Thursday, August 7, 2014

On not seeing the Middle East

Two now well-established anti-Israel lines of rhetoric are that the Jewish State is "Nazi-like" (Zionism=Nazism) and the Jewish State is "an apartheid state". What these lines of rhetoric have in common is that they attack Israel invoking comparisons which resonate in the West and Western political rhetoric, invoking comparisons which have no specific connection to the Middle East at all.

There is, of course, actually a political movement with an attached paramilitary wing which openly endorses genocide in its founding political Covenant and in its continuing rhetoric. That would be Hamas and it currently runs Gaza. 

But the nature, methods and goals of Hamas seem to be just too hard for many Westerners to deal with. Consider this piece by former US President Jimmy Carter and former Irish President Mary Robinson. It is full of the rhetoric of conciliation and "please just be sensible" that Very Serious People use to show their Very Serious Concern. Rhetoric that is essentially completely interchangeable--swap the relevant nouns and it could be a call for peace, goodwill and conciliation about any endemic conflict anywhere around the globe.

But Hamas is not interested in peace at any price. It is interested in the establishment of Islamic rule and the obliteration of Israel: a Middle East not only free of any Jewish state, but free of Jews, that is Judenfrei. Just as ISIS is currently massacring religious minorities in pursuit of the same vision of Islamic harmony. 

It is simply not possible for Israel to make peace with Hamas. All it can manage is truces of various duration until the next mini-war. If one cannot grasp that reality, one is engaged in acts of delusion, not understanding.
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem saluting Bosnian Muslim SS volunteers

Folk in Israel grasp that reality, which is likely why Israeli opinion is hardening, widening the gap between Israeli opinion and Western opinion. Part of what is going on is that Israel is becoming a Middle Eastern state. The dynamics of conflict have been driving it towards insider-outsider ruthlessness that is so much a part of the dynamics of the region, leading to suggestions that the most recent Gaza conflict is simply an eruption of continuing enmity, with no greater underlying strategy

Yet what has enabled Israel to survive, and even to thrive, is precisely that it is not a Middle Eastern state: that it is a liberal-democratic nation-state on the Western model, with Western levels of social cohesion and organisational effectiveness. This is perhaps the danger that the Netanyahu Government's apparent strategy of Greater Israel does not grasp. That giving into the Middle Eastern dynamic may fatally erode Israel's advantages in being in, but far from merely of, the Middle East. Gazing into the Middle Eastern abyss does mean that the abyss gazes into you. Indeed, the entire quote from Nietzsche is apposite:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
But Israel not being merely of the Middle East also feeds into its rhetorical isolation. First, Israel is judged as a Western liberal-democracy, and not as a Middle Eastern state. Second, Israel is treated as a "settler state"; a colonising and imperial intrusion into the region, thus casting the Palestinians as oppressed indigenes.  Which is again a case of not seeing the Middle East, given that about half of Israeli Jews come from the Middle East and are as every bit "indigenous" to the region as the Arabs. Indeed, in a sense more so, since their Middle Eastern identity is a great deal older than the Arab-Muslim one. 

Hence the two-state solution. Recent events has thrown into very stark belief a fundamental problem with that. Arab states, they do not work so well (for reasons nicely summarised in this piece). Which raises serious issues about why would a putative Palestinian state be any more viable? (Ironically, the most hopeful answer is--because they have been observing Israel up close for 60 years.)

Which is not terribly hopeful, because it runs into the "taking on infidel models" problem that organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, etc are brutally committed to opposing. One of the fundamental problems of Palestinian politics is that hating Israel is both fundamental to Palestinian identity and the only common ground in Palestinian politics. It is likely why Arafat walked away from the best offer Palestine was ever likely to get: Ehud Barak's compensated borders proposal. He did not want to be Palestine's Michael Collins or deal with disastrously divided "ordinary politics" toxically mixed in with frustrated hate. 

