View Sidebar
Thoughts on Israel Discourse

Thoughts on Israel Discourse

April 12, 2011 3:19 amComments are Disabled

I choose the title of this post carefully.  The point is not to elucidate a position on Israel: actually, I rather believe here I criticize that very concept.  But I seek to address what my main issues are with the Israel Discourse and (perhaps) arrive at a satisfactory end point.

It is my position that the Israel Discourse poses more of a threat to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the conflict itself.  With a longer essay, someday, I would like to further extrapolate this position, but for now, a very long blog post will do.

The Questions

When I say Israel Discourse, I mean the body of arguments, debates, positions, political views, religious justifications and/or oppositions and policy on or about Israel, Palestine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and any or all matters relating therein.  I say “any or all matters” because this “issue” is not a singular one–it is composed of many overlapping–and in some cases contradictory–questions in many disciplines including history, political science, theology, moral philosophy, jurisprudence and human rights.

Within these disciplines, several questions arise that often form the fodder for the Israel Discourse.  I would categorize these questions roughly inside the disciplines to which they belong.  These are in no particular order of importance, and I seek to phrase the questions as neutrally as possible (i.e. as questions on which argumentative propositions can be based, not argumentative propositions in and of themselves).  This is, of course, an incomplete list, and I will use the term “Palestine” inclusively to refer to the historical and modern region, except where geographical alternatives are appropriate.

Historical Questions

  • What peoples have lived in Palestine during what eras, ancient to modern?
  • What were the events leading to the formation of the modern State of Israel with respect to population displacement, war, immigration and colonial involvement?
  • What were the military, social, political and economic gains or losses of Israel during the 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and 2006 wars?

Political Questions

  • What is the political status of the State of Israel? (questions of legitimacy would fall here)
  • Do the West Bank and/or Gaza exist in a state of occupation?
  • What is civil status of Jews within Israel?  Non-Jewish Israeli citizens?  Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza?  Jews in the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What is the political status of the West Bank?  Gaza?  What is the political status of the Palestinian people?
  • What are the geopolitical factors regarding neighboring countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, etc) which affect the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region on a whole?
  • What role do Palestinian political organizations (formal and informal) play in the determination of the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region?
  • What role do Israeli political organizations (formal and informal) play in the determination of the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region?
  • What responsibility do Arab states have toward the Palestinian people, especially with regards to financial or humanitarian assistance and migration opportunities?
  • What is the obligation of Israel regarding the worldwide political status of Jews?
  • What is the role of the media regarding perceptions of Israel, or Palestinians?
  • What is the role of antisemitism in discourse of and relating to Israel and Palestine?

Theological Questions

  • What is the theological justification for the settlement of Palestine by Jews?
  • What is the theological justification for the settlement of Palestine by Palestinians?
  • What is the theological justification for violence against Israelis?
  • What is the theological justification for violence against Palestinians?
  • What role does religion play in the determination of the historical and the political, especially with regard to land and statehood?
  • What is the status of Judaism with relation to Israel?
  • What is the status of Israel with relation to Judaism?
  • What is the status of Israel with relation to religions other than Judaism?

Philosophical Questions

  • What is justice for victims of a great tragedy?
  • What is a Right of Return and on what philosophical, political and moral foundations is it based?

Jurisprudence Questions

  • What are the civil rights of the various constituencies in Palestine and under what jurisdiction do they exist?
  • Who is the proper adjudicator of criminality in Palestine, and how are questions of law settled non-nation-state regions like Gaza and the West Bank?
  • What is the status of international law with regard to anti-Palestinian socioeconomic, political, military or paramilitary action?
  • What is the status of international law with regard to anti-Israeli socioeconomic, political, military or paramilitary action?
  • What is the jurisdiction of the State of Israel?
  • What is the Right of Return and on what juridical foundations is it based?

