When “Equality” is not Everything

Avraham Burg (b. 1955) today is best described as a post-Zionist, or even an extreme anti-Zionist. But he was not always thus. The son of long-time religious Zionist politician Yosef Burg, he served as an officer in the IDF, became Speaker of the Knesset on behalf of the Labor Party, was Chairman of the Jewish Agency, and even served as interim President of the State of Israel for ten days. Always left-leaning, he became more and more extreme, and in 2015 renounced Zionism and joined Hadash, the Israeli communist party. More recently, he responded to the passage of Israel’s Nation State Law by announcing his resignation from the Jewish people.

Burg’s psychological story may or may not be interesting, but he is not lacking in intelligence, and so I feel obliged to consider his arguments carefully. They appear in this interview, by Ravit Hecht in Ha’aretz.

Burg’s objections to the [Nation-State] law itself begin with its very first article, which defines the Land of Israel as the historical homeland of the Jewish people. “The patriarch Abraham discovered God outside the boundaries of the Land of Israel, the tribes became a people outside the Land of Israel, the Torah was given outside the Land of Israel, and the Babylonian Talmud, which is more important than the Jerusalem Talmud, was written outside the Land of Israel,” he asserts. “The past 2,000 years, which shaped the Judaism of this generation, happened outside Israel. The present Jewish people was not born in Israel.”

He is correct in detail, but he ignores the content of the Torah itself, which – whether or not one is an observant Jew – must be seen as the “charter” of the Jewish people. The narrative of the Torah, which describes the entry of the people into the land of Israel and the conditions under which they earn (or lose) the right to stay there, is nothing if not an assertion of the connection of the people to the land. And the 2000 years of diaspora was characterized by the combination of Jewish alienation from alien surroundings with a yearning to return. Religious Jews prayed every day for the rebuilding of a Jewish Jerusalem.

Unsaid but implied is that the Palestinian Arabs are the true owners of the land. But their historical connection to it is much shorter than that of the Jews, since almost all of the population is descended from migrants who arrived in it no earlier than 1830; the majority only goes back to the early 20th century. Most did not even identify as “Palestinians” until the 1960s. The Palestinians are aware that their claim to being long-time “natives” that were dispossessed by colonialist European Jews who had no connection to the land is tenuous. That’s why they go to such lengths to try to destroy evidence of ancient Jewish habitation here, and why they make fanciful claims of descent from Canaanites or Philistines.

Burg is committed to the idea that the most important (and the most Jewish) of political principles is that of equality. The simplest way to understand it is that the rights and obligations of a citizen are invariant over ethnicity, religion, race, sex, and numerous other characteristics, the number of which has been increasing recently in Western societies. There is no doubt that any definition of a Jewish state must violate the principle.

In a recent article, Burg argues that the demand for equality invalidates the concept of a Jewish state, which the Nation-State Law explicates:

Every supporter of [Israel’s political] parties is prepared to swear that their issue is the most important in the world: Gender, ethnic background, orientation and religious beliefs – everyone seeks equality for themselves and are committed to preferential treatment for their community and its interests. Just theirs. They aren’t capable of rising above, of uniting and running together in this election for the greatest idea of all: a state of all its citizens, committed to true and meaningful equality for all Israelis. The real, profound election campaign is one that is pitting the secular perception of the civilian State of Israel against the zealots of Jewish supremacy, who are prepared to sanctify discrimination, distinction and exclusion to preserve this tribal power.

Burg is wrong about “Jewish supremacy,” which is not essential to the idea of a Jewish state. One is not required to believe that Jews are superior to anyone else in order to understand the need for a state that – admittedly – must practice some form of “discrimination, distinction and exclusion” in order to guarantee the continued existence of the Jewish people.

There are numerous “states of all of their citizens” in the world, mostly Western democracies, although there are none in the Middle East. The USA is a an example of one that was founded on the very principle of being such a state, although it took some years and a civil war for full citizenship to be granted to former slaves, and even longer for female citizens to obtain full rights. But Israel is different, and the reason is that Israel was founded according to the principles of Zionism, and not on the Enlightenment concept of the Rights of Man.

