This week and last we looked at Israeli democracy, and tried to understand the dilemma they face regarding Palestinian statehood. I hope we gained sympathy for both sides of this question. Through this lens I wanted the students to understand one of the Catch-22’s that many democratic states face.
Democracies appeal to us largely because of their high ideals and goals, not just for the state itself, but for the individual. But human nature almost guarantees that we will not attain these goals, and so democratic states are much more prone to hypocrisy and blind spots than authoritarian dictatorships, for example. This should not make us abandon democracy. As Chesterton and others have said, if you aim at nothing you’re sure to hit it. But I do hope it will give us greater understanding of democracy’s Achilles heel. The “processes” of democracy, like voting, representation, etc. have no real meaning unless they have roots in specific values. If values make a democracy, then one must lead with those values.
The idea of a Jewish state predated World War II to the 1890’s. The western world in general experienced an intensification of nationalism and heightened awareness of ethnic identity, which bore such horrific fruit in the 20th century. Many Jews, having been scattered throughout Europe for centuries, began to resettle in Palestine, which the Ottomans then administered. By the 1920’s Jewish settlement in Palestine looked something like this (darker areas indicate Jewish presence), though I should add that almost every map related to the Israel/Palestine question is polemical and controversial in one way or another.
After World War I, the British administered the area, but could no longer do so after World War II. At that point England wanted to jettison nearly all of its colonial empire, and so they handed the question of Palestine over to the United Nations. After the Holocaust the world had to answer the question as to whether or not there should be a specific Jewish state, and if so, where it should be.
Although people debated various sites, including Madagascar, they eventually settled on Palestine, which made sense in relation to Jewish history and the recent Zionist movement. No place would be without controversy, but choosing Palestine came with problems. During World War I many Arabs fought with the British against the Turks, and the British in turn pledged to grant Arabs independence. Instead they reneged on the deal and added Palestine to its colonial holdings.
Actions have consequences, even if sometimes those consequences take years to make themselves known.
From the Israeli’s perspective, owning a small sliver of land that did not even include Jerusalem, was the least the world could do. Europe had persecuted the Jews on and off since the Crusades. The latent, on again off again anti-Semitism that simmered for centuries metastasized into a horrifically clinical attempt to wipe them out entirely with the Nazi domination of Europe. The world had shown that the Jews must have a safe haven, and giving them back a small part of their ancestral land made political and ethical sense.
The Palestinians saw it differently and many continue to do so.
While the Palestinians were not the Jews number one fan, the Holocaust happened in Europe. It was not their doing, either directly or indirectly. If the Jews need a homeland, and Europeans need to give them one to assuage their consciences, fine. How about taking some European territory? How about part of Germany?
Instead, what the Palestinians feel happened is what they felt always happens with the West. The Palestinians felt stomped on by one colonial power or another for centuries, and now it looked like deja vu all over again. This time, the guise took the form of the United Nations, but the result is the same: someone took our land without our consent. Rest assured, the Palestinians did not vote at the U.N. to cede part of Palestine for a Jewish state. Thus, the very existence of the Jewish state is another form of colonial imperialism in Palestinian eyes. The Jews invaded, in a sense, under U.S. and European flags. In their mind Israel has no legitimacy because they are no better than other colonial occupiers. When some critics of Israel, be they Palestinian or not, talk of Israel as a state founded on thievery, they have these associations in mind.
Most argue that the wars fought between Israel and her neighbors in 1948, 1967, and 1973 were started by Israel’s Moslem neighbors (though some might dispute ’67, where Israel launched the first physical attacks). Not so, say the Arabs. Israel started them all simply by being there.
Time has not favored the Palestinian cause, as the map below indicates:
Upon its creation, Israel had to make some crucial choices about its future. It chose a Parliamentary style democracy, which did not surprise many. But what to do with Palestinians living within their territory? In 1948, Palestinians formed a distinct minority within Israel, but they were protected and given citizenship. A British parliamentary style usually has less federation and more majority rule. But that was ok, because Jews had the clear majority. Still, it stood as a statement that Israel need not be for Jews only, and in the wake of the Holocaust, this was a powerful statement.
But what to do with Palestinians in the territory Israel acquired in 1948 and 1967? Should they be citizens too?
This dilemma pierced the heart of the whole purpose for Israel’s existence. They no longer could be both a Jewish ethnic state and a fully functioning democracy. In other words, they could either
- Give every Palestinian full citizenship rights, and risk that Jews would no longer be the majority in Israel.
- Give them no rights and treat them as an occupied people
- Give them some rights and not others, but this middle ground would probably not make legal or moral sense, something akin to the 3/5 Compromise in the Constitution, which made slaves count as 3/5 of a person. How can one be 3/5 of a person?
In other words, Israel could be an ethnic state or a full fledged democracy. The two could no longer go together. They would have to give up something. I have enormous sympathy for Israel here. The whole purpose of Israel was to create a refuge for Jews and create a state run by Jews. To attain peace they would need to give up something of their identity. For a generation that saw and survived the Holocaust, this would have been a near supernatural act, and it is not my place to judge. Palestinian Christians have the only solution, but tragically, some of Israel’s policies, at times supported by the West, and at times supported by some Christian denominations, have deeply eroded and marginalized the Palestinian Christian community.
The middle course Israel chose gave Palestinians in newly acquired land some economic opportunities but not political representation. Such mixed messages are usually deadly for democracies, and in time those contradictions often assert themselves with a vengeance. One only needs to think of what happened when our own country sent blaring mixed messages for the first 80-90 years of our existence. In essence, the Palestinians got invited to the party, but then got told to eat with the servants in the basement.
Eventually, security concerns led Israel to build a wall between themselves and certain occupied areas. But this seems all wrong. We are familiar with walls — the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and so on. Democracies are not supposed to do this. But Israel felt that they could not be secure without it. Some supporters of the wall might argue that it sends a signal, like the Emperor Hadrian’s wall in the north of England, of an end point to expansion in the occupied territories. In other words, it should comfort the Palestinians. But this is not how Palestinians, or the world-wide community, has interpreted the wall. Some have called it “the most religious place on Earth.” The images are powerful:
I think Israel’s history comes with many lessons for democracies, including the need for consistency, and the need to lead with cultural values over strict security concerns. Ultimately, however, we see the need for something greater than what governments can give.