When Zionists Boycott

October 29, 2015 § 4 Comments

Last weekend, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl, professors respectively at Harvard and Chicago (which has made for a dangerous combination in the past), arguing for a boycott of Israel. Levitsky and Weyl, both self-identified as progressive Jews and lifelong Zionists, argue that because their support for Israel is predicated in part on the Jewish state embracing universal values of human rights, their observation that the occupation of the West Bank has become permanent dictates a boycott. They write that the purpose of a boycott is to pressure Israel into altering its strategic calculations and change its behavior; in their words, “Until Israel seriously engages with a peace process that either establishes a sovereign Palestinian state or grants full democratic citizenship to Palestinians living in a single state, we cannot continue to subsidize governments whose actions threaten Israel’s long-term survival.”

Given the pedigree and prominence of the authors, this particular call to boycott Israel has caused some consternation and drawn a variety of harsh responses, with some points of substance but mostly loud verbiage questioning the authors’ fitness to comment on Israel or diagnosing their allegedly selfish emotional motivations behind writing the op-ed. If you are looking for another ad hominem attack against Levitsky and Weyl or an investigation into their psyches, you needn’t read any further since one will not be forthcoming in this space. I am more interested in demonstrating why I think the particular arguments they make are inapt and figuring out how they arrived at the view of Israel that they espouse.

I am passingly acquainted with Levitsky personally from my days at Harvard, but I am intimately acquainted with his influential and excellent work on competitive authoritarianism. Competitive authoritarian regimes are ones where the authoritarian government holds elections that can theoretically result in the opposition coming to power, but the process is not free and fair and is heavily weighted in the regime’s favor. This work on competitive authoritarianism is part of a wider literature in political science recognizing that not only are elections not a sufficient condition for democracy, but that in many cases elections are part of a wider system of placing a democratic veneer on authoritarian government. A competitive authoritarian regime may look like a democracy but behind the scenes is actually working to unfairly perpetuate its own rule; think about Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey for a current snapshot of what that looks like.

I bring this up because in reading Levitsky and Weyl’s argument, it jumps out at me that they are taking Levitsky’s work on competitive authoritarian regimes and superimposing it – inappropriately, in my view – on Israel. From their vantage point, Israel is denying basic rights to Palestinians in the West Bank, growing the settler population, mistreating its Arab minority, and generally using its advantage over the Palestinians to ensure that they live in permanent subjugation. Much like a competitive authoritarian regime holds elections that can theoretically result in a change in government but only if the opposition overcomes the significant hurdles and unfair disadvantages that the ruling party places in its path, Levitsky and Weyl see Israel periodically engaging in a peace process that can theoretically result in a Palestinian state but placing too many hurdles in the way of such a process being successful. In short, while never explicitly writing it, Levitsky and Weyl view Israel as engaging in competitive authoritarian behavior in a number of ways.

It is thus unsurprising given Levitsky’s research showing that competitive authoritarian regimes with strong ties to the West respond to pressure to democratize that he and Weyl came up with the prescription that they did. They are convinced that by isolating Israel from the West and placing its financial and diplomatic ties to the U.S. in jeopardy, it will create sufficient pressure to get Israel to take the peace process seriously and step back from the brink in ending the occupation. As they write, “We recognize that some boycott advocates are driven by opposition to (and even hatred of) Israel. Our motivation is precisely the opposite: love for Israel and a desire to save it.”

I take the authors’ professed love for Israel at face value, but the problem with their plan to address Israel’s behavior through boycotts and sanctions is that their misdiagnosis of the situation leads them to prescribe medicine that will not cure this particular disease. One of the defining characteristics of authoritarian states is that the power to alter course is entirely in the hands of the regimes; not only is there an extreme power imbalance with respect to the opposition, but the regime holds all of the cards in terms of opening up to democracy and competition. Levitsky and Weyl proceed based on an assumption that pressure on Israel will ipso facto lead to the creation of a Palestinian state and the end of an Israeli presence in the West Bank because it is in Israel’s power to do so at will given the right set of incentives. While many, including me, do not view the current Israeli government as in any way serious about the two state solution, the fact remains that successive Palestinian leaders and governments have turned down Israeli offers of statehood without so much as a counter response. This is not a scenario in which Israel can snap its fingers and create a new reality, or one in which Israel is solely to blame for the situation that exists. Israel can and should do better, particularly when it comes to settlement activity, but it does not automatically follow that a boycott of Israel will address the problem at hand, and that is without even factoring in Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

