Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Wild Proposal

One of the biggest mistakes people continually make in arguing about the present day situation of Israel is conflating the modern secular democratic nation-state, with the Biblical theocratic kingdom. This mistake is grave for all sides and everyone concerned. Let me explain.

For those in the West, particularly Christians in the West, the conflation of Israel with Biblical Israel brings up guilt-inducing images of the Holocaust. It is a reminder of centuries of institutionalized and theologically legitimized anti-semitism. Relations with Israel for Europe and the United States are an on-going attempt at atonement, to ease troubled consciences. As long as Israel is somehow mixed up in our heads with the mythical kingdom of yore, it is a stand-in for Judaism and ethnic Jews world wide. How we treat Israel, is how we treat Jews.

For those in the Middle East, particularly Muslims, the conflation of Israel with Biblical Israel is a terrifying spectre. So long as Israel is connected to that mythical past in their minds they cannot help but see Israel's behavior in light of Joshua's crusade (the word is chosen intentionally) to cleanse the land. The existence of Israel in its ideal Biblical state means the eradication of other religious and ethnic groups in the region. This is why, for them, the fight is always cast in such extreme terms. Israel has to be wiped from the map (according to Ahmadinejad) because this is Holy War, and they believe Israel intends exactly the same to them.

The problem with both of these views is that they are wildly off-base. Present day Israel is NOT the Kingdom of David. It is NOT God's people. It is a secular democratic nation state. It does not (and should not) represent either the ethnic descendents of Israel and Judah OR the religion of Judaism. It cannot serve, for the West, as a way to expiate our guilty conscience, and it is not, for the East, a movement of Holy War against Islam.

So here is my wild proposal - rename Israel. Reconstitute it explicitly as what it really is and what it always should have been: a secular democratic nation state with geographic rather than ethnic or religious boundaries. Ensure that the new state is explicitly chartered to serve the needs of all people within its boundaries without regard for religion or ethnicity, and hold that nation accountable for its behavior toward its citizens and its neighbors exactly as we would any other. Defend that nation from aggression on the part of its neighbors, and start a diplomatic blitzkrieg of the entire region recasting the entire situation in new terms. It is not Jew vs. Muslim. It is not Israeli vs. Palestinian. That was NEVER the issue, in fact.

There are various options for names. We could go with Palestine since that is what it was called for nearly 2000 years, before the creation of the new state. That would probably arouse suspicions that we were picking a side though, so other options include: Canaan and Philistia. Or perhaps it would be best to avoid anything with misleading historic associations at all. They could invent something entirely new. Call it: the Land of Hope.

Let's wipe the accumulated grime of projected fantasy from our lenses and realize that all of the conflict of the past 60 years has been caused by mass hallucination. We've been so busy dividing the region up along theological lines that we've utterly ignored the reality, which is that the lines are political and socio-economic, not religious or ethnic. Israel as we know it is not Israel as we imagine it once was.


Jodie said...

Perhaps Samilee, or Galimeria?

This is a difficult issue, since there is no central or unifying authority on Judaism, and Israel is a secular state, but being Jewish is essential to becoming Israeli. And every Jewish young adult between the age of 18 and 26 gets a "birthright" all expenses paid first-time trip to Israel.

Think about that for a second.

So who is, or what is the nation of Israel?

The Jews of Israel are not the only people on the Earth struggling for a homeland. They are not the only victims of genocide. Do the Armenians get to go home? The Guarani? The Gypsies?

Israel is the other side of the coin of the "solution to the Jewish problem". The place we have to get to is where there is no such thing as a Jewish problem that needs solving.

In the circles I walk in this is already true. All of my professional mentors were Jewish and it was an honor to be treated as one with them. But they still remember the days coming back from Hebrew school in New York where the local parish priest would set his boys against the "Christ killers". One of my mentors used to tell me about how he always carried his books under his shirt for protection. He never backed away from a fight, and always fought to win. I took allot of hits as his wing-man in the rough and tumble corporate world. He supported Israel without question but was seriously relieved when his daughter and Israeli tank driving husband moved to the US.

Before the civil rights revolution, before most Americans adopted the values of equal rights to all people, we decided to solve the Jewish problem by providing the Jews a homeland in Palestine. It's a bed we made together, or at least the generation that came before us. And we didn't think the local population would mind.

How's that for imperialistic arrogance? Even now, our neighboring conservative Evangelical supporters of Israel still don't think the locals should mind.

But either way, now Israel is there.

Militaristic and violent surrounded by violent foes. The Jewish problem has become the Israeli problem. And I fear that if it does not learn the "things that make for peace", regardless of its name, the history of Israel will repeat itself.

