How Israel Can Regain its Lost Moral Capital: A Modest Educational Proposal

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The Moral Deficit

The Israeli government is squandering much of the moral capital the country had at its founding. At the time of its founding most Western European countries and the United States agreed that a state where Jews could be reasonably safe, could defend themselves from aggression and could sustain their traditions as a single people was justified, especially in light of the Holocaust. At that time too there was also a legitimizing myth that Palestine was “a land without a people, just waiting for settlement by a people without a land,” a nice but false slogan serving to motivate the settlement of a harsh environment in a foreign land. This narrative was, of course, convincing for many Jews and for many others in the West. It was not convincing, obviously, to the vast majority of Arabs.

When Palestine was initially divided by the United Nations it was with the understanding that there would be two states, one for Jews and one for Arabs.

After solidifying its hold on the territory and expanding its reach into Arab territory in the sixty-seven and seventy-three wars, Israel continued a policy of occupation and expansion, contradicting its original mandate and making visible an inherent contradiction in the idea of Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic one. On the one hand, a commitment to universal values and equal treatment for all is supposed to be honored. On the other, Jews are supposed to have a privileged position. This tension has become increasingly more visible in light of other world events, such as the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The primary reason for the decline of Israel’s moral legitimacy in the West is its occupation and expansionist policies. According to The Economist, in some polls Israel is now ranked below Russia and only above North Korea, Pakistan and Iran on whether it is a good or bad influence on the world. Among young people its standing has been in steady decline, a decline that will likely increase as the memory of the Holocaust becomes more distant.

Some of this is clearly unfair. Minorities within Israel proper have more legal protection than those of most other states in the region, (although this is a pretty low bar) and outside of ultra orthodox communities, women, at least Jewish women, in Israel have a higher status than in many Western countries, to say nothing of their neighbors. Yet these benefits do not extend to the Palestinians, who are now the most visible and destitute legacies of the West’s post World War Two policies.

What is the Prognosis?

In the United States there is considerable support for Israel, and there are strong connections between the United States military and the Israeli army. This support comes from a number of quarters: Jews, Fundamentalist Christians, anti-Moslem Americans, and older generations in the West who still recall the Holocaust and endorse the sentiment – “never again.” There is also much support among the establishment which views Israel as the first line of defense against “Islamic” terrorism, and perhaps more importantly, along with Saudi Arabia, and until recently, Egypt, as a main source of stability in the oil-rich region.

Jewish Voice for Peace Seattle protest

Activists protest the Siege of Gaza in downtown Seattle. Credit: Creative Commons/Jewish Voice for Peace

This support is more fragile than many realize, and from a long term view the situation does not look promising for Israel. Younger American Jews are increasingly critical of the US government’s support, as is a growing minority within the American Jewish community as a whole. True, the leadership of American Jewish organizations, such as Abraham Foxman, consciously ignores these trends. As Foxman put it after a poll showing a significant disapproval of Israel among Jews: “I don’t sit and poll my constituency,” Foxman said. “Part of Jewish leadership is leadership. We lead.”

However, these “leaders” give a distorted picture of the amount and strength of support among Jews, still significant but in decline. Other groups provide varying degrees of support, much of it unstable. Fundamentalist Christians support Israel as a precursor to the Second Coming but not out of any principled support for Israel itself. Moreover, as the American Muslim population grows, it is likely that American Islamophobia will decrease, along with support for Israel. And, as the United States becomes energy independent the oil interests will have less need for a Jewish state in the Middle East. One of the most ominous signs from an Israeli point of view is the growing disaffection among academics. A recent edition of The American Association of University Professors’ Journal of Academic Freedom was devoted to the issue of an Israeli boycott with most of the main articles supporting a boycott of Israel and its cultural and academic institutions on the grounds that it and its institutions have been complicit in suppressing advocates of Palestinian rights. Whatever one might think of a boycott the publication marks a significant turn in support for Israel within the academic community.

The Long Term Solution

Israel’s long term flourishing will depend on a number of factors. The first of these is clarification of the rationale for a Jewish state and a response to the question of whether it can be both a democratic and a Jewish state. This involves a rejection of the mythology that the state of Israel is a fulfillment of God’s will. Israel’s special moral character in the eyes of the world has little to do with Biblical prophecy and much to do with the special situation of Jews after the Holocaust.

Given an accurate justification Israel can exist as a state that has the Holocaust and the liberation from the killing camps as its special foundational narrative, just as the United States celebrates the liberation from British colonial rule as its foundational narrative. By rejecting the Biblical narrative, Israel must accept the right of Palestinians to a state along the lines of the United Nations division, and of Palestinians within Israel of truly equal citizenship. Jerusalem would become an international city serving as the capital of two separate countries. Jewish settlers in the West Bank would be given the choice to live under a Palestinian government perhaps with special minority rights, or to return to Israel proper and Palestinians, now living in Israel, would be given a similar choice. Land adjustment would be made so that Palestinian areas would be as contiguous as possible, given security needs of both sides. To recognize the Holocaust as the foundational event for the state of Israel would also limit the “right of return” that all Jews throughout the world presently have, and would acknowledge that this policy is a factor in the discrimination against Palestinians. And it would require that all Israeli schools that are supported by state funds exorcise references to Biblical justifications – except as they are used to describe and identify the views of particular groups, or to provide an anthropological (not historical) context. Jewish as well as Palestinian schools would also be required to treat the Holocaust and the Catastrophe together both as tragic consequences of European conquest.

