Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Toward a Long-Term Position for Israel

Perhaps the Jews should get the hell out of Palestine and return to Germany and Poland. 

That's what journalist Helen Thomas said.  Was she right?

Yes, I'm told, at least in the view of Hezbollah.  Hezbollah praised Thomas for offering "a courageous, bold, honest and free opinion," according to a news item from Ynetnews. 

I had never heard of Ynetnews before, but I see now that it describes itself as "part of the prominent Yedioth Media Group, which publishes Yedioth Ahronoth – Israel's most widely-read daily newspaper." Such a source seemed unlikely to present all viewpoints with equal clarity and passion where Israel was concerned.  That said, I was impressed with the first editorial piece I happened to read there.  So I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.  What they reported probably was a fair representation of what a spokesperson for Hezbollah said about Thomas's statement.

Rather than give them the benefit of the doubt, I would have preferred to verify their account in comparison with another source.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find an authoritative Hezbollah source page via Wikipedia's entry on Hezbollah, because their external links were impossibly old.  I couldn't even find anything on it on Al-Jazeera's English-language website

I could have looked further.  But the citation to Ynetnews was interesting in itself.  It came from a Huffington blog post with the headline, "Helen Thomas Gets a Defender .  .  .  Hezbollah." After reporting Hezbollah's statement, the blogger who wrote that Huffington Post entry makes what appears to be a snide remark.   "Alright then," he says, and then continues:  "The Hezbollah statement aside, the one thing left unresolved on the Thomas' [sic] controversy is who exactly will take her seat at the front of the briefing room."

There, I think he may be mistaken.  The apparent attitude of that blogger, surnamed Stein, is itself emblematic of what remains to be resolved by the Thomas controversy.  My reaction was that Israel, and the American public, may be better served by more self-discipline and less dismissive attitudes toward opposing viewpoints.

Stein notwithstanding, there are actually some smart and experienced Muslims in the world.  When they express a view, it could conceivably have some plausibility.  So, for example, when the Hezbollah spokesman is reported to have described Israel as "a racist state of murderers and thugs," he probably has some reason for saying so.  You and I may or may not conclude that the evidence supports his accusation.  But we don't get from the beginning of the story to the end by merely assuming the middle.  We're supposed to look at the evidence first.

So, first, what about Hezbollah's accusation that Israel is racist?  Consider something stated in Ynetnews itself, in the editorial cited above:

I remember how stunned we were when I accompanied Yitzhak Rabin many years ago to a meeting with Anwar Nuseibah, a Palestinian minister in Jordan’s government.  Wow, said Rabin after the meeting, he speaks such wonderful English! What, an Arab? A Palestinian? Speaking English like an Oxford graduate, showing familiarity with history, and using a teaspoon to mix the sugar in his teacup? Something must be wrong here.
In that example, we have an admission, by a prominent Jewish Israeli, that prominent Jewish Israelis entertained patronizing attitudes toward Arabs.  Similarly, a letter to the editor of the New York Times objects to Rabbi Yaacov Perrin's reported view that "One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail."

Both of those reports describe racist sentiments, and both are evidently offered by Jews who are faulting other Jews for that racism.  That fairminded willingness to identify racism in a fellow member of one's own racial or ethnic group is admirable.

Suppose the reported Hezbollah statement were rephrased as follows: "Israel is a state composed entirely of racists, thugs, and murderers."  This would be obvious overstatement.  Nobody will be able to prove a statement like that.  It smacks of anger and bias; it is not how an educated, factually oriented person would tend to write.    Surely there have been many Israelis who have opposed racist, thuggish, or murderous behavior by their government.

Consider, then, another rephrasing:  "Israel is a state whose existence or growth is secured by racist, thuggish, and murderous acts toward its perceived enemies, conducted primarily by a small minority but tacitly if not overtly supported by a larger minority, if not a majority."  This is a different matter.  Now the statement acknowledges the probable existence of a potentially substantial number of citizens of Israel who disagree with their government's policies; yet the statement still condemns the state and its inhabitants as a whole for the government's alleged racist, thuggish, and murderous tendencies.  The essence of this sort of statement is that those who might prefer a different approach are nonetheless paying their taxes, failing to mount a determined opposition, and generally letting those with political power do what they want.

That, in my impression, was roughly the situation among those Germans who, in the 1930s, did not vote for or agree with Hitler's policies.  Whatever their private views, you still have de facto solidarity behind the acts in question.  We wound up in a war against those people.  It cost tens of millions of lives.

