Last week, I wrote a post about the murder of my Felician College student, Tyeshia Obie. It’s an unutterably sad event, and I hesitate to use it to make a philosophical point. But I can’t think of a better way of making the point I want to make.
Imagine that, on learning of the event, I went to the Obies’ home to offer my condolences. Having done so, imagine that I offered this reflection for the benefit of family and friends:
Black women like Tyeshia have been murdered over and over again here in the New York Metro Area. Of course, they deserve protection here as anywhere else, but I think the best option for our black sisters would be: go back to Africa. You’ll be safer there. Africa is your home.
I suspect that this suggestion would not go over well among the Obies, their friends, their family, or anyone else within hearing. At best, I think I’d be shown the door, and asked never to return. And I’d deserve it. The event is sad enough. One doesn’t use such an event, exploiting the victims’ pain, to make a polemical point about nationalist identity. One exacerbates the offense if the point you’re making is itself offensively nonsensical.
With this in mind, consider the recent remarks of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the occasion of the recent shootings in Copenhagen, which reiterate what he said after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on Sunday that his government was encouraging a “mass immigration” of Jews from Europe, reopening a contentious debate about Israel’s role at a challenging time for European Jews and a month before Israel’s national elections.
Speaking the morning after a Jewish guard was fatally shot outside a synagogue in Copenhagen in one of two attacks there, the remarks echoed a similar call by the prime minister inviting France’s Jews to move to Israel after last month’s attacks in Paris. Critics said then that the expression of such sentiments so soon after the Paris shootings was insensitive and divisive. Such sentiments also go to the heart of the complexity of Israel’s identity and its relationship with the Jewish communities of the diaspora, whose support has been vital.
“Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews,” Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday in Jerusalem. “Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home,” he added.
There are some differences between my hypothetical statement and Netanyahu’s, but I think the similarities outweigh the differences.
Differences: (1) The Jewish victims of the terrorist attacks in Europe were murdered because they were Jewish; Tyeshia Obie was probably not murdered because she was black, though it’s possible that she was murdered because she was a woman. (2) Israel is a country; Africa is continent. (3) There is a tradition of European Jewish immigration to Israel; there is much less of one of African American women from New Jersey to Africa.
Similarities: (1) European Jews are being urged to flee their homes in the face of victimization; so, in my example, are black women. (2) It’s assumed that because European Jews are Jews, they would necessarily feel at home in Israel, and ought to regard it as their home, even if (a) they don’t speak the language, (b) have never been there, (c) have never previously wanted to go, (d) would be totally alienated by the place if they got there, and (e) are being given no incentive to immigrate but naked fear. The same thing is true, mutatis mutandis, of my thought-experiment. (3) Despite appealing to the fear of European Jews, Netanyahu makes no attempt to offer even a semi-rational account of the comparative levels of risk for Jews in Europe versus those in Israel. The implicit suggestion is that Israel is safer for European Jews than Western Europe. The same thing is true (mutatis mutandis) of my thought-experiment.
Let’s reflect a bit on similarity (3). Netanyahu is suggesting that European Jews immigrate en masse from Western Europe to Israel because Israel is safer for Jews than Western Europe. Why? Well, as we’ve seen, armed Muslim anti-Semites have taken to murdering Jews in Europe by means of random, unpredictable attacks of the sort we’ve seen in Paris and Copenhagen. Presumably, if such Jews were to move to Israel, they would move to relative safety.
The suggestion only makes sense, of course, if Israel were discernibly safer for Jews than, say, Paris or Copenhagen. But of course, it isn’t discernibly safer, and Netanyahu’s entire career has been predicated on fixating on the insecurity of life in Israel, and exploiting Jewish fears of it.
I happen to subscribe to the State Department’s Travel Advisory Warning System for Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. This past Wednesday, I got an update from them. Here are some highlights:
The security environment remains complex in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and U.S. citizens need to be aware of the continuing risks of travel to these areas, particularly to areas described in this Travel Warning where there are heightened tensions and security risks.The security situation can change day to day, depending on the political situation, recent events, and geographic area. A rise in political tensions and violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank has resulted in injuries to and deaths of U.S. citizens. In view of the ongoing security situation, the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority make considerable efforts to police major tourist attractions and ensure security in areas where foreigners frequently travel. …
Travelers should be aware of the risks presented by the potential for military conflict between Hamas and Israel. During the conflict in Gaza in July and August 2014, long-range rockets launched from Gaza reached many locations in Israel and the West Bank – including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities in the north and south. The Government of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system successfully intercepted many rockets. However, missile impacts also caused deaths, injuries, and property damage. There have been additional small arms fire and mortar and rocket launches from Gaza into southern Israel on several occasions between September and December 2014 that resulted in limited property damage.
