Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Al Jazeera Panel: Is Zionism Compatible With Democracy?

Is Zionism compatible with democracy? Panel with Mehdi Hasan, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Avi Shlaim, Paul Charney, and Diana Buttu. Video. Head to Head. Al Jazeera English, March 7, 2014. Transcript. YouTube.

Transcript excerpt: 

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, how does a political ideology which, at its core, is about privileging a particular ethic group presumably over other ethnic groups. How do you reconcile that with the principles of Liberalism, which is about equal rights for all, equal citizenship for all?

Shlomo Ben Ami: I think you need an effort to reconcile the two, to square the circle. It’s not easy, but I do agree that there is a fundamental anomaly in the creation of the state of Israel. This can perhaps explain the controversy around the Jewish state because it was created in a very particular way. And, given the background of Jewish history as we know it. But I do believe that enlightened leadership and more sober political construction in Israel could have bridged that kind of squaring the circle.

Mehdi Hasan: But when you talk about squaring the circle or anomaly some people go further. They say “there is an inherent, more than just a tension, there is a contradiction when you talk of being a Jewish and democratic state.” It is like talking about hot ice. It’s a contradiction in terms, it is an oxymoron.

Shlomo Ben Ami: No it is not an oxymoron. I mean, you can be a Jewish state where the Jews are a majority but is fully, unconditionally respectful of the minorities. Look, without declaring it, many other states throughout the world gave priority to a majority ethnic or religion.

Mehdi Hasan: You’re right, if we take the United States, for example, you could say there’s a big debate about indigenous people there, Australia. The difference, surely, is that in the nature of Zionism, surely it’s about preserving a Jewish majority and that Jewish majority, of course, came about by expelling some of the Palestinians who were living within those original borders, those UN-mandated borders. You wouldn’t have a Jewish majority and a Jewish state had you not expelled Palestinians along the way.

Shlomo Ben Ami: Well, this is the way the state of Israel was created. I’m not trying to whitewash the anomaly in the creation of the state of Israel by saying that nations normally throughout history were born in blood and were born in sin. The difference is that Israel was born in the age of mass media. Imagine that the United States would have been born in the age of mass media after the elimination of the indigenous people.

Mehdi Hasan: Today, the United States does not say it is the nation or the country of one particular ethnic group or religion. And, whereas the Jewish state is called the Jewish state. You are, in its very title it is privileging one group of people over another group of people who happen to live within that state’s borders.

Shlomo Ben Ami: [INTERRUPTING] Ah, well…

Mehdi Hasan: …That’s why people talk about – it’s an ethnocracy, not a democracy, some suggest.

Shlomo Ben Ami: You need to see that against the background of Jewish history. Now what we need is to reconcile that complex historical background with what a normal state should be.

Tsar Vladimir the First. By Gal Luft.

Tsar Vladimir the First. By Gal Luft. Foreign Policy, August 5, 2014. Also here.

Putin isn’t trying to win the Cold War – he’s refighting the battles of World War I.

The Death of Sympathy in Israel. By Gregg Carlstrom.

The Death of Sympathy. By Gregg Carlstrom. Foreign Policy, August 5, 2014. Also here.

Some Israelis Count Open Discourse and Dissent Among Gaza War Casualties. By Jodi Rudoren. New York Times, August 5, 2014.


How Israel’s hawks intimidated and silenced the last remnants of the anti-war left.

TEL AVIV — Pro-war demonstrators stand behind a police barricade in Tel Aviv, chanting, “Gaza is a graveyard.” An elderly woman pushes a cart of groceries down the street in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon and asks a reporter, “Jewish or Arab? Because I won’t talk to Arabs.” A man in Sderot, a town that lies less than a mile from Gaza, looks up as an Israeli plane, en route to the Hamas-ruled territory, drops a blizzard of leaflets over the town. “I hope that’s not all we're dropping,” he says.

Even before the war, Israel was shifting right, as an increasingly strident cadre of politicians took ownership of the public debate on security and foreign affairs. But the Gaza conflict has accelerated the lurch – empowering nationalistic and militant voices, dramatically narrowing the space for debate, and eroding whatever public sympathy remained for the Palestinians.

The fighting seems to be winding down, but it leaves behind a hardened Israeli public opinion: There is a widespread feeling that Israelis are the true victims here, that this war with a guerrilla army in a besieged territory is existential.

Hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has found himself under pressure from politicians even further to his right. The premier has suspended negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, arrested more than 1,000 Palestinians, demolished the homes of several people convicted of no crimes, and launched an offensive in Gaza that has killed more than 1,800 people. That's not enough, even for some members of Netanyahu's own party, who see worrying signs of weakness.