Levitsky and Weyl address head on the common critique that boycotting Israel constitutes a double standard by acknowledging that, no, Israel is not the world’s worst human rights violators, but that they also feel far more invested in Israel’s future fate than they do of other states. As someone who spends his time working on Israel rather than on Bulgaria or Comoros, I empathize with this position, but it again overlooks a crucial reality. While Levitsky and Weyl may be motivated by genuine concerns, their course of action ends up being discriminatory in effect if not in intent far beyond their limited scope. It’s one thing for them to care about Israel more than they do about China, but it’s another to actively work to ensure that Israel is treated worse, particularly given the international environment that seizes upon such efforts to argue that Israel is in fact the world’s worst violator of human rights. Just because Levitsky and Weyl acknowledge that Israel is not a rogue nation without parallel does not mean that such understanding will extend to those with a very different agenda who seize upon their call to action.

I understand the frustration with the Israeli government, with the settlement enterprise, with illiberal trends in Israeli society, and with a Jewish state that speaks for Jews everywhere irrespective of whether all Jews want to cede to it that authority. But Israel is still a democracy, and to view it as an authoritarian actor that is susceptible to pressures that work on authoritarian states leads to poor policy prescriptions. A boycott is the wrong approach, both morally and practically, and Levitsky and Weyl’s op-ed is an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

Haj Al-Husseini and Holocaust Hucksterism

October 22, 2015 § 3 Comments

Most anyone familiar with the give and take of discourse on blogs and social media knows about Godwin’s Law. Godwin’s Law is the proposition that the longer an online discussion takes place, the greater the chance of someone making an analogy to Hitler or Nazis, until at some point such an analogy becomes inevitable. It might be time to create a new corollary to this principle, which is that the more that Prime Minister Netanyahu discusses Israel’s external foes, the more inevitable the eventual Holocaust analogy becomes. In light of Netanyahu’s comments this week to the 37th Zionist Congress about Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and his responsibility for the Final Solution, the corollary seems to be in full swing.

In his Tuesday speech, Netanyahu brought up al-Husseini’s well-known connection to the Nazis and vocal support of Hitler in warning about the dangers of Palestinian incitement regarding Israel’s alleged efforts to alter the status quo on the Temple Mount. His connection between these two seemingly disparate threads was that al-Husseini had instigated riots in the 1920s by accusing the Jews of wanting to destroy al-Aqsa, and he later met with Hitler in 1941 and – in Netanyahu’s telling – convinced Hitler to exterminate European Jewry rather than expel them. So the implication is that false warnings about Jews trying to take over al-Aqsa, or to even just change the Temple Mount status quo, lead to attempts to exterminate Jews, including the Holocaust. If the logic of this is lost on you, then you are not alone, and it certainly is not the first time that Netanyahu has used Hitler, the Nazis, or the Holocaust to make a point about legitimate dangers to Jews in situations where the Holocaust has no place in the discussion.

The condemnations have come fast and furious for reasons large and small, from trivializing the Holocaust and giving succor to Holocaust deniers, to absolving Hitler from even a single ounce of the blame that he deserves, to distorting history by overstating the mufti’s role (even if he would have carried out the Holocaust if given the chance). I am positive that it was not Netanyahu’s intention in his poorly written and even more poorly conceived speech to trivialize the Holocaust or take the blame for it away from Hitler, but in his zeal to tie current Palestinian propaganda about the Temple Mount to a larger campaign to eliminate Jews wherever they may be, his words had that unintended effect. Furthermore, in getting his history wrong and overstating the role of the mufti – who was a virulent anti-Semite and a cheerleader of genocide but who was not the inspiration for the Final Solution, which started before Hitler and al-Husseini met – and linking Palestinian accusations about the Temple Mount to the Holocaust, Netanyahu makes it seem as if his grip on reality is lost. Anyone who found Ben Carson’s comments about guns and the Holocaust earlier this month to be irresponsible demagoguery should feel the same about Netanyahu’s ahistorical stream of consciousness.