Human Rights Questions

  • What rights do Palestinians have regarding property (land, capital) either they or their ancestors have previously owned or occupied within Israel and/or within the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What rights do Jewish or Arab Israelis have regarding property they have settled, capitalized upon, or purchased within Israel and/or within the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What is the status of human rights within Israel regarding non-Jewish citizens or non-citizens?
  • What is the status of human rights within the West Bank or Gaza regarding non-Jews or non-Jews?
  • What is the obligation of international NGOs to monitor and/or criticize human rights abuses in Palestine?
  • What are the human rights practices of the IDF?
  • What are the human rights practices of the Israeli government with regard to settlements, settlers, or soldiers?

As you can see, there are a multitude of questions.  Imagine that for each one of the questions listed above, one can establish a series of propositions to make an argument.  Such propositions would, or should, lend themselves handily to an argument regarding the proposition on the table, but for many reasons–and in my personal experience almost invariably–lead to a far reaching discussion that often seeks to incorporate as many of these questions as possible!  I’ll get into that in a bit, but first, let’s establish some propositions (fairly common ones) that arise from the above questions.


Again, I am not establishing a position on these propositions, but merely relating them as I have heard them from arguments on all sides of the spectrum.  No doubt, each of these propositions will have vociferous supporters and detractors, and of course, I don’t seek to suggest that any one person has all (or any) of these positions.

“Pro-Israel” Propositions

  • Resolved: That Palestine is a Jewish homeland, and displaced Jews have a Right to Return. (historical, theological, political)
  • Resolved: That Palestinians have a robust body of protected civil and human rights within Israel. (juridical, human rights)
  • Resolved: That Israel was created on largely unsettled or unoccupied land. (historical)
  • Resolved: The formation of Israel was, and remains, necessary for the protection of Jews from worldwide anti-semitism and cataclysmic violence such as the Holocaust. (historical, human rights)
  • Resolved: Jews have a right to a country of their own. (political)
  • Resolved: Israel is, and ought to be, a Jewish state. (political, theological)
  • Resolved: Israel has a right to exist. (political, historical, philosophical)
  • Resolved: Israel has a right to defend itself. (jurisprudence, political)
  • Resolved: Other Arab states have repeatedly expelled Jews and Palestinians in contravention of international law. (historical)
  • Resolved: Anti-semitism is responsible for a worldwide media bias that poisons the world against Israel; or, Israel is the only country that the world cares about with regard to its treatment of Palestinians. (political)
  • There were no such thing as Palestinians until 1948. (political)

“Pro-Palestinian” Propositions

  • Resolved: That Palestine is an Arab homeland, and displaced Palestinians have a Right to Return (historical, theological, political)
  • Resolved: That Israel has routinely and systematically violated the human rights of Palestinians both within Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza (juridical, human rights)
  • Resolved: That Israel was created on occupied land, and the formation of Israel necessitated the forced population displacement of many Palestinians (historical)
  • Resolved: Palestinians continue to live in a state of violence, occupation and statelessness in violation of the very human rights treaties the Holocaust inspired the world to create (historical, human rights)
  • Resolved: Palestinians have a right to a country of their own (political)
  • Resolved: Israel is not, but ought to be, a democratic state. (political, theological)
  • Resolved: Israel has no right to exist. (political, historical, philosophical)
  • Resolved: Palestinians have a right to defend themselves from, or attacking, their Israeli occupiers. (jurisprudence, political)
  • Resolved: Palestinians belong in Palestine, whereas Jews do not. (historical).
  • Resolved: The world does not recognize the self determination of the Palestinian people and is content to view them as terrorists rather than activists fighting for a cause. (political)
  • Palestinian is an established and recognized ethnic and national group with legitimate aspirations of self determination. (political)

I have attempted to outline this (admittedly incomplete) list of propositions in order to make several points.

Israel-Palestine and the Mismatched Proposition

Many propositions about Israel do, indeed, have a similarly inclined counter-point.  By counter-point I mean a proposition that can be made simply by negating the original proposition.  An argument can thus be made from that proposition using a line of reasoning.

However, this is not often the case.  Before I attempt to speculate as to why this is not the case, I want to point out two examples of the sort of discourse I mean.  These are both taken from my personal experience, and illustrate the problem with the Israel Discourse rather well.