“We’ve seen the influence of [Tzipi] Livni over the prime minister,” Likud Knesset member Danny Danon told Foreign Policy, referring to the justice minister and her centrist party. “My position is to make sure we’re not becoming a construct of the left.... As long as he stays loyal, he’ll have the backing of the party.”

Netanyahu fired Danon from his post as deputy defense minister last month, because he was too critical of the government's strategy in Gaza. But Danon cannot be dismissed as a marginal figure: He took control of the Likud central committee last year, and has used the post to steer the party further right – an ironic turnabout, as Netanyahu used the same tactics to drive out former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a decade ago.

Even before his election, the 2012 Likud primary turned Netanyahu into perhaps the most liberal member of his own party. 

Public opinion polls confirm the Israeli right’s gains during the current conflict. A survey conducted by the Knesset Channel last week found that the right-wing parties would win 56 seats in the next election, up from 43 last year. The center-left bloc would shrink from 59 seats to 48. Other surveys suggest that the right could win a majority by itself, without needing religious parties or centrists to form a coalition.

But perhaps more striking is the public’s near-unanimous support for the Gaza war, from Israelis across the political spectrum. Roughly 90 percent of Jewish Israelis support the war, according to recent polls. Less than 4 percent believe the army has used “excessive firepower,” the Israel Democracy Institute found, though even Israeli officials admit that a majority of the 1,800 Palestinians killed so far are civilians.

Meanwhile, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, the ostensible head of the opposition, is doing public relations work for Netanyahu, defending the war at a gathering of foreign diplomats. Livni herself at times sounds more hawkish than the prime minister, arguing that Israel should topple Hamas and build a moat to separate itself from Gaza. “I have two words for you: Get lost,” she told the U.N. Human Rights Council after it voted to investigate possible Israeli war crimes in Gaza.

And Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who once threatened to bolt the coalition if talks with the Palestinians collapsed, has been another vocal advocate. “This is a tough war, but a necessary one,” he said last month.

Decades ago, a commentator coined the phrase “quiet, we’re shooting” – a reflection of the Israeli public’s tendency to rally behind the army in wartime. But this time, public dissent hasn’t just been silenced, it’s been all but smothered. A popular comedian was dumped from her job as the spokeswoman for a cruise line after she criticized the war. Local radio refused to air an advertisement from B’Tselem, a rights group, which simply intended to name the victims in Gaza.

Scattered anti-war rallies have drawn small crowds, mostly in the low hundreds; the largest brought several thousand people to Tel Aviv on July 26. But most of the protests ended in violence at the hands of ultranationalists, who attacked them and set up roving checkpoints to hunt for “leftists” afterwards. Demonstrators have been beaten, pepper-sprayed, and bludgeoned with chairs.

In hundreds of interviews with Israelis over the past month, there has been little criticism of their government’s actions, much less sympathy for Gaza’s. “We have suffered terribly, but when you are pushed into a corner, you have no choice,” said one man in Ashkelon. “Their children? What about our children? If they cared about their children, they wouldn’t have chosen Hamas,” said a woman in Kiryat Malachi, a city in Israel’s south.

The media, by and large, has become a unanimous choir in support of destroying Hamas. The only exception is Haaretz, where Gideon Levy, one of the newspaper’s best-known columnists, has started reporting with a bodyguard after he was accosted during a live television interview in Ashkelon. Yariv Levin, a Knesset member from Likud and a chairman of the governing coalition, wants to charge Levy with treason because of his writing.

“I’ve never had it so harsh, so violent, and so tense,” Levy said.

“We will face a new Israel after this operation ... nationalistic, religious in many ways, brainwashed, militaristic, with very little empathy for the sacrifice of the other side. Nobody in Israel cares at all.” 

Already, figures who challenge Israel’s dominant narrative about the conflict – or even dare to tweak public sensibilities – have been met with an overwhelming and vicious backlash. Last week, Hanoch Sheinman, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University, emailed his students about their revised exam schedule. He opened by wishing “that you, your families and those dear to you are not among the hundreds of people that were killed, the thousands wounded, or the tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed.”

The dean of the law school pronounced himself shocked at Sheinman’s email, and wrote to students that Sheinman’s “hurtful letter ... contravene[s] the values of the university.”

“Even this trivial expression of concern stirred such a backlash, and that’s not trivial at all,” Sheinman told Foreign Policy. “To be shocked or angered ... by a trivial expression of sympathy to everyone is to betray a lack of such sympathy.”

Even in the Knesset, voices of dissent have been silenced. Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who is a favorite target for the right, has been barred from most parliamentary activity for six months. Her punishment, the harshest one meted out by the Ethics Committee, was a response to a radio interview in which she said the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers was not terrorism. “The atmosphere has become very radical,” said Basel Ghattas, a colleague of Zoabi's.

