Monday, June 27, 2011

The Problem with Being the "Chosen" People

Many Jews view themselves as a "chosen" people, a manifestation of their special relationship with God. Others who are less religious see something special in the Jewish people due to their endurance and survival despite being stateless for two thousand years while many other stateless peoples became fully assimilated. For many, the implication of being a "chosen" people is that Jews have certain privileges and certain responsibilities, responsibilities that many Jews impose on themselves that often impact their self perception. There is a "higher" standard that many Jews subscribe to for themselves, a higher code of conduct that many Jews apply to themselves.

Lets get concrete. Many Jews, especially those that do not live in Israel and do not perceive Israel's existence as a critically important requirement for the continued survival of the Jews hold Israel to a substantially higher moral standard than they would hold other nations to. Other nations around the world have essentially followed the lead on this, and hold Jews to a similarly high standard than they hold other nations. Ideas like "proportionate response," "land for peace" and the casual way in which many Jews dismiss Israel's delegitimization and question Israel's right to exist because of its perceived interference with Arab desires for expansion are almost unparalleled among other nations.

But before we criticize others for imposing impossibly high moral standards on us, we need to look ourselves in the mirror. At Israel in the Gardens, I spoke to a J Street representative. He stated that he was an Israeli citizen and that he was very troubled by Israel's unwillingness to make peace with its Arab neighbors because "he wanted to live in an Israel that resembles Athens, not Sparta." His implication was that Israel's unwillingness to cede land to the Arabs made Israel an undesirable place to live because military planning and culture played too central a role in Israeli life. He felt that Israel needed to "be the better man" and seize the initiative. He had big visions for Israel that focused most of all on finding a way to move Israel away from a "military culture" that, in his view, Israel had imposed on itself by not giving enough up to the Arabs.

I had no response to his comment in the moment, because I so surprised by what he said. The idea that Israel, a country that in 60 years has made innumerable contributions to the arts and sciences, is too spartan was shocking. But what was more shocking was the subtext of his point: that Israel is the nation that must give things up, that Israel's behavior in the "occupied territories" is so appalling and unacceptable that Israel must do essentially whatever it takes to ease the Palestinians' problems even if that ends up hurting Jewish interests.

This man from J Street is not alone in his thinking. A prevailing notion in the Middle East is that the Palestinians are essentially the objects of Israeli action. Israel is the actor, the Arabs are the re-actors. This idea has manifested itself in several failed Israeli policies (that the Israelis were pressured into): the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. These policies fed into a notion that Israel must act, and then the Arabs will react in a favorable way. Of course, that is not how things happened after either of those withdrawals. More broadly, the land for peace notion and the two state solution are both based on the same notion: that Israel needs to be the first actor to bring change and resolution to the conflict.

Of course, most other countries are not put in such a position, at least not with any great success. No other nation is subjected to more criticism for doing less harm than Israel. Turkey, one of Israel's newest detractors, remains steadfast in its refusal to even acknowledge its role in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and continues to brutally put down the Kurdish nationalist movement. Sri Lanka decimated the fighting forces and nationalist dreams of its Tamil minority, while killing approximately 25,000 Tamil military and civilians as it wrapped up its campaign against the LTTE in 2009. China has controlled Tibet for over 60 years and continues its attempts to destroy Tibetan culture. While all of these nations continue their unfortunate and often terrible behavior, none of those countries has had its very existence considered a sin to be expunged from the records of history. Jews are the only people whose goals of a national home are considered racist and improper.

The problem is, we have allowed ourselves to be questioned this way and we have allowed ourselves to be brought to trial by the very same nations who have committed far worse sins than we. When the British government criticizes us, we ought to remind them that it was their government that was given the mandate to provide the Jews a home but refused to allow Jews fleeing the Holocaust entrance into Israel. We should say this not to prove that we are better than them or that they owe us something, but that they have no right to cast judgments on us. Ze'ev Jabotinsky believed in this point himself. He felt that the Jews' goal should be to become simply a people among all others, a people who had the same rights as any others: to have enemies, to act in their own self interest and to be for themselves.

I want nothing else for Israel and I want nothing more for the Jews. We have a unique history that we must celebrate and remember, but in a world of flawed and self-interested actors, we demand too much altruism from ourselves. After 30 years of working through the international "peace process," the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka simply got fed up with dealing with the Tamil insurgency. I am not saying that their solution was correct, what I am saying is that 99% of nations would have eventually reached the same conclusion and most everyone would have forgotten about what happened in a few years (as we basically have with Sri Lanka or Western Sahara). There are far too many within our own tribe who would demand that we never take the Sri Lanka option and never put our interests so far ahead of the interests of our enemies as to pursue a course as conclusive as .

