Monday, July 9, 2012

National Service for Palestinian Israelis?

Every so often the suggestion is raised that Palestinian citizens of Israel, like Jewish citizens, should do some form of national service. Since Israel effectively bars them from military service, and since most of them have no desire anyway to fight in an army that oppresses Palestinians, the proposed alternative is some sort of non-military national service. The claim has been heard recently because of the work of the Plessner Committee, which is recommending military and national service for the ultra-othodox.

A state that defines itself as a state of the Jews, and only of the Jews, and then foundationally discriminates in a myriad of ways against its non-Jewish citizens, cannot morally demand equality of obligations. The answer is to transform the State of Israel into a state of all its citizens, with equal rights and obligations for all. With 5 1/2 million Jews, and with Israel's history, it would still very much be a state in which Hebrew and Jewish culture would be dominant in the public sphere, a state that would look like an ethnic democracy rather than an ethnocracy. And in that case, we could have the philosophical and practical argument about whether national service is a good idea.

Some of my liberal Zionist friends will demur, and it's for them that I write this post. Some, like Peter Beinart, will claim that while Israel is a flawed democracy, it is a democracy nonetheless. They will say that it is indeed unfortunate that there has been a systematic, inegalitarian distribution of resources that favor Jews at the expense of Arabs. But Israel has, at least, in principle, the resources that can make the system more egalitarian. Who knows? Were the Palestinian Israelis to accept some sort of national service, perhaps that would make it easier for them to be accepted within the society, and then they could make the case for a more equitable distribution.

Akiva Eldar, a man whom I respect immensely, agrees with me that under the present circumstances, Palestinian Israelis should not be required to participate in national service. But he also argues today in Haaretz that Palestinian Israelis have more political power than they they think. Instead of staying home in droves whenever there are national elections (only a bit over 50% vote), they could promise to vote for a center-left coalition if some of their political demands are met. After all, and here I return to Beinart, during the years of the second Rabin government, because of coalition arrangments, there were significant steps taken to bridge the gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens. It is, theoretically, possible -- if only the Palestinian Israelis would vote.

Sadly, Eldar's stance is typical liberal Israeli self-delusion. Discrimination against Palestinian Israelis is not just institutional, it is foundational. They are 20% of the population, yet they have virtually no political power. Why not? Because it's a Jewish state.

Beinart's invoking the second Rabin government is illuminating. . Rabin was elected in part because of the Arab vote. Yet even Rabin did not have the political will or ability to bring the Arab political parties into the government coalition. Why not? Because it's a Jewish state. So Arab Israelis could expect to get further funding if they supported the government outside the coalition, and hence not control any ministries, which is the main source of resources for all parties.

Even this was too much for many Israelis, who claimed that the Oslo process was illegitimate because it rested on Arab votes. Attempts to require a Jewish majority on major issues in the Knesset failed, but narrowly. The one time that an Israeli government made some serious gestures towards its Arab citizens, it lost its legitimacy in the eyes of those who had been brought up to believe that Israel was a state of the Jews, not of its citizens.

The lessons of Rabin's failure was learned well by the next Labour prime minister, Ehud Barak. In the 1999 elections close to 75% of the Palestinian Israelis voted, and over 95% of them voted for Ehud Barak for prime minister. When Barak won in a landslide, he promised to the be prime minister of "kulam," everybody. What he meant was that he was going to be the prime minister of all the Jews, left, right, and center, religious and non-religious. He did not want to be perceived as the prime minister of the Arabs. So despite the fact that no sector supported him more than the Arab one, he refused to meet with the Israeli Arab political leaders after the election, not even extending them the courtesy of being invited to informal coalition talks. After all, he thought, they were in his pocket; who else would they support? After the fiasco of Camp David, the beginning of the Second Intifada, and the October police riots against Palestinian Israelis, leaving 13 Palestinian Israelis dead, and despite Barak's attempts to placate the Arab citizenry before the election with Or Commision report (whose recommendations were not implemented), only 18% of Palestinian Israelis voted in the 2001 elections. And why should they? Wouldn't it be more convenient for them to simply flush their ballot down the toilet?