A number of organizations have debated and some have accepted a boycott of Israel because of the Israeli governments’ attempt to limit contact with West bank institutions. The argument for doing so is that Israel is a colonial, oppressive regime and will only yield to pressure. Those who argue in this way point to the influence of boycotts and divestment in ending apartheid in South Africa.

BDS demonstration

Credit: Creative Commons/Wikipedia

Many, Jews and non-Jews alike, have a problem with this argument and some feel that it hides an anti-Semitic agenda. However one might feel about the boycott, in itself it is not anti-Semitic. Boycotts are commonly used to aid resistance movements. While a boycott of Israel would obviously gain the support of anti-Semites, many others who support a boycott do so for more legitimate reasons. For example, the EU encourages its members to boycott Israeli firms based in the settlements, largely on the grounds that such firms encourage illegal construction in an occupied land. Some argue that such boycotts hurts Palestinian workers, but the Palestinian Authority, while rejecting a boycott of Israel proper, supports the boycott of Israeli controlled settlement enterprises. One need not deny the claim that Israeli firms in the occupied territory help Palestinian workers while recognizing the injustice of setting up an enterprise without permission of the legitimate owners of the land.

However, calls for a larger boycott of Israel proper on the grounds that it is a colonizing power, and that even within Israel, Palestinians suffer a second class status are at present less convincing and have not yet secured significant support. This is not because the facts are disputed – Palestinian Israelis are more susceptible to significant official and non-official discrimination. The justification for the larger boycott is weakened because Israel is the least bad of all the troubled countries in its neighborhood. Sexism, anti-Jewishness, and dictatorship are incorporated into the policies of many of Israel’s neighbors. To single Israel out for boycott occludes any anti-Israeli policy based on moral grounds, although Israel’s aspiration to democracy, ironically, makes it susceptible to the disapproval a boycott represents. Regardless of the moral nuances, there is a good chance that the support for a boycott will continue to grow and that international economic support for Israel will weaken.

The Foundational Narrative and Immigration and Education Policy

As a Jewish state that occupies and discriminates against Palestinians, Israel’s claim to be a democracy is problematic. The fact that some Palestinians would recognize Israel as a legitimate state, but reject its claim to being a Jewish state could be seen in this light. American Jews who find this rejection unacceptable should rethink the issue in light of the Likud Charter that rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West bank, a much more blanket rejection. American Jews should also re-think it in light of their likely negative response to any serious attempt to define America as a Christian nation. Granted there are some Palestinians who would like to rid the area of all Jews, just as there are some Jews – more powerful – who want to push all Palestinians out of “Judea and Samaria.” To reject the idea that Israel is an official Jewish state is not the same as rejecting its special role in recent Jewish history, but it will require some adjustments.

On a pragmatic level I suspect that the refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state by some Palestinians has something to do with a (justifiable) rejection of automatic Israeli citizenship for Jews from any part of the world and to the differential rights for Jewish and Palestinian Israelis– not to mention the settlements. For example under a more restrictive foundational narrative secure American Jews would no longer have an automatic right to Israeli citizenship, a right that as of now trumps that of a Palestinian whose family was forced to leave the area.

Nevertheless the fact of the Holocaust, and the power of its narrative, should provide legitimacy to Israel’s status as a state that has a special connection to the Jewish people with a right to maintain its Jewish character – a right that can serve to guide immigration and education policy. This means that there is a special obligation to distressed Jews but certainly not to all Jews. Granting priority to distressed Jews and not just to distressed people is, admittedly, a less than perfect solution, but it is one that recognizes the severe anti-Jewish nature of many of the regimes in the neighborhood, and the special reason for Israel’s establishment.

There is in all of this a compelling educational task. Publicly supported schools must all recognize the Holocaust as the sole reason for the foundation and the subsequent recognition of the state of Israel. This is not only accurate it is also consistent with the secular character of the majority of Israel’s population.

The Biblical narrative may be of literary or anthropological interest. It may even be presented as a story that some groups do accept, or that marks off some Jews from others. Indeed some orthodox schools may allow belief in the Biblical narrative is an important part of their identity as orthodox Jews, but not as Israelis’. The other educational implication is that the Holocaust, while singularly unique, does have universal elements and that when elements of the Holocaust are universalized Israeli schools will need to attend to the Palestinian story of its “Catastrophe”. These are of course not easy educational tasks, but if a long-term solution is to be found then both narratives will need to be taught to both Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians if they are both to be equal citizens of one nation – the singular requirement of a democracy.

Walter Feinberg is The C. D. Hardy Professor Emeritus at The University of Illinois. In 2014 he was granted the Lifetime Achievement Award by the John Dewey Society. He is the author of Common Schools/Uncommon Identities: National Unity and Cultural Difference, Yale University Press and co-editor of Citizenship and Education in Liberal Democratic Societies, Oxford University Press. His most recent book, (with Richard Layton) is For the Civic Good: The Liberal Case for Teaching Religion in the Public Schools.