August 01, 2003

Supporting Israel

Last week while having a fine cigar on a patio with my friend Martin, the topic of why I support Israel came up. I gave him two quick reasons before we moved on to the next topic: democracy and great big brass balls. Israel is the sole democratic state in a sea of totalitarianism in the Middle East. That's a good enough reason to support them, but I also admire their courage and steadfastness in the face of what would seem to be an overwhelming set of foes.

Since we moved on quickly, there were a few more reasons I wanted to get out as well. Here are three more reasons I support Israel and a two reasons I've heard offered that do not apply -- at least to me.

More pros:

Their enemies are my enemies! This is merely a variant of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

What the Israelis have done with the land, compared to the state of the land after hundreds of years of Crusader and Bedouin stewardship, is amazing. This may be unfair to the Palestinians of today, but I don't think so. To my thinking, their success in transforming the desert is analogous to what the immigrant Europeans have done exploiting the land in the US compared to the Native Americans' predominantly passive use of the land as hunter-gatherers. Yes, I know agriculture was practiced before Columbus arrived, but that's not really my point. A land that supported perhaps 2 million people in 1492 now supports 280 million people, and could probably support twice that number despite what Paul Erlich might think. Also, the word "exploitation" does not deserve the negative connotation it carries today. Neither does the word "discrimination" unless used in certain contexts. Believers in equality of outcome regard any form of discrimination as anathema, especially discrimination in favor of "the good". But I digress.

Americans always root for the underdog. And despite Israel's success in battle against its Arab neighbors, they are still quite the underdog. This is similar to the brass balls reason offered earlier, but it's not quite the same thing.

And a couple more reasons I've heard offered for supporting Israel to which I do not subscribe:

While Jews would seem to have one of the best, if not the best, historical claims for the land that makes up Israel today, this is probably the worst rationale that can be offered, IMHO. It is true that considered in these terms, the umma came along more than a millenium after Moses' well documented "deed" for the land, so the "right of return" seems a hell of a lot more appropriate to the Jews of the diaspora than for the Palestinians today. But since I am neither a Jew nor a Christian I do not believe that Israel was offered to the Jews in captivity by God as the "promised land", though, no doubt, many others do. But even if we accepted this rationale, we would still have to keep an open mind that this claim could one day be supplanted by an earlier one not yet discovered, so it must remain tenuous at best. An even better reason why I don't accept this argument is that every arable acre of land on earth, and quite a few non-arable ones as well, has changed hands so many times in the past 2,000 years (much less the past 100,000 years), that it is folly to think of anyone owning a historical deed to any land based on anything other than realpolitik and through property rights protected by a government currently in place for that land. After all, possession is nine-tenths of the law or something like that. Just for fun, to whom exactly would the county of Kent in Southeast England belong if we were to try and give it back today to it's "rightful" owners based upon some ancient racially motivated idea of "they" had it first? This really requires a much longer discussion, but I lack the time to go into it now.

Finally, conscious or unconscious guilt for the holocaust? Nah. I wasn't alive then, so I don't feel any more responsible for the holocaust than I do for slavery before 1863, or any of the other great crimes visited upon some men by other men throughout history. Of course, I remember and I would willingly fight and give up public treasures to prevent it from happening again, but that's not the same thing as being responsible for something that it was literally impossible for me to have been engaged in, for better or worse.

This is a bit of a quick thought piece, and I'm sure I may have gotten something incorrect due to a lack of information, but there is certainly no intent to offend anyone through my ignorance of Judaism, Islam, or perhaps an incomplete understanding of the region's history. Your comments and thoughts are especially welcome to this post.

Posted by Charles Austin at August 1, 2003 10:01 PM

Israel which is my home was under Ottoman stewardship from 1517 to 1918. Hardly Bedouin. They did a poor job.
Most Arabs I speak too, even the left leaning peaceniks I meet regularly speak passionately about the the perceived injustice done to the Arabs for what they see as Christian crimes during the holocaust. 'Why should we pay for German atricities?'. I see their point but have no answer.
Your point about Kent is a good one. Us Anglo-Saxons-Celts-Romans-French get along just fine now. What the Israelis and the Palestinians need now is a common enemy. Unlikely to happen though.

Posted by: ExpatEgghead at 03:33 AM

It just occurred to me that the ancient claims of each side in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute are nonsense; what matters is who had the last legitimate authority. If the Arabs dispute the right of the British to divide up the Turkish Empire and give tiny portions to the Jews and the Marionite Christians-- and they do-- then they also dispute the right of the British to give the Arabs 98 percent of the lands. Therefore, all the governments in the Middle East are illegitimate, because they were part of that division. Each needs to be overturned, and all the ex-Turkish lands could be up for grabs. And who has the best army in the area?

If you spout nonsense it can come back to bite you.