Under such circumstances, it becomes crucial to ask whether the dissidents, and their supporters abroad, have been doing absolutely everything they can to deter any propensities toward racist, thuggish, and/or murderous behavior by the people in power in that country.  The judgment of history has tended to be that, on both private and geopolitical levels, the Nazis' opponents fell down on the job.  They failed to act effectively and decisively, even when it was completely clear that they must do so.

When you conclude that civilians are responsible for or support the acts and policies of their leaders, or are able to change those acts and policies, you quickly arrive at a rationale for a broad variety of acts against civilians.  Examples include the attack on the World Trade Center, the Russian atrocities in Chechnya, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Those are very divergent examples, obviously very different from one another in many regards.  In all of those examples, though, outsiders (whether Al-Qaeda, the Russian military, or the American military) concluded that attacking them would compel their leaders to chose other policies.  Moreover, if initial pressure on civilians seems unproductive, those outsiders are likely to resort to more extreme measures.  The point they are making, against civilians, is this:  if you appoint or allow government employees to act on your behalf, then in some large sense you are responsible for their actions, and you can count on being attacked, one way or another, by people who dislike those actions.

Stein's attitude, expressed in his Huffington Post message (above), is that of a person who taunts his opponents, believing that they will not find a way to make him take them seriously.  This seems arrogant.  Life is long and presents many opportunities.  In other words, I would not place my money on Stein in this bet.  A smarter attitude would take those opponents seriously from the outset, in an effort to spare them the trouble, and also to spare oneself the reaction that such bravado is likely to provoke.

Helen Thomas has been called nasty names.  It is common to resort to name-calling when someone speaks up on behalf of an oppressed minority.  We don't want to hear it, so we try to silence them.  Eventually, we wind up with something like Godwin's Law:  as an online discussion grows longer, the likelihood of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%.  (I'm not the first to have provided material supporting that outcome in the Helen Thomas case.)

In other words, it may previously have been effective to allege that any criticism of Israel is evidence of anti-Jewish sentiment.  But every line gets old after a while.  When you have had the experience of riding on the Munich subway and hearing some woman complain of a murderous Nazi mentality -- just because the subway officer gave her a ticket for trying to beat the fare -- you can begin to feel a certain sense of disgust.  The conclusion I reached, after that experience, was that not every German person should be made to grovel, every time some Jewish person feels slighted.  Aside from the obvious immorality of any such expectation, sheer practicality might suggest that continually rubbing someone's nose in it, long after the point of apology, is apt to generate resentment.

Helen Thomas's words have been described as "anti-Semitic."  To pause on that for a moment, let's recall that the Semitic peoples include Arabs.  (For that matter, while clarifying our terms, we might bear in mind that the Nazi Holocaust killed millions of Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and others for racist and other discriminatory reasons; it was not a purely Jewish nightmare.)

To phrase it more precisely, then, Thomas is not being accused of negative attitudes toward Semitic peoples generally.  The point seems to be just that some consider her words anti-Jewish.  One might ask, then:  is it anti-Jewish to suggest that Jews should leave Israel and go to Europe, America, or elsewhere?

Consider this scenario:  suppose a Native American feels that true historical justice calls for the eventual deportation of many if not all white people from his/her ancestral lands.  Unlikely as that may seem, it could happen, especially for some tribes.  There are instances in which white people have partially abandoned or returned territories that they took from Native Americans.  There could also be longer-term events of voluntary or involuntary depopulation.

Even if nothing like that ever did happen, a Native American could still hope for it.  Like many Jews in past centuries, a Native American might long for a homeland.  Entertaining that sort of ambition need not be hateful or racist.  People do commonly prefer to be among their own type for certain purposes.  It is not sexist for a woman to tell a man to get out of the ladies' restroom, and not remarkably racist to wish to marry someone who has approximately your skin color.  It is possible to have well-meaning and generally tolerant attitudes, yet nonetheless to have preferences regarding who belongs where.  A Native American who wants his/her ancestral lands returned could have loving relationships with white people and yet could dream of a day when white people remain in smallish numbers as a minority -- as guests or naturalized citizens, grateful for the privilege, and supportive of Native American values -- rather than as historical conquerors and occupiers en masse.

The nation of Israel has indulged such attitudes itself.  It has fostered expulsion of its Arab residents in the past; it does not welcome its present Arab citizens as it welcomes its Jewish citizens; and some Jews in Israel are quite exclusionary about who does and does not count as one of them.

