Israel and Palestinians

Do rights appertain to individuals or peoples?

At the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the question of the Palestinians, and their descendants, who were driven from the land during Israel’s founding. It would seem that, forced to leave their homes during war, they should have the right to return when war ends. It would also seem plausible that, by admitting as citizens a majority which is opposed to the existence of the state of Israel, the state would cease to exist, or at least could not function as a democracy. Surely the Jewish people are entitled to a state which gives them a home? And, if so, surely, if the question is one of existence, that state may defend itself even if it must take measures which otherwise could not be justified?

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma. Suppose that Israel were to grant the right of return to a certain number of descendants of Palestinian refugees every year, with the limit chosen with regard to practicality, but high enough to ensure that all who chose to could return in a reasonable time frame (a decade, say). Returnees would get temporary residency. They would be required to take a civics class, and to complete (age appropriate) civil service, being supported by the state so that they weren’t indigent. At the end of this period, if they choose to, they could take an oath of allegiance to Israel, and become citizens.

The payoff for a peace counted as just by many now divided would be enormous: an Israel incorporating and at peace with Palestinians would be a secure Israel; it would dominate the region economically and militarily, and could assume a larger role on the world stage. But who, really, could tread this path?

Currently, radical leadership enjoys widespread tolerance among Palestinians, because those who might have the impulse to moderation would seem to have no choice. If this force majeure were removed, perhaps moderates may come to be determined for the preservation of Israel, rather than its destruction. Surely a devout Muslim or Christian can chose to accept citizenship in a state which provides – and must remain institutionally constituted to provide – a home for the Jewish people. Terrorists might infiltrate the process, taking sham oaths in the hope of causing mayhem. But their enemies would not only be Jews, but all – certainly the great majority – who commit themselves to this journey in good faith. The wedge between people would divide not Jew from Palestinian, but the reasonable from the fanatic.

No one chooses the heritage they are born into. As we become adults, we can chose to accept or reject this heritage; in either case we assume responsibility for it. Those who have held Mosaic law to be sacred may recognize in this principle the doctrine of original sin. The Jewish people has survived centuries of persecution because, generation after generation, individual Jews have chosen to affirm their identity as Jews. We may inherit nationality and religion, but nations and religions are grounded in individual choices.

Is it not reasonable for Jews to give Palestinians a choice to live at peace within a common domain, and to have a say in the functioning of the institutions which govern that domain? The mass nationalism of the 19th century, from which Zionism, also, sprang, is a creation of – and even more a reaction to – the European Enlightenment. In her book, Renaissance Man, Agnes Heller points out that the Renaissance, part of the common history of both Christians and Jews in the west, was the first cultural context in which people felt empowered to choose their pasts. The Enlightenment, whatever else it brought, was in part a step back from the disorientation this power of choice brought with it. The Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) vision of a single, common, pure intellect grows through the Middle Ages like an underground root to sprout up in modern empiricism, and flower in Kant. From here, it was a short step to the violence of Romantic nationalism, which expresses human purpose not just as intellectual, but through the grasp of the deep heart to choose something both personal and common: a Nation.

The outburst of nationalism equipped societies poorly to deal justly with their neighbors. Zionists should be ware their image in history’s mirror.

My perspective is not existentialism – that people have identity separate from their allegiances. It is relationalism: individuals and the common identities that bind them do not exist separately, but individuals and commonalities act on and constitute each the other. Living together can be prescribed by our heritage. Living together, with human choices, can also forge new commonalities.

Currently, possible politics are dominated by an essentialist perspective: people are defined unilaterally by their formal identities. This is a mistake, and a tragedy. Essentialism points the way to a world in which each group must war against others; and within every group, there will be subgroups, which must similarly establish a hierarchy. For if our identity is given to us essentially, and it determines the law we live under, any choice to cooperate can only be, at best, a temporary, utilitarian strategy, and not an expression of principle. Politics predicated on the basis of an original Hobbesian war of all upon all is destined to return there.

States do not always spring from nations. The United States of America is home to a nation defined – in aspiration at least – by its acceptance of the covenant of a common state. Perhaps the United Nations, calling for two states in Palestine, got it wrong. Perhaps Israel can be home to a Jewish nation, but need not be exclusive to it.

Putin’s Purpose

Putin’s purpose is to destroy Europe.

Not the place, the cities or the people. The institutions. The Idea of Europe. Putin is seen as an opportunist, a cynic. But he is a true believer. He believes in the order of the 19th century, which itself had its face to the middle ages. He believes in the voice of the blood. He believes that people and nations are healthy when organized in hierarchies under strong rulers.

He believes that supranational institutions, laws based on abstractions and not the imperatives of concrete societies, are hypocritical abominations.