The Jews of the West expected that the principles of the Enlightenment would apply to them. It seemed at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, that they might. But as time passed it became clear that the promise of equality would not be extended to the Jewish people. Herzl and other Zionists realized that the only way to ensure that Jews would be able to live normal lives without needing to choose between persecution or assimilation would be in a state in which Jews were the sovereign power. And for Jews outside of the West, in the empires of Eastern Christianity and Islam, there was not even the glimmer of the Enlightenment.

The fundamental idea of Zionism is that there must be at least one state in the world that is not a state of its citizens, but which is defined as the state of the Jewish people. This is why there is a Law of Return for Jews to Israel, and not one for descendants of Palestinian refugees. This is why the state’s holidays, and calendar are Jewish, and why the Hebrew language has a special status. Although the state can and does have a commitment to providing equal political rights to all of its citizens, it does not pretend to treat them all equally in every respect. One way to express this is to say, as the Nation-State Law does, that “the exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.”

This means that non-Jewish citizens of Israel must compromise. Like Jews throughout diasporic history – although with more rights and privileges – they must come to terms with living as an ethnic minority in someone else’s nation. In return, they have the advantages that come with living in a stable, prosperous, and democratic country in the midst of failed states and vicious dictatorships.

Most Arab citizens of Israel understand this, even if Avraham Burg doesn’t.

One final word: yes, I know we have just had an election. It looks like there will be some form of coalition led by Bibi. But the results aren’t clear as I write this, and small movements one way or another could result in a big change. Tune in next week for more. Meanwhile, have a happy and kosher Pesach.

Posted in The Jewish people, Zionism | 1 Comment

Under Biden, Old Mistakes Become New Again

After the Trump Administration presented the first reality-based proposal to end the Israeli-Arab conflict since 1967’s UN Security Council resolution 242, I thought I would never have to write an article like this one again. But thanks to the Biden Administration’s phalanx of pro-Palestinian officials, many of whom are Obama retreads, and its determination to reverse every one of Trump’s initiatives, here I am.

Last week a memo describing the administration’s position by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli-Palestinian affairs Hady Amr was leaked to The National, an English language newspaper published in  Abu Dhabi. Suddenly it’s 2009 again, when Barak Obama made his conciliatory speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt.

The memo calls for a two-state solution “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps and agreements on security and refugees.” One wonders if they’ve learned nothing in all this time.

Obama’s people always said their ideas weren’t new, that they represented a continuation of traditional American policy toward the conflict. I’m sure Biden’s team will say the same. But this is incorrect, and it’s worth looking at a few historical facts before taking up the Biden Administration’s policy.

In 1949 Israel signed armistice agreements with Egypt and Jordan. In both cases, the Arabs made it clear that they did not recognize the state of Israel within any boundaries, and that the cease-fire lines were not borders; indeed, they had no political significance. Both agreements contain language like this (from the agreement with Egypt):

It is emphasised that it is not the purpose of this Agreement to establish, to recognise, to strengthen, or to weaken or nullify, in any way, any territorial, custodial or other rights, claims or interests which may be asserted by either Party in the area of Palestine or any part or locality thereof covered by this Agreement…

Fast forward to 1967. After the war, the UN Security Council passed resolution 242, which included this well-known text:

Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;

Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force;

As a Chapter VI resolution, it was nonbinding; but it was accepted by both sides (due to a bit of deliberate ambiguity: it did not specify how much of the territories “occupied” had to be returned). Nevertheless, it was made clear by the British Ambassador to the UN, Lord Caradon, whose draft became the official version, that it did not require an Israeli withdrawal to the armistice lines. Indeed, even the Soviets admitted that this was the case. And the American UN Ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, explained as well that the US position was in accordance with the armistice agreements: the cease-fire lines were not the “secure and recognized boundaries” envisioned in the resolution.

