological terms in spite of its human costs.  In human terms it was a disaster for both sides. But disasters are easy to portray in Manichaean terms because facile arguments persuade facile people and sell ideas as easily as they sell ideologies and newspapers. Reductive journalism pulls at the heartstrings without necessitating any thought. It is ‘sound bite’ journalism at its ugliest. The Nakba is only a disaster for the racists who believe that Jews never had the right to free immigration, religious freedom and freedom from fear or threat of violence; in summary to self-determination. The Nakba is an Arab disaster. The Nakba is an Islamic disaster. Neither Arab nor Muslim sees fit to acknowledge the Jewish right to independence.  On 18th August 2012 Ahmadinejad in his speech to mark al-Quds day said that "The very existence of the Zionist regime is an insult to humanity." He added “Zionist presence on even one centimeter of Palestinian land was dangerous.” And today, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader and therefore the man controlling the strings of power in Iran blamed "many of the Islamic world’s problems” on Israel along with the usual obscene references to cancer.

Those Muslims that hang both Baha’i and homosexuals as proof of their tolerance cannot preach the superiority of their faith to anyone but themselves.   Those that commit rape against demonstrators will no doubt be honoured by the UN and courted by nations like China and Switzerland for their oil.  But if there is true evil in this world, it is they that uphold this delusional Iranian theocracy with every breath of their being. It is neither humanity nor politics that drives their zeal but religious mania, a theology that mandates captured territory as eternal Islamic patrimony (part of conquest philosophy known as Dar al-Harb). Mirroring ancient Israel’s relationship with ancient Rome, modern Jewish independence highlights deprived minority rights throughout the Islamic world.

The true narrative can either be that the Jewish ‘people’ are members of the family of nations or, of a nation, weak and isolated, confronted by a broad front of hostile Arab and Western nations, a diabolic conspiracy between Muslim states and a Western coalition of anti-Semitic and unreconstructed Liberal bigots.

Rhetoric helps to mould this view. Israeli self-defence is always communicated as revenge. Anti-Zionist propaganda is resolute in concealing any threats or prior provocations. Attempts by Israel to protect itself from its enemies are always condemned or qualified with a patronising debate about Jewish or Zionist paranoia. Israel has no right to constructively or dynamically protect its’ citizens, something that we take for granted when we permit every nation the right to security.

So we return to Identity. Israel’s detractors are more often than not preoccupied with masking their own prejudice by imposing peace-time standards on Israel while Israel is still at war or at best fighting a cold peace.  And the only way to justify their prejudice is to rewrite Jewish or Israeli (Zionist) history to fit their own bigoted narrative and agenda. (See my comments on Ilan Pappe - The Spy Chronicles. “There is no such thing as truth, only a collection of narratives”)

According to an essay by Evan R. Goldstein (“Reconciling the hyphens of identity”) “Harold Rosenberg argued that in a free society identity is more an act of will than an accident of birth and he defined it as ‘the problem of the voluntary aspect of modern identity.’ It is this very freedom that contains the seeds of so much terror, he continued. ‘People freely choose to subject themselves to totalitarian disciplines in order to be something,’ Rosenberg writes. ‘Perhaps even more, however, in order to quiet the anguish of possibility.’ It is the anguish of possibility - and the attendant feelings of isolation, homelessness, insecurity, and anxiety - that is at the heart of the crisis in Europe.  American citizenship, never a biological construct, extends a reciprocal offer to its immigrants: a national identity you can both assume and shape.”

Israel as a nation has a history in the region that is one of being a persecuted and ultimately eliminated minority as well as one of deep attachment to the land. By identifying with a history that is at least 3,000 years old and Jewish in terms of history, culture, civilisation and religion, it acts as a counterweight to an Islamic and Arab story that is one of ethnic invasion, conquest, cultural occupation, subjugation and denial.  An Arab and Islamic compulsion to rewrite history in their own image, to obliterate an unsavoury past is reason enough for Israel to continue to reassert its attachment to the land and, if anything, even more of a reason to reinforce its visual identity. Why should the State of Israel not have a Star of David on its flag?  It is the symbol of our political independence and the blue lines denote our religious identity (as in the strands of the talit). What is central to the identity of the majority of people within the State is nothing to which we need to be ashamed. Autonomy has been demanded by Muslim religious fascists in Birmingham and Leeds, both cities in Northern England with large Muslim populations.  Autonomy or institutional independence means forfeiting the right to a national vision.  Extremist elements within the Arab sector (whether of the left or the right) would soon exploit this with the active assistance of foreign agents and foreign NGO’s.  That is the nightmare scenario.  It is not multiculturalism nor is it Palestinian identification.

A national identity is dependent on having a basic vision of society while actively demonstrating tolerance for those who diverge from that vision.  There is a not too subtle difference between celebrating diversity and appeasing those whose aim it is to undermine and ultimately to destroy from within, the nation state.  That difference is the difference between mutual respect and a contemptuous minority subverting the host society in order to destroy it.

This is the first of two articles on identity and Israeli exceptionalism.

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