Under such circumstances, it is not enormously surprising that Helen Thomas, born to Lebanese Christian parents and working as a journalist in Washington since the 1940s, would have developed an unfavorable impression of Israel's formation and behavior.  To the contrary, it would be arrogant in the extreme to assume that she, or anyone else, is obligated to favor Jews or Israel.  We do not, after all, have a tradition of expecting Jewish-American journalists to favor Lebanese perspectives.

Taking such thoughts into account, one might hesitate to detect intolerable racism or even unreasonable attitudes in Helen Thomas's remarks.  (This is not to deny that, as a practical matter, stating one's personal opinions on many topics can be harmful to one's career in mainstream journalism.  This post is not focused on giving practical advice to Ms.  Thomas.  Surely she understood that her remarks, if publicized, would attract hostility.)

These days, many Americans can relate to the kind of perspective that Helen Thomas grew up with, and was doubtless hearing from her relatives.  During her younger years in the U.S., from the 1920s through the 1940s, Palestine's Jewish population was increasing noticeably, thanks to a great deal of illegal Jewish immigration.  There was a predictable backlash from Arab residents who did not appreciate these newcomers – especially since, to add insult to injury, these Jewish people did not seem to have much interest in learning the existing language and fitting in with the existing culture.

Drawing directly from contemporary experience involving illegal Mexican immigration into Arizona, it is not surprising if some of the people who now claim prior ownership of the land of Palestine (whose ancestors were themselves unwanted immigrants) feel the need to demand walls, laws, and the use of force on their behalf.  It is natural to try to prevent or control a feared flood of new arrivals that might otherwise threaten to overrun the place.  Children who grow up in that kind of environment might continue to believe that the illegal immigrants should go back where they came from, long after their permanent presence has become a fait accompli.

White people were not invited to come to North America, and European Jews were not invited to go to Palestine.  Moreover, when these new peoples arrived, they were not very interested in fitting in.  Rather, in both cases, they were inclined to push the prior occupants aside.  These immigrants, fleeing their circumstances in the Old World and/or looking for new and more pleasant living conditions, prioritized their own needs and desires without regard for what would have been the settled rights of others.  If their own legal systems had been in place before their arrival, with a focus on what the U.S.  Constitution calls "life, liberty, and property," there would have been some severe and salutary limits on what they would have done in these new lands, and how they would have done it.  With or without formal legal institutions, we cannot be too surprised if a person whose family, relatives, or friends were seriously impacted by such immigration resents what s/he may perceive as maximally abrasive, abusive, and intrusive newcomers.

And how about Israel itself – should it exist?  That question could mean different things.  It would not be scandalous to discover that Helen Thomas opposes, say, the existence of the government in Tel Aviv.  In many countries, people have even hated their own governments, never mind the governments of militant neighbors.  Without even beginning to talk about the conditions of occupied lands (e.g., Tibet), there are Americans who are barely convinced that the government of the U.S.  should exist, and there are Jewish settlers on the West Bank who engage in violent conflict with Israel's own army.  Historically, some Jews were opposed to the creation of Israel to begin with.

The question of whether there should be a government, in a given place, is partly a question of what kind of government we are talking about.  One could expect a change in some attitudes toward Israel if, for instance, Israel were to commit itself to being a good neighbor and a constructive world citizen to the maximum possible extent consistent with the survival and health of its own citizens.  Some effort to fit in does seem advisable.  Not every nation enjoys New Zealand's geographical independence.  New Zealand has latitude.

The form of the Israeli government could change in various ways, and in so doing might foster greater acceptance.  Someday, for example, there could be an arrangement in which Palestine's complex real estate disputes would be submitted to the jurisdiction of a court in Geneva or Ankara.  Under such an arrangement, the focus of concerns about land-related legitimacy and fairness west of the Jordan might shift from Tel Aviv to that court.

In these remarks, I have not been primarily concerned about Helen Thomas's personal views and experiences, though they do provoke some interesting reflections.  I have been more concerned with the use of this Helen Thomas incident as an exemplar of so-called anti-Semitic thinking.  Such incidents can be trumped up and thrown around by political creatures of all stripes.