The west views Putin’s moves against the Ukraine as a way of distracting Russians from economic issues. One commentator on my earlier post told me his policies would come to the same bad end as the soviet invasion of Afghanistan (so it would be foolish to do anything). But his purpose was not one of distraction so much as one of definition: defining what Russia was, what it stood for, and what it stood against. His purpose was to pour acid on the rivets that hold the suspension bridge of Europe aloft.

Some see him as dangerous, but ultimately doomed. He is a tactician, but a sentimentalist, soft in the head. They smile at the drop in oil price, and see hopeful signs that Russians are getting fed up. They council humoring within bounds. They council “realism” that “Russia will never put up with a westernized Ukraine”.

Perhaps. But I fear that his motive is not just sentiment, but principle; that he will not stop until Hobbes and not Locke is ascendant in Europe. I fear that when enough Russians start listening to the voice of the blood, they will rather acquiesce to spilling blood than make common cause with any who would take to the streets for economic reasons. I don’t see how Russians will find a way beyond Putin without a true cataclysm (or his early demise). And Putin will keep on working until he can treat with the nations of Europe individually. If he can deal with Germany, rather than Europe, he will find light at the end of the economic tunnel.

I also fear he is winning. What matter if Ukrainians hate him? They at least will not put their trust in Europe. In Poland also, the nationalists are ascendant. They also hate Putin, but so much for the German-Polish rapprochement. Their victory is his. In many other places, nationalist sentiment is bubbling up.

European leaders must articulate a vision of Europe that Europeans identify with. It must go beyond economic security. Europe must stand for principles that its citizens are prepared to defend, to feel dishonored if they are violated. And then it must defend them.

Otherwise, as Quine was wont to opine: no entity without identity. Whatever happens to Putin, Europe will in the end be what Putin regards it to be: a mere aggregate, an island of sand, struggling on downstream, soon to be swept away by the river of history.


Anschluss and Crimea

Professor Ferguson has written an article in the FT on the parallels between the events in the Ukraine and those leading to the first world war.

It seems to me that the parallels between Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland and  “Anschluss” are even more pertinent: Russia is a nation that is still sore from losing the cold war, with compatriots on the other side of the border. Its ruthless leader has understood them as a pretext to pick fights, and they give the powers that are have sworn not to countenance the changing of European borders by force the pretext to look away.

Chamberlain called Hitler’s invasion: “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.” It sounds very familiar — it could have been Merkel herself speaking. Both leaders actually knew a good bit more, but felt it better to coddle their constituents than alarm them.

Putin may or may not be an evil genius like Hitler, but he is certainly without scruple, and willing to take great risks, at the cost of other people’s lives. This was made clear from the start of his rule by his campaign against the Chechens.

The author advises us not to talk shrilly, so that Putin has room to back down. Perhaps, indeed, we shouldn’t say anything too clearly — especially we shouldn’t say we won’t do anything. Our leaders should repeat the mantra “Europe’s borders will never again be changed by force”. Let Putin guess what it means — we can both figure it out later.

But in the meantime perhaps we should advance 100,000 NATO troops into Poland, perhaps we should put the sixth fleet in the Black Sea, and let the Bundeswehr have a NATO exercise in Turkey. We could say, perhaps, that it is all routine, just like his moves are routine.

Whatever the actions, we must talk to Putin in a language he understands. He should remember his weakness (and that we know it) before he bluffs his way into power, or at least into calamity. “Don’t bluster from the sidelines and paint yourself into a corner” would be a long-winded way to paraphrase the first half of a famous phrase of advice from an American president just before the era about which professor Ferguson writes. We have completely forgotten the second part, about the big stick.

Because if Putin invades the eastern Ukraine, as increasingly seems likely, that won’t be the end of that. Eventually we will have to move to confront Putin — the logic of his actions is clear. Perhaps the best strategy will again be containment, but a small bag — cinched tight before the people of the Ukraine are trampled on any more — is better than a big one.

Indeed, there is a deeper danger. I wonder if Merkel doesn’t know it. If institutions fail in Europe, they fail everywhere. Once the peoples of Europe see that the international order is a farce, the strong and the bold, once again, will try to make their own rules, and they will write them in blood.

Injustice can have a long shelf life

Just read David Cohen’s interesting article on the frozen status quo in the middle east. In Crete and the Cyclades, 5000 years ago, there is evidence that, at least among the elite, men and woman enjoyed many of the same privileges.

However equal or not this society was, the status of women certainly declined under of the Mycenaeans… and it never recovered until, partially at least, in certain parts of the world in the last century.

An unjust status quo can certainly last a long time.