While the focus on the inappropriateness of Netanyahu’s comments is important and is taking up most of the oxygen surrounding this sorry episode, the larger issue of the real-world consequences of Netanyahu’s comments is being neglected. In misappropriating historical memory while using the Holocaust to score political points and advance Israel’s agenda, Netanyahu instead accomplishes the precise opposite. Rather than alert the world to the dangers that Israel faces, Netanyahu ensures that the world will not take them seriously. This ham-handed effort at exposing lies, as Netanyahu put it in his speech, erodes Israeli credibility and desensitizes observers to the risks inherent in the daily life of Israel’s citizens.

Not for the first time, Netanyahu risks becoming the boy who cried Holocaust, seeing the ultimate marriage of threats to Jews and ability to carry those threats out at every turn. While vigilance is a virtue for any prime minister of Israel, the constant Holocaust analogies end up trivializing legitimate threats and make it far more difficult to take Netanyahu’s warnings seriously. After all, if Netanyahu is warning that al-Husseini was the inspiration for the Holocaust and that therefore current Palestinian claims about the Temple Mount should be viewed in that light, who is going to still be paying attention when Netanyahu warns about other issues? The incitement over the Temple Mount is, in fact, a legitimately dangerous issue, but it is hard to press that point once the duo of Haj Amin al-Husseini and Hitler have been turned into a social media meme. Reducing the Holocaust to just another genocide, which is what happens when every security challenge or episode of anti-Semitism is connected back to Hitler, waters down Jewish and Israeli credibility when it comes to true threats against Israel and Jews.

Then there is the issue of misuse of historical memory for instrumental purposes. One cannot decry those who, like President Obama in Cairo in 2009, point to the Holocaust as the primary motivating factor for Israel’s legitimacy – and argue instead that Israel’s existence is rooted as much in Jewish nationalism and historical claims to the land of Israel as it is to the need for a safe haven following Hitler’s campaign of extermination – and then turn around and use the Holocaust as a shield against any attempts to attack Israel in any way. Yes, the mufti of Jerusalem was a really bad guy, and yes, he encouraged Hitler to kill Jews. If that historical truth is used to create a historical fiction about the Final Solution, which then mushrooms into a larger historical misappropriation that connects genocidal extermination of Jews to limited violence motivated by false claims about the Temple Mount, then the historical crime being committed is taking place in the here and now.

There are Palestinians who do not like Jews and who will never accept Israel, and who attack Jews for no reason other than being Jewish and living in Tel Aviv. But many Palestinians bitterly resent the occupation of the West Bank or blatant discrimination within Israeli municipalities and push back against perceived and actual threats and injustices, and that pushback can be inhumane and is frequently directed against civilians. The fact that targeting civilians is unacceptable does not mean that there isn’t a tangible motivation behind it that is connected to more than blind hatred. Trotting out the Holocaust as a worldview that explains all of the violence and incitement that happens in Israel eludes reality, and places Israel in a dangerous position by missing what is actually going on and preventing an appropriate policy response. Many are laughing at what Netanyahu said on Tuesday, but the larger consequences of his ahistorical blather are no laughing matter.

Guest Post: A Failure Of Reason

May 21, 2012 § 3 Comments

After a Twitter exchange a couple of weeks ago in which he schooled Ali Abunimah on Zionism and social cleavages within Israeli society, I asked Dov Friedman if he would be willing to turn his thoughts into a guest post and he graciously agreed. Aside from being an early booster of O&Z, Dov is a preternaturally astute analyst, and when he decides to use his prodigious talents to write something longer than 140 characters, you don’t want to miss it. You should also all be following his Twitter feed @DovSFriedman since I guarantee that it will make you think on a daily basis. Without further ado, I give you Dov’s thoughts on the shortcomings of the anti-Zionist movement.

Were the anti-Zionist movement wiser—and less unmoored—it might recognize that it could make common cause with the left wing of the Zionist movement.  In many respects, leftist Zionists have far more in common with pro-Palestinian voices than they do with Zionism’s far-right wing.  The Zionist left awaits an Israel that abandons the settlement enterprise, that disaggregates Orthodox Judaism and the state, and that increases equality of rights among its citizens.  Some in the pro-Palestinian movement have recognized that much progress can be made promoting liberal values and human rights before the groups philosophically diverge; however, the anti-Zionist wing of the movement has not joined them.

In theory, the potential for common cause explains why J Street has—shortsightedly—downplayed its Zionism in an attempt to create a “big tent.”  Yet, with much to gain through joint action, the anti-Zionist wing perpetually radicalizes the debate, precluding any meaningful consensus on forcing accountability from a recalcitrant Israel.  Organizations like J Street jeopardize potential constituencies to accommodate a movement that lacks a shred of interest in fruitful dialogue aimed to carve out common ground.

Last week, I exchanged messages with Ali Abunimah, the founder of Electronic Intifada and a prominent anti-Zionist writer who authored a book advocating a one-state solution.  On the surface, the topic was a bizarre op-ed by Yaron London in Yediot Ahronot that Israel should deal with its Haredi issue by seeking to reduce—not integrate—the population.  The piece is troubling and weakly argued—even among Israelis who harbor bitterness toward Haredim, it is not clear London’s argument would draw sympathy.  Yet, Mr. Abunimah saw an opportunity and pounced.  The op-ed was proof, he claimed, of “Zionist anti-Semitism” that dates back to “Herzl’s vile Jew-hatred.”  In Mr. Abunimah’s view, London’s piece encapsulates societal feelings that Haredi, Ethiopian, and Palestinian populations are all threats to the Zionist vision.

I replied to Mr. Abunimah that his understanding was impoverished, partly because he derives a societal feeling from a singular op-ed, and partly because he conflates three issues with different historical origins and different societal discourses.

The Haredi issue is one of civic participation, national economic health, and the welfare state.  Historically, the republican equation dictated that secular, educated Ashkenazi Jews traded military service for political and economic power.  This began to change as Mizrahi and religious Israelis achieved military and societal status.  The only non-Arab group that escapes national service is the Haredi community.  Deepening the societal rift, the state devotes major resources to support this community that contributes neither to the nation’s defense nor to its coffers.  The predominant discourse surrounding the Haredim is not London’s proposal to thin their ranks; rather, it is how to increase their participation in society—in terms of both national service and economic contribution.  The Haredim are essentially a national issue.

The Ethiopian issue stems from racism, parochialism, and fierce protection of communal interests.  Thus, Ethiopians, in essence, are the new Mizrahim.  They are the new “marked” Israeli group.  Particular social classes fear the pressures these new Israelis have placed on their economic prospects and communal interests—spurring some of the racism that can accompany class resentment.  Certainly, Israel’s affluent, educated residents are less concerned with Ethiopian immigration than are Israel’s blue-collar families.  If any critique is valid in this case it is a Marxist one.  A rudimentary understanding of Israeli history and contemporary society would reveal the incongruity of the Haredi and Ethiopian issues.

This is all before we arrive at the Palestinians—who for Mr. Abunimah are the heart of the matter.  Defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond the scope of this post.  Suffice it to say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be well understood within the history of nationalism as an idea and within the development of 20th century international order on the basis of nation-states.  To tie Israel-Palestine in with Israel’s Haredi and Ethiopian issues goes beyond poor analysis—it constitutes willful misrepresentation.