At this point, we have allowed the world to put us on such a moral pedestal that it can demand that we feed and give energy to those who would seek to destroy our country. We have allowed the world to demand that we give away land for empty promises of peace and we have allowed the world to cast moral judgment upon us. When everyone else sees Jews hold Israel to the highest moral standard, it can safely do the same without being accused of antisemitism. We do not need to become lower than other nations, as countries like Sudan, North Korea and Burma behave in ways that no country should seek to emulate. What we need to become is a nation like all others, which will only happen we demand of ourselves nothing more than we demand of others.


David said...

Very well written article. I agree completely with the sentiment that Israel is unfairly singled out for criticism, primarily by actors using human rights of the Palestinians as a pretext for delegitimizing Israel's right to exist.

Two points:
1. Just because other people don't have the right to hold Israel to a higher standard doesn't mean Jews don't have the right to do so (or, at least, Israeli citizens). There's a meaningful distinction between internal and external criticism. Isn't it (at least arguably) a part of Jewish culture to be relentlessly self-critical, even as one maintains self-respect? I don't think it's a problem if Jews hold Israel to a higher standard as long as they openly acknowledge that it's a higher standard. It is a problem when other countries apply a standard to Israel that they themselves don't meet -- it's usually a sign that criticism of Israel on human rights is just a pretext.

2. Do you really know "many Jews" who don't think Israel's existence is critically important for Jewish survival? That may have been the case in the 1940s, but I can't say I know a single Jew who believes that. I imagine it's actually a very small number. I seriously doubt that a single memeber of J Street subscribes to that belief.

JabotinskyJr said...

I will take your second point first. There are a substantial number of Jews who do not support Israel's existence. Many are in the Haredi community and oppose Israel's existence for religious reasons (mostly that Zionism is secular and only the Messiah will bring Jews back to Israel). While these are a fringe, they do great harm to Jewish national interests when they do things like meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at an anti-Zionism conference. They create an image that even Jews are opposed to Zionism, which lends legitimacy to its critics who can say they are not anti-Semitic because there are Jews, and religious ones at that, who oppose Zionism.

There are a lot of non-Haredi Jews (many who I have seen demonstrating in the Bay Area). J Street are not those people, but groups like Women in Black are. They view Israel as a theoretically acceptable idea but view it practically as a colonial state forced upon the "native" Arabs by European colonizers. The point is not that so many Jews call for Israel's immediate destruction, it is that many Jews want to impose constraints on Israel's economic and demographic existence that make it very dangerous to continue to live in the State.

But I think the real issue is this: how many other nationalities question the right of their home country to exist? One can see substantial criticisms of governments, but not of the nation itself. In Israel's case, the existence of such criticism within Jewish ranks lends legitimacy to Israel's many detractors.

JabotinskyJr said...

I agree with you to some extent. I do, however, think there is a meaningful difference between creating theoretical moral aspirations and actually imposing them upon a functioning country.

In the case of Jews, it was very easy for Jews to impose moral behavior and governance on themselves while in the Diaspora, they were stateless and pretty much powerless. They were not a country that had to deal with minority rights or clash with other nations. Living under a heightened moral code was not too difficult for them because they faced none of the moral governance dilemmas that our peoples did.

The problem in the current scenario is that people have taken that higher moral standard and used it against the Israelis. The example I feel compelled to bring up over and over is the way that Sri Lanka got away with violently putting down its Tamil insurgency without suffering major international reprecussions.

The point that Ze'ev Jabotinsky was making (and again, this was before Israel's existence) was that Jews would have to shake themselves of this need for moral superiority if they were ever going to succeed in a world not bound by such moral codes. The unfortunate question that Israelis must ask themselves is how much they value their interests over the interests of their enemies (and even their allies). His contention, which I agree with, is that Jews have the right to be as self interested as any other peoples but that we have allowed ourselves to be judged by others and held to a standard that they do not hold themselves to. I mean, look at the fact that the Syrian government criticizes Israel for its handling of the May 15 border crossings while Syria's army rolls tanks and indiscriminately kills civilians along the Syrian-Turkish border.