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Four Dogmas of the Radical Left

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Aug. 1st, 2009 | 17:06 pm

Political Disclaimer:
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.

Originally published at Total Eclipse. You can comment here or there.

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Comments {4}


(no subject)

from: r1vethead
date: Aug. 1st, 2009 17:35 pm (UTC)

Shay, I'm glad you posted this because it starts to dig in to some of the major issues around the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. In the interests of exchange I'd like to break down some of my own views on the subject, relating to what you've presented here.

I'd like to say that the "post-modern left" is a creature that exists primarily only within academic institutions - it has no traction in unions, or for the most part even student unions. The radical left has firmly rejected pomo views and practice -- in the few places where it hasn't, it's because the left is essentially too weak and insignificant to take coherent form, and relatively small groups of post-modernists have been able to carve out a niche for themselves in the absence of anything else.

Who is aboriginal to this land?

This is really a layered question. In it we have to ask - what does it mean to be aboriginal to a land? What is the threshold for being aboriginal to a land? and to what does that entitle you, if anything?

So for me, some hard points I want to lay down:

1. The current Israeli population is not "indigenous" to the land.

They are almost all immigrants of the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Most of them are ethnically European or Russian. Whether or not some of them are descendants of the people who were expelled during the Roman re-conquest of Judea 2000 years ago is debatable. It is probably, however ethnically they have more in common with Europeans than with the semitic peoples - indigenous Jews, Caananites, and Arabs - who have continuously occupied the region for thousands of years.

2. If we go back into history, eretz Israel is a contested melting pot:

Historically, Israel is occupies a critical land bridge between the African and Middle Eastern land masses. In ancient times we know that this was a hub for the multi-ethnic seafaring Caananite populations that inhabited the region, and that Jewish people were but one ethno-religious group that occupied the region. The region itself was variously ruled by competing Empires - the classic example being the Egyptians and the Babylonians constantly feuding over the border territory. This is also reflected in the Jewish religion - a younger religion than that of the Egyptians and the Babylonians, it shows heavy influence from and is a child of both.

The bottom line is that no one group can claim his land as theirs - it's one of those pieces of real estate that has been hotly contested for thousands of years because of its strategic value in trade, shipping, and commerce, and as the border between empires. Even today the strategic value of Israel lies in its geographical division of the Arab world into middle eastern and north african spheres of influence, something that prevents the emergence of nascent pan-arab nationalist movements from consolidating their power in the area.

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from: telecart
date: Aug. 3rd, 2009 22:26 pm (UTC)

It is probably, however ethnically they have more in common with Europeans than with the semitic peoples - indigenous Jews, Caananites, and Arabs - who have continuously occupied the region for thousands of years.
This has been verified as false. Jews of 7 different communities - Libya, Germany, Poland, Morocco, Yemen and some other place I don't recall have all been found to be genetically closer to one another than to their nearest neighbours. They've also been found to be closely related to Syrian and Palestinian Arabs. I sent you the article from Nature. You can also read this.

Regardless, as the pomos love to point out, facts are irrelevant criteria to the debate, only narrative matters, and there is no doubt concerning the Jewish narrative, which was, until fairly recent history, the popular narrative in 'The West' (or: 'Christendom', if you like).

It's offtopic, so I won't reject your (in my opinion) delusional ideas of emergent pan-arabism.

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(no subject)

from: r1vethead
date: Aug. 1st, 2009 17:35 pm (UTC)

3. There are few examples of indigenous lands in human history, because most human population undergo extensive migrations.

If you look at the history of Europe, there is a continual expansion, ebb and flow of populations throughout the region. The Visigoths conquered Spain, the Norse conquered the British Isle and northern France, the Romans conquered the whole thing, and so on. Even the brutal wars of the European medieval ages and renaissance saw massive population shifts and changes - in the European Thirty Years War, approximately one third of the German population was eradicated by the war and pestilence / disease that accompanied hostilities.

By contrast the indigenous population of the Caucasus mountains have lived there for, archaeologically, at least 8,000-10,000 years without any significant migration. We can prove that both through genetic analysis, and also by a linguistic analysis of their languages, which are far more ancient than the modern lingua franca of english, or even the ancient hebrew and aramaic native to the middle east. This is what I would call a true uncontested "indigenous" population.

But even here we see tribal migrations that have taken hold - for example the Ossetians who live on the borders of Georgia and Russia are relatively new arrivals - perhaps as recent as the 5th century AD, and who had no governing polity to consolidate their presence until at least five hundred years later when the Iranians ruled by proxy. We also see existing "indigenous" groups vying for power - such as the Georgians trying to displace the more ancient Abkhazian peoples who have inhabited the region for far longer.

4. The rights of indigenous peoples should focus on humanitarian considerations for conditions that exist today, not a tribal atonement for the past "wrongs" of previous generations.

If we look here in North America, there are a lot of lingering issues about colonization. The indigenous peoples were largely displaced and wiped out, their culture left in ruins, only to be haphazardly reconstructed through the lens of the dominant culture that the surviving indigenous peoples have become assimilated to, whether they are aware of it or not. This is the fate of most conquered populations throughout history - a natural cycle that has repeated itself continually.

There are outstanding legal issues in terms of colonization, because our society is founded upon the rule of law - and our own courts have upheld that our own law was historically violated recently enough, that some of those indigenous populations have legal recourse, within the existing system, to land title and compensation. It is not an absolute right, but one to be negotiated between representatives. This is similar to how I view the more recent - and therefore more legally valid - situation of Palestinian people inhabiting their indigenous land in what is now Israel.

While it is important to examine past ethical failings to understand how they occurred and how they can be prevented, I am skeptical of the value on moralizing on them too much. I think the occupation of north american by europeans was typically brutal, but is not something that current populations bear responsibility for. Likewise the more recent apartide conditions in Israel are brutal, but not the burning issue.

For me the burning issue is on people's right to self determination, and decent living standards. In north america that means allowing indigenous people access to jobs, social services, and standards of living that allow them to escape the ritualized cycles of sexual abuse, alcoholism, and extreme grinding poverty that plague their reservations.

Likewise, I do not think we can "undo" the state of Israel, or it is even desirable to do so. Rather, I am more interested in apartide conditions being lifted, and people being given basic access to food, water, clothing, and shelter - and beyond that, the ability to elect political representatives and conduct their affairs in a reasonably democratic fashion.


more on this later...

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from: telecart
date: Aug. 3rd, 2009 22:45 pm (UTC)

As George Carlin once said:
There are no natives anywhere in the world. Everyone is from somewhere else. All people are refugees, immigrants, or aliens. If there were natives anywhere, they would be people who still live in the Great Rift valley in Africa where the human species arose. Everyone else is just visiting.

I agree the ideas of the new left regarding reparation for indigenous people are a bit out there.
Regarding Israel, it's nothing like native americans, the cases are not similar. Moreover..
Rather, I am more interested in apartide conditions being lifted
There are no "apartheid conditions". Calling it that is rather offensive in my opinion, and is indicative either of your ignorance of the situation here, or your ignorance of the situation in Apartheid South Africa. I'm not one to defend the occupation, but they are not similar at all.
That indymedia chooses to compare the situation in Israel to South Africa is cynical, and politically motivated, because it is in the radical left's interest to portray the situation as such so that a South African solution will be implemented, rather than the Algerian model, which is more akin to reality. Again, facts be damned, if it serves the goal of destroying Israel.

people being given basic access to food, water, clothing, and shelter
again, not trying to defend the occupation, but normally, Palestinians have access to all of those things and more.

I think it's important to point out that Jews did not 'colonize' Palestine. They did not conquer it. They were not an imperial power. They were either already there, or (mostly legally) immigrated there under Ottoman or British authority, or fled there as refugees post WWII, or as a result of the population exchange with the Arab world. None of these cases can be understood as equivalent to what is generally meant by the word 'colonization' or the implications of colonial power. This is another misuse of language I often encounter on the radical left.

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