From 1948 until the present, Palestinian Israelis have been effectively "present absentees," people who dot the Israeli landscape but who are not seriously noticed by Israeli Jews. When they were under military government in the 1950s and 1960s, voter participation was very high. As Karin Schefferman of the Israeli Democracy Institute reported in 2009

In the 1950s and 1960s, the voting rate of the Arab citizens of Israel was very high - from 90% in 1955 to 82% in 1965. Neuberger (1965) suggests that the high turnout during these years was actually imposed by the dominant Mapai party, which took advantage of the clan social structure of the Arab population and used the military government to pressure Israel's Arab citizens to vote for Mapai's satellite parties: "The Israeli Arab Democratic List", "Agriculture and Development", "Cooperation and Brotherhood" and "Progress and Development". Therefore, the high voting rates during these years do not necessarily indicate a desire to participate, but rather fear of the Israeli regime

I suppose that there is a certain amount of progress if some of the citizenry doesn't live in fear of the government, and unlike their Palestinian brethren on the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian Israelis do not live in fear. As ethnocracies go, Israel is pretty enlightened and liberal.

But the idea that increased voter participation is going to significantly help the Palestinian Israelis is a liberal Zionist myth. A visiting professor of US Constitutional law recently asked me, "How many Knesset seats would it take for the Palestinians to be a member of the coalition?" I answered, "61, i.e., a majority -- because no Jewish prime minister will ever invite them into a coalition."

And why not? Because it's a Jewish state. The hand-wringing of the widening gaps between Jews and Arabs allow Israelis to sleep better at night.

But it is just more liberal Zionist mauvais foi

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Progressive and Religious Zionist -- Part Two

Given the orthodox record of silence on the plight of the Palestinian Arabs, is it consistent for somebody who defines him or herself as religious Zionist to be supportive of the rights of the Palestinians to live as a free people in their homeland? Is it consistent for such a Jew to be concerned with the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people over the six decades of the State of Israel's existence, including expulsion, denaturalization, destruction of hundreds of villages, expropriation of property, pervasive legal discrimination, inequitable distribution of government funds - and all of this within the borders of what Peter Beinart calls "democratic Israel," without even mentioning the occupation and control of the West Bank and Gaza for over two generations?
Perhaps consistency in these matters is unnecessary. After all, people have conflicting intuitions, loyalties, etc., and even those who strive for some internal consistency may end up compartmentalizing. One can be progressive on Palestine and orthodox Jewish without the two having much to do with each other. But the orthodox are not fond of such an answer, for there remains the rabbinic directive to ensure that all one's deeds are for the sake of heaven. Even if we acknowledge that complex identities are formed from many conflicting and irreducible influences, we can attempt to see whether there is a common element that runs throughout them, sn element that can help others, should they desire, resolve some of the tensions within their own complex identities.
Fortunately, from the very beginning of religious Zionism until the present there runs a subterranean river of progressive thought that places rapprochement with the Palestinian Arabs at the center of binyan Eretz Yisrael, the building up of the Land of Israel. This "third way" of religious Zionism, a progressive religious Zionism founded on Torah and morality, is barely known to historians, and even less to those who consider themselves religious Zionists. It exists mostly in the publicistic writings of a handful of progressive religious Zionists thoroughly the twentieth century. Although most orthodox (and non-orthodox) supporters of Israel were indifferent to the injustices committed by Zionists against the Palestinians, there were voices in religious Zionism that regarded such injustices as violation of the Torah. These voices did not treat the Palestinians as "strangers among us" but rather as natives with national rights. They were willing to limit Jewish hegemony over Eretz Yisrael, or even curtail it, in the name of their progressive values. And they were orthodox Jews.
Some of their aspirations were not so distant from those of the mainstream Zionists in the 1920s and 1930s. Those familiar with the history of Zionism know that the Jewish ethnic-exclusivist state founded in 1948, and further crystallized through discriminatory legislations such as the Law of Return (1950), the Absentee Property Law (1950), the Nationality Law (1952), and the Land Acquisition Law (1953), differed considerably from most Zionist models proposed until World War II and the Holocaust. When Jews constituted a minority in Palestine, and especially after the Arab disturbances in 1929, mainstream Zionists floated several proposals for Jewish national self-determination, including binationalism, federalism, confederalism, etc. There were voices who recognized that Palestinian Arabs should have political rights, and that Palestinian nationalism was justifiable - and these voices included Vladimir Jabotinsky, who as late as 1940 wrote that
In every Cabinet where the Prime Minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered as an Arab, and vice-versa. […] The Jewish and the Arab ethnic communities shall be recognized as an autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law […] Each ethno-community shall elect its National Diet with the right to issue ordinances and levy taxes within the limit of its autonomy and to appoint a national executive responsible before the Diet.[1]
Others went further, but conventional Zionist historiography after the establishment of the state either ignored these plans or dismissed them as utopian or merely tactical. As the Zionists gained in numbers and strength, and certainly after the 1948 War of Independence, the recognition of rights of the native Palestinians, most of whom were barred from returning to their homes, lessened considerably.There were religious Jews, some of them quite prominent, who called for building a just society together with the native Arabs of Palestine, who despised the increasingly militaristic and aggressive tendencies of the yishuv, and who never ceased to cry out against discriminatory policies, practices, and laws of the new state.