First, the following resolution.  For the sake of argument, I will use the “Pro-Palestinian” side.

Resolved:  That Israel was created on occupied land, and the formation of Israel necessitated the forced population displacement of many Palestinians.

I have properly labeled this a historical question, because it is, indeed, historical (if the tense of the question doesn’t betray the discipline).  To argue this proposition on either side, one not need look any farther than the historical event in question (the formation of Israel in 1948).  The question is of and relating to this event, and no other.  Certainly, many historical factors tied into this creation event, and these factors are helpful.  For instance, to ponder the historical creation of Israel one must necessarily ponder the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate, and of course the well documented violence that preceded the formation of Israel in 1948.

However, to settle this question, which specifically concerns the existence (or not) of a population in a land during a time, one doesn’t even need to discuss these formation events.  This is a purely demographic questions which asks: Who lived in Palestine before and after the creation event?

Is this such a difficult question to solve?  Does this question require the use of anything other than a reasonably trusted primary source such as a census, land records, or eyewitness evidence?

Yet right now I would wager that my “Pro-Israel” readers are creating a multitude of “counter-arguments” in their head.  These arguments probably include (and I have heard these all before in response to this very proposition):

  • Palestinians didn’t use the land, whereas the Jews settled and tilled it and capitalized on it. (irrelevant, because the question wasn’t how the land was being used, but that it was being occupied)
  • Jews had nowhere to go after the Holocaust (irrelevant, because the question was not how the Jews ended up in Palestine, but what space they occupied when they got there)
  • Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria all dispossessed and/or displaced their Jews (irrelevant, because the question was about what happened to the Palestinians in Palestine, not what happened to the Jews in Iraq)
  • Jews, not Palestinians, have an original and inherent right to this land because it is their homeland (irrelevant, because it doesn’t oppose the proposition; in fact, it supports it by adding a justification for the Palestinian displacement)

I don’t seek to take a position on this proposition one way or the other (I wouldn’t dare), but I seek to illustrate a very important point:  Why is this simple question so difficult to settle?  Are we so blind as to ignore historical truths when (and if) they occur?  If a historical answer for this question could be found (let’s say, an accurate census in which it is clear just by the population decline compared with land ownership records that a large majority of Palestinians were unwillingly displaced shortly before or during the creation event), would that settle the question?

Such a proposition should be (and ought to be) easily settled and understood.  Would that not benefit all sides to come to a conclusion that can be supported all around?

I ask because such a simple proposition–one regarding recent history which can be easily verified or disproved–is a far cry away from some of the harder propositions that exist about questions of theology and moral philosophy.  So if we have to start somewhere, shouldn’t it be at a place where at least–hopefully–some consensus can be found?

Here is the second resolution.  This one is more philosophical in nature, and definitely one that I’ve encountered personally.  For the sake of argument, I will use the “Pro-Israel” side.

Resolved: The formation of Israel was, and remains, necessary for the protection of Jews from worldwide anti-semitism and cataclysmic violence such as the Holocaust.

This is a very, very common proposition and continues to be a powerful argument for the existence of (a) Jewish state.  Like most propositions on self determination, it includes a very good justification: historically documented persecution of Jews by many peoples over the millennia have left Jews with no national homeland, until Israel.

To discuss this proposition the key is the word necessary.  For all its historical and sociopolitical implications, the question of legitimacy for the State of Israel rests on the idea that not only is the State of Israel a sufficient protection for the Jews against antisemitism, it is a necessary one.  The proposition therefore exists to challenge any counter point on the legitimacy of Israel based on its necessity.

But that’s not what we have.  Instead, the following propositions are often stated in opposition.  My “Pro-Palestinian” friends almost certainly are formulating these arguments right now.