If anything was “traditional American policy” it was the ideas expressed by 242: there would be negotiations between the parties, and the results of those negotiations would determine the borders, as well as obtaining normalization of relations between the State of Israel and its (one hoped) former foes. Peace treaties were indeed signed with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. Although these treaties established borders between the countries, they did not deal with the armistice lines between pre-1967 Israel and the Gaza strip and Judea/Samaria.

In 1988, after the First Intifada, King Hussein of Jordan recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians and relinquished his claim to Judea/Samaria. From that point on, Jordan was out of the picture. American policy remained the same except that any negotiations over the future of these territories would have to be between Israel and the Palestinians. The Oslo Accords followed in 1994, and again the establishment of borders was considered a “final status issue,” to be settled later by direct negotiations between the parties.

In 2000, Bill Clinton unsuccessfully tried to mediate a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. A few months after the failure of the Camp David Summit, Clinton made a further proposal that included land swaps in which areas beyond the armistice lines that would be kept by Israel were balanced by a transfer of land from pre-1967 Israel to the Palestinians. This proposal was not accepted by the PLO.

This seems to be the first introduction of the pernicious idea of land swaps into American policy. Why pernicious? Because underlying it is the assumption that land beyond the armistice lines belonged to the Palestinians, and so they had to be compensated for any of it that Israel received. Keeping in mind the illegitimacy of the Jordanian invasion and occupation of Judea and Samaria, as well as the armistice agreements and resolution 242, the presumption that the Palestinians have prima facie ownership of the territories is a big step away from the even-handed 242 and toward a pro-Palestinian policy.

Of course, for Clinton this was a last-ditch proposal, and the understanding is that proposals are just that, and if there is no final deal then they disappear. Still, the Palestinians always try to insist that future negotiations must start at the high point of previously proposed concessions. Ehud Olmert renewed and expanded the swap idea in 2007-8. But this too was rejected (or simply ignored) by the Palestinians. Various initiatives by the Obama Administration also included the swap idea. No agreement could be reached then either, but swaps have now come to be considered essential to any peace agreement.

What seems to have happened over the years is the reification of the armistice lines. Instead of trying to find a solution that provided “secure and recognized boundaries,” the process now tries to find a way to give the Palestinians all the land they “deserve.” Of course this is impossible because of the physical geography of the region, which would make a pre-1967-size Israel indefensible. So then there needs to be discussion of “security arrangements” to protect Israel against the terrorism that would doubtless flow from a Palestinian state, in addition to the danger of invasion through the Jordan Valley. Fanciful ideas like foreign peacekeepers (something which did not work in Egypt in 1967 or in Lebanon since 2006), or complicated technological Maginot lines are contemplated, in order to obscure the fact that only Israeli military control of strategic territory can protect the state.

The Amr memo also references refugees. The “return” of the millions of descendants of Arab refugees from 1948 is another subject that has been shifted in the direction of Palestinian demands over the years. These descendants are not “refugees” according to international law; only the Palestinians and UNRWA, the UN agency that feeds, clothes, and educates them to believe that they will someday “return” to “their homes” that they have never seen, insist that they are. Even if they were refugees, there is no right of return in international law – just ask the millions of ethnic Germans that were kicked out of Central and Eastern European countries after WWII.

The Biden Administration seems intent on reopening these cans of worms that could have been disposed of if Trump’s “deal of the century” had been implemented. The deal represented a return to the philosophy of UNSC 242 and an end to the coddling of the PLO, which has never renounced terrorism, changed its charter, or seriously intended to be satisfied with a peaceful state alongside Israel, despite their insistence to the contrary. The plan could have broken the logjam that has prevented progress toward ending the conflict. Despite warnings to the contrary, the sky didn’t fall when the US finally recognized Israel’s true capital, or its sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the new policy helped bring about the normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab states.

Now, judging from the memo, the US will go back to funding the PLO – which refuses to stop paying terrorist’s salaries – and UNRWA. It will reopen the PLO embassy in Washington, and the “American Embassy to Palestine” (the US consulate in eastern Jerusalem). It even recommends going back to the policy of requiring that products from Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria not be labeled “made in Israel.”

In short, if the administration carries out these policies, Israel will be faced with the dilemma of choosing between dangerously compromising its security and its sovereignty, or damaging its relationship with an increasingly pro-Palestinian US administration.

