Ethnicity, politics, and the tragedy of the ages: the consequences of Zionism

December 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

First post in a long long time! Also very sleep deprived so this is a really badly written ramble of an article, I’m probably not in a good state to write about the Israel-Palestine problem but then again when is anyone in a good state to do that?

So, today I read a piece by Eylon Aslan-Levy, an international relations student at my own university of Cambridge, arguing that the act of opposing the belief that the Jewish people have a fundamental and sole right to self-determination in the nation of Israel – is inherently anti-Semitic. Or, to put it another way, the act of opposing the permanently Jewish nature of the state of Israel is tacitly denying the rights of Jews as a religion and an ethnic group worldwide. Eylon, as one would expect from a world-class debater, argues his case very effectively – or would do, if it were not for the fact that his framing of the argument makes his job somewhat akin to a game of dominoes. I shall give you two quotes from his article;

“Zionism does not, strictly speaking, require the belief in a Greater Israel, nor toleration of any degree of civil or political inequality between Jews and others in the Jewish state.”

This, whilst true, sidesteps a lot of points, and perhaps conflates Zionism in the broader sense (the belief in the need for a state that offers an unconditional homeland to Jewish people) with the more ethnonationalist variant pursued by recent Israeli administrations. The Israelis, of any stripe, are thus rhetorically freed in his argument from having to answer questions on the occupation of large parts of the West Bank, and so on (it is of course unarguable that crimes committed in the name of any ideology are rarely inherent to that ideology, but at the same time one cannot have a serious discussion whilst trotting past without trying to understand the causes of anti-Israel sentiment in the middle east).

“those who endorse the euphemistically named one-state solution, or even more circumlocutiously call for a return of the descendants of Palestinian refugees to their homes in Israel-proper, which would turn Israel into an Arab-majority state and terminate Jewish self-determination by stealth.”

And herein lies the issue. The form of ethnonationalist Zionism pursued by many Israeli leaders requires an ethno-religious group, in this case the Jews, to be the majority in the state of Israel. It would, as Eylon rightly notes, be suicide to attempt to run a minority Jewish state with a strongly Jewish character. Anti-Zionism, for him, is what happens when Israel is “diluted” into an Arab-majority state, losing the Jewish nation and people their right to self-determine. The Jews and the Israelis are of course near-wholly conflated in this case; the nation of Israel is the Jewish people, bound together by the culture and ethos of the state, exercising their right to a safe home. Furthermore, in Eylon’s world, Israel’s problems are a case of international relations; the threat is predominantly external, the people who chant for a one-state solution “with venom in their eyes” (his words). The one-state solution, removing the rights of Jews to be a majority and determine their own fate, is anathema to any sort of moral view that protects the Jewish people from the tragedies of the ages.

So far, so polemical, so persuasive. But in this is rooted an ideology of the ethno-religious nation state that would in any other country or with any other “people” be considered wholly at odds with reasonable or liberal attitudes to governance. The Jews are of course complex; they are simultaneously an ethnic group and a religious one, and it need not be said that the oppression they have been subjected to in countries across the world has been continual and horrendous. Lest we forget, the horrors of the Second World War were only a culmination of centuries of hatred and fear across Europe and beyond. But do they – or indeed any other specific ethnic group – constitute a nation? To argue this one must make the Jews a special case, and then explain why this should be. In Eylon’s original article he notes the Kurds, Tibetans, and so on, but claims that Israel is different because it already exists – because to dilute it would be a case of removing rights. These rights, in his eyes, are held on the national level – unless “the Jews” have the collective right, all of the individuals are more or less doomed. Yet in the west, we are busily engaged in trying to create nations that can celebrate diversity – why should a political unit have a religious or ethnic character at all?

The answer given in the case of Israel is that it is a case of a safe space – in the same way, perhaps, that women’s-only spaces or LGBT-only spaces can be useful in British society. But again, this gives ethnicity a prominence we should be actively stripping it of. Seeing the issues of a one-state solution as being a case of ethnic politics shows a remarkable ability to stereotype ethnicity. There is no reason why in any sort of decent, democratic society ethnic character should be the primary determinant of voting patterns – one can argue that if there was an instantly imposed one state solution this would happen, but proving the specific temporal case still leaves a long way to go to make a permanent moral justification for an ethno-religious state. Nor is such demographic dominance a necessity for a broader constituted “homeland policy” to assure Jews protection within Israel. In any case, where the one-state lobby may fail, what about the fears of demographic determinism? Israeli Arabs are breeding faster than Israelis in general, and in fifty years’ time the Jewish Israelis may find themselves losing their majority status regardless. This process is far more obviously not unnatural, or morally wrong. To argue for a majoritarian ethnic state, on a theoretical level, in the long term, requires either a commitment to democracy that one must accept may ultimately undermine the state’s Jewish character, or it requires an allegiance to the state’s ethnographic character which may undermine democracy.

I write this not as someone who is trying to push for a one-state solution; few things would make me happier than if, tomorrow, the Israeli government decided to pull its troops and citizens back to its own borders, if Hamas decided to accept the existence of Israel, and if a set of land-swaps to create either one or two Palestinian states were properly negotiated. Instead, I write this because I believe that the premise of ethnic nation-states should at most be a temporary measure and is, in the very long term, unsustainable. We will ultimately end anti-semitism (and other forms of racism or xenophobia) not by shutting the Jewish people away from the world, but by combating it in the pubs, in the school playgrounds, and on the streets of our own nations. My concerns over these issues are not in denial of the tragedy of the ages, they are because of it; if Israeli Jews continue to live the lie that a permanent single-ethnicity state is a stable entity in the long term then there are inherent risks being stored up for the future. Solutions to international problems of this sort require that in the long term we genuinely try to break, rather than ignore, barriers based on ethnicity, and see ethnically selective policies as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. The latter trap, based understandably on the horrific history of one oppressed people, is the one into which I believe modern Israeli politics frequently and perhaps inherently falls. A defence of the ethnic state must not only defend its application to present politics, but its long term effectiveness as a political philosophy. The fact that the (at times extremely insulting) attack on those who have issues with the ethnostate position given by Aslan-Levy both fails to do this and falsely paints his opponents as being about favouring one ethnic paradigm over another rather than, in many cases, being about trying in the long term to get beyond a crude racial conception of politics is, for me, deeply concerning.

Original article here:


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