  • Palestinians are a persecuted minority with no national homeland, and a homeland is necessary for them as well for the same reasons. (irrelevant, because the question is whether Israel is necessary for Jews, not whether a Palestine is necessary for Palestinians; if anything, this enforces the proposition, not detracts from it)
  • The Holocaust doesn’t give Jews the right to persecute others. (irrelevant, because the persecution of Palestinians is not at point, merely the necessary conditions for the formation of Israel)
  • Jews have inflicted more (or a comparable amount of) suffering on the Palestinians than they faced under Hitler/in history. (irrelevant, because again, the question is the necessity of the formation of Israel for the Jews, plus this is a classic case of reversing the question: clearly the suffering of Palestinians doesn’t negate the suffering the Jews, regardless of who the relevant actors are, and suffering is certainly not a zero-sum game)
  • The Holocaust did not happen, thus the de facto justification for the formation of Israel does not exist. (irrelevant, because it is a historical fact that the Holocaust did, indeed, happen)

Again, I pose the same question as in the former proposition:  Why is this question so difficult to answer?  Is not a similar feeling of common moral outrage over persecution felt by all?  Can’t in principle most people agree to the basic premise that self-determination is a valuable and legitimate aspiration for any nation?
There exist, of course, very valid and legitimate counter-points to both propositions.  For instance, to the latter proposition, an arguer could easily make the point that Jews live in safety in many parts of the world not in Israel, thus proving that the continuing existence of Israel is not necessary under the stated criteria.

Likewise, an arguer against the former proposition could make the point that many Palestinians were, in fact, legally dispossessed of their land or compensated for it, or left voluntarily.  Historical evidence would of course be required in either case.

My point here is that despite a list of personally rational propositions and counter-propositions that could be made to establish an argument, so many discussions that make up the Israel Discourse quickly decompensate.

Thus what you have, oftentimes, is a complete mismatch of propositions that quickly escalate out of control.  Some of my favorite exchanges from recent memory:

A:  The occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is a human rights travesty.
B:  The Palestinians have places to go (i.e. other Arab countries) whereas Jews have nowhere to go.

This is a human rights proposition met with a political one.

A:  Israel has no right to exist.
B:  Israel has been attacked in 7 wars and has defended itself against Arab attackers.  All the Arabs want to do is wipe Israel off the map.

This is a political proposition met with a historical one.

A:  Israel has committed war crimes against Palestinians.
B:  Jews aren’t allowed to speak their mind in Egypt.

This is a juridical proposition met with a politico-historical one.

A:  Israel shouldn’t have attacked the Gaza flotilla.
B:  [Country Xyz] abuses human rights every day, but the UN and the world only criticizes Israel.

This is a political position met with another political one, but one that is completely irrelevant to the question at hand.

As a friend of mine likes to point out, the Israel Discourse very much resembles the sound byte world of the mainstream media, in which talking heads seek not to engage in intellectual discourse, but to make their talking points regardless of their opposition (even if the opposition might agree with them!).  I would like at some point to put proof, from the media and literature on the subject, that this is the case, but I am pressed for time.  I hope my readers at this point can recognize in their own lives when they have experienced this sort of argument and have been as frustrated as I have in many of these situations.

(One final caveat on the Israel Discourse and its tendency to decompensate:  I have this feeling that so many discussions about Israel end up being a battle to claim the lowest common denominator of victimhood, and thus claim the mantle of highest possible virtue–perhaps this could be called a corollary of Godwin’s Law.  But I merely ponder.)

Israel-Palestine and the False Duality

I mentioned earlier that I created the list of propositions for several reasons.  The first of course was to demonstrate some examples of illogical counter-arguments that mismatch propositions in odd ways.  I hope I have sufficiently demonstrated, for a blog post, that this is frequently the case within the Israel Discourse.  The second was to illustrate that to have any position on Israel is decidedly complicated.  Exceedingly complicated.  Complicated beyond all compare.  And, despite what most people may think, they do not have one mind on this issue.  This is why I have put “Pro-Israel” and “Pro-Palestinian” in quotes.  For most people–I would estimate an overwhelming majority of people–their views are going to straddle both sides of the divide.

Thus, I wish to dedicate the second half of this essay to the extraordinary bravery of people who question the accepted wisdom of their so-called intellectual leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  This “leadership” across the spectrum is revealing of perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the Israel Discourse–that it continues to be perpetrated, reinforced and magnified by the most vocal and stringently polarizing figures on the right and the left, until reason is left far behind.  Ironically, from both the grimy, corrupt, destruction-bent and vitriolic anti-Zionist left and the slimy, power hungry, stodgy and non-pragmatic pro-Israel right come very similar viewpoints on humanity, political discourse and pragmatism.

  • The humanity of the “other” matters little to naught compared to our own short-term political interest
  • The important battle to be fought is that on the airwaves, in order to justify the unconscionable on the ground.  A corollary of this is the belief that what the media thinks is more important than what we do.

Fortunately, not everyone is so pigheaded.  Most reasonable people–I would assume–can make certain acknowledgements about freedom, liberty, human rights, and–gasp–history that might not “prove” a solution for the conflict, but might indeed come close to understanding its more troubling aspects.

For instance, a secular humanist who believes in self-determination might well agree with the proposition that Israel is necessary for the protection of Jews against worldwide antisemitism, but might also agree with the proposition that a Palestinian state is necessary for the same reasons.

A historian of South Africa–which I happen to be–might draw historical similarities between the nationalistic ethno-centric nature of the Zionist movement and its analogous National Party in South Africa, especially with regard to how the state is defined as a political entity with respect to its occupants, without jumping on board with the proposition that Israel is–or shares more qualities than not with–an apartheid state.

A scholar of human rights might take great umbrage over the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank & Gaza by Israeli soldiers or Israeli settlers, but simultaneously believe that the capture of Israeli soldiers for material or strategic gain, or the indiscriminate murder of Israeli civilians is likewise a humanist scandal.

And a pragmatic jurist might find Palestinian self-determination to be a completely invalid concept based on the historical formation of the Palestinian people and their respective origins, but not feel compelled to invalidate the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Palestinian people who remain, to this day, largely stateless.

My point here is to clarify that a range of positions may be had on the issue, which don’t necessarily corollate with the well-worn ideological positions of “Pro-Israel” and “Pro-Palestine”.  But the ideological lines, of course, are how the debate defines itself.  So how is this problem to be reconciled?  How can an Israel Discourse be addressed on its arguments alone, if its very existence is predicated on a false duality?

And it is, my friends, a false duality.  To take a “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestine” position is to completely ignore the tapestry of complex questions which I have outlined above, which make no promises, cure no problems and certainly, when taken as a whole, make no sense.

And yet that is what occurs.  At almost every turn, conversations quickly decompensate into their polemic elements.  An innocuous, even sarcastic point might be countered by a reasonable challenge, such as–in a recent example from Facebook–linking to a Haaretz article on the IDF starting to use cameras to stave off criticism:

LK:  “Too bad the Israeli government has a bad track record of photo editing.”

CF:  “It’s better than nothing dude.”

This is where, somehow, the conversation takes a political turn.

JK:  “i don’t know, i think it’s worse than nothing. it means they’ll continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing (murder, torture, humiliation), and then doctor and selectively release photographs to try to convince the world otherwise. besides, the entire occupation is criminal…”

CF:  “Who’s “they”? The soldiers and the politicians trying to control a message are completely different people, and the soldiers are less likely to gamble with their careers if there’s a recording device present. A good example is taping of police interviews. Since police interviews have been taped in some jurisdictions, prisoner abuse and coercion have decreased.”

Now more people join the conversation.

NI:  If they want to use cameras to avoid intl criticism then all of the cameras should be streaming live to an objective UN body with no editing.

CF:  Lol find one army in the world that would have its practices real time streamed to the UN for scrutiny

At this point, the conversation is still genial.  As far as I can tell, it’s more about cameras and psychology than Israel.  But see how JK takes up this opportunity to turn the conversation toward his topic of choice:

JK:  I don’t see anything in the article that suggests the IDF rank and file would be the ones curating what photographs get released and where they get released to, but in any case the question is somewhat of a distraction: even if the IDF were the world’s “most moral army,” the entire occupation of Palestine is illegal and immoral. Any attempt to portray the IDF as a “moral army” that does not recognize the illegality and monstrosity of the occupation just serves the propaganda interests of the occupiers.