And the fallout will be everybody's problem (pun intended).

Aric Clark said...

You're right that this is a difficult issue. And the "religiousness" of Israel is thorny indeed. My point in the post I think - is that all of the elements which tie the state of Israel to the theological "people of Israel" are a mistake. I really think the nation needs a new clear secular mandate and structure which avoids that confusion.

Jodie said...

I don't know how much you have discussed Judaism with Jews. One Rabi I met said that Judaism is not really a religion, as many Jews aren't religious at all and have no religious belief.

Yet if a Jew converts to another religion, they forfeit their Jewishness. Jews for Jesus notwithstanding. If a Jew has a religion it is the religion of Judaism.

But with no central authority, there is no central definition or unifying doctrine of Judaism. So you have atheistic Rabbis and mystical Rabbis and ultra orthodox Rabbis. A Rabbi can believe almost anything he wants; if he has a following he can have a synagogue. But he will be challenged in his teachings and tested by his peers and followers. And there are practices that Jews hold in common. An ethic. Judaism as a religion is much more about an ethic of living than a set of beliefs.

Remember, it was the Greeks that taught Christianity that their faith was about right believing rather than right behaving.

So in that context, Israel really is a secular state. The Jews are a people and a culture, but not necessarily a religion. The view that Judaism is a religion is a Christian view of Judaism.

So I agree it is a mistake to associate the theological people of Israel with the state of Israel, but I think it is a mistake we Christians make, not the Jews.

However, if it makes Christians support Israel, its a mistake they don't mind. It's not in Israel's interest to correct the misconception.

As long as the Christians don't try to proselytize.

Chip Michael said...

I can say "I am..." lots of things, but the moment I begin to label myself, I begin to separate myself. After watching the film "Defiance" it was clear that part of the problem was the Jewish desire to be separate. Even the Russian's hated the separate nature of the Jews.

Part of the problem of the current Israel is the labels imposed in trying to keep things separate, to say one set of humans are different than another set of humans. In Jerusalem there are Muslims, Jews and Christians (both Eastern and Western), so it is not a city of one religion and therefore why should it be "managed" by a "religious" state that claim separation. There has NEVER been a war on Antarctica and yet, numerous countries claim joint sovereignty over the continent. Why can't we do the same with Jerusalem???

The "Jews" would never allow it. The Palestinians would never allow it. Both of them want to somehow "own" it and yet, why should they maintain the separation when that is (IMHO) the root of the problem.

Jodie said...

They should probably cordon off Jerusalem permanently and not let anybody live there any more.

Its too hot to touch.

Kinda like the ark of the Covenant was at one time.

Rob said...

Iagree that a lot of the problem is confusion between present-day Israel and the biblical one, a confusion which rhetoricians on both sides of the conflict are happy to foster. I'm not so sure about your characterization of modern Israel as a secular democratic state though. It's a state (and long may it remain so), and one out of three ain't bad. Secular it isn't: as your first commenter points out, it's intimately linked with Jewishness. Consitutionally it's a homeland for the Jewish people rather than a state of all its citizens. Something like 70% (IIRC) of the land is adminstered by the JNC which permits it to be bought only by Jews, with other religions getting the leftovers. That isn't terribly secular. And as I said, the Jewish nature of Israel is written into its constitution, and no political party which aims to put other groups on an equal footing to Jews is permitted to take seats in the Knesset. (Recently they've gone even further, barring most Arab political parties from contesting the coming election at all.) So not wildly democratic either.

I still think, though, that most of Israel's detractors are less worried by the unequal treatment of Israel's Arab population than by they are by the plight of the people of the Occupied Territories. They're not simply disadvantaged by virtue of their religion or a lack of parliamentary representation but by more than forty years of military occupation, and in many cases the outright theft of their land to create settlements for Israelis (invariably for Israeli Jews, indeed). Unless you fix that situation, you can rename Israel as Land of Hope, Mordor, Vulgaria, Oz or The Ning-Nang-Nong and it won't make the slightest difference.

Jodie said...

But Bob,

I think you might still be confusing Jewishness with being religious. Israel is a secular state in the sense that it is not a religious state. It is an atheistic secular Jewish democratic state. It's founders were socialist atheist Jews.

We (American Christians) need to stop projecting >>any<< religious assumptions on to this nation. That we do is just the opposite side of the same coin that condoned accusations of Christ killers on modern day Jews. (I believe it is counter productive in that it actually provokes antisemitism.)

Once we get that straight we will be better able to be objective about how we support Israel. It can't just be an affirmative action project to atone for the guilt of white Western Civilization.