Yehoshua Radler-Feldman, who wrote under the name of R. Binyamin, is remembered today, if at all, as one of the founding members of the Brith Shalom circle and as a literary critic. But Radler-Feldman was also one of the central figures in religious Zionism, a visionary and activist who founded and edited religious Zionist journals, served as the secretary of Mizrahi, worked towards the establishment of a religious university, and was accepted in all circles of the yishuv. Although he left Brith Shalom shortly after its founding, he was a member of all subsequent societies that preached Jewish-Arab rapprochement, and he became the editor of the journal Ner, published by the Ihud Association, which had been founded by the binationalist Judah Magnes. Like Magnes, Buber and most other binationalists, Radler-Feldman, accepted the decree of history after the founding of the State of Israel. But he continued to raise his voice in protest against the discriminatory measures against Israeli Arabs, the expropriation of their lands, and the refusal to let the Palestinian refugees return to their homes.
Responding to Prof. Hugo Bergmann, who had criticized the decision to launch Ihud's journal after the founding of the state, Radler Feldman writes:

My brother Bergmann: By providing "a platform for truth, love, and peace," we do not have the idiotic intention that these three values are our exclusive possession.…Rather we wish to say - and to repeat and drill it to ourselves most of all - that we consider these three to be foremost in rank. Other people bend their knee to other important values, such as nation, homeland, class, religion, party, and family. Whereas we place the aforementioned values first, and subordinate all the others to them. We subordinate even the Holy One Blessed be He, Himself to them, for, so to speak, the Creator of these values is also subject to them, and must justify His governance before them.[2] 
In 1939, after Jewish terrorists of the Irgun had conducted a series of attacks against Arab civilians, Radler-Feldman edited a collection of essays, addresses, manifestos, and publicistic pieces by Jews condemning the spilling of innocent Arab blood called, Against Terror. And already in 1907, while still in Galicia, he wrote the poem Masa' Arav ('An Arabian Prophecy') which begins
When you come to inherit the land,
Do not come as an enemy and an adversary
But bring greetings to the inhabitants of the land
Build not your generations' sanctuary in resentment, indignation, or enmity
But rather in love, grace, justice, and faith
Hatred will arouse strife, but love will allay wrath
It will bring brothers together, and make peace with the distant
You shall love the inhabitant of the land, for he is your brother, your self, your flesh
Do not avert your eye from him.
Do not hide yourself from your own flesh.
Radler-Feldman was an intense idealist, interested in literature more than in politics, but other religious Zionists associated with Ihud, like Prof. Akiva Ernst Simon and Dr. Simon Shereshevsky, also offered pragmatic and political considerations for their views, and in this they were closer to men like Magnes and Buber - though the question of the relation between morality and politics was always debated among them. Space doesn't permit reproducing here the publicistic writings by religious Zionists who were critical of the state for its crimes against the Arab natives. Typical is this passage from Dr. Shereshevsky, writing in Haaretz in September, 19, 1969.
…People are speaking of "Greater Israel" and God's promise to Abraham "To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river" (Gen 15:18). Most of those who cite the verse are fascist unbelievers, or believers and God fearers with fascist opinions. What is the practical, real meaning today of the words, "To your descendants I have given this land,", when Arabs have lived for generations on a great part of this territory. Who and what will symbolize this "greater Israel"? The soldier who is armed "from the sole of his foot to the top of his head," the armored vehicle and the tank that strikes fear in the hearts of the citizens who live under a regime of "emergency regulations"?
Unlike contemporary critics of Israel's behavior towards the Palestinians under occupation, such as Gideon Levy of Haaretz, the religious Zionist critics often appeal to traditional texts. But their rhetoric also has a contemporary ring, and their voices, silent for too many years, may serve as an inspiration for new generations of religious Zionists who have plenty to cry out against in this religious and Zionist wilderness.
Today, religious Zionists can be found among the young men and women who protest the Judaization of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem, the removal of the Bedouin from their lands in the Negev, the ongoing siege of Gaza, and the never-ending theft of Palestinian lands and resources for settlements under the guise of "security." They are the latest manifestion of the subterranean river of progressive religious Zionism that begins with Radler-Feldman, and which recognizes the rights of the Palestinian Arabs and Jews to live as free people in their land.

[1]The Jewish War Front (London, 1940), pp. 216-218, cited in D. Shumsky, "Brith Shalom's Uniqueness Reconsidered: Hans Kohn and Autonomist Zionism," Jewish History 25 (2011): 339-353, p.346.
[2]Ner 1:5.