Visitors to and residents of Israel and the West Bank should familiarize themselves with the location of the nearest bomb shelter or other hardened site.Consult municipality websites, such as those for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, for locations of public bomb shelters and other emergency preparedness information. Visitors should seek information on shelters from hotel staff or building managers. We advise all U.S. citizens to take note of guidance on proper procedures in the event of rocket attacks or other crisis events by visiting the website of the government of Israel’s Home Front Command.
U.S. citizens visiting and living in Jerusalem should be aware of the numerous political, cultural, and religious tensions that permeate the city. These sensitivities have the potential to fuel protests, civil unrest, acts of terrorism, and retaliatory attacks against groups and individuals. There have been frequent clashes between protesters and Israeli authorities, particularly in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Travelers should be aware that protest activities and violence have occurred across Jerusalem, including in West Jerusalem, within the Old City, and in East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah, Shufat, Beit Hanina, Mt. of Olives, As Suwaneh, Abu Deis, Silwan, Shuafat Refugee Camp, Issawiyeh, and Tsur Baher. The intensity and number of these violent events, which have caused the deaths of bystanders, remained at high levels during October and November. Such events often increase following Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif access restrictions, in retaliation for random attacks, or during Israel National Police (INP) operations in predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods. The INP often deploys a heavy presence in many of the neighborhoods that have seen clashes and may restrict vehicular traffic to some of these neighborhoods without notice. U.S. citizens are advised not to enter any neighborhoods while restricted by the INP and to avoid any locations with active clashes.
To date, the clashes and violence have not been anti-American in nature. However, politically motivated violence in Jerusalem claimed the lives of U.S. citizens in October and November 2014, including a terror attack inside a synagogue. Other U.S. citizens have also been injured in such attacks. Travelers are reminded to exercise caution at Muslim religious sites on Fridays and on holy days, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. The INP often imposes restrictions on visitors to the Old City’s Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif. Travelers should be aware that the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is often closed without warning by the INP. U.S. government employees are prohibited from entering the Old City on Fridays during Ramadan due to congestion and security-related access restrictions.
U.S. citizens are advised to avoid public parks in Jerusalem after dark, due to numerous reports of criminal activity associated with these parks.
I’ll spare you the rest. It goes on for thousands of words.
So European Jews are supposed to leave the Islamist-infested corners of Western Europe on the premise that there are no resentful anti-Zionist Arabs in Israel, and none in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq. Even if such things exist, the assumption seems to be that once a European Jew clears customs in Tel Aviv, he gets a special vaccination that immunizes him for the rest of his lifetime from Islamist violence. Other Israelis might be hit by Hamas rockets, killed in Hezbullah raids, or blown up in pizzerias, malls, buses, or discotheques, but if your papers indicate that you made aliyah to Israel from France or Denmark, you’ll be safe. If you believe that, I’ll sell you the Dome of the Rock.
It gets worse, though. The big controversy about Netanyahu in the U.S. is his planned visit here in March to make the case for sanctions against the Iranians. Why is it so important to defy diplomatic protocol–bypassing the White House–to make this speech? Well, because the Iranian nuclear program–along with ISIS–confronts Israel as a nearby nearly-imminent existential threat to its very existence–tantamount to being a nuclearized Arab-Islamic version of the Third Reich. That isn’t my comparison. It’s Netanyahu’s. In fact, he’s said, Iran’s nuclear program looms over Israel like a repetition of the Holocaust.
“A nuclear Iran is an existential threat on the State of Israel and also on the rest of the world,” Netanyahu said. “We have an obligation to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. It’s the world’s obligation, but above all it is our obligation.
“Remembering the Holocaust is not merely a matter of ceremony or historic memory. Remembering the Holocaust is imperative for learning the lessons of the past in order to ensure the foundations of the future. We shall never bury our heads in the sand. …
“The Iranian regime is openly calling for our destruction and working frantically for the development of nuclear weapons as a means to that end.
“I know that some people don’t appreciate me speaking such uncomfortable truths. They would rather we not talk about Iran as a nuclear threat, they claim that, though it may be true, this statement serves to sow panic and fear.”
Here is the latest in the same vein from Netanyahu, from the Jerusalem Post, on Iran’s nuclear program.
In other words, European Jews should escape the terrors of sporadic shootings at the hands of random anti-Semites in Europe for the safety of Israel, where, in addition to a resentful Arab population of second-class citizens within the state, they’ll find an even more resentful population of Arabs under siege (Gaza) or under military occupation (the West Bank), along with hostile Arabs on Israel’s northern borders–and, to crown it all, the Holocaust-level threat of the Iranian nuclear program, under frantic development by the twenty-first century equivalent of the Third Reich. Welcome home!
So I leave you with the following thoughts.
1. Could a politician be any more cynical about human life than Benjamin Netanyahu? This is a man whom defenders of Israel expect us to respect, and whom they hold up as a paragon of civilized virtue–a man who supposedly towers over Mahmoud Abbas & Co for his credentials as an exemplar of “Western civilization.” But if you consider the caliber of his public comments, the question that arises is: is he so stupid that he can’t grasp an obvious contradiction in his claims, or so full of shit that he doesn’t care?
2. One often reads that anti-Zionism is equivalent to anti-Semitism. We’re permitted to criticize “Israeli policy,” but not permitted, on pain of an accusation of anti-Semitism, to trace those policies back to the ideology that motivates it.
But what policy could be more paradigmatically Zionist than the dogmatic assertion that Jews are a priori safer in Israel than they are in, say, France or the United States or Canada–simply because they are in a Jewish State, which is their “home” (regardless of their actual ties to it) and is where they belong (regardless of whom they displace in the process of establishing themselves there)? That is the defining, essential, animating thought of Zionism. Subtract it from “Zionism,” and there is nothing left of the concept. As far as I’m concerned, the incoherence of Netanyahu’s views is evidence for the reasonability of an anti-Zionist stance: if Netanyahu is the personification of Zionism–and he is–then anti-Zionism makes perfect sense. If that thought is “anti-Semitic,” the accusation needs a lot more argument than it usually gets.
3. I wonder if we could get some clarity on a factual question: where, exactly, does Netanyahu think that these in-migrating French Jews are to live? Given the shortage of cheap housing in Israel, an obvious place might be the Arab-free “municipality” of Ma’ale Adumim or some similar location.
After you consider the circumstances under which these places were built, however, you might begin to wonder: is a Jew really safe there? I’ve been to Ma’ale Adumim myself. Yes, there is good security. Yes, there are checkpoints. Yes, it looks like an ordinary suburban town. But from one end of it, you can see the camp of the bedouins that were displaced to make it, and from the other end, you can see the Arab neighborhoods whose residents are permanently excluded from it. How safe would you feel if you paused to consider that your new life was based on expropriation, and that the victims of that expropriation were your neighbors?
I should emphasize that the relation of Palestinians to settlements is different from that of, say, inner-city African Americans to American suburbs, or even that of French Algerians from the banlieues of Paris to metropolitan Parisians–however problematic all that may be. No one today would tell an African American that he can’t upgrade from a slum in East Orange, New Jersey to the suburbs of West Orange, New Jersey even if he has the money to do so, simply because has the wrong ethnicity. But a Jewish settlement is a Jewish settlement: no Palestinians need ever apply for residence, no matter how much money they have. Palestinians can build a Jewish settlement, but they cannot live in one: the whole point of Israel’s being a Jewish state is that what is in Jewish hands must remain in Jewish hands, and what is not is, in one way or another, up for grabs by the state. The point of the settlements is to establish “facts on the ground,” and the essential desired outcome is that Israel monopolize as much land and water as possible for the benefit of Jews and to the exclusion of Arabs.*
The real debate we ought to be having is not whether Benjamin Netanyahu has insulted President Obama by addressing Congress behind his back. The real debate we ought to be having is why Benjamin Netanyahu thinks that he can assert outright nonsense, whether to Congress or in the press, and be taken seriously as a semi-rational, semi-decent human being. As far as I’m concerned, he’s neither. If I were a member of Congress, I’d boycott his speech this March, not out of righteous indignation at his insult to the Presidency, but out of righteous indignation at his insult to the human mind. I’d love to see Congress follow suit, but I somehow doubt it will.
*Last sentence added after posting.
Postscript. Michaelangelo Landgrave has a slightly different take on these issues over at Notes on Liberty. As usual, Bernard Avishai has interesting things to say–here and here. An informative piece by James Fallows at The Atlantic.
PS 2, February 21, 2015: Hussein Ibish has a useful piece on the controversy in The National, but I would take issue with two things he says. He says:
Those outside the United States who believe that Israel somehow controls American politics or policies, or that Israel is the dominant partner in the relationship, are clearly wrong. It’s a silly conspiracy theory that only reflects a profound ignorance about the actual mechanics of American policymaking.
Israel may not “control” American politics or policy, but it wields so disproportionate an influence on American politics that I think it’s a mistake to deride those who assert Israeli “control” as being in the grips of silly conspiracy theorizing or of “profound ignorance.”
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have made a systematic and so-far unrebutted case for the claim that “strategic and moral considerations neither explain nor justify the current level of U.S. support for Israel” (The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, p. 335). Strategic-moral considerations do not explain, for example, why the United States offers de facto support of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the settlement enterprise there when doing so flouts our values and interests. The explanation for (the degree and kind of) our support for Israel turns on the ideological power of the Israel lobby to shape American discourse. It may be a misinference, but it is not “silly” or “profoundly” ignorant, to conclude that the lobby “controls” American policy or discourse. There is a fine line between “disproportionate influence” and “outright control,” and it’s an exaggeration to claim that the distinction between them can only be blurred by the “silly” or the “profoundly ignorant.” That’s to underestimate just how bizarre our policies appear to outsiders. It’s to underestimate how bizarre they are.
I can’t accept this way of putting things, either:
There is no need to indulge in clichéd hyperbole such as citing George Washington’s warnings about “excessive partiality” to foreign powers to recognise that this embarrassing dynamic is completely inappropriate for the United States.
I find the derision expressed here totally inappropriate. Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 is, along with the Mayflower Compact and the Federalist Papers, one of the founding documents of the American nation. Far from being cliched, the sad fact is how under-read it is. Instead of deriding it, I’d suggest that Ibish re-read it to see how precisely appropriate to the circumstances its message happens to be. I don’t agree with all of it, but it is, in essence, a defense of the distinctively American conception of “Union” and a criticism of “faction”: “To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a Government for the whole is indispensable.” Try to reconcile that idea with sectarian support for a sectarian state. For that matter, try to reconcile it with American politics today.
As for “excessive partiality,” the relevant passage goes as follows:
Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence…the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.
Is that “cliched hyperbole,” or a lesson we have yet to learn? (Ibish tells me in a private email that I’ve misunderstood his argument. I’m left puzzled, but since we agree on the main issue, I’ll leave the matter there.)
PS 3, February 22, 2015: Here’s an interesting, indirectly relevant piece in The New York Times on the work of Mehnaz Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College. I’ve blogged it in even-handed pedagogical mode for my International Relations students at the website for my class. No need to be even-handed here, however.
It’s an important article, and I respect what Afridi is doing, but I have to take issue with claims like this:
Dr. Afridi has made these seeming irreconcilables into companions in her life’s work. An assistant professor of religion at Manhattan College, she teaches courses about both Islam and the Holocaust, and she is director of the college’s Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center. Her book “Shoah Through Muslim Eyes,” referring to an alternative term for the Holocaust, will be published in July, and she is a member of the ethics and religion committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museumin Washington.
Such roles have made Dr. Afridi both a valued intermediary and a visible target in the troubled relations between Muslims and Jews. As her research unflinchingly shows, a strain of Holocaust denial runs deep in the Arab-Muslim world. Holocaust recognition among Arabs and Muslims, less noticed but equally divisive, has also served as a means of delegitimizing Israel and Zionism. By this line of reasoning, which ignores the historical ties of Jews to Israel, the Holocaust was a crime inflicted by Europeans for which Palestinians paid the price. (my emphasis)
Minor point: the article makes no reference to any prior work done on the subject by Arabs or Muslims, including Gilbert Achcar’s path-breaking 2009 book, The Arabs and the Holocaust. The implication seems to be that Afridi’s work is sui generis. It isn’t.
I’ve italicized the sentences that I regard as an offensive instance of question-begging argumentation and emotional blackmail. The author of the article asserts that Holocaust denial and Holocaust recognition are “equally divisive.” What does this mean?
(a) If his point is to assert a moral equivalence between the two things, the claim is outrageously absurd.
(b) The same might be said if his point is to insinuate moral equivalence while using an ambiguous word that gives him a way of getting off the hook when called out for asserting moral equivalence.
(c) If his point is to suggest that both Holocaust denial and Holocaust recognition create the same amount of conflict in the world, I’d like to see some empirical evidence for the claim.
(d) If his point is to suggest that Holocaust denial and Holocaust recognition involve claims that are equally controversial, I’d ask: like what?
“By this line of reasoning, which ignores the historical ties of Jews to Israel, the Holocaust was a crime inflicted by Europeans for which Palestinians paid the price.” The “line of reasoning” in question can recognize that Jews had historical ties to Israel and yet still insist that the Holocaust was a crime inflicted by Europeans for which Palestinians paid the price. There’s no inconsistency there. The same line of reasoning can point out that the phrase “historical ties of Jews to Israel” is an equivocation that illicitly subsumes actual claims to the land and notional ones. In the latter sense, I have a “historical tie” to East Punjab in India–my father’s family was forced out of Amritsar at gunpoint in 1947, and dispossessed of its home and business–but that doesn’t mean that I can displace the current residents of Amritsar and establish a sectarian state in East Punjab, no matter what sentimental attachment I may have to the place.
(e) Finally, the controverted line of reasoning insists on a fact that the author ignores throughout the discussion: Jews immigrated to Mandate Palestine during and after the Holocaust over the objections of the indigenous Palestinians, but they didn’t get to immigrate to the United States over the more politically efficacious objections of “indigenous Americans.” There were immigration restrictions against Jews in both places, but stronger ones in the US. Frankly, Americans unable to deal honestly and straightforwardly with the latter fact lack the moral standing to discuss Zionism, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and their relation to the contemporary Arab-Israeli conflict–not that that’s stopped them.
Postscript 4, February 26, 2015: I’ve had my disagreements with David Bernstein about Israel in the past, but I completely agree with his take on this story, about an Israeli journalist’s ten-hour jaunt through Paris, and the frankly disgusting, anti-Semitic reception that he (the journalist, Zvika Klein) encounters in the Muslim neighborhoods he walks through. I agree as well with Bernstein’s criticisms of the newscaster in the interview with Klein on Britain’s Channel 4 news–an “interview” which strikes me (for the reasons Bernstein gives) as a paradigm case of cowardice and evasion.
I’d like to think that nothing comparable could or would happen in the United States, but I’m not entirely sure: just think about the footage from the Arab neighborhoods of Paterson, New Jersey in Marc Levin’s 2005 film, “Protocols of Zion.” Granted, that was a decade ago, and things have changed (things have changed…right?). I’m tempted to put on a Jewish skullcap and fringes and walk down Main Street for a few hours to see what happens. Frankly, I’m less worried about my safety than I am about my dashed expectations. A decade after the notorious Protocols incident there, I’d like to think that things have changed, and that an orthodox Jew could walk through South Paterson without being, say, spat on. But I’m not entirely sure what would happen. I sometimes feel as though if nothing has changed in the last few decades, nothing ever will. But that’s just a counsel of despair–not what you want to hear at “Policy of Truth.”
Postscript 5, March 2, 2015: Sometimes I can’t help shaking my head at the character of American discourse on Israel. This morning’s New York Times tells us that Netanyahu’s visit is bringing uninvited problems for Jewish Democrats in Congress. Here’s an offhand sentence describing the US-Israel political relationship:
Through foreign policy trials as difficult as the wars in Gaza and Lebanon, Israeli settlement policies, Arab terrorism, and the repeated failures of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Jews in Congress — and to a large extent, Jews in the United States — have spoken in a near-monolithic voice, always in support of the government of Israel. (my emphasis)
In other words, until now, Israel’s supporters have–whatever lip service they give to the problematic nature of the settlements–all essentially agreed that Israel is to be supported in its efforts to expropriate, confine, exclude, and harass Palestinians in perpetuity. If the wrong person says that, it becomes an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory on par with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. If it appears in The New York Times, it becomes uncontroversial common knowledge–“news fit to print.” I’ve repeatedly heard the BDS movement described as anti-Semitic. Isn’t it time to start asking whether those who reflexively oppose BDS do so because they’d like to have the moral luxury of “opposing” settlements in words without having to do anything about them? The uncharitable way of putting this would be to say that they’re covert apologists for a form of Jim Crow or apartheid, whose recourse to accusations of anti-Semitism serves to cover that very fact.
Remember the distinction between criticizing Israeli policy and criticizing Israel? That distinction supposedly distinguishes the anti-Semites from the responsible critics. Who is uncomfortable with it now? Israel’s supporters:
To Mr. Israel, the New York Democrat, that [diversity in opinions about aid to Israel] is not a positive development. Jewish philanthropic organizations can channel donations from American Jews to nongovernmental organizations in Israel, but United States aid will always be predominantly government to government. Mr. Israel said the last thing Israel — or the Democratic Party — needed was political tension over American aid to Israel.
“When you separate Israel from the policies of its government, it complicates the matter for Congress,” Mr. Israel said.
So Israel just is the policies of its government. Since Israel cannot do wrong, its policies can never be wrong. Since Israel’s policies are by definition always right, Israel is always right–and always deserving of our aid, no matter what it does. Once we abolish the usual relation between properties and causal powers, the rest is a piece of cake.
Day by day, my sympathy for BDS increases (at least for the D without the BS). I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there.
Postscript 6, March 23, 2015: A well-written piece by Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi on Netanyahu’s uses of the Book of Esther in his speech.