Obama is a Better Zionist Than Netanyahu

Gershom Gorenberg

My new article is up at Slate – on the dispute over settlements and why Obama’s approach is better for Israel. An excerpt:

…Diplomatic entreaties over the two-state solution will continue in closed rooms. The dispute over the settlements, however, is likely to remain public. In that dispute, Obama is working for the classic Zionist goal of a thriving democratic state with a Jewish majority. Netanyahu is undercutting that strategic goal by sticking to a Zionist tactic that became obsolete decades ago.

A look at the history of settlement shows why. Before 1948, settling the land was one method used by Zionists in building a new Jewish society and working toward independence. “Settlement” normally referred to an agricultural community. The idea was that Jews must return not only to their homeland, but to the soil itself. The intellectuals sent themselves to the countryside. Most settlements were either communes-kibbutzim-or cooperative farming villages-moshavim. Both were intended to be the foundation of a socialist society.

Settlement was also-perhaps primarily-a tool in the struggle between two national movements, Jewish and Palestinian Arab, over one homeland. Particularly after the first proposal to partition Palestine between a Jewish and an Arab state, in 1937, the placement of new settlements was intended to stake a claim to more of Palestine and to determine the borders of the Jewish state-to-be. In the 1940s, kibbutzim also served as the base for the Palmah, the nascent Jewish army. Settlement was the tactic of a revolutionary movement.

In 1948, the revolution succeeded, and the state of Israel was established. Settlement, like the secret weapons caches under kibbutz cowsheds, became an anachronism….

Read the rest at Slate, and comment there are here at SoJo.

27 thoughts on “Obama is a Better Zionist Than Netanyahu”

  1. Just listened to the “HaKol Diburim” radio show in Israel on Reshet Bet. They presented a poll by Shvakim-Panorama polling organization which said support in Israel for setting up an independent Palestinian state dropped to 44% (don’t forget this includes Arab respondents as well), which is the lowest in years, after hanging around 60% for a long period. Yossi Vadana who presented the poll said this was a direct result of Obama’s pressure on Israel. He says CONTRARY TO WHAT ALL THE “PROGRESSIVES” ARE SAYING (i.e. that Netanahu will be forced by internal pressure to capitulate to Obama’s demands) that Israelis resent foreign pressure and react against it. Obama is not perceived in Israel as someone as having Israel’s best interest at heart. (They said the poll is available on the radio show’s website but I haven’t searched for it).

    Netanyahu has a strong national consensus behind him.

  2. While Israeli pubic opinion does have influence on its leaders, unfortunately it is usually like George Costanza’s first instincts. See below the excerpt from the famous episode of Seinfeld – The Opposite (http://www.seinfeldscripts.com/TheOpposite.htm)

    George : Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable, I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but … I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.

    ( A waitress comes up to G )

    Waitress : Tuna on toast, coleslaw, cup of coffee.

    George : Yeah. No, no, no, wait a minute, I always have tuna on toast. Nothing’s ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of on toast. Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted … and a cup of tea.

  3. As a Likud voter, I agree with you that the post-1967 settlements were a horrible mistake and that they were, and are, harmful to Israel’s national interests. I think most Israelis agree here. All that stuff about “pioneering” is still meaningful to the national-religious but to very few others these days. But this is just boilerplate. Most Israelis support the settlements (if not the settlers!) because they conflate settlement with “the occupation.”

    That said, it’s an exaggeration for you to say that “this two-tiered legal system undercuts democracy.” For one thing, that contradicts the usual description of the current status as an “occupation.” There has always been a clear distinction between Israeli citizens and noncitizens. Democracies may rule over foreign populations, undemocratically and against the populations’ will, and still be democracies. As long as the distinction between citizen and noncitizen is maintained, it doesn’t matter whether Jews make up 51% or 49% of the population west of the Jordan River.

