The Question Of Israel

Christians defending Muslims during prayer.

Columns about Israel and the geopolitics of the Middle East are a sure way to get passions to flare and, sometimes, attract hate mail. The conflicting positions of Zionism and antisemitism are typically used as the default for all commentary on the subject; the middle ground has no appeal in a win at all costs culture. Hatred, however, has far less power than the alternative (as the picture shows). These are the challenges that cross my mind as I reflect on President Obama’s calculated decision to include the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations in his speech on the Arab Spring.

The question of Israel isn’t a simple one, even for Jews. Philip Roth, in his interesting historical fiction, The Plot Against America, expressed a sentiment I have heard in some quarters: “…the poor old man who…seemed unable to get it through his head that we’d already had a homeland for three generations. I pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school. I sang of its marvels with my classmates at assembly programs. I eagerly observed its national holidays…Our homeland was America.” But it isn’t that simple either; driven out of Palestine by the Romans 19 centuries ago, the idea and reality of a Jewish Israel is powerful. And it needs to be noted that synagogues are really just an acceptable, temporary, replacement for the Temple to an observant Jew.

The question of Israel cannot, however, be boiled down to a two thousand year old land dispute; certainly not by a nation which exists on the back of a whole history of contested land grabs (that would be America friends). When we address a person, or a nation, we must accept that forces both positive and negative have played roles in theirs or its formation. Israel has her warts, as does America. Islam has its flaws, as does Christianity and Judaism; all endeavors of humanity are so cursed. The question of Israel must be settled in the here and now, with as little thought given to the sins of our fathers as possible.

In President Obama’s speech, he made public and explicit the commonly expressed position of the United States for some time: a negotiated settlement should be constructed using the 1967 boundaries and the principles of land swaps to reflect changed demographics. But, leaving aside the inflammatory politics of the United States, the timing and reality of the statement represent lemon juice in an open wound. In September, Israel is faced with a vote in the United Nations which has a good chance of passing in favor of the recognition of Palestine as a formal nation. Such a move would isolate Israel, and pave the way for forced concessions.

President Obama told the AIPAC conference that the border issue needed to be brought into the open; he felt that negotiations must be restarted to enable the United States to effectively work in the Security Council to circumvent the vote. The President may have a point, but it doesn’t take the sting away. Most of Western Europe has publicly shifted its support away from Israel in the context of its dealings with the Palestinians, a departure by the United States would be catastrophic.

The question of Israel now, is whether President Obama is still committed to supporting the nation, and under what conditions. To answer that question, we the people must deal with a sticky and uncomfortable problem. Can we have a rational discussion about Israeli security and Palestinian dignity without resorting to the default cry of the over-emotional and intellectually lazy; racism? Can we serve the process without falling into the very real trap of human emotion and preconceptions that is racism?

Is anything less than 100% support for the most aggressive negotiating positions of the Israeli Likud Party antisemitic? Is support for the concept and reality of a nation of Israel, as a limited democracy, necessarily anti-democratic or anti-Palestinian? If you are placed, by policy beliefs or punditry, on one side of the fence or another, are you a devil to half the crowd?

American politics don’t help the matter. Mitt Romney and other Republicans saw President Obama’s speech as an opportunity to undercut him on foreign policy. Sarah Palin saw the moment as a chance to prove to the world that she reads something. The Wall Street Journal, once again forgetting its admonishment against undercutting the President (when that President is a Republican), chose to highlight Bibi Netanyahu’s “rebuke” of Mr. Obama (how dare the President of the United States chart foreign policy without the approval of the leader of Israel).

None of this helps the issue. Better is the writing by the excellent conservative commentator David Frum, and the harsh points (reasonably stated) by writer and rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Both approach the President’s position critically (Rabbi Boteach compares the President to Jackie Mason); both approach it reasonably. Neither argument, however, convinces me that President Obama’s timing or approach was wrong, because the arguments need to be made. What has gone unsaid and undiscussed must be brought into the light of day. What has only been argued by warmongers or the ideologically constrained  must be passionately discussed by the reasonable.

The question of Israel is a question of humanity. The United States has been committed to the concept and reality of the Jewish homeland. It remains committed to theses ideals, but it also stands as the champion of human rights and democracy. Perhaps Mr. Obama charted a poor course through these waters; time will tell. But his speech on the Arab Spring tried to embrace Israel and humanity, democracy and faith. Speeches such as that are, perhaps, naive and overly ambitious. But how evil really, is the ambition of peace or the naivete that leads to its accomplishment?

The Rational Middle is listening…

9 thoughts on “The Question Of Israel

  1. I would like to add that JN’s comments about the TransJordan are very good. Although I disagree that only Jordan has the potential to become the true Palestinian state. His comment ignores the fact that the notion of Eretz Israel or Greater Israel proposes to expand Israel into that territory which would simply start the problem over.

  2. For all of this article saying that everything must be up for discussion, even things both sides want to hide, the last statement that the US is committed to a Jewish homeland is hypocritical at best. Why should the US be committed to a Jewish homeland? Certainly the US and the UK created this mess in the middle east from equal parts hubris and anti-semitism (yes anti-semitism was a major factor in creating the state of Israel post WW2), and the misguided notion that taking land from the Palestinians would provide proper justice for the horrors of the Holocaust, so in that regard (that this is a problem we made) we must figure out a solution. But beyond that, there is little to compel me to believe that it is in the interests of the US to defend Israel at all costs. I am not an anti-semite and believe 100% that the Jews deserved justice for the Holocaust, I just don’t agree that UN resolution 181 was the correct way to do that. With that said, I would like to see a US President put a lot more pressure on Israel in terms of withholding all financial and military support unless they capitulate with our demands in the negotiation of peace. Israel has too long dictated the terms and its time for the US to say, “Enough!” Perpetual occupation is not acceptable. Settlements are not acceptable. Right of access into Palestinian land for the Israeli military is not acceptable. The 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state is really the best option plus some amount of right of return must be included. The cynical reason for this is that by giving in to the Palestinian demands, one gives them rope to hang themselves. If Israel and the US submit to all demands and even allow Hamas to participate in the Palestinian government, then the truth will out. If after all this time, the Palestinians get basically everything they want, once the next bomb is launched over the border, it proves the fact that the Palestinians didn’t really want statehood, they want to destroy Israel. This provides the acceptable justification to start a new war and take over all the land which would not be an occupation at that point, but a complete annexation of the land. Eretz Israel becomes a reality which satisfies the hardliners and it also satisfies the international community because it was done according to known rules of engagement. The apartheid nature of Palestinians living in Israel would still need to be figured out, but that would be an easier issue to deal with as long as Palestinians get Israeli citizenship. (This would be the hawkish way to go, and there are significant players suggesting that a unified state is the only real option anyway. I am really starting to agree.)

    From a US policy perspective, supporting Israel is not in our best interests. (I will not go into all of the reasons but it has been eloquently argued by several senior US military officials.) We engender hatred across the middle east for this, and that should be enough to simply say that the Palestinians should get their way.

    The other factor that you did not really touch upon is the religious aspect of this conflict. The middle east issues between Israel and Palestine are the primary example of why religion should be kept separate from politics. The people pushing support for Israel in the US (most notably AIPAC) have a definite religious agenda. And it colors the debate in a maddeningly nasty way because it is impossible to argue/debate/reason with people who use religion to justify their actions. Just ask the Israelis and the Palestinians.

  3. Thank you to WahooFever and Christian; the article I pulled the image from described the original caption, “Muslims defending Christians during prayer”. Several other articles have identified the opposite to be true, including this one which includes full description and a second photo:

    I believe the message is the same, as the article references later: “Some Muslims have been guarding Coptic churches while Christians pray, and on Friday, Christians were guarding the mosques while Muslims prayed.”

    Read more:

    Regardless, I apologize for the error.

  4. Pretty sure that your picture is Christians circling Muslims while the Muslims are praying. Might be worth double-checking.


  5. Thanks for being rational. The issue is that the conversation needs to change. So far, people on both sides are afraid of saying certain things because they fear upsetting the established order. For instance, no one wants to discuss the issue of Palestinian refugees from a realistic point of view. Is it really realistic that millions of Palestinian refugees are going to move out of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and wherever else they may be, and all crowd into the tiny West Bank? Rationally, we must begin to discuss the need for the Arab countries to take responsibility for the Palestinians living there, break open the refugee camps and integrate these people into their societies once and for all. The fact that Arabs are refugees in Arab countries, is the festering sore that keeps the conflict alive, and allows dictators to use Israel as the rallying cry to deflect attention away from their own atrocities against their people. It’s simply not possible for millions of people to move to the West Bank, and Israel will not commit suicide by agreeing to this.

    Another thing that needs to be discussed is that the state of Jordan is really the Palestinian state. The ‘Hashemite Kingdom’ is a manufactured monarchy, having existed only since the creation of the state of Trans Jordan by the Britist in the 1920s. 2/3 of the land of Palestine under the British Mandate went to the state of Trans Jordan. It happens to make up the bulk of British Mandate Palestine, which was previously part of the Ottoman empire before being taken over by the Brits after WW1. It so happens that 50%+ of the people in Jordan are “Palestinian.” Jordan has 3x the amount of land that Israel has. What really needs to be discussed is the fact that only Jordan has the possibility of being the true Palestinian state. The Palestinian cities in the West Bank, and lands that Israel doesn’t consider essential for its security, ought to be returned to the auspices of Jordan, and they need to face the fact once and for all that they are going to have to be big part of the solution to the Palestinian question.

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