On the other side of the political spectrum – and dominating the conversation – are people like Moshe Feiglin, a clownish figure from Likud and a deputy speaker of parliament. He called last week for the “conquest” of Gaza, and the “elimination of all military forces and their supporters.” This is our land, he wrote, “only ours, including Gaza.” Nobody has demanded his censure.

Though this current bout of fighting in Gaza may be now at an end, Israel’s rightward turn appears here to stay. The deaths of more than 60 Israeli soldiers in the conflict have not dented public support for the war; if anything, it appears to have whet many Israelis’ appetite for vengeance.

At a funeral last month, hundreds of mourners sobbed softly as the flag-draped coffin of an Israeli officer was brought into the cemetery. The soldier’s mother lay her head on the coffin, refusing to let an honor guard lower it into the grave; steps away, the officer's pregnant wife consoled his anguished father, who wore a torn black shirt in accordance with Jewish custom. Next to the grave was another freshly dug plot.

One young woman, a casual acquaintance of the officer’s, leaned on the metal police barricades ringing the gravesite. “We should kill 100 of theirs for every one of ours,” she said.

Battle Cry of the White Man. By Dana Milbank.

Battle cry of the white man. By Dana Milbank. Washington Post, August 5, 2014.


The unfriendly airwaves of talk radio this week gave us an inadvertently revealing moment.

Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a Republican immigration hard-liner and part of what the Wall Street Journal just branded “the GOP’s Deportation Caucus,” was giving his retort to the paper’s pro-business editorialists on Laura Ingraham’s radio show Monday: “They need to be patriots, and they need to think about America first,” Brooks said.

America First? How 1940! The congressman went on to condemn those who say the Republican position on immigration is dooming the party by alienating Latinos.

“This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party,” Brooks said. “And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It’s a part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare.”

It was the battle cry of the white man, particularly the Southern white man, who is feeling besieged. I don’t share the fear, but I understand it. The United States is experiencing a rapid decoupling of race and nationality: Whiteness has less and less to do with being American.

The Census Bureau forecasts that non-Hispanic whites, now slightly more than 60 percent of the population, will fall below 50 percent in 2043. Within 30 years, there will cease to be a racial majority in the United States. In a narrow political sense, this is bad news for the GOP, which is dominated by older white men such as Brooks. But for the country, the disassociation of whiteness and American-ness is to be celebrated. Indeed, it is the key to our survival.

This is not merely about a fresh labor supply but about the fresh blood needed to cure what ails us. To benefit from such a transfusion, we not only need to welcome more immigrants but also to adopt pieces of their culture lacking in our own — just as we have done with other (mostly European) cultures for centuries.

This is the theme of my friend Eric Liu’s provocative new book, A Chinaman’s Chance. Liu writes about Chinese Americans (Asians, as it happens, eclipsed Hispanics last year as the fastest-growing minority in the United States) but the thesis is similar for other immigrant cultures. Liu argues that the United States needn’t fear China’s rise, because the Chinese have already given us the tools to beat them economically: their sons and daughters.

“America has an enduring competitive advantage over China: America makes Chinese Americans; China does not make American Chinese,” Liu says. “China does not want to or know how to take people from around the world, welcome them, and empower them to change the very fabric of their nation’s culture.”

The son of Chinese immigrants, Liu observes that American culture now has an excess of individualism, short-term thinking and prioritizing of rights over duties. He calls for “a corrective dose” of Chinese values: mutual responsibility, long-term thinking, humility, moral character and contribution to society.

“What Chinese culture at its best can bring to America is a better balance between being an individual and being in a community,” he writes, offering the example of Tony Hsieh, the Taiwanese-American chief executive of Zappos who is pouring some $350 million into reviving downtown Las Vegas: “He’s an American gambler with a Chinese long view; he is supremely confident yet mainly silent; he has so little of the American need to sell himself, so little extroversion, that he jokes even his friends aren’t sure he likes them.”

Part of Liu’s confidence that the United States will triumph over China is that his ancestral land, in modernizing, is losing some of the best aspects of Chinese culture — and acquiring our own excesses. He notes that, as the Chinese extended family frayed, the government enacted a law requiring adult children to visit their elderly parents — the sort of thing Chinese did voluntarily for millennia.

China responds with edicts because it lacks the source of continuous adaptability and vitality that imported cultures give the United States. Creative change is easier here because we pick and choose from among all the world’s cultures. That inherent advantage in the American system will continue — if we don’t get hung up about whiteness.

The tea party movement was a setback because it elevated extreme individualism over collective responsibilities and because it tapped into nativism and further undermined trust in American institutions. Some tea partyers such as Brooks may never be able to leave the bunkers where they defend whiteness.

But for other conservatives and Republicans — and, more importantly, for America — it’s not too late.