26 May 2012

Salvaging Israeli Democracy?

At the NYRB this week you can find this withering essay by David Shulman (the vehicle for his assessment is a generally positive review of a recent book - The Crisis of Zionism - by Peter Beinart). I have not read the book. As Shulman characterizes the argument, despite his sharply critical stance toward Israeli policy, Beinart apparently is trying to salvage an impossible position. He seeks to use the green line separating Israel proper from the Occupied Territories to mark off the domain where democracy (however flawed) prevails from the lawless and racist "ethnocracy" that lies beyond. But as Shulman acknowledges the Israeli policy in the territories is systematic and draws essential support from Israeli political and judicial and media institutions:
Even apart from the disastrous political consequences of current Israeli policy, it is critical to recognize that what goes on in the territories is not a matter of episodic abuse of basic human rights, something that could be corrected by relatively minor, ad hoc actions of protest and redress. Nothing could be further from the truth. The occupation is systemic in every sense of the word. The various agencies involved—government bureaucrats and their ministries and budgets, the army, the blue-uniformed civilian police, the border police, the civil administration (that is, the official Occupation Authority), the courts (in particular, the military courts in the territories, but also Israeli civil courts inside the Green Line), the host of media commentators who toe the government line and perpetuate its regnant mythologies, and so on—are all inextricably woven into a system whose logic is apparent to anyone with firsthand experience of it. That logic is one of protecting the settlement project and taking the land. The security aspect of the occupation is, in my view, close to trivial; were it a primary goal, the situation on the ground would look very different.
Shulman - rightly in my estimation - suggests that what is happening in Israel/Palestine is in large measure a conflict of narratives. He critically dissects the narrative Israelis weave to rationalize their stance toward the Palestinians. But for those of us - non-Israelis - who oppose that stance he also throws down the gauntlet: "Those who recoil at the term “apartheid” are invited to offer a better one." I am among those Shulman has in mind. I think such analogies - to fascism generally - are unhelpful. In large measure they are counterproductive because they encourage activists to resurrect tactics - like boycotts - that I think are de-politicizing and ineffective and that, ultimately, subvert democratic engagement. I have made that case here multiple times before. Shulman too poses the question about how best to confront doomed Israeli policies. On that matter I have no particular insight. But I agree with him that the stakes are clear and disastrously high.
So again, it is worth stating the self-evident truths: at the core of this conflict there are two peoples with symmetrical claims to the land. Neither of the two has any monopoly on being “right,” and each has committed atrocities against the other. One of these two sides is, however, much stronger than the other. Until the national aspirations of the weaker, Palestinian side are addressed and some sort of workable compromise between the two parties is achieved—until the occupation as we know it today comes to an end—there will be no peace. It is impossible to keep millions of human beings disenfranchised for long and to systematically rob them of their dignity and their land.

To prolong the occupation is to ensure the emergence of a single polity west of the Jordan; every passing day makes a South African trajectory more likely, including the eventual, necessary progression to a system of one person, one vote. Thus the likelihood must be faced that unless the Occupation ends, there will also, in the not so distant future, be no Jewish state.


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