Four Dogmas of the Radical Left
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Aug. 1st, 2009 | 17:06 pm
Before diving into deeply contentious subjects, I’d like to precede by stating that I am and always have been a member of the Israeli peace camp. I support the Palestinian’s right to self-determination, within the boundaries of the land acquired by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.
Having said that, It is often the case that I find myself at greater odds with those who are left of me than those who are to my right, regarding the true nature of the conflict and the convulsed history involved. This is why I’m adding this disclaimer here.
The main issue I take with the radical left is with the post-modern movement of historical revisionism, to which I would like to point out that post-modernism works both ways.
Much of the problem regarding the history of this conflict has to do with prior suppositions and biases regarding the nature of history and justice.
So without further adieu, three contentious claims that have indeterminate truth values and one more:
1. Who is aboriginal to this land?
Up until fairly recent history, it was taken as a truism in the west that it is the Jews who are the only people in the world who can rightly claim to be aboriginal to the land of Israel (this is despite the bible being filled with depictions of the Israelite conquest of Knaan). The Muslims were merely the latest in a long line of conquerors.
I believe Lord Balfour’s remarks from 1920, quoted below, are very telling of the prevalent attitude:
“So far as the Arabs are concerned –I hope they will remember that it is we who have established an independent Arab sovereignty of the Hedjaz. I hope they will remember it is we who desire in Mesopotamia to prepare the way for the future of a self-governing, autonomous Arab State, and I hope that, remembering all that, they will not grudge that small notch — for it is no more than that geographically, whatever it may be historically — that small notch in what are now Arab territories being given to the people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated from it.”
That last sentence – “…territories being given to the people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated from it.” is what I refer to. Of course, the Arabs in Palestine never knew any better. Most had probably barely met a Jew before Zionism began in the late 19th century.
I believe it is this interpretation which brought about the Balfour declaration three years prior to these remarks, and it is this interpretation which stood at the basis of the the four great powers’ and League of Nation’s backing of Zionism as a solution to the Jewish problem.
It is important to note that for many (if not most) Jews, this interpretation remained unchanged during the 20th century. While the consensus in the west (particularly in Europe) may have swung in favor of the Palestinian narrative after 1967, regardless of whose claim is more just or bears more “historical truth”, it is certainly a contentious point, and a matter of interpretation.
2. Can land be legitimately captured during war?
Likely originating in the Stimson Doctrine, there was a significant shift in the way the international community regarded this question during the 20th century from the idea that it is trivially true that land can be conquered to the idea that it is absolutely forbidden.
This is a completely new notion in the history of nations, and even since this new concept emerged, it’s application was ignored many times in the international arena.
It is unclear how “natural” this idea is. All states are birthed in sin. While certainly war is itself an affront to justice, the idea that rules of justice (or “international law”) can be applied to such horror is absurd. This does not justify “land grabs” but certainly puts into perspective and historical context that this idea is not self-evident. It is new, almost untested, and has not stood up well to the test of time and the requirement of fair and even application.
Most international jurors would agree there is a distinction between “aggressive conquest” and land gained during a defensive war. While Gaza might be up for dispute (I do not think it is, personally), certainly no one twisted HK Jordan’s arm and forced them to join the 1967 war. In fact, Israel quite expressly warned them not to. Since Jordan initiated aggression against Israel, the west bank captured during this war clearly falls under the ‘defensive war’ category. While some of the land captured from Jordan was originally Jewish-owned land, or land that was to be afforded to the Jewish state in the 1947 partition plan, it is unclear to my intuition what “natural rights” people have to land owned by their grandparents and lost during war. This remains unclear regarding Arab land lost in war, even if we choose to ignore the distinction between aggressive conquest and land gained during a defensive war (as many on the left do).
3. The legitimacy of the Nation State
The Enlightenment era idea of the nation state, predicated on the right to national self-determination, has in recent times fallen out of favor in the west.
Again this is a new popular idea, as democratic Europe shifts towards the American model of pluralism, it suddenly becomes unclear why the Jews of all people require a state all of their own. This is of course demagogy, often defended by proponents of a ‘one state” solution, or those who oppose Israel’s national character. Even today, most democracies are nation-states. Many such nation states, such as Germany, Japan or Finland, have laws designed to defend the demographic nature of the nation state, or allow for preferred immigration of certain nationalities or ethnic groups.
Often antagonists would argue that the Jewish people do not represent a nation, but rather a religion, and therefore are not entitled to self-determination. This is a misunderstanding of the complex ethnoreligious taxonomy of Judaism. Suffice to say though, that even according to religious halachaic doctrine, a Jew is first and foremost someone born to a Jewish mother. Thus, even by religious terminology, Judaism is a matter of heritage, not religious belief. Just as Jews don’t get to determine for Palestinians whether they are a nationality or not, so no one else gets to determine for Jews their status as a nationality. I believe that idea lies in the core of self-definition.
4. Reverse causality of occupation and war.
This last point isn’t contentious at all, but is often overlooked. Occupation is not the cause of the current state of war between the Jews of Israel and the Arab world. On the contrary, first there was ‘illegal’ war, and then there was ‘illegal’ occupation (* as noted in section 2, the question of legality of these terms are quite abstruse), not the other way around. Clearly, the 1929 Hebron pogrom cannot be explained as a “reaction” to Jewish occupation of land in 1967. The root cause of the conflict does not lie squarely in occupation. So while I’d be the last to argue that occupation and settlement were wise or beneficiary to Israel or to the promotion of peace, it is also false to presume that they are the cause of war or the sole obstacle to peace. As Ben-Dror Yemini rightly points out, the great injustices in this conflict (which he quantifies in a body count) occurred during wars instigated by the Arab side, not during 40+ years of occupation. Quite simply, there is a complex history to this conflict, it does not begin or end with an injective “one-to-one” function between occupation and war.
To all these points I’d like to add my main point in writing this — While it is certainly a legitimate position to believe that the nation-state is an antiquated idea, or that the Palestinian’s claim to be aboriginals to this land is truer to title, one must accept that these are contentious positions, akin to opinions, and not universally held to be fact. I would like to hope that accepting the disputable nature of these core-ideas, by both parties in the conflict, will lead to a more pragmatic understanding of the need for peace. Too much is fought over in the name of ‘historic justice’, by both sides. With this understanding of the liquid nature of history, I don’t know what justice is. And yet, even without it, I still see a need for compromise and for peace, because people need to live free and safe. This is my realpolitik, and I believe it holds a truer relation to our reality than either of the competing radical narratives.