Turning from Israel to the American media, we have the fact that Helen Thomas, the individual, has been made the focus of attention.  In that case, Stein's question reappears:  Did it, indeed, take boldness and courage for Ms.  Thomas to express her viewpoint, in an environment so obviously hostile to it?  Maybe; maybe not.  She may have just been having a bad day.  At the age of 89, we could cut her some slack.  Sadly, leading voices in our nation, from President Obama on down, did not have the grace to accept her apology.  If, on the other hand, she did intend to tell the world her views about Israel, and was only gradually and reluctantly compelled to apologize after the fact, then yes, Hezbollah is correct:  she surely knew that she would become the center of a firestorm of hostile and imbalanced treatment from Jewish people in the media, Stein being an apparent example.

Rather than acknowledge the courage of her statement while regretting what he apparently considers its incorrectness, as some have done, Stein conveys a sense that her viewpoint should be belittled if not shouted down.  This, it seems, is the behavior of someone who is accustomed to preaching to the choir.  A smart writer who was trying to reach a diverse readership would display more persuasiveness and less hubris – more awareness, in other words, that not everyone will consider the matter so cut-and-dried.  There has been, after all, quite a bit of support for Thomas.  This is not Adolf Hitler.  Ranting against dead dictators does not prepare one for civil discussion with respected living journalists.

As Ted Rall points out, this Thomas affair is the kind of thing that gives credibility to the belief that Jews control the American media.  But they do, don't they?  Or am I not allowed to ask?  Rall says no; he passes it off with a joke:  actually, morons control the media.  But seriously, Ted:  you look at all the Jewish bankers, Jewish performers, Jewish filmmakers.  Wouldn't an intelligent, curious individual tend to think that, yes, of course, there has historically been a rather pronounced degree of Jewish wealth and solidarity that is not comparably apparent among, say, African-Americans in the media?  Whether that impression is correct or not, shouldn't an intelligent person wonder why some people apparently want to prevent anyone from even asking the question?

Those thoughts made me curious, so I ran a simple Google search about this Helen Thomas incident, and looked at the first six or eight items.  Jews seemed to have taken a pretty high profile in it.  Here's what I got.  One piece, written by Madeleine Dubus at the Center for American Progress, says this:  "I think it’s pretty obvious that she was carefully and purposely destroyed by the gentleman [i.e., the rabbi] who interviewed her."  A similarly minded piece by Sara Makdisi of the Los Angeles Times asked why there is not similar outrage regarding the expulsion of Palestinians.  Those top Google results also included a Yahoo! news piece that stated the views of Howard Kurtz (described elsewhere as going out of his way to attack Thomas repeatedly), Rep.  Anthony Weiner (D.-NY), and Ari Fleischer (who has what is now a nationally recognized history of antagonism toward Thomas), among others.  Fleischer also appeared in another top item on this Google list, written by our very own Sam Stein.

So then I did a search for recent articles on Jewish media influence – articles written by scholars, in the professional literature – and what did I see?  Name-calling was pretty prominent:  it seemed that references to "white supremacists" and Nazis and anti-Semitism appeared frequently.  Really -- so an interest in that question makes me a white supremacist, Nazi, or anti-Semite?  Having spent a bit of time in academia, I got the impression that American scholars are afraid even to discuss the subject of Jewish control of the media.  Academics are not stupid.  They see what happened to Helen Thomas; they've probably seen similar things before.  Do they fear that influential Jews will intervene to ruin their careers too, if they say or even ask about the wrong thing?

Hmm.  And so another person's uncertainty and concern about Jewish influence grows a bit.  Let us not be terribly surprised if some curious individuals eventually conclude that people derided as the lunatic fringe are the only ones who dare to talk truthfully about these oddly mysterious matters.  This, I suggest, is not the direction in which an intelligent Jewish community wants popular thinking to run.

In a relatively enlightened comment, Joanna Weiss gets it half-right.  Old-line Zionism, she says, has turned off young American Jews.  They haven't identified with that outdated, anti-intellectual propensity to silence those who utter heterodox opinions or ask inconvenient questions.  As Weiss might have emphasized, Israel pays a bit of a price, itself, when things are arranged such that someone like Helen Thomas cannot speak freely here in America, but might be able to get a job with Hezbollah if she sets her sights abroad.

Weiss concludes that the Thomas affair may incite young Jews to realize that what she calls anti-Semitism is alive and well.  This, she surmises, may encourage them "to support an Israel that represents their values – not just ethnic identity, but a commitment to democracy and human rights."