Add to this Biden’s Iran policy and you have a recipe for real trouble.

Posted in 'Peace' Process, Israel and Palestinian Arabs, Middle East politics | 1 Comment

Why You Should Make Aliyah

Even before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem there were colonies of Jews living outside of Eretz Yisrael. It’s true that they were unable to fulfil the mitzvot that were incumbent upon them, because they couldn’t participate in the three festivals that require a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and they couldn’t offer sacrifices for other purposes. But still many of those who for various reasons found themselves more or less permanently living somewhere else still identified with their homeland and still observed other mitzvot, like circumcision and some form of kashrut. At least for a few generations and in many cases until today, they felt themselves part of the Jewish people.

After the loss of the Temple, rabbinic Judaism codified a way to be fully Jewish wherever you were physically located. Different customs arose in different places, but Jews usually stayed Jews. They knew where they were from and how they were set aside from non-Jews. Of course there was attrition. Some Jews became Christians, and after the advent of Islam much later, some converted to that faith. Others faded into pagan cultures. But – really quite remarkably, I think – the Jewish people persisted as a people. Indeed, I believe that the history of the Jewish people serves as a paradigm for other groups that see themselves as a people, with our unique language and religion, and our common memory of our origins, as we express it in our observation of Pesach.

Starting around the period of the Enlightenment, the late 18th century, the phenomenon of secular Jews appeared, people that still identified as Jews but did not practice Judaism. Some of them were mechanistic rationalists whose cosmology didn’t leave room for a supreme being, and some were reformers who created a new religion based on Judaism, but with enough essential variations to make it conceptually distinct. Some of these Jews assimilated into local cultures, but some maintained their connection to the Jewish people despite their disconnection from Judaism.

Until the period leading up to the founding of the state of Israel, the option of living in Eretz Yisrael was sometimes a possibility and sometimes not, but it was always extremely difficult from a practical point of view. That is no longer the case. Jews can live in Eretz Yisrael if they want to, without starving, getting malaria, or being interned by the British. Any migration is somewhat uncomfortable, but the discomfort today is negligible compared to what it was 100 or even 70 years ago.

I want to argue that for both observant and secular Jews, it is advantageous to live in Eretz Yisrael, both from the point of view of the individual Jew and that of the Jewish people as a whole.

Observant Jews in the diaspora can meet their religious needs if they are prepared to live in very circumscribed locations in a few cities where they can find kosher food, a mikva, and at least a small Jewish community. Even so, several European countries have banned or are considering banning kosher slaughter and circumcision. Antisemitic harassment is growing in Europe along with its Muslim population. In the US, historical (as well as newly-created) Jew hatred among blacks is expressing itself more and more frequently in the large cities where large numbers of Jews live. Identifiably Jewish (i.e., observant) Jews are targeted. In addition, observant Jews are faced with astronomical costs to send their children to Jewish schools.

Even secular Jews face difficulties from antisemitism. Universities everywhere are less comfortable for Jews, where both pro-Palestinian Muslim students and leftists try to push them out of student organizations and generally harass them, and not only if they are outspokenly pro-Israel. In the US in particular, Jews are caught between white supremacist crazies and an anti-Jewish black/left/Muslim alliance (Jewish leadership seems to recognize the danger from the former while ignoring the latter). The Jewish connection of the secular or liberally religious majority becomes more attenuated day by day. What’s left is a few Yiddish expressions and jokes about gefilte fish. The consequences of this include large-scale assimilation, a decline in the number of diaspora Jews, and a growing political divide between Jews in Israel and the diaspora.

Life in the diaspora for Jews will not get better. The deterioration is proceeding differently in North America, Europe, the UK, and in other places, but it will only get worse.

By contrast, in Israel a new, specifically Israeli form of Jewish culture is developing from the interaction of Jews from all parts of the world and all Jewish traditions. There is no other place in the world that this can happen. Because of this, Israel is the guarantor of the spiritual continuity of the Jewish people as well as their physical protector. Jewish education is paid for by the state, and even in the secular schools, there is significant Jewish content. For those who want to develop and expand their Jewish identity, either religiously or culturally, there is no comparison between the diaspora and the Jewish state.