What?  Where did we get here?  In three steps, we went from the Israelis not having a good record on photo editing, a point on which LK and CF seemed to be in agreement on, to an amicus incursion by JK, who is fixated on perpetrating a point of view that–while it has some legitimacy–has no place in this conversation.  But it continues–now another friend joins the conversation.

BA:  the difference is that police interviews are controlled by a separate entity.beauracracy.. in the case of the IOF, these videos are likely to be edited to fit the narrative they want to portray to the world

LK:  remember the photos revealed post-mavi marmara? didn’t one of them turn out to be a recycled photograph of a weapons cache the Israeli army found years prior? the date was cleverly edited. who says this can’t happen again. and even if they didn’t edit anything, when you have 1000 hrs of footage, for example, why release all of it? why not just release the segments that show the soldiers picking dandelions? there’s so much potential for deception and this doesn’t make me confident or relieved in the slightest.

As far as I can tell, LK is merely defending his original assertion that the Israeli army has doctored photographic evidence in the past.  CF tries to bring the conversation back, only to have JK hijack it again.  Wasn’t it Winston Churchill who said “a fanatic is one who won’t change his mind, and won’t change the subject?”

CF:  Even if they edit EVERYTHING, my comment was only about the psychology of being filmed, which could only help reduce atrocities, not increase them. I don’t get your logic.

JK:  propaganda that whitewashes an intrinsically violent occupation legitimizes and prolongs the occupation. as others have above i’d argue that no such reduction is likely to occur, but even if so, the reduction in violence is dwarfed by the violence intrinsic to the occupation. this isn’t an insignificant question; supporters of palestinian self-determination need to call out all of this bullshit on the part of the IDF and israeli government for what it is, each time they come out with a new round of it.

The conversation continued, but for the interest of space, I want to quote a later participant, who added this gem:

DD:  Was there a point to any of that? Yes the Nakba and Ma’ale Adumim are fucking horrible. Gold star. We’re talking about camcorders.

DD’s bluntness sums up the very issue.  His distaste for the Nakba, the Palestinian occupation, the atrocities committed by Israel–all irrelevant to a fanatic who is content to hold his position hostile over a disagreement over video equipment.  But DD also shows that there is the possibility of knowing truth in both the Israeli and Palestinian polemical narratives; as he says later to JK:

DD:  you don’t have an argument- just a full tour of every irrelevant permutation in this conflict and an abdication of any moral condemnation of the Palestinian “tactic” of shelling civilians, which is a direct violation of all international law governing war. I’m elated that you are opposed to the occupation and the various forms of misery that attend it. I am too, though you assume otherwise, presumably because whatever Middle East-related sources you’re lifting your talking points from leave you unequipped to debate someone who opposes occupation and at the same time does not condemn Israel at every juncture.

I challenge any of my readers to create an Israel Discourse which is not predicated on this false duality–with this obsession with a side and a cause–but in which propositions may be made and debated on their own merits, and arguments may be had that attempt to find truth, instead of insisting on a fanatical point-counterpoint that goes nowhere.

This duality is made worse by the equally egregious defenders of Israel in the United States, who share with their brethren on the other side a dislike of logic and a love of polemical ideology.  Take the rhetoric of Abe Foxman, who doesn’t seem to be able to reconcile a Jew who is critical of Israel.

Resolving the Discourse as a Necessary Condition for Resolving the Conflict

I want soon to be able to make the argument that the Israel Discourse is the problem of the conflict. The way discourse is propagated, misused, misunderstood and reinforced is a threat to the State of Israel, a threat to the Palestinian people, and ultimately a threat to peace in the region.

This argument will necessarily require a lot more research than I have yet to conduct.  My opinions are formed but not formulated.  I don’t think that they are particularly controversial, except for the inevitable backlash I will have to face from countless people who believe they know what is right, which will probably prove my point.  At this point, a lengthy blog post will serve to get my ideas on paper.

Comments are closed