Posted by: Lou Wheeler at 01:49 AM

The Biblical claim shouldn't be used because it's sectarian and ultimately unprovable. Anyone can claim God told them whatever. But when considered from historical, anthropological, and archeological evidence - documents, artifacts, cultural works, persistence of an ethnic identity with its attendant language, mythology, music, symbols, etc. - the Jews have more of a claim than any other group that's still around.

Just because something is in the Bible doesn't mean it's true, but it also doesn't mean it's not true. Schleimann found a real city of Troy, even though it was described in Greek mythology. For example, there are inscriptions that accord with the Tanakh going back to about 900 BCE. Before that we only have stories but no inscriptions or other artifacts. The sack of the two temple was described in detail by their conquerors (Nebuchadnetzar of Babylonia and the Roman Empire).

The last independent state on the same land before modern Israel was the Jewish state of Judah, where people spoke Aramaic and Hebrew and lived and worshipped as described in the Tanakh and Mishnah. These Jews were well-known and written about by contemporary Greeks and Romans.

After the state was destroyed Jews continued to live in the Galillee area till about 1000 CE, and continued to try to return to Israel (especially Jerusalem) despite the hazards of travel at that time, being banned from entry by both Muslims and Christians, and being periodically slaughtered while living there. Jerusalem has had a majority Jewish population for over 150 years. Many towns in Judea and Samaria - which are towns mentioned in the Bible - had majority Jewish population until massacred or forced out by Arabs or the British, such as Hebron and Shechem.

Communities in Israel redacted the Mishnah and Talmud between 400-600 after Christ. In other words, the transition from Temple-oriented to rabbinic Judaism *was made in post-Roman Israel.* Communities in Israel during the middle ages created Kabbalist mysticism and the Zohar, and large chunks of liturgy still used today by all Jewish communities around the world. So long after Judah ceased to exist and most Jews had been forced off the land, Israel continued to provide international leadership for Jews.

Jewish holidays, many of them agricultural festivals (which are part of the warp and woof of Jewish culture - you can't split them off and dismiss them as "religious" - that's not how Jewish culture works), have been observed according to the Israeli climate by Jews all over the world. For example, Tu B'shvat, the New Year of the Trees, is always in early February - even in Latvia - because that's when trees begin to bud in Israel. Toasts and blessings at life-cycle events always mention Jerusalem.

There is no other people with this history of attachment to this particular land. None of this has to be justified by claims from God - this is just tangible fact. No one denies that Irish have an attachment to the lush green hills and craggy coast and lilting music and language, no one denies the Tibetans have an attachment to their mountains and food and language, or the Chinese, or the Navajo, even when they live elsewhere.

But people have a hard time understanding the Jewish attachment because so many of us have been in diaspora for so long. They can't believe we would remember and preserve our connection to our ancestral homeland for 2000 years, but we do. And we do in spite of centuries of different groups massacring us for returning. The biggest canard of the current propaganda about Israel is that "the Jews left 2000 years ago and now they want to come back." We kept coming back and coming back and coming back. To whatever extent our claim has been broken, it certainly isn't our doing. But you would have to have a familiarity with Jewish culture to find that out.

Now. The people who started calling themselves "Palestinian" (the Roman name for the land they conquered) about 50 years ago (before the war of independence "Palestinian" always referred to Jews) also have a claim. It's a justifiable claim in its own right, similar to the claim of white settlers in North America: most of them aren't indigenous, but they've been there for a number of generations, they have their own attachment to the land, and they want to rule themselves. Now we get into the current political issues which have to be resolved (and which include the "Palestinian" denial of the Jewish historical claim, which is politically understandable, but unfortunately one more lie that many Westerners believe).

I wish people wouldn't make the Biblical claim, because it's not going to convince anyone who doesn't subscribe to your version of God, and if you don't know the facts, it's easy to dismiss any historical claim as false because it's "Biblical." But the Jewish claim has to be understood as a real, continuous, historical fact.

Good sites for Jewish history in "Palestine":

Posted by: Yehudit at 12:14 AM

Yehudit, thanks for one of the most thoughtful comments I've received on any post. Your rationale for avoiding the biblical claim is certainly better than mine, though I believe we must still acknowledge that there may well have been someone living in this area before the tribe(s) of Israel (not sure if plural is correct here or not). I'm certainly not disputing the historical legacy, but I'm not at all sure how it can be construed to constitute a "racial" claim to the land. There can be little doubt that Manhattan was occupied by aboriginal Americans for many, many years before the Dutch arrived, and yet I cannot fathom how we would justify handing it back to the "racial" descendants of these aboriginal Americans if we could find them.

I had some additional items I wanted to send you, but I lack an e-mail address and couldn't find one at your site.

Posted by: charles austin at 08:24 PM