When evaluated closely, this misrepresentation is only the initial sleight of hand.  If all three issues are one and the same, as Mr. Abunimah suggests, then not only has Zionism begat hatred of Palestinians—it provokes deep anti-Semitism as well!  I wonder if Mr. Abunimah esteems his readers so lightly that he believes he can pose as the premier anti-Semitism watchdog.  This from someone who advocates a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict which—as Gershom Gorenberg notes in his most recent book—solves the borders issue, shifts every other issue from an international to a national one, and risks civil war.  Mr. Abunimah warps history and obfuscates the issues at hand to score a political point.

Yet Mr. Abunimah’s ahistorical misrepresentation was not the most mindless note I received that day; Palestinian activist Susan Abulhawa seized on my call for nuance in evaluating Israel’s societal issues by ignoring the debate over Haredim and Zionism completely. She simply posted pictures of IDF soldiers with crying Palestinian children.  No context, no opening for discussion—Abulhawa was “justsayin.” What is there to say back to such deliberate non-argument?

And therein lies the tragedy.  The anti-Zionist wing of the pro-Palestinian movement is so consumed with frustration—so aggressive in trying to “win” arguments—that it willfully distorts reality and proves immune to reasoned debate.  In so doing, it fails—day after day—to recognize a true partner in achieving Israeli retrenchment and Palestinian self-determination in a better Middle East.

Dov Friedman is a research fellow in foreign policy at the SETA Foundation in Ankara.

Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

March 21, 2012 § 5 Comments

The news that the man responsible for the shootings in Toulouse claims to be a member of al-Qaida and says that killing Jews was his way of avenging the deaths of Palestinian children is bound to set off a fresh round of debate over the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and whether the two can be separated or if the former is just a cover for the latter. To be clear, by anti-Zionism I do not mean criticism of Israel but the delegitimization of Israel and the position that it has no right to exist. It’s a really difficult question and something with which I often grapple. On the one hand, it seems from a logical standpoint that the two concepts can be distinct – Jews are a people, Israel is a state, and since the two categories overlap but are not completely parallel, someone who opposes Israel does not necessarily oppose all Jews. Jeff Weintraub has thoughtfully touched on this issue in the past, arguing that an analytical distinction exists despite the fact that those who argue as such are often doing it insincerely. It is well known that there was a genuine split within the Diaspora Jewish community in the early 20th century over the question of Zionism and whether it was a movement that Jews should support. As someone who tries to think through things rationally and logically, I understand this argument and I accept it intellectually even while categorically rejecting anti-Zionism and what it stands for.

And yet. Why is it that the most depraved attacks on Jews now all come under the guise of anti-Zionism? I have no doubt at all that Mohammed Merah hates Jews qua Jews, yet he did not attempt to justify his homicidal actions by referring to classical anti-Semitic tropes but rather by Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians. If we stick with the theme of making logical distinctions and categorizing concepts correctly, in what sphere of logic does it follow that Jewish schoolchildren in France should have to answer for the actions of the Israeli government? Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and thus the argument that a fanatic like Merah makes is that all Jews are to be held responsible when Israel causes Palestinian deaths, but this of course blows up any distinction that exists between Jews and Israel and leaves us back at the conclusion that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are one and the same.

It is not entirely fair to let a violent killer like Merah be the spokesperson for the anti-Zionist movement, so moving off him for the moment, there is still an emerging and growing strain of argument that explains away attacks on Jews by referencing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At some point, anti-Zionists need to explain how to resolve this gap – if anti-Zionism is distinct from anti-Semitism, how does anyone ever arrive at the conclusion that non-Israeli Jews are somehow understandably targets of violence? And relatedly, if the argument is that it is Jews’ fault for their association and embrace of Israel, then doesn’t that effectively mean that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are different terms describing the same concept? It seems to me that anti-Zionists – even if they genuinely do not believe that their position is an anti-Semitic one and harbor no ill will toward Jews – need to come to grips with the consequences of their stance and deal with the inescapable fact that when people murder or harass Jews in the service of exacting revenge on Israel, anti-Zionism ceases to be a meaningful distinction.

Would love to hear some thoughts on this from both sides.

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