    Israel is not a democracy of all its citizens, but that’s not because of the “occupation.” It’s because democracy means government by the people, or popular sovereignty, and there is no single Israeli “people.” There are two peoples in the State of Israel, Jewish and Arab, and the former stifles the will of the latter by means of the ballot box. That is why the State of Israel is not a democracy in the modern, Western sense of the word, despite all its ballots and laws. Ahmed Tibi was correct: it’s a democracy for the Jews and a Jewish state for the Arabs.

  4. Plony, you confused me with this one: “Most Israelis support the settlements (if not the settlers!) because they conflate settlement with ‘the occupation'”. So if they did not conflate, they wouldn’t support? Huh?

    The occupation — of which settlement is the main tool and the checkpoints the abominable manifestation — is an addictive drug, and the Obama administration is the first that has had the balls to tell us that we must get ourselves into detox. This is what friends do, not keep on enabling the addiction. Why is this so hard to see?

  5. and the former stifles the will of the latter by means of the ballot box. …isnt that called democracy? I guess Obama voters stifled McCain voters at the ballot box

    Ploni, on the basis of what are are you a Likud voter?

  6. When I was in grade school, we were taught the concept of Manifest Destiny – that it was the belief in G-d’s will that America spread from sea to sea. This is similiar to what I see here – and I keep having mental images of gun-slinging cowboys with kippahs. I would define this in simple conversation as national myth-making.

  7. Yam Erez asked me to clarify, so: I meant that most Israelis support the occupation (for reasons of security more than ideology), and as a result they support the settlements as well because they think of the two as going together. For most Israelis, removing the settlements means ending the occupation. The Gaza disengagement, where both settlers and soldiers were removed, reinforces that link. I’d like to see public figures in the broad center, from center-right to center-left, try to break that psychological link.

    The occupation is not an addictive drug, nor is the settlement movement. This “drug” has the effect of making the user (the Israeli public) crave less, not more of it. It’s very easy to understand that Obama et al. think that they’re pushing Israel to act in its own true interests. It’s very tempting for a supporter of Israel to believe that American and Israeli interests – their true interests – coincide. Having read their arguments, by politicians, by the editors of South Jerusalem, by Stephen Walt, and by many other such supporters of Israel, it’s very hard for me to understand how they could possibly be correct.

  8. We Zionists are constantly berated for invoking the Holocaust, even though it is relevant. I will invoke something earlier in Jewish history, the Spanish inquisition, and discuss why Tomas de Torquemada, the driver of the inquision is a better Jew than Gershom Goerenberg

    1) Both Gershom and Torquemada are of Jewish ancestry. Tomas uncle, Juan de Torquemada, was a converso who helped other conversos
    2) Both Gershom and Torquemada wear headgear. Gershom wears a kippa, and Torquemada, as Archbishop of Avila, a high ranking churchman, also wore a head covering
    3) Neither Gershom nor Torquemada likes other Jews. Torquemada got the Church to persecute other Jews, Gershom tries to convince others thru the internet that most Jews are evil
    4) Torquemada had self respect, Gershom does not.

    Thus, Torquemada is the better Jew

  9. Gershom has clarified what has been bothering me for a long time – that Israel has stopped behaving like a nation state, and become something that is out of its right time and place. If there is to be a Jewish state, it’s not going to include the occupied territories. An apartheid state may last for a few decades but ultimately will fail, and then there will be one state that is not a majority Jewish state. This recent talk of making Israel some new kind of “node state” – a homeland for the Jews, not a nation comprised of all the people within certain borders.

    Manifest destiny is an interesting comparison. We committed a genocide in this country, and we are still paying the price. We built this country on the land of other peoples, on the backs of African slaves. I wouldn’t hold us up as a role model.

  10. I shouldn’t be posting this late on erev shabbat, but I have to agree with Herbert Kaine that Ploni’s notion of democracy is a pretty strange one if it can’t make room for multiple national groups—even ones with widely divergent political leanings. Is Belgium not a democracy? Or Finland, with its Swedish minority? What about Canada and Spain?

    On another point, Gershom didn’t say that Israel wasn’t a democracy, he said that the occupation undercuts democracy. Does anyone really think that the undemocratic nature of, say, France’s rule of Algeria didn’t blemish to some extent France’s claim to be a democracy?

  11. Raghav, it was definitely my fault for being unclear about Israel not being a Western-style democracy. When I said that Israel is made up of essentially two peoples, I meant peoples in the political rather than the ethnic-national sense: that is, I meant demos rather than ethnos. Canada for instance is a democracy comprising two ethnoi because the two are politically united as a single demos. It makes sense to speak of a Canadian public good or general will which includes both the French and the Anglos.

    Israel is different. The two main ethnoi are not united in a single demos. There is no single public good because the Jewish good, which isJewish sovereignty or a Jewish state, fundamentally contradicts the Arab-Israeli good, which is a “state of all its citizens” or an Arab state or maybe something else, but certainly not a Jewish state. It’s because there are two separate political, as opposed to ethnic, publics that Israel is not a democracy. It’s possible that Jews and Arabs will be united into a single demos in the future (in which case Israel will be a democracy, not a “Jewish democratic state”), but so far they have not been. Israel is a democracy for the Jews, as Ahmed Tibi correctly stated.

    To answer your other question, I for one say that France’s actions in Algeria did not at all undercut France’s claim to be a democracy. Democracies may be good or bad, and they may do good or bad things. The word “democracy” properly refers to a type of state form, like monarchy and aristocracy. Someone once said that from a colony’s point of view, the democratic colonial power is a monarchy. Polemically the word “democracy” may be associated with nice things like anticolonialism and humanitarianism, but sometimes it’s good to try to separate these things out.

  12. On what basis do I vote Likud? Several reasons, but the one that’s relevant to this topic is that I don’t want to end the occupation if that will lead to more violence and bloodshed. I think that’s what will happen if the occupation is ended, with or without a peace agreement, in a situation where Palestinians still support the struggle to liberate all of Palestine from the river to the sea. I don’t think I’m alone among Likud voters in my thinking. My view of the situation is tragic, like Benny Morris’ view (post-2000).

  13. There is no single public good because the Jewish good, which is Jewish sovereignty or a Jewish state, fundamentally contradicts the Arab-Israeli good, which is a “state of all its citizens” or an Arab state or maybe something else, but certainly not a Jewish state…The Jewish good can be correctly be defined as Jewish sovereignty. On the other hand, the aims of the Arab group can be simply defined as whatever is bad for the Jewish good, not a state for all its people. That is why the best historical analogy is not South African apartheid, but the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. I think it will be solved in a similar way. During the next Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Iranian war, the Palestinians of Israel will side with Israels enemies. After the war, they will have the same fate as the Sudeten Germans

  14. “…Obama is working for the classic Zionist goal of a thriving democratic state with a Jewish majority”

    -A democracy that has to maintain a majority of one ethnic/religious group is not a democracy but a tyranny of the many over the few (a cursory look at Israel’s security, economic and legal systems [within the 1967 borders] is enough to see that this is the case)

    “Through settlement[s], the state of Israel has reverted to an acre-by-acre struggle between Jews and Palestinians for control of land.”

    -Conveniently, this analogy ignores the most obvious differnece between the pre-state “struggle” to the post-state “struggle” – namely Palestinians were not under Israeli military control before 1948; in 1967 Israel had “acquired” control of the land, the settlements helped in the “struggle” of fortifying control over the Palestinians and in their continual dispossession.

    “The settlement enterprise has reversed history, turning Israel from a state into a national movement.”

    -As does the JNF (the main instrument used to keep most of the land in the pre-1967 borders for Jews only) and the ‘law of return’ just to name two; Israel has never functioned as a state only, but used the various state’s apparatuses in the service of a nationalistic movement.

    Those are just a few points in the article, that I have a problem with – even if the message is more “progressive” than what the Likud has to offer (not a great challenge there) I find the content and arguments rather thin.

    To Ploni

  15. Sorry, my last message got cut in the middle…

    To Ploni –

    “I don’t want to end the occupation if that will lead to more violence and bloodshed.”

    a) That is a weird reversal of cause and affect.

    b) There is ongoing violence and bloodshed, most of it is directed towards the Palestinians and confined within the OPT.

  16. Thanks for the clarification, Ploni. I’m still not quite sure what to make of the claim, since like Schumpeter, the idea of a “public good” or “general will” seems like so much mummery. (Or, as Margaret Thatcher put it, there’s no such thing as society.) But to the extent that there is such a thing, I’m surprised you think it’s so clear that Canada has one.

    As for a democracy being a monarchy from the colony’s point of view, you may as well say that a democracy is a monarchy from any individual’s point of view. (When was the last time your vote swung an election?) Democracy just isn’t about the Burger King concept of “getting government your way,” and to the extent that the term doesn’t include nice things like liberalism and anti-authoritarianism, it doesn’t really mean much at all.

  17. I agree completely with Natalie’s critique. She made an important point: that the state has always been used by the nationalist movement. And of course Mr. Gorenberg is just as nationalist as are those evil settlers: he wants to maintain the majority status of the Staatvolk (the Jews) so that the Staatvolk can rule the state “democratically.”

    Regarding the end of the occupation leading to more bloodshed, I didn’t mean to suggest that there’s no violence going on now. Obviously the Palestinians are suffering way more than the Jews. I just think that an end to the 1967 occupation will further inflame the conflict and will take the Israelis and Palestinians farther away from peace, not closer to it. (One could argue that it should be ended even if that is the case.) Natalie might agree with me that the Zionist left puts way too much emphasis on the 1967 occupation, when it’s the 1948 Zionist occupation which is the real problem.

  18. Raghav gives a standard liberal/libertarian critique of democracy, which I think has some truth to it. The whole idea of a public good or general will is problematic, though there are good answers to your objections.

    The specific case of Israel seems fairly clear, though. A large, politically homogeneous subgroup of the citizenry – the Arabs – do not even support the state as it’s presently constituted, i.e., as a Jewish state. Many don’t even recognize it as legitimate. This isn’t a matter of some law or regulation, it’s the existence of the state itself. You just can’t get more basic than that. It’s almost obscene to refer this situation as a democracy just because Jews cast 80% of the ballots or whatever and are therefore able to impose a Jewish state on the Arabs against their will. The same would be true with Canada if Quebec willed to secede and the central government “democratically” overrode it.

  19. Correction to the above: I meant that it’s almost obscene to call Israel a democracy in the sense of “a democracy of all its citizens.” Ancient Athens was a democracy even though it had slaves, and in the same sense Israel is a democracy even though only the Jews are sovereign. But nowadays “democracy” usually means universal democracy.

  20. Without getting further into the weeds, I wanted to point out that a clear majority of francophones in Quebec did vote for independence in the 1995 referendum.

  21. To Herbert Kaine –regarding the Sudeten Germans, do you you really think Stalin sets the proper example for Israel?

  22. TNM-
    It wasn’t just Stalin who threw the Germans out of East Prussia, the Poles did it and the Czechs did it. The Germans were Fifth Columnists in their countries who aided the German rape of their countries. I have not heard any Westerners demand that the Germans be taken back there and the German government itself has not demanded a “right of return” to those places. So it is not just “Stalin”. I have also not heard anyone demand that Pakistan, a country set up on the basis of exclusivist religious identity (Mohammed Ali Jinnah, its founder, was not from the territories that became Pakistan, nor did he speak either Bengali or Urdu, the main languages of those regions) recognize a “right of return” for the Hindus who were driven out of their ancestral homes in those territories so that a “pure Muslim” Pakistani state could be set up. There is no basis in international law that requires Israel to recognize a “Palestinian Right of Return” since it what the Arabs who started the war, a war they defined as one of genocide, but which they, thank G-d, lost and for which they are paying the price to this day.

