Thursday, December 1, 2011

The 'Right Of Return' And Other Rights

At bottom, the question my Harper's piece tries to answer is deceptively simple and by no means relevant to the Palestinian right of return alone. It is this: how can a democratic state, a commonwealth of free citizens, be reconciled with the right of citizens, collectively, to sustain national distinction? How is an individual's right to conscience and property reconciled to a nation's right to draw boundaries, legal and geographical? The tension between these rights may seem tangential to Middle East violence, but if two democratic states are going to emerge here, both Israelis and Palestinians will have to come to a common standard for resolving it, for each other, but also for themselves.

Assume, as the piece does, that the Palestinians' most poignant claims are reasonable (and ignore for the moment whether some Israelis have similar claims): assume, that is, that the suffering and material losses of refugees need to be recognized and compensated, indeed, that the right of refugees to choose among various modalities for redress (including return to their lands and homes, "at the earliest practicable date" as stipulated in U.N. 194) must be realized as part of any final peace. Assume, further, that this right, which is inherently one of individuals and families, is of a piece with the right of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel to live in a country in which they are equal to all other citizens.

How, then, do such claims stack up against, and work with, the most poignant claims of Israeli Jews--inherently a collective claim--that Jewish civilization should find new and modern forms, or at least not be extinguished; that Israel is and will continue to be the Jewish national home? How to honor the democratic individual, liberalism, in (to use the vernacular) a "Jewish state"? For that matter, how do the individual rights of people ordinarily considered Jewish, but who (like me) reject Halachic obligations, shape the laws of a Jewish state?

The answer I tried to offer is the one virtually all democratic states have come up with, which I discussed at length in The Hebrew Republic. Israel should of course be a state of its citizens, that is, guarantee equality and freedom of conscience, and search for many confederative relations with a Palestinian state where feasible and sensible. But all citizens of Israel should be educated in Hebrew, or to a working knowledge of it. Hebrew should be the default, though not the only official, language of the state bureaucracy (i.e., you must be able to speak write in Hebrew to work for it, though the state should offer help in Arabic and English to people who cannot) and the default language of work.

Practically, Hebrew should be the main language of state-supported high schools and institutions of higher education. It should be required on every sign. And so forth. In addition, the commercial calendar should reflect the practices of the most widely practiced religious observances: this means the right not to work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and Friday for that matter, though people who do so voluntarily should not be forced not to. This is how virtually every EU country handles national claims and how Quebec handles its special status within Canada.

Palestinians should therefore endorse this basic Israeli national right as a quid pro quo for Israelis endorsing the Palestinians' individual rights, among them the right of return. Actually, both sides, if they aim to be democracies, have an immanent stake in both kinds of rights--and the ways these rights are made to complement one another. Palestinians should insist that, in endorsing Israel's right to sustain a Jewish national home, they are not thereby endorsing material discrimination against people who lack J-positive blood (as is currently the case). Israel must change: secular freedoms must be the standard all around (a point Fatah is trying to hold off Hamas with, and Israeli liberals should reinforce). Israelis, for their part, should insist that the right of return must be realized in ways that reflect the desire of Israelis to incubate Jewish linguistic and cultural difference. Where the two rights clash, confederative institutions may soften hard lines.

SOME WILL ARGUE that Hebrew language protection is not enough to make Israel "Jewish." I reject this. Language is not some inert instrument of communication merely signifying realities external to us. It is what we really mean by "nation," more formative than the shared territory that, historically was the key to enabling language itself to be shared. We ought to take for granted what everyone from Wittgenstein to Orwell (and, more recently, fellow Montrealer Steven Pinker) have taken for granted, that a language is a nuanced way of grasping one's most intimate relations and the stuff of the material world. 

Language, moreover, is as human and formative as touching members of your family. It contains within its precincts the accumulated experiences, signs and detritus of a collective story. Spend a day with the OED, or the Even Shohan, dictionary. The word "civilization" must spring to mind. Language gives one direct access to a people's classical literature, myths, religious ideas, criticism, legal precepts. It gives identity, shapes the mouth and tongue and imagination. It is the background music of one's life, the dreamscape of sleep.

And Zionism at its most radical understood this. The idea of an independent state (so-called "political Zionism") was a minor chord from the start. It was not officially adopted as a goal until the Biltmore Conference of 1942. (It was formally rejected in 1931.) But the idea that building Hebrew-speaking colonies and cities would provide Jews the means to live as moderns, with individual liberties, and yet remain custodians of a Jewish civilization that would otherwise disappear--well, that was there in Zionism from the start.

I know I am repeating myself (I tell this story at length in The Tragedy of Zionism), but some things cannot be said often enough. This "cultural Zionism" inspired the people who called themselves Zionists from Achad Haam and Weizmann to Ben-Gurion to Yehuda Amichai. It is still the crucial fact of Israel. It is not gone because reactionary leaders or Halachic mullahs distort Zionist history, or just take Hebrew for granted. Any American Jewish visitor to Israel senses how out-of-it he or she is as soon as the novelty of Hebrew letters on the supermarket wears off.

AND YET, CRUCIALLY, the Hebrew language, like contemporary Israeli music, is inherently inclusive. A kid from Nazareth can groove on Matti Caspi. The Palestinian Arab Israeli activist, now in exile, Azmi Bishara, told me he owed his political education to the psychological subtly of Achad Haam. Similarly, the kid of a kid from Bialystok like myself goes to McGill and finds himself an heir of Thomas Hobbes. But he also lives, if he wishes, in Hebrew and Yiddish and French. Indeed, collective identity is only enriched by this kind of hybridization.

Nor is the Jewish religion, in all of its forms, diminished in a Hebrew-speaking state that does not privilege any religion. Acolytes of the Anglican religion in Canada are not impoverished because the Canadian state, in offering cultural protection of English, does not privilege members of the Anglican church. The Hebrew language provides a background, a framework, in which voluntary and self-funded Jewish congregations might thrive. But the state is not a person or a congregation. Where, if not in a Hebrew Republic, would an orthodox Jew rather live?

In short, the Hebrew language is the collