Sunday, February 23, 2014

If Liberal Zionists Don’t Want to Endorse BDS of Israel, They Should Have Better Reasons

In my pantheon of commentators on Israel/Palestine, I rate MJ Rosenberg near the top. In fact, I agree with him on virtually everything, and I value his knowledge of America and the American Jewish community.

But his latest post on why he, a liberal Zionist, doesn’t support targeting all of Israel with the BDS campaign, makes no sense to me. It’s not his position I don’t understand; it’s his reasons.

MJ gives two reasons why he won’t endorse BDS against all of Israel, although he does endorse BDS when restricted to the Occupied Territories.

The first reason is that BDS against all of Israel hurts all Israelis, not just West Bank settlers and the settlement enterprise. And as a liberal Zionist, MJ draws a distinction between the Israeli state and the post-67 settlement project.

The second reason is that Americans have no right to criticize Israel since we are guilty of more crimes than the Israelis. So we should take the mote out of own eye, or as he puts it, “Physician, heal thyself”.

To see why the second reason makes no sense to me,  perform the following thought experiment. It is 1974. The United States is winding down the Vietnam war, a war in which it has committed massive human rights violations and war crimes (including “millions of dead” according to MJ.) We certainly are in no position to judge morally another country for human rights violation that are minor in comparison. And yet, the trade sanctions of the Jackson-Vanik amendment were passed against the Soviet Union in 1974 with the overwhelming support of the American Jewish community. And why? Because the USSR did not allow its citizens to emigrate without imposing taxes on them. In 1974 there are much worse human rights violations going on in the world – but the US singled out the Soviet Union for censure. (Note to Abe Foxman: Does this mean that the real motive of the supporters of the Jackson-Vanik amendment was anti-Sovietism?)

Why wasn’t it  hutzpah for the US to pass sanctions that inevitably and collectively hurt innocent Russian people, a lot more than boycotting Israeli products does?  If we have no moral right to judge Israel now, why did we have the moral right to judge the Soviet Union then?

The truth is that human beings always have the moral right and obligation to judge others and to judge themselves. We always have the moral right and obligation to fight injustice.  And clearly we do not have the obligation to fight all injustices equally; what engages our attention and our efforts needs to be justified, to be sure, but what of it?  Surely one wouldn’t argue that a Palestinian American forfeits the  right to call for BDS against Israel because he is collectively responsible for injustice as an American. And yet isn’t that implied in the argument?

As for the idea that “targeted BDS” only hurts the settlers and the settlement enterprise, that’s already been dismissed for several reasons. First, we Israelis benefit directly from the Occupation of the West Bank, if only for its resources.  Second, Israel is a democracy, and if we Israelis truly wanted to, we could have ended the Occupation years ago.  We bear some sort of responsibility for the ongoing exploitation of the West Bank, and in the short term we benefit from it, as I said. Third, BDS campaigns, like strikes, like the Jackson-Vanik amendment, inevitably hurt innocent people. In South Africa, thousands of blacks lost jobs when BDS successfully closed auto factories and plants. Look at the sanctions against Iran. Are there no good people being hurt? The question is how to balance the harm with the greater good, while not harming so much.  I do not call for crushing sanctions against Israel. Or Iran, for that matter. Balance is important. Convincing Lady Gaga not to appear in Tel Aviv because of the Occupation is perfectly kosher in my eyes. I hope MJ agrees with me.

I boycott the settlements as an act of solidarity with the global BDS movement and because I think that of all my country’s current sins, the Occupation is the worst.  I also am convinced that  what explains the successes of the global BDS movement is the world consensus against the Occupation,  and so the focus of the BDS movement should be there, even if the particular target is in Tel Aviv and not in Ariel.

But it is wishful thinking to place the onus of the Occupation on some rightwing crazies, to absolve Israelis and their supporters from responsibility for the Occupation, and to fail to see that the Occupation is a direct consequence of some thinking that has accompanied Zionism since Ben-Gurion and before.  The Occupation is a symptom of the disease, not the disease, itself.

Like liberal Zionists there are many things I admire about the State of Israel, and those good things are worth preserving in whatever political arrangement will emerge from the current mess.  But I join hands with liberal Zionists and post-Zionists and anti-Zionists in a common front to end the Occupation and to see the Palestinian people, wherever they may, rise from their current state. 

Of course, MJ is aware that for many, if not most Israelis, boycotting the Jews and factories of Judea and Samaria, is the same as boycotting Israel.  The careful distinctions that liberal Zionists make seem like so much pilpul/casuistry to them. The proposed anti-boycott law would make MJ potentially liable to civil suits, were he an Israeli citizen.

So if he, like Pete Beinart, wants to engage in “Zionist BDS,” let him do so…but for better reasons. I don’t boycott all of Israel because it’s my home, my family lives there, and if I don’t engage, who will?  I see myself as an ally of those who want Israel to be a decent state, and I still believe that the way I can do that is from within. I have not gotten to the state that says it’s hopeless.

In fact, I don’t think it is.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Ramaz: Tefillin for Women, Yes; Rashid Khalidi, No

I don’t usually comment on this blog about religious controversies among my fellow modern orthodox Jews. As in other religions, and in society at large, women’s roles are changing rapidly, and, periodically, the question of women wearing tefillin (leather boxes containing verses from scripture) during morning prayers, traditionally a male custom, pops up.

But the same school has now banned Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, one of the leading historians of Israel/Palestine, and the scion of a distinguished Palestinian family from Jerusalem, from speaking to a student club, who invited him. No doubt the school is fearful of alienating its donor base. No explanation has been given so far.

It’s not as if Prof. Khalidi doesn’t have a Ramaz connection. Ramaz alumnus, Prof. Jonathan Gribetz, wrote his doctoral thesis under Khaladi a few years ago.  Prof. Gribetz’s  wife, Prof. Sarah Kattan Gribetz of Princeton, recently gave a seminar on The Portrayal of the Other in Rabbinic Literature at Ramaz.

For an orthodox school the administration at Ramaz is relatively liberal on women’s issues and sensitive to the Jewish portrayal of the Other in rabbinic literature. But when it come their students hearing the Palestinian Other, they apparently are not so liberal. Not surprisingly, the religion of the State of Israel means more than the religion of the People Israel in modern orthodox day schools, even the liberal ones. And listening to a distinguished historian whose families were taught into refugees  by the state that Ramaz students are taught to believe is the “beginning of redemption” is too much for a religious zionist school.

The good news is that when you teach students tolerance, when you provide a crack in the wall of intolerance, that’s where the light comes in. Ramaz students have signed a petition calling upon the administration to let the club hear Prof. Khalidi.

They will win in the end. These are changing times for modern orthodox Jews.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Replies to Shmuel Rosner and Liel Leibovitz

It is understandable that two bloggers, Shmuel Rosner and Liel Leibovitz, couldn’t understand my views since they never took the time to read them.  Rosner based his criticism on a few words that he admits he has no desire to try to understand;   Leibovitz based himself on a few quotes in a  newspaper interview. Not knowing what I think, both attributed to me views that I explicitly reject. Perhaps it is easier for them to fit me in their pre-conceived box.

Since I have linked to their posts, and since I doubt their hosts will allow me space to reply, all I ask it that they link to my posts, and we can respectfully agree to disagree.

Gentlemen,  I suggest that you begin with the title of the blog, the Magnes Zionist. I don’t think that it’s too controversial to say that Zionism is a type of Jewish nationalism (though not the only type), so that since I consider myself a Zionist, it is hard to argue that I have  a “knee-jerk rejection of nationalism” (Leibovitz) or that I “oppose Zionism” and that I “think nation-states are immoral” (Rosner).  Had either read my post  Zionism Without a Jewish State, which is listed on my home page, they would have read the following:

I start from the position of a liberal nationalist, one that sees the value for the flourishing of its citizens in a nation state. (On "liberal nationalism" you can read the good overview in the article on Nationalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Because I am a liberal nationalist, I cannot be a statist Zionist, because by identifying the Jewish state as a state of the Jewish nation, I am automatically cutting off non-Jews from full membership in that state.

Rosner and Leibovitz assume that I am post-nationalist, anti-Zionist, think that nation-states are immoral, etc.,  because they assume that Israel is a liberal nation-state, and hence that critics of Israel are anti-nationalists.  In fact, I am very much in favor of liberal nation-states – the US and some European states come to mind – which is why I oppose illiberal nation states, among which I include Israel. This is not an unusual position; anybody familiar with the liberal criticism of Israel will know of what I speak: Read Joseph Agassi, Moshe Berent, Bernard Avishai, Chaim Gans, and a bunch of other Israeli thinkers. Read Avishai Margalit’s book on a decent society and you will understand why I don’t consider Israel a decent society – although it is certainly not the most indecent society around, and there are certainly good things about it.  America with racial segregation was not a decent society, but there were many good and decent things about it.

Where Rosner and Leibovitz and I disagree is not over the justification or morality of states, but over justification or morality of this state.  By Rosner’s reasoning, anybody who questions whether Basques or Kurds, Afrikaners or Palestinians, Scots or French Canadians, have a right to a state must be some post-nationalist who think that states are bad.  To the question of whether certain peoples should have states, I answered, “That depends.” For example, I don’t think a people who bars membership in the nation on the basis of religion should have a state on that basis. They can have a state on another basis, but the first basis is inherently illiberal, as Isaiah Berlin intimated to David Ben-Gurion when he was asked about the “Who is a Jew” question.

As for Leibovitz’s claim that “religious Judaism is  tied to nationalism” I can grant him that point, although I wouldn’t use the term nationalism, which is a modern term. Religious Judaism is tied to the notion of a people covenanted to God; it is not purely a religion, although, for me, and historically, religion has been at the forefront.  It has been variously interpreted, and although as an othodox Jew, I cannot fully embrace Hermann Cohen’s rejection of mitzvot, I am not the Judaism kashrut supervisor to say that Cohen, who understood the nature of Judaism different from Michael Walzer (and with due respect,  Leibovitz misreads Walzer, with whom I am largely in agreement) doesn’t get Judaism.  I understand the radical Zionists who said that Jews have no meaningful existence as Jews outside Israel; they were wrong then and they are wrong now.

And that brings me to Shmuel Rosner, whose skin I apparently got under precisely because, try as he might, he couldn’t dismiss me as some leftwing secular post-nationalist ivory tower professor.  What is significant, he says, is not my views or me, but the fact that I benefit from the “special privilege” of having my Jewish grandchildren “growing up safely in a Jewish state – a privilege that most Jews, in most eras, would consider miraculously great.”  Well, that’s his opinion,  and he’s entitled to his historical claim, for which he brings no support.

But I don’t know what he means by “growing up safely in a Jewish state.” He can’t mean “physical safety” because since 1948 Israel has hardly been a safe place for Jews – certainly not as safe as the US. I guess he must mean growing up safely as Jews, i.e., that Jews won’t intermarry non-Jews because of the precautions Israel has taken against it.  I can’t argue with him there; the odds of intermarriage for Israelis who stay in Israel are much lower than Jews in the diaspora. I suppose that’s one way to solve the intermarriage problem: create a state where intermarriage is illegal and ship your kids there. Play the odds.

But there are other bad things besides intermarriage. Like living on land that does not belong to you, growing up with racist and xenophobic attitudes, preventing other people from living free lives, consenting to distribute resources inequitably, etc., etc.  I don’t mean to say, God forbid, that living in Israel makes these sins inevitable, or that one cannot try to be decent.  But when I was a parent raising children in Israel, especially in the religious school system,  I worried that my children would be like the children of some of my liberal American Jewish friends who made aliyah, and who sent their kids to learn in institutions run by bigoted rabbis of the Kahanist variety.  True, Rabbi Kahana was an American, but he ended up in Israel, where he felt most at home. Thank God, they survived their education, and took the fruit while discarding the husk.

And when I read the periodic surveys of the attitudes  of Jewish high school students in Israel, and when I read the policies of the Ministry of Education, I pray to the ribono shel olam that my grandchildren will not fall prey to that indoctrination.  I take that risk not because my grandchildren are safe in Israel – but because they are safe growing up with parents who know how to give them  liberal, humanist, Jewish values, and to filter out the immoral and indecent views.  And I know that with those values they will struggle in their own way against the intolerant and often fascist ideology that has hijacked much – though, thank God, not all – religious Zionism.  If I don’t worry about my grandchildren, it’s because I am deeply proud of my children and the liberal, religious, humanistic, Jewish, and Zionistic education they received.

The Magnes Zionist in the New York Times

Marc Oppenheimer wrote a nice piece in his Beliefs column in the New York Times for which I was interviewed. The piece features Stefan Krieger, Corey Robin, Rabbi Alissa Wise,  Danny Boyarin, Noam Pianko, and me.  The headline given to it was  “A Conflict of Faith: Devoted to Jewish Observance, but at Odds With Israel.”  In my case that’s a bit misleading. I do have a conflict, but not between Jewish observance and Israel.  I have a conflict because I am an Israeli; I live in a country that I believe is fundamentally flawed, despite the wonderful things it also possesses.  In my blog I only talk about the flaws, but that’s because they are fundamental. Perhaps I will post one day a list of my favorite things about Israel (hint: You wont’ find most of them in Ari Shavit’s new book.)

The piece says my religion leads me “to  oppose Israel.” That’s ambiguous; it could mean “oppose Israel’s policies” (yes) or “oppose  how the Jewish state was envisioned and came into being” (yes), or “oppose the very idea of a Jewish state” (that depends). No, I am not opposed to any Jewish state. As my colleague, Jerome Slater, has said, I don’t have a problem with a Jewish state – it’s this Jewish state I have a problem with. I can imagine Israel  evolving into a liberal state of all its citizens, a state that fosters both Hebrew culture and a connection with the Jewish people, and a state that sees its non-Jewish citizens as belonging with the Jews to the Israeli nation – a Hebrew (and Arabic) Republic, to use Bernard Avishai’s phrase. I can also see Israel/Palestine evolving into a binational state or a federation, or whatever. What I insist upon is that both peoples – the Israeli and the Palestinian – have maximum self-determination, maximum security, and maximum opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And that cannot be done, in my opinion, within the framework of the current ethnically-exclusivist state that is mired in nineteenth religio-ethnic nationalism. Rightly called by Oren Yiftachel an “ethnocracy,” Israel presents itself to the world and to itself as a liberal democracy.  In fact, it is marching backward and not forward. 

My idea of a Jewish state is a state that Jews and Palestinians can be proud of, and that incorporates in its public space and public support elements of the Jewish and Palestinian cultural past.  With over five million Israeli Jews, I am not looking to de-Judaize the culture of the state of Israel. But I would separate religion and state, and when the Palestinian Israeli writer Sayed Kashua writes a column in Hebrew in Haaretz,  I, as an Israeli, celebrate my fellow Israeli as an Israeli writer, a member of the Israeli people. But the  phrase the Israeli people is one you will never hear in Israel – it’s only Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. And I don’t want a nation-state of the Jewish people in that sense.

But don’t the Jews have a right, like other peoples, to a state of their own? No they don’t, and neither do other peoples. Self-determination, yes; statehood, that depends – and never at the expense of other people’s rights, in this case, the natives of Palestine.

Anyway, my thanks to Marc Oppenheimer, and if the NY Times wants to get the interviewees together for a group shot, I’m game.

PS. In working on my blog before Shabbat, I inadvertently distributed an old post about Justice Goldstone. My bad; I was rushing for Shabbat.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Now Maryland Legislators Want to Punish American Studies Scholars in My University

First the New York State Senate passed a bill prohibiting American Studies departments in public universities from using state funds to be institutional members of the American Studies Association, or to reimburse scholars for travel expenses to their conferences – this in retaliation to the ASA’s support of a boycott of Israeli institutions. That bill, now stalled in the New York Assembly, was opposed by a large coalition of sane groups, including the New York Times, which wrote an excellent editorial against the bill here.

Now a copy-cat bill has been introduced into the Maryland state legislature. Not only would it penalize departments and individuals who were members of the American Studies Association and who wished to travel to conferences on state research money, it would reduce funding to any institution that authorized travel money for such a conference by 3% in the following fiscal year! Yes, that’s right. If Prof. Ira Berlin, Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland,  and world-famous authority on the history of slavery, were to receive travel reimbursement from his department for  a talk on his scholarly expertise at an American Studies Association meeting, the University of Maryland would lose 3% of its funding for the following year -- and all in the name of academic freedom!

Have we gone mad? Are we living in a cuckoo world?

Readers of this blog know that I am not an absolutist on academic boycotts as a matter of principle, that I endorsed the ASA boycott decision, and that I continually express solidarity with the global BDS movement and their three goals.  But even were I opposed on principle to academic boycotts – no, especially were I opposed on principle to academic boycotts, I would fight this gross violation of academic freedom and independence, tooth and nail. After all, what has happened here?   A small academic organization passes a mild resolution urging boycott of institutions, not individuals, in response to a cry from Palestinian civil society – and the pro-Israel bullies flex their legislative muscle and threaten universities with the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding should one of their departments join the organization?

It’s certainly ok for faculty to argue against the ASA decision. Just today I received a request from a colleague to sign a petition opposing boycott of Israeli institutions. I didn’t sign, but I very much understand the arguments of those who do, especially those who are absolutist on academic freedom.  I am not of their number, but I am pretty close. I would much prefer, say, a cut-off of military aid to Israel, than a boycott of Tel-Aviv university, with which my university has recently signed a partnership agreement.

But when the state reserves the right to  decide  what travel it will fund and what travel it will not fund, it won’t take long before it legislates what should be taught and what must not be taught. After all, it’s the taxpayers’ money, it will be argued, and there are community standards.

Now there’s the real threat to academic freedom and the free-flow of ideas.