What Type of Utopia Will Israel Be?

March 16, 2017 § 4 Comments

There is a scene in the sixth episode of the first season of Mad Men where ad man Don Draper is approached by the Israeli government to come up with an effective tourism campaign for the Jewish state. Seeking some insight, he asks his Jewish client-cum-girlfriend to explain why Israel is important and why tourists would want to go there. She explains that Jews have lived in exile for such a long time that having a country seems very important, and that even though she has no desire to live there, Israel “just has to be” because of the idea that it represents. After Draper remarks that it sounds like utopia, she retorts that the Greek definition of utopia can mean either the good place or the place that cannot be. While the last exchange is meant to be a comment on their relationship, it captures the current wider context of the churning relationship between Israel and American Jews.

The surge in visible anti-Semitism in the U.S. over the past year has American Jews on edge, and for many it has reinforced the importance of Israel and why it “just has to be.” More than ever, Israel resonates as a safe harbor of last resort and as a refuge against a world that historically has not accepted Jews. I understand this sentiment not from a theoretical perspective, but from a personal one. As a kid growing up in New York, I never experienced a second of overtly detectable anti-Semitism. I had a recurring debate with my dad where I argued that the Jewish experience in America marked the end of history for the two thousand years of the Jewish Diaspora in which persecution and anti-Semitism were the defining features. And yet in the last two months, my kids’ Jewish schools have been subjected to multiple bomb threats, and my corner of Washington suburbia has seen an uptick in anti-Semitic graffiti and invective. Like Francis Fukuyama, I was wrong in allowing the exuberance of a brief moment to overtake the wider sweep of history, and despite being someone who never questioned the importance of Israel in the first place, that importance for me has now literally been driven home. Israel does indeed represent an idea for Jews around the world, and while we pray that it never has to transform for us from an idea into a practical imperative, it requires an absolute defense of Israel’s legitimacy and security.

But while the idea of Israel is of the good place, it is sliding dangerously close for American Jews into the place that cannot be. This is because Israel’s inviolable commitment to Jews, rather than only to Israelis, is in question, and once that emotional shift takes place, it will be impossible for many American Jews to identify with Israel in the same way. It will not be a place that they view as the ultimate oasis in the desert, but as a tantalizing mirage.

The first factor that threatens to cause this shift is the Israeli government’s treatment of anti-Semitism. In speaking about his decision to go to Paris after the terrorist attack on the Hyper Cacher grocery store to show solidarity with French Jews, Prime Minister Netanyahu described his role as not only representing Israel but as representing the entire Jewish people. This is not a role that has been claimed by previous Israeli prime ministers; David Ben-Gurion, for instance, clearly made a distinction between representing Israel and representing Jews outside of Israel in his exchange of letters with Simon Rawidowicz in 1954-55, in what began as an argument over the usage of the word “Israel” and other terminology and resulted in Ben-Gurion rejecting any uniformity between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews. It is a matter for wider debate whether Netanyahu can and should have a wider role beyond being a political leader, but if he wants to credibly make the argument, he must assume the expansive mantle consistently rather than only when it is politically expedient. To come to the U.S. in the midst of an outbreak of bomb threats against Jewish institutions and a maelstrom of angst from American Jews who have never felt personally threatened before and to essentially proclaim that all is well, not only negates any claim on Netanyahu’s part to represent Jews in danger wherever they are; it also calls into question Israel’s very commitment to Diaspora Jewry. For Jews who fervently support Israel as the ultimate Jewish project and as a powerful symbol against anti-Jewish repression, it is distressing to see an Israeli prime minister brush anti-Semitism aside and categorically declare that a president whom many American Jews view as part of the problem is actually the best friend that Jews have.

The second factor that threatens to perpetuate this shift is the attitude, encapsulated in Israel’s new travel ban against anyone publicly calling for boycotts of Israel or any area under its control, that views Israel not as a place for Jews but as a place for Jews who hold a certain ideology. I do not support BDS and am not even minimally sympathetic toward its aims, and I also do not support boycotts of settlers or settlements. Furthermore, Israel has an absolute right to determine what constitutes a threat to its security, and to screen people who enter its borders to guard against those threats. But what is justified is not always smart, and conflating tangible physical threats with amorphous ideological threats demonstrates the distinction. Keeping out the violent West Bank demonstrator is not the same as keeping out the middle-aged dad who loudly declares that he won’t buy Jordan Valley dates, and it this latter action that will cause the break between many American Jews and Israel. Even if, like Rachel Menken in Mad Men, you are a Jew who wants to visit Israel but do not want to live there, being stopped at passport control in the Jewish state because of your political views is the fastest way to make sure that any affinity you had for Israel disappears. Israel in that situation becomes a place that cannot be, no longer a safe haven for Jews or even just a place for Jews, but a state that has abandoned its core function and reason for being. The central Zionist argument that Jews need a homeland only works if Israel is indeed a homeland based on Judaism rather than a homeland based on a set of political leanings. In elevating threat perception to absurd heights, the new anti-boycott legislation ignominiously creates a bigger threat to Israel’s existence than the boycotters it is combatting.

