Debating Israel-Palestine I

Goldblog thinks my argument about the nature of Helen Thomas' offense doesn't hold up to scrutiny:

Andrew sees a very bright line separating anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism. I see it as substantially less bright. Helen Thomas was fired for saying that the Jews of Israel should move to Europe, where their relatives had been slaughtered in the most devastating act of genocide in history. She believes that once the Jews are evacuated from their ancestral homeland, the world's only Jewish country should be replaced by what would be the world's 23rd Arab country. She believes that Palestinians deserve a country of their own, but that the Jews are undeserving of a nation-state in their homeland, which has had a continuous Jewish presence for 3,000 years, and has been the location of two previous Jewish states. This sounds like a very anti-Jewish position to me, not merely an anti-Zionist position. Compared to the words of Rick Sanchez, Helen Thomas's statements on Jews seem far more serious and offensive.

This unpacking is very useful, I think, and I didn't disagree with much of it in the first place, as you can see from all my posts on Thomas' remarks which seemed to me callous and hateful and insensitive to an extreme degree. I don't think she should have been banished from the profession, as she has been, but if I were her employer, I would have decided to let her go after that.

But on reflection, I see Jeffrey's point with respect to Rick Sanchez's comments.

In so far as Thomas's remarks seemed to endorse removal of Israel from the map, and the mass departure of Jews to countries that helped incinerate millions of them only a couple of generations ago, I think her outburst was decidely more menacing than Rick Sanchez's lazy, factually wrong but still noxious generalization. So let me concede that, having read Jeffrey's post, and thought long and hard about it, I think he's basically right and I didn't fully absorb the implications of Thomas's remarks.

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But, of course, there must be some theoretical distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or else there would be no Jews now who oppose the state of Israel (and some do), and no long and impassioned debate among Jews about the Zionist idea in the first place (which, of course, there was). Whether this distinction is capable of practically being held by those who are not Jewish, without being anti-Semitic, is, I concede, a blurrier line than I suggested.

So let's use that as a starting point for a deeper conversation about some of these issues where substantively Jeffrey and I do not really disagree - so we can see why these small differences loom so large (and use it as a way into Jeffrey's cover-essay on Israel's threat to bomb Iran if the US doesn't).

Here's where I think Jeffrey and I agree: the establishment of the state of Israel was morally justified, and its many economic, cultural, agricultural and technological achievements as a country since quite staggering. Who knew what such a tiny strip of land could create and generate in so short a time? And its entrepreneurial vigor seems only to be intensifying.

It is fascinating to play through historical counter-factuals - as I did in a post called "Was Israel A Mistake?" - and to draw some lessons from them for Israel's current conduct. But the truth is: Israel exists, and in many respects is thriving; it isn't going away without some hideous cataclysm; and yet its viability is as threatened as ever both by demographic change within and by a failure to win legitimacy among its neighboring populations, if not all its neighboring regimes (with some hefty American bribes along the way).

That failure, in my judgment, is largely due to the pride, bigotry and irredentism of much of the Arab Muslim world. But, as I wrote before, it would have been unparalleled in human history if such a sudden seizure of land for a new state - especially given rival religious claims to the land - had not left a legacy of bitterness:

It is prudentially idiotic for Israel to act as if Arab resentment has no legitimacy or no justification. It is tone-deaf to create a Jewish state in the middle of the Middle East and then behave as if it had been there for ever. Israel is not France or Egypt, or even Canada. It is a young and contested idea on ancient, contested land, whose original inhabitants did not all just disappear in a biological holocaust, as in America.

And with that in mind, Israel is not without its contributions to this impasse, chief of which, it seems to me, is its attempt to colonize terrritory it won in the 1967 war with settlements, and its often appalling treatment of Palestinians in those territories. It seems completely clear to me that a two-state solution is the only way out; that the longer it takes, the harder it will be for Israel to extricate itself; and that the alternative will be an Israel even more demographically weakened as a Jewish state, even more isolated from the wider world, and less able to garner American or Sunni Arab support to defend itself against the malign machinations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and Hamas.

With Obama, Israel had a very good chance to cut this Gordian knot. And yet it seems quite clear that Israel's current leadership is unable or unwilling to cut it, and that America's Jewish leadership is unwilling or unable to exert the pressure to push it.

Why? That's what I hope to understand better in a subsequent post.