The One-State "solution" would be even worse. The IDF is what makes Israeli Jews so much safer than any other Middle Eastern minority and there is no way they will voluntarily give it up. [Even French Jews are increasingly seeing the IDF as their preferred defenders.]

The problem with seeing the Middle East as it is, is that so much is so depressing. Hamas is a genocidal political movement whose only competitive advantage is well-organised hate who really was using dead Palestinians as a strategic lever. It is the real vector for Nazi-style ideas in the Middle East in a pattern that reaches back to the original leader of Palestinian rejectionism. But ideas that resonate by building on tendencies with Islam itself, including the problems of Arab society dealing with the modern world--in large part due to the dynamics of Islam. 

Meriam Ibrahim was born as the daughter of a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Christian mother. The father deserted and Meriam was raised as a Christian by her mother’s family. She subsequently married Daniel Wasi, a Christian holding U.S. citizenship, with whom she had one child and was pregnant with another when she was arrested. The charge was apostasy and fornication. Under Islamic law the father’s religion determines the child’s, so Meriam is a Muslim. Unless she recants her professed Christianity she is guilty of apostasy. Marriage between a Christian man and a Muslim woman is prohibited, so her union with Wasi is fornication. She refused to recant her Christian faith. She was sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy, and for fornication to be whipped with one hundred lashes. Both sentences were to be suspended for two years after the birth.

There is no conception of an open public space where people get to make their own decisions and choose their own affinities or operate according to them. Sharia was, from its beginning, an imperial legal system, and that is still its in-built dynamic. 

Seeing Hamas as the closest analogue in the Middle East to the Nazi movement gets in the way of a whole lot of comfortable Western assumptions and rhetoric. But it is hardly the only thing that does. 

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. I reckon this is roughly right. Short version: the Arabs are trying to kill as many Jews as possible, but the Jews are not trying to kill as many Arabs as possible. Yet. Israel's western critics seem to ignore that big asymmetry.

    But Western/European societies do get very ruthless when they think they need to. Hiroshima/Hamburg etc. I'm not sure how big an effect that had on our societies.

    1. Thanks and excellent question. Not very, is the short answer. But it was also not a permanent condition: it could be put in the "necessary emergency" box. (And, even better, fighting a "good war"). Even better still, past enemies became allies.

  2. The religious fanatics on the Arab side believe that the whole country was given by God to Muslims, and that Jews who claim to have actual rights, rather than merely privileges (dhimma) granted by muslims, are blasphemers and criminals. The religious fanatics on the Jewish side believe that the whole country was given by God to Jews, and that Arab "trespassers" have no rights that an authentic Jew needs to respect. If THE NUMBER of innocent Arabs killed by Jewish fanatics is less than the number of innocent Jews killed by Muslim fanatics, it is only because Jewish fanatics are less numerous - about 60% of Israelis are non-religious. But: most of the seculars on both sides are implicit existentialists, who envy the "authenticity and commitment" of the fanatics. So when Jewish religious fanatics seize the private property of Arabs by force, and build illegal settlements on illegally expropriated land, the secular government "legalizes" those settlements afterward, and ignores or excuses the crimes of the settlers.

    1. A good summary of the dynamics of the immediate conflict. God-claims are great ways to strip folk of moral standing.

    2. With the caveat that there is no Israeli/Jewish equivalent of Hamas.

  3. btw, have you read Sari Nusseibeh's 2011 book, What Is a Palestinian State Worth?

    In very broad outline, Nusseibeh’s proposal calls on Israel to annex the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, granting their Palestinian inhabitants the status of “second-class” citizens of Israel. As second-class citizens under the proposal, Israel would (for the foreseeable future) protect those Palestinians’ civil rights but refuse them political rights. As Nusseibeh understands them, “civil rights” include both negative rights (life, liberty, property, conscience, contract, self-defense) and some positive rights (to due process, social security, health care). “Political rights” include rights to vote in national elections, to hold national political office (whether electoral or otherwise), and to serve in the military.

    1. No, haven't. That really would be an apartheid state. Does not strike me as a stable solution.

      What about current Arab Israelis?