  23. Y I how see such the unfettered analysis of the German situation(which is just plain assinine ) compares to the Palestinian situation. I agree there is no law that gives the Palestinians a right of return to their former homeland and for that matter I question if the UN mandates give Israel to the Jews as a homeland at the expense of the Palestinians getting -no land

  24. YBD:

    A couple of minor factual corrections (which don’t have any major bearing on your main argument). First, there is a difference between the Sudetenland and East Prussia. The Sudetenlanders were in Czechoslovakia, but the people of East Prussia lived in fully German territory, and hence were not expelled for being “fifth columnists” in someone else’s land. Their expulsion was part of a deal that took German territory and gave it (mainly) to Poland, in order to compensate Poland for the seizure of Polish territory by the Soviet Union.

    Second, I’ve no idea where you got your information about Jinnah. His place of birth is disputed – either Karachi or Jhirk, according to the Wikipedia entry – but both towns are in Sindh, a province of what is now Pakistan. You’re right that his native language was not Urdu or Bengali, but Gujerati: but he also spoke Sindhi, which is the official language of Sindh. So I don’t think his ethnic credentials are seriously in doubt.

  25. David-
    Thanks for the correction regarding Jinnah. I knew he didn’t speak Urdu and I know he lived in Bombay so I assumed he was not from the region of what would become West Pakistan.

    Since you call me “Y”, should I refer to you from now on as “G”?

  26. Regarding Pakistan India analogy of population exchange of some 20 million people at the partition of India. This was self- determination.

    I don’t consider the Jewish Arab population movement during the period before and after 1948 a population exchange. It was cause and effect.

    The causes:
    increased immigration of Jews from Europe into the British Mandate, the Holocaust, more immigration and the formation of the State of Israel.

    The effects:
    Arab rejection out of fear of colonization (well justified), anger that the UN(read that Western countries) were imposing this.
    The ‘48 war and it’s results (losses-humiliation-refugees) led to reprisals against Jews in Arab countries which lead to Jewish migration, expulsion, flight to the unready but welcome arms of Israel ( more immigration to Israel).

    This so called “exchange” helped exacerbate the problems of coexistence and ultimately security for Israel. It did not help it.

    There was so much pain involved on both sides, including what horrors many Jewish refugees had just come through in Europe, that any humanitarian today with a sense of history and it’s lessons would not want to prescribe any more transferring of anyone as a solution unless we are talking about hopeless militants on either side. Those can be sent to the moon.

    If you look at the Pakistan India partition and exchange, since it is being brought up, you can see how this plays out and what it brings. Look at the whole picture, not the part of the history that suits your argument.

    This is a good article : India and Pakistan:Partition lessons


  27. Ploni,
    I am not sure if the reference to ‘Staatvolk’ was sarcastic or not – but I would have the same objection to any regime that has an official policy (backed up by many actions) to maintain a majority of one group (whether religious, ethnic or else).

    As for the ‘Zionist left’ – I am not sure who you include in this category, if it is Kadima or Labor then I don’t actually see any significant difference between them and Likud on the 1967 occupation (the Likud is a little more honest and thus a little less contradictory).

    As far as I know (correct me if I am wrong) the one group on the ‘Zionist left’ which has taken a real stand against the settlement movement is ‘Peace Now’ – a) I applaud them for their efforts, and their results at getting higher government transparency with regards to the entire enterprise (btw, I think that a greater level of government transparency is in the interest of all citizens regardless of their political leaning.)
    b) As far as I know ‘Peace Now’ do not consider Gaza as occupied nor do they take a real issue with the blockade and were supportive of Israel’s assualt on Gaza earlier this year – which again would make Likud less contradictory.

    I think that the occupation of people (ie – post 1967) is much more pressing than dealing with 1948, that is not to say that ignoring the refugees is the way forward.

    Last, I fail to see why anywhere outside of Israel, the good of the Jewish people is better served by a political mechanism which takes care of the good of all citizens, yet in Israel the good of the Jewish people should be in conflict with such a system.

    Oh, and another last, I also fail to see how conflating Zionism (a political ideology) with Judaism is better for Jews in or outside of Israel.

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