What Weiss understates is that that's the whole shooting match.  An Israel committed to democracy and human rights – one that no longer engages in Jim Crow treatment of its Arab citizens and neighbors, builds illegal settlements, shoots kids who throw rocks, uses white phosphorus on civilians, kills protesters, looks on benignly as people in displacement camps are murdered, steals secrets from America, sells secrets and weaponry to our adversaries – yeah, I think we could all get behind that.  If that happens, though, it won't be the young Jews who are changing:  it will be Israel.  Put it this way:  if that sort of America-friendly, human-rights-oriented thinking had been guiding Israel over the past couple of decades, it might be harder to support views like those expressed by Helen Thomas.

Alright.  It seems that Ms. Thomas, for whatever reason, has blurted out that the emperer has no clothes.  It may have taken a mix of crankiness, racism, exasperation, and/or courage to do that.  Whether her diagnosis justifies her prescription is another matter.  Short of requiring the emperor to abdicate, as it were, Ms.  Thomas might just have suggested that Israel's Jews get their act together.  In other words, what sense did it make for her to recommend that they go to Germany, Poland, America, or elsewhere?

Well, obviously, it made a great deal of sense, else we would not have so many Jews, from Israel and elsewhere, who actually have gone to places like America.  Millions of Jews think she's right:  there are good reasons to be here rather than there.  But look at it another way.  Suppose that, five years from now, Iran drops a couple of nuclear warheads on Israel.  Will it really seem so damn anti-Jewish, in retrospect, to have argued that Israel was pushing its luck in a hostile neighborhood?  The logic might have been wrong, the facts might have been weak, but there you are:  a bazillion dead Jews.  It's hard to argue with.

There are endless variations on that scenario.  Terrorists are interested in buying those sorts of weapons, even if Iran doesn't get or use them.  Our brilliant developers of armaments are forever coming up with new ways to kill large numbers of people.  Nobody is lucky forever.  Even the weakling you beat up every day, year after year, does continue to have a chance of making a bigger friend who will help him out.  Israel is at risk, as everyone acknowledges; but Israel cannot seem to help itself from making that risk worse, and from dragging as many Jews as possible into it.  There's something a bit nutty about that.

And meanwhile, God forbid, Germany.  The nation that has fallen all over itself in voluntary and self-abnegating apology and repayment, perhaps as much as any nation in history has ever done; one of the world's leading economies; a place from which, Nazi era notwithstanding, many of those famous Jewish surnames hail.  I'm not convinced that Helen Thomas offered sensible advice.  If you're from Israel, you probably belong in Israel.  But before fanning ourselves and passing out at the mere suggestion, it can't hurt to stop and think.  Should some Jews go to Germany?  Never mind; some are doing exactly that.  Times change.  In an increasingly dangerous and complex world, it shouldn't take a Gentile to advise Israelis to be smart and keep their options open.  But, yeah, if I were in charge of the long-term survival of Judaism, I would definitely try to find some Jews who are interested in moving to Japan, etc.

In this post, I've worked through a number of topics, mostly in brief fashion, to flesh out a viewpoint on the Helen Thomas matter.  Part of my reason in doing so has been to stir out of the intimidated quietude that I, and many other Americans, occupy on the subject of Israel.  I want to be in a place where I can be honest to myself and forthright to others about Israelis and Arabs alike.  If I'm going to applaud an atheist European cartoonist for caricaturing Mohammed, then I want equally well to be able to cheer a skinhead who does a good stand-up comedy routine on Israelis – not that I've seen one yet.

At a certain point, special privileges are counterproductive.  There has been enough of that where the U.S.  and Israel are concerned.  If we Americans want to keep claiming that we believe in equality, we need to get better at practicing it.  And if Israel wants to claim to be a stable democracy, we should react appropriately when it fails to act like one.

As Mark LeVine capably points out in a piece in Al Jazeera, it is actually not too sensible to talk about Jews abandoning Israel.  Not to say a Dunkirk won't come, with the boats lined up.  Hopefully it never will, but that's not the point; it's just that Helen Thomas doesn't seem to have been alluding to a lucid plan.

There is, nevertheless, the possibility of a lucid plan emerging from thoughts that she provokes.  The gist of it might be that Israel must finally, at long last, get ahead of the curve.  The old self-pity is wearing thin.  If Israel wants to be a superior brand, it needs to develop better marketing and pay more attention to customer support.  It definitely needs to get beyond the knee-jerk, counterproductive defensiveness that came to the fore in the Helen Thomas matter.