Israel of the 19th century

The way that the state of Israel conducts itself would be perfectly reasonable, for the year 1910.

Israel was formed by people who shared enough of a language, culture, and religion to see themselves as a nation even though they were a diaspora, or an ethnic group living in imperial lands. They revived or manufactured a national ideal on dubious claims of historical continuity. They created their state through sheer determination and no small amount of treachery and underground support. They defended and grew their state against destruction using ardent, incontestable violence.

That’s how every other nation state in the old world came to be. Greece did exactly the same things in the 1820s, as did the Balkan countries. The nation states of Europe had formed in similarly violent ways, justified on similarly new and artificial national identities, only a century earlier. This behaviour was thought normal of nations until the 1920s. If Israel had been formed in the 1840s, say, and it was still extinguishing its Arab minority in 1910 by interning them and blockading their supplies, no-one would protest. That’s what nations did, back then.

Unfortunately the world’s experiments with ethically pure nation states are over. This idea burned with the houses of Dresden and Tokyo, and in two large explosions over Japan. By the time the war was over it was clear to all technically advanced societies that another round of tribal warfare between nation states would negate them, if not all life on the planet. In a world of six billion people, half of them commanding nuclear arms, the unfettered nation state is practically untenable.

When the full horror of the holocaust was uncovered, it became clear that the nation state was also morally bankrupt. Races of people with a language and a culture, like the Jews, existed relatively happily in empires. Rome, Byzantium, the Moors, the Ottomans, the British, or the Americans didn’t have a particular issue against Jews. Neither did the feudal lords of France, Germany, or Eastern Europe. Forms of governance that are not based on kin are, by definition, tolerant, or at least tolerant of who you are by birth.

Nation states are different. They demand that the state is for one race only. Any sizeable minority who are caught in its territory must be expelled or exterminated, since the state has to be nationally pure, and in any case the nationalist ideology doesn’t extend moral empathy any wider. A guest diaspora is a particular problem for a nation state, since in its own terms these people have divided allegiance. Fascism is a natural tendency for a nation state, and for the most fascist state of all Jews and Gypsies were impossible, incomprehensible elements that it sought to destroy. Clearly the Third Reich included conflicting notions of nation state and empire, and it’s their nationalism that we mostly identify with their crimes. An empire can’t swallow a continent and then complain that its people are diverse or stateless. But the monster of nationalist ideology was already rabid.

It’s a tragic irony that the people who survived the greatest horror in the name of European nationalism now want to have their go at the nationalist project, just as Europe is dismantling it. Do they not see themselves veering towards the same kind of crimes? Israelis don’t put Palestinians in death camps, of course, but they’re only more civilised by degree. They put Palestinians in walled enclaves, effectively internment camps, with no clear prospect of exit. They merely keep them undersupplied with medicines and other basics, and only kill a few occasionally. They destroy homes and don’t allow rebuilding, but at least in Israel it’s warm. Israeli (and Jewish, and World) public opinion would recoil at any attempt to destroy the Palestinian people efficiently. So Israel pursues a policy of destroying them slowly, generation by generation.

Israel clearly and forthrightly wants one thing. It wants all the good land between the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aqaba, the Jordan river and Golan for the Jews. Just as Greece wanted all the land at the south tip of the Balkans for the Greeks. It’s a nation state for one people. From the point of view of Israel the palestinians are not a menace, they’re an inconvenience. Israel simply wants them to disappear.

It would all have been much simpler if the Palestinians, once displaced, were absorbed by neighboring Arab nations. Forced population exchanges happened many times through the nation formations in south-eastern Europe in the 1910s and 20s. Although they were brutal and lacking any measure of fairness, on the whole the human outcome was far better than any prolonged settlement dispute could have been. But the surrounding Arab nations closed their borders to Palestinians or settled them in conflict zones, using them as pawns to prevent the establishment of peace and normality with Israel as part of the region. In this they are complicit.

Had history ran a course similar to that which gave us Greece or Bulgaria in the 19th century, as anyone could reasonably have predicted, we’d probably have a nation state of Israel substantially at peace with its neighbours. There might be some tense posturing from time to time for political effect, but on the whole the region would be growing a much finer class of problems such as demands that Israel and Lebanon enter the EU at the same time. That Israel might still seem parochial, but it would be reasonable.

Unfortunately it’s too late to take that path. The Palestinians are by now Israel’s responsibility, and Israel has to deal with them. There’s only one moral and viable way to move forward, and that is to abandon the idea of Israel as a nation state, for Jews only. It doesn’t just have Jews. It has Jews and Arabs, and realistically any state in that location is going to see some Christians and various other minorities. Any form of governance that aspires to peace and acceptance, today and in these circumstances, has to be multi-ethnic. This may be a chagrin to those Jews who cling to a racially pure Zionist ideal. Too bad. Too late. Are they, in any case, anything but a fanatic fringe?

A multi-ethnic Israel doesn’t have to mean a raft prone to be swallowed by the surrounding Muslim world. It means a multi-ethnic state with a constitution that recognises and protects at least two main minorities. It means separation of church and state and rights that safeguard tolerance. It means equal opportunity laws and a balanced independent legal system. It also means mostly Jewish corporations and an army mainly staffed by Jews, for the time being, just as in the United States capital and rank is mostly in the hands of whites and that’s tolerated rather than enshrined. By any measure a multi-ethnic Israel would be a beacon to the region, if only Israeli conservatives would tolerate the idea and the elites of surrounding Arab nations would let it happen.

What is happening right now is not working, and is not going to work unless we wait for the slow extinction of the Palestinian minority and then pronounce the resulting peace a success. Israel is accused of occupying the land. It isn’t. An occupation is something temporary, and it’s assumed that the invader will leave, as the Americans will eventually leave Iraq once favorable arrangements for extracting the oil are secured. Israel isn’t occupying Palestine, and it’s unproductive to suggest that it is. Israel has won the land. The Jews have also done so much that is positive on the land that they have a claim of putting it to good use, just as the European settlers have a bona fide, although not a just, claim to the use of North America. These are not changes that you can undo.

Rather, the crime is that Israel is practicing apartheid. It is enclosing the Palestinian minority in walled enclaves on low-quality land that cannot provide a livelihood. It expropriates and blocks the movement of goods and people. It denies Palestinians fair access to a shared economy, or the freedom to pursue a viable economy of their own. There is a notion that a two-state settlement, with a prosperous Jewish state and an impoverished Palestinian state that’s not even geographically continuous, might be a solution for peace. That is fantasy. Israel today is like South Africa under apartheid, except that the repressed group is the less numerous. The whole land, for both people, is the only realistic path to peace.

If Israel really wants to live in the 19th century, or practice what in the 20th century we called apartheid, it needs to be punished. Now, anyone who criticises Israel is asked if they deny Israel’s right to exist. That phrase is about as unhelpful as talk of occupation. No one is suggesting that a march of Muslim jihadists be allowed to drive the Jewish people into the sea. On the other hand does Israel have the right to be an apartheid state? Of course not. Why should it? No state has that right any more. Israel has to choose between being a backward, 19th century state with 19th century international relations and economic prospects, or being admitted into the 21st century as an open and multi-ethnic society.

This may sound like asking the victims of the most terrible crimes, even as they face ongoing threats, to rise up and be better than their agressors. Yes, that is the idea! Israel has to rise up to this challenge and build a fair multi-ethnic society, despite having the moral cache of surviving a near genocide and the real threat of extremism or war. Otherwise, it’s just a miserable strip of land with two morally bankrupt peoples fighting. That’s unnecessarily too bleak a prospect, and one not fair to the hopes of the majority of both peoples.

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