Israel can indeed be a utopia for Jews around the world; not a perfect place that must meet an impossible ideal, but an anchor to which Jews can gravitate in times of need. If it does not take this obligation seriously, however, it will become a different kind of utopia; a place that demands an impossible ideal and that sinks under the weight of its own expectations.

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We Have Lost

January 13, 2015 § 22 Comments

There’s been lots written about the Paris attacks, and I don’t feel the need to add much to the cacophony on the issue of what specifically motivated the attackers, or whether this represents a problem with Islam, or how best to respond. I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts for a few days, and the one thing that I keep returning to in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher is not so much the attacks themselves, but the responses to the attacks, and I find it difficult to conclude anything other than the fact that we have lost.

The use of “we” here is somewhat loaded, and I don’t use it as a means of implying a Samuel Huntington clash of civilizations argument. I don’t think that the West is fated to clash with the “Muslim world” – however one wants to define such an amorphous term – and I also don’t think that vast hordes of Middle Eastern Muslims are seeking to overrun the West or reestablish a caliphate. Different people coming from different cultural environments are going to have different worldviews, and most just want to live their own lives according to their own values. There exists in France a cadre of extremely nasty, retrograde, barbaric, brutal Islamist terrorists, three of whose lives were thankfully extinguished by French security forces last Friday. There are more where those three came from, and the fact that they are Muslim is neither an irrelevant piece of information nor the only relevant piece of information one needs. The situation is bad enough; there’s no need to exaggerate it and extrapolate from Paris that all Muslims are terrorists, that all Muslims are responsible for the acts of some, or that holding intemperate views of Western society, Israel, or Jews automatically makes one a suicide bomber in waiting (although it certainly doesn’t speak well for most people who do hold those intemperate views). There is also no need to pretend that the Islamist views held by these three particular terrorists are simply a coincidence, that they were motivated solely by poverty and cultural alienation, and that their womanizing and weed-smoking pasts mean that their late-in-life religious awakening makes them completely unconnected from any authentic and authoritative version of Islam.

With that out of the way, by “we” I mean non-extremists of all stripes, and we are losing the fight against extremists. I don’t mean this in a military sense, as committed Western states will always be able to kill far more terrorists thugs than terrorists can kill civilians. As I wrote a few of months ago in relation to ISIS, the real fight here is against an ideology rather than against a specific group of people, and until the ideology itself becomes discredited, the symptom of jihadi violence is going to be here to stay. Contra Francis Fukuyama circa 1992, we have not yet arrived at the end of political history and reached some sort of political equilibrium, and until the ideology motivating jihadi extremism is defeated on the battlefield of ideas, we can kill as many al-Qaida leaders as we can find and station as many soldiers in front of synagogues and Jewish schools as we can manage, but it won’t end the problem. Ideas are defeated by more powerful ideas, not by military hardware and firepower.

This may be my own bias at work here given my obvious personal and professional interest, but the largest bellwether to me in illustrating the fact that we are losing is Turkey. You’ll never see me spout the simplistic platitudes about Turkey having one foot in the West and one in the East or using the metaphor of Istanbul being a land bridge between continents to glean some larger lesson, but it is highly relevant that Turkey is a Muslim-majority country that is part of NATO and is looking to join the EU, as these variables make it exposed to Europe and the West in a significant way. If Turkey buys into the extremist rhetoric and outlandish ideas rocketing around the Middle East, then we have little hope of convincing those who have less firsthand experience with the West that we aren’t evil personified.

So what do we see coming from Turkey? For starters, as Steven Cook highlighted yesterday, there’s the unwavering belief that jihadi terrorism is caused by Islamophobia, and thus victims such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have it coming to them due to their actions (never mind the inconvenient fact of Jews murdered in a kosher grocery store just for being Jewish rather than for anything they have allegedly done). This line of argument is spouted not just by uneducated Anatolian farmers, but by the president, prime minister, and foreign minister of Turkey.  It is an argument that deeply believes free speech must have limits, and that when those limits are violated, the responsibility for any ensuing terrorism or violence primarily lies at the feet of those whose speech went too far. If you want a sense of the zeitgeist in Turkey with regard to this issue, Ibrahim Kalın – President Erdoğan’s top foreign policy advisor – has a column in this morning’s Daily Sabah that lays out the argument dominating the thinking of Turkey’s government and pro-government elites, in which he explicitly makes the case that Islamophobia is as large a problem as al-Qaida terrorism, and that stopping and condemning hate speech against Muslims is as important to preventing future attacks as is taking counter-terror measures. I do not mean to imply that Islamophobia isn’t real, or that it’s not a genuine problem, but when your initial reaction to a terrorist attack is, “that’s what happens when you let free speech get out of control,” I’d suggest that you are well outside the proper and appropriate Western consensus. I have a personal mantra that I am sure I have used on this blog and that my coworkers make fun of me for spouting ad nauseum, which is that the response to objectionable speech should always be more speech. It should certainly not be terrorist violence. I am a free speech absolutist and I do not believe that speech should ever be censored; if someone says something you don’t like, then use your right to free speech to argue with them and make sure that your speech, rather than theirs, wins in the marketplace of ideas. If you are not willing to unreservedly condemn terrorism against Charlie Hebdo, Jyllands-Posten, Theo van Gogh, and others because you are offended by what these publications and people had to say, then you’re doing it wrong. But the fact is that large swathes of people, not just in Turkey but also in countries ranging from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, disagree with me, and that means that we are losing.

Then there is the related idea that Islamophobes are the ones who actually carry out terrorist attacks and purposely frame Muslims in order to discredit Islam in the West. Just read this column from Ibrahim Karagül in Yeni Şafak – one of Turkey’s most prominent Islamist newspapers – in which he says that the attack was a false flag operation designed to discredit Muslims, that the global war on terrorism was concocted by the U.S. and Europe as a way to shape the 21st century, and that terrorist attacks in the vein of the Charlie Hebdo massacre share the characteristic of being linked to intelligence agencies. To quote from this vile abomination of a column directly: “In this context, an extremely strategic target was chosen in the latest attack. The perfect excuse has been handed to the rising racist tide by killing a magazine team with a previous record. No better target could have been chosen to spur the European public to action. No other place could be found to nourish hostility against Islam and spur the masses to action. No better example could be provided to depict the link between Islam and violence.” On second thought, don’t read the column, as Yeni Şafak doesn’t deserve any more clicks that it already gets.

Keep in mind that this is not coming from the fringe, but from one of Erdoğan’s favorite papers and a reliable government mouthpiece. While the esteemed Mr. Karagül never fingers the true Paris culprit or culprits by name, you can imagine whom he believes is responsible. Just in case your imagination has limits, we can thankfully turn to the always reliable AKP mayor of Ankara, “Mad” Melih Gökçek, who is happy to let us know that the Mossad carried out the attacks in Paris in retaliation for France’s recognition of Palestine, and that it is all part of an effort to stir up Islamophobia by framing Muslims for the attacks. That this attitude is widespread within the AKP should not be surprising, as the tone was set from the top in 2009 when Erdoğan insisted that Sudanese president Omar  al-Bashir could not be responsible for genocide in Darfur because “it is not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide,” and therefore ipso facto it cannot have occurred. The same logic applies here, and thus it requires a search for the real killers, ignoring any shred of evidence that maybe, just maybe, the terrorist attacks in France were indeed carried out by Islamist jihadis inspired by ideas promulgated by groups like al-Qaida and ISIS.

I could go on, but hopefully by now you get the point. A NATO-member country, with massive commercial and defense links to the U.S. and Europe, whose leaders speak English and many of whom have been educated in the U.S. and Europe, should know better. It should know that terrorism against civilians must be condemned full-stop, that drawing offensive cartoons does not mean that you deserve to be killed, that the Mossad did not just engage in a deadly false flag operation, and that no government is killing its own people in order to gin up anti-Muslim sentiment and create a pretext for persecuting its own Muslim population. When it doesn’t seem to know these things, it means we have lost the battle of ideas, and the extremists are winning. Not insignificant numbers of educated and sophisticated people in the Middle East genuinely believe that what happened in Paris is part of a larger conspiracy to frame Muslims for violent acts, that the U.S. created ISIS as an excuse to launch new military operations in Iraq and Syria, that 9/11 was a false flag operation designed to further a clash between the West and Islam, and on and on. The debate over whether the appropriate approach to combating jihadi terrorism is a military one or a law enforcement one is the wrong debate, because it misses the point. Neither approach is going to do the job, because this is a war of ideas, and so killing or prosecuting terrorists will only get you so far. People need to be convinced that extremism is both futile and the wrong way of seeing the world, and I don’t know how best to wage that battle, but I am pretty confident it is the one that needs to be waged.

One of the widespread techniques used when teaching international relations to undergraduates is to look at the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and apply different schools of international relations theory toward explaining this earth-shattering event. If you are a realist, you point to the fact that U.S. military spending and economic superiority were too much for the Soviets to overcome, and they were brought down by overwhelming American hard power that can be measured. If you are a constructivist, you look at the battle of ideas and trace the way in which Communism became so discredited in the face of Western liberal democracy and capitalism that the entire Communist edifice collapsed as it lost its legitimacy. I have always been more drawn to the latter explanation for a number of reasons, but most of all because it wasn’t just the Soviet Union that disappeared overnight, but Communism itself. Yes, small pockets of it remain (and no, China is not Communist today in any meaningful way), but for a political and economic system that controlled nearly half the world to just disappear is remarkable, and it wouldn’t have happened had the only blow been the fall of its largest state patron.

The same thing needs to happen when it comes to the philosophy of extremism motivating the type of jihadi terror as we saw in Paris last week. There is no way to prevent these types of attacks from a logistical perspective; Paris was not an intelligence failure, and while the French police can deploy thousands of soldiers and police to protect nearly every potential Jewish target in France, there is not enough manpower to sustain that permanently. Even if there was, it wouldn’t be a failsafe solution. Until attitudes change in a major way, until jihadi extremism is discredited, until more extremists believe that there is a better way, and until the ideas animating jihadi extremist terror are demonstrated to have failed abjectly and completely, we will continue to lose. Pretty depressing way to start the new year, huh?

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