A friend from America passed through Jerusalem and brought me a recent book of far-away American history, perhaps thinking that I should get my mind off the troubles a kilometer or two from my home. Allen C. Guelzo’s Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America was well worth the read, but it did not provide a vacation from thinking about Israel and Palestinians. Much as I am suspicious of drawing precise historical parallels, it wasn’t too difficult for me to imagine Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debating the occupation.
Let me brutally distill some of Guelzo’s key theses. First, Lincoln’s belief that “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” derived in part from his personal experience. When he was a boy, his father had hired him out as a farm laborer and pocketed the proceeds. It was a very small taste of forced labor. Someone else might have learned from this that it would be much better to be the taskmaster than the slave. Lincoln did not want anyone to be the taskmaster. The relationship itself was wrong.
For Douglas, however, the ethics of slavery were irrelevant. Douglas believed in “popular sovereignty,” the right of each state to decide about slavery on its own. In Guelzo’s distillation, Douglas’s view of democracy was that the procedure mattered, and nothing else.
Lincoln “had no objection to popular sovereignty. What he objected to was the notion that popular sovereignty provided the same authority to enslave other human beings as it provided to pass cranberry laws,” laws regulating how and where to grow a particular crop. Slavery was wrong. And no popular vote could give people the right to do wrong. Democracy was not just a matter of majority vote.
There was one more flaw in Douglas’s reasoning, one that apparently never came up in the debate, at least to judge from Guelzo’s telling. The people voting in Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” were not the people most profoundly affected by any decision on slavery. White males would vote on allowing slavery for black men and women. Perhaps Lincoln could not raise this point. He took enough heat for suggesting that the God-given rights of man enunciated in the Declaration of Independence were given to people of another color. How would the crowd have reacted if he suggested that those people should not only be free, but also vote?
So if Douglas and Lincoln were to be transposed to Israel today, if they were to debate in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ashdod and Modi’in about the future of the occupation? Douglas would argue that no land could be given up without a national referendum – a referendum in which Israelis would vote, of course, not the actual residents of the occupied land. If a majority of Israelis voted to keep the West Bank, with Israelis enjoying full rights there and Palestinians denied those rights – well, then, Douglas would say, democracy had decided.
Lincoln would argue from Jewish experience of oppression that people should be denied rights simply on the basis of what group they’d been born into. What Jews should learn from their history was not to become the overclass, but to create a polity free of such oppression. He would insist that no democratic vote could right the wrong of permanent occupation. He might well avoid mentioning that an Israeli vote on Palestinians’ future was undemocratic by definition. But he would insist that Israel could not be a democracy, or be true to Jewish history, while maintaining permanent rule over another people.
As I said, there are no precise parallels in history. Before any comments on this post, I could list 20 ways in which the situation here today is different from then, there. Nonetheless, a distant debate can shed light on one near at hand.