What Can Israel’s Place Be in A More Perfect World?


AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh


Richard Spencer, the white nationalist most famous for being punched in the face at Donald Trump’s inauguration, loves talking about Israel.

In August, in the direct aftermath of Charlottesville, Spencer was interviewed on Israeli television and asked how the interviewer, a Jew, should feel about his white supremacy. Spencer had an answer at the ready.

“As an Israeli citizen, someone who understands your identity, who has a sense of nationhood and peoplehood and history and experience of the Jewish people,” Spencer said, “you should respect someone like me. I care about my people. I want us to have a secure homeland for us and ourselves, just like you want a secure homeland in Israel.”

For Spencer, a white supremacist who doesn’t consider Jews white and an antisemite who enjoys making Nazi salutes, great respect from Israelis is likely not forthcoming.

His logic — that white people in the United States and Europe need a “secure homeland” in the way that Jewish people did in the aftermath of the Holocaust — suggests that he is not exactly an intellectual giant either.

And yet, despite this, Spencer’s image of Israel as a successful ethno-state is deeply chilling. It is especially challenging for people who, otherwise, staunchly support diversity, pluralism, and equality under the law.

Israel was born from extraordinary circumstances, no question. If at any point in history a group of people has needed a country of its own, Jewish people in 1948 would be at the top of the list.

But to support Israel — whatever you think of its current leadership — is to agree that ethno-states can be beneficial. Maybe not ideal, but, under certain circumstances, morally legitimate and worthwhile.

Where, then, do we draw the line? What are those circumstances? How much oppression and death must a group suffer before they too can legitimately claim an ethno-state? Most of us would agree that white Americans don’t qualify, but how about black Americans?

It is in this territory that we find vigorous agreement between men and women who would, otherwise, be staunch opponents.

The most famous example of this was the alliance of George Lincoln Rockwell, who founded and led the American Nazi party during the 1960s before being gunned down outside a laundromat by an exiled party member, and Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam.

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin recounts that, “during a recent Muslim rally, Rockwell… made a point of contributing about twenty dollars to the cause, and he and Malcolm X decided that, racially speaking, anyway, they were in complete agreement.”

Malcolm X believed in those days the Nation of Islam teaching that white people were created by an evil scientist; Rockwell called African Americans “dirty, immoral, drunken, filthy-mouthed, lazy and repulsive people.”

But Rockwell wanted in America a nation of and for white people, while Malcolm X, at least as an interim solution, wanted in America a nation of and for black people. Neither wanted what they called race-mixing. They got along just fine.

Baldwin, it’s safe to say, would have been disquieted by the state of Israel and Palestine today. He certainly didn’t support Rockwell, and, though he loved him, he didn’t support Malcolm X either.

“The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another — or others — always has been and always will be a recipe for murder,” he wrote. “There is no way around this.”

“If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch.”

This appears to be correct. Here’s Ben Shapiro, dubbed a “principled gladiator” and “the voice of the conservative millennial movement” by The New York Times, in 2008: “The Arab-Israeli conflict may be accurately described as a war between darkness and light,” he wrote. “Those who argue against Israeli settlements — outposts of light in a dark territory — argue for the continued victory of night.”

This is pure fundamentalism — a rejection of nuance and of humanity — and it has led Shapiro to tacitly endorse invasions of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Pakistan in the name of “pre-emption,” because “Arabs” represent “fascism” against American-Israeli-Western “freedom”.

On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum is Angela Davis, who has called Palestine an “open air prison” and, thanks to her support of the BDS movement, has been accused of antisemitism.

But Davis has a different view. To her, there is no material difference between racism against Palestinians and antisemitism. If you’re for one, you’re for the other. If you’re against one, you’re against both.

“In standing up against the racism of the state of Israel,” she said at George Washington University last year, “we are passionately saying no to antisemitism as well.”

Agree with Davis or not, those who support Israel must grapple with the idea that there is, necessarily, a dark underbelly to the continued operation of a majority Jewish state. Since its founding, Israel’s leaders have concerned themselves with demographic threat — namely, the population of Israeli Arabs.

The Koenig Memorandum, an internal Israeli government document leaked in 1976, outlined Israel’s need to “examine the possibility of diluting existing Arab population concentrations”.

Benjamin Netanyahu has referenced, as did Shimon Peres, a demographic threat in the region of Negev in Southern Israel, where the Bedouin population stands at roughly 25 percent compared to the national Arab population of just over 20 percent.

Israel, however subtly, works to ensure that its population has a certain demographic makeup. This, again, is deeply troubling.

Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian American writer born in Israel, writes that demographic fear is the reason is “why a Jew from anywhere in the world can come to Israel and live in the house of Palestinian refugees who are barred from returning precisely because they’re of the wrong ethnicity and religion. This is why Palestinian citizens of Israel like myself are not permitted to reside in Israel with their spouse if their spouse is a Palestinian citizen of the West Bank.”

The question of rights and equality in Israel extends beyond demographics. In 2013, Netanyahu’s government proposed a law that would have defined “national state of the Jewish people,” while a 2017 proposal to strip Arabic of its status as official language of the state to a was, according to a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, designed to “protect the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

These are the kind of proposals that have made Noam Chomsky one of Israel’s fiercest critics, and led the likes of Shapiro, that principled gladiator, to call Chomsky a “twisted and evil” man who “pines for Israel’s destruction.”

But Chomsky, unlike Davis, does not support BDS and does in fact support what he terms an “ethnic Jewish homeland in Palestine.” He just doesn’t support an overtly Jewish state, for the simple reason that any state that favors one group of people over any other cannot truly be a liberal democracy.

Chomsky made this point explicit in a 2004 interview, in which he stated, “It ends up that about 90 percent of the land [in Israel] is reserved for people of Jewish race, religion and origin. If 90 percent of the land in the United States were reserved for people of white, Christian race, religion and origin, I’d be opposed. So would the ADL. We should accept universal values.”

Ideally, in the very long run, Chomsky would like to see a “binational secular democracy in the former Palestine, from the sea to the river.”

Israel, to be clear, is not the only country in the world that worries about ethnic majorities and demographic threat. The United States, with its rising minority population, does as well. So has India, and Australia, and Bahrain.

But Israel is the country formed and functioning on the basis of a majority ethnicity that enjoys widespread support from people who otherwise abhor ethnic nationalism, and so it presents a quandary of great importance.

If we continue to need Israel, because of the threat of antisemitism or because of the right to self-determination or because there is great value in belonging to a place where you are in the ethnic majority, what does that say about our ability to live in harmony with each other across religious and ethnic lines? Richard Spencer would like us to think it means that we have no such ability, and, regardless, no such need.

If that’s the case, there will always be misery and abuse. To achieve his dream state, Spencer would have to forcibly displace or exterminate millions upon millions of people. He takes inspiration from Israel, a state that, for all its good, is violating human rights.

In 1979, in a column for The Nation, Baldwin wrote that “there is absolutely –repeat: absolutely — no hope of establishing peace in what Europe so arrogantly calls the Middle East… without dealing with the Palestinians.”

The best hope for peace, and the only hope for justice, is to bring people together as equals. There are parts of Israel where, on a person-to-person level, that is happening.

But as a political entity, Israel, founded in many ways as refuge, is limited by its ethnic creed. What its role can ultimately be in less racialized, less polarized, less hateful world is very much unclear.

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