While diaspora Jews played a very important role in supporting the state before and shortly after its creation, they have become progressively less important as the state has grown more powerful and prosperous. As diaspora communities decline, their influence declines as well. And as the political gap between diaspora and Israeli Jews grows, the independence of the state from external support becomes more important. Jews that want to support the Jewish state can do so more effectively by contributing to the Israeli society and economy than by advocating from outside.

The state has been in existence since 1948 and many of its inhabitants have a hard time imagining what it would be like if there were no Jewish state. Someone who has experienced the insecurity and lack of belonging that a Jew experiences in the diaspora brings an appreciation for it that may be lacking in someone that has had it all their life. This is another kind of contribution that an immigrant can make.

Many Jewish people are comfortable in the diaspora. Change is hard. But ask yourself this: what will it be like in five or ten years? What will it be like for my children? Will I still feel at home here? Will I be sorry?

Posted in Israeli Society, The Diaspora, The Jewish people, Zionism | 1 Comment

Setting National Goals

The burning issues in Israel’s election (coming in 10 days) seem to be about personalities and short-term issues like how to reopen the economy as we recover (at least, we hope we are recovering) from the Corona epidemic. Of course the yes-Bibi vs. no-Bibi question is very big. There is a huge amount of noise in the media about the technicalities of our malfunctioning electoral system, and about the criminal charges against Netanyahu.

What we don’t hear much about are national goals and how to set priorities to reach them. Yes, we are a nation with long-term goals, or we should be. Unfortunately we appear to be bitterly divided on what those goals are, or should be. If you listen to the very vociferous Israeli Left, which is supported by well-heeled foreign sources in Europe and the USA, you will hear that the problem is that we don’t have enough democracy, which means that they should rule instead of Bibi and his religious partners. You will hear that “occupation” is the root of evil, and “settlers” are its demons; and that Bibi is a massively corrupt demagogue and a fascist.

But in fact this is the position of a small minority of Israelis. It’s a minority that includes much of the media and almost all of the academic and cultural establishments, so it has an outsized voice, especially outside of the country. Most Israelis do not agree. They remember that the economy was far worse when it was more socialist; that the Left-sponsored (and European and American-supported) concessions to the Palestinian Arabs in the name of “peace” ended with blood running in our streets.

If you divide the parties that are running in the coming election on the basis of ideology rather than whether they would or would not join Bibi in a coalition, you find that there is a large majority that shares a consensus that is on the right or in the center in terms of economic and security policy. And the Israelis that support these parties agree on many important issues. These point to a set of shared goals, which in my opinion need to be clearly articulated by the parties that want to form a government. Only after its clear where we want to go as a nation can we begin to talk about strategies to get there.

There are some parties that are outside the consensus. The Haredi parties do not see themselves as part of the State of Israel. Some of their factions are explicitly anti-Zionist and others view the state as no different than that of the Tsar. Their objectives are to utilize it to provide funds for their educational systems and to make it possible for their supporters to insulate themselves from modern society, with all of its temptations, while still receiving the economic benefits of modernity.

Unfortunately the growing size of the Haredi population makes it impossible for the state to sustain their “all take and no give” lifestyle. It is essential for the future of the state that Haredim give back to the society in the areas of national service and the workforce (which requires that they learn secular subjects in addition to their religious studies). In order for this to occur, the Haredi parties must no longer be allowed to hold the balance of power in government coalitions. We often hear “but not all Haredim…” and this is true. But their political representatives fight for the unacceptable status quo.

The Arab parties are also, shall I say, “not helpful.” Many of their MKs are explicitly Palestinian nationalists or Islamists, and without exception they are anti-Zionist. It’s thought that they are significantly more militant than the general population of Arab citizens, many of whom accept the idea of living as a non-Jewish minority in a Jewish state. That’s not to say that they are entirely without grievances – for example, recently Arabs have been angry about a crime wave in their communities that they feel is not taken seriously by the police – but they are pragmatic and more interested in economic issues than nationalism. Maybe someday they’ll elect representatives who also feel this way.

Leaving out the extreme Left and the Haredi and Arab parties, I believe most Israelis more or less agree that our important goals are prioritized as follows:

  1. Security. Of course it must be first priority, because without security there can be nothing else. “In every generation they rise up to destroy us,” and in this generation our main enemies are Iran and its proxies. Neutralizing our enemies has to be priority 1, whatever it takes.
  2. The State of the Jewish People. I put this one second only to security because it is the essence of Zionism, and without a Jewish state there will not long be a Jewish people. There are those who think that the idea of an ethnic nation-state is old fashioned or even racist, but the situation of the Jewish people is different from that of others. The truth of Zionism has been validated by history, which shows that the only way that Jews can protect themselves from antisemitism is by living in a Jewish state. We can and must be fair to our non-Jewish minorities, but we mustn’t fool ourselves into thinking that a “state of its citizens,” even with a Jewish majority, is the same thing.
  3. The Land of Israel. We are ambivalent regarding the territories. Are they part of Israel or not? Although it may turn out that we will agree to establish autonomous Arab areas in parts of Judea and Samaria, the situation today in which they are governed by a complex, overlapping system of laws, some of which go back to Ottoman times, is absurd. We should annex Area C, put an end to European intervention in this area, and move forward with settling Jews in it.
  4. Capitalism. Private property and ownership of the means of production is a better economic system than a planned socialist or communist economy. Capitalism provides more growth, faster response to external conditions, more meritocratic opportunity, and is more likely to be consistent with individual freedom. Of course there are some functions that are better performed by governmental or quasi-governmental bodies, like health care, education, and policing; there need to be rules that protect the public against the excesses of private capital (e.g., monopolies); and there need to be safety nets (see below) for those who for some reason can’t compete in the private marketplace. But again, history – including the history of Israel – shows that capitalism works, and governments should do what they can to reduce friction in the market.
  5. Justice. Nothing is more important to ensure the cooperation of citizens and their respect for the law than the belief that they can obtain justice from the system fairly and efficiently. And Israel’s criminal and civil justice systems, including the police, the courts (up to and including the Supreme Court), as well as the tax authorities, do not inspire this kind of confidence. Improving these systems ought to be a major national goal.
  6. Safety nets. I mentioned this before, but it is important enough to have its own item. There are people who are limited by physical or mental disabilities who cannot provide for themselves. Sometimes it’s possible to rehabilitate them, and sometimes they must be supported by the society as a whole. Israel does a better job at this than some other countries (like the USA), but there are areas in which support is insufficient or people fall through the cracks.
  7. The electoral system. I’m putting this in because of my frustration with our recent inability to obtain a stable government. It seems to me that some serious effort needs to be expended on the way we select our Knesset representatives and government ministers in order to make it possible to democratically choose them without elections every few months.
  8. Family law. Marriage and divorce are in the hands of the religious authorities, something that can create enormous problems for secular people, including many of the million or so immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, and same-sex couples. The state should provide a domestic partnership system that would provide the legal foundation for a household of any two individuals, which is entirely separate from an (optional) religious marriage. Issues like taxation, divorce and child custody, and so on could be dealt with in this framework.

These are larger goals than the short-term ones on which electoral battles are fought; but one of the reasons we bother to elect representatives is to articulate such longer-term objectives. It’s a pity they rarely pay attention to them.

Posted in Israeli Politics, Israeli Society | 1 Comment

A Message to Abu Yehuda Readers

I recently discovered that the function to subscribe to receive Abu Yehuda by email was broken.

If you have tried to subscribe in the last few months and did not succeed, I apologize.

I invite everyone who likes reading my posts to put their email address in the box near the top of the right-hand side of the page and click the Subscribe! button. It’s free, and you will automatically get all Abu Yehuda posts in your inbox.

I have made other changes that I think will make the system work more smoothly.

Best wishes to everyone for a happy and (especially) healthy Pesach!


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment