The Middle East, European Colonialism and the Result of Blank Checks

February 27, 2018

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, argued we’ve become less bloody over the centuries. But so many issues involve life and death. For two weeks this country has been discussing how to stop school shootings. This week let’s address life and death in the Middle East. Next week, events permitting, let’s discuss two issues that threaten life worldwide.

I can count on hate mail whenever I speak about the Middle East. But let’s put some things in perspective.

The world’s refugee problem swamps most countries’ willingness to take people in. Our government wants to restrict immigration and we fight over who and why. Reaction to flows of refugees threaten democratic governments across Europe and contributed to the vote for Brexit. In addition to their own disputes, the American military footprint has aggravated war and population displacement in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine among many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Stepping back historically and geographically, most countries are dominated by conquering populations. This country conquered and decimated Native Americans to create our bi-coastal America. A succession of warring populations, Huns, Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Vikings and more, fought for Europe long before the modern wars.

This has hardly been a good way of solving problems or competition for land. But even more harm lurks in the suggestion that we undo it.

The creation of Israel was plainly the result of European refusal to accept its Jewish population. Historically, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and the Moors in Spain, before Ferdinand and Isabella Christianized it, were much more hospitable to Jews. The twentieth century brought the fate of the Jews to a head. Europe could have solved its integration problem. But seeing the handwriting on many walls in the 1930s, people like Justice Brandeis, then on the U.S. Supreme Court, were telling friends in Europe to get out quickly. But where to? Franklin Roosevelt, despite close personal and professional relationships with many Jews, blocked boatloads of Jewish refugees from our shores for political reasons.

So the west solved its problem by exporting it – to Palestine. Everyone was a victim in this process. Jewish refugees were uprooted and they in turn uprooted Palestinians. What to do?

At about the same time, Britain was facilitating the breakup of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. It cost something like a million lives and uprooted many times that. The two countries still find it difficult to get along, but undoing 1948 is not on the table. It cannot be.

It is not true that whatever is, is just. That was proposed by the conservative philosopher Robert Nozick and I most emphatically reject it. But redressing all the wrongs of the past comes at a cost which will involve many who themselves were neither perpetrators nor victims and sometimes both. The argument about who was right and who was wrong in Palestine is not a soluble argument. No one was treated as they should have been. But even more important, fixing those wrongs implies a fight to the death of everyone there. That I cannot wish.

I cannot support complete and utter conquest for either side. We might once have insisted on an enforceable compromise. America once played a role as an honest broker and could have maximized the chance for peace. But we could not continue to play that role while giving Israel a blank check to violate its promises about settlements. The result, I fear, is going to be tragic. It may simply be too late to avert widespread disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 27, 2018.

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Brandeis and Zionism

October 27, 2015

The struggle between Israel and Palestine and the intransigence of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, leads me to think about a founder of American Zionism. In a book to come out early next year, I wrote:

… [P]rior to his Supreme Court appointment in 1916, Brandeis became leader of the American Zionist movement, heading a committee to assist endangered European Jews. He would found the American Jewish Congress, the Palestine Endowment Fund and the Palestine Co-operative Company. Zionism expressed Brandeis’ understanding of American values, the same right for Jews as other nationalities to a homeland, to strengthen their claim to equality among the world’s peoples. Palestine, he argued, must not be claimed by war but by purchase and settlement, “with clean hands … [so] as to ennoble the Jewish people. Otherwise, it will not be worth having.” He compared Zionism to the recent independence and unification of Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Ireland and the more short-lived Servia. For Brandeis, support for justice, fairness and democracy everywhere, in service to “the brotherhood of man,” makes one a better American.[1]

Brandeis lived long enough to fear events in Europe and advise Jews to leave Germany but he died in 1941 before we joined the war, and before Israel was born in a bath of fire. May he rest in peace.

Instead, conflict has radicalized both Israelis and Palestinians and there seems to be no brakes on the spiral of violence.

A Palestinian graduate student at RPI told me Palestinians had every right to kill any Israeli, and Israelis have no right to fight back because they are wrong. His solution was the mirror image of Israel’s, takeover of the other’s land. I pointed out that would lead to the slaughter of everyone on both sides. He shrugged. Muslims from other places listening to us made clear they got my point. But extremists on both sides make peace impossible.

I see no mechanisms in their societies to resolve the conflicts and bring people together. Israelis and Palestinians are segregated in their living space, often by walls, boundaries and checkpoints. They are segregated in schools by faith and location. They are segregated in business, finance, wherever they might work together – save where Israeli employers hire Palestinian laborers, who work when Israel allows.

Our country has brought people together since the founding, in commerce, finance, colleges and schools. Still we suffer domestic conflict between racial and other groups. Congress and a string of American presidents supported desegregation to bring people together. The formerly segregated South changed a great deal, but backlash persists across America. Curing deep-seated antagonisms is difficult. It is next to impossible where they are reinforced by physical and legal walls.

I doubt Israel and Palestine have either the time or the will to build bridges between them. Each believes in re-taking the others’ lands, not sharing them.

My concern at this point is for America. I see little advantage to our country in being drawn further into an intractable conflict with religious zealots on both sides who kill peacemakers, national leaders, and noncombatants, to prevent or derail the possibility of peace. I fear that the future includes a great deal of slaughter, and am no longer convinced it can be averted. Our only choice may be whether we, in America, get blamed for it. The Israelis need to hear that message loud and clear. There is no chance of a decent resolution as long as Israel believes they have our unconditional support.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 27, 2015.

[1] Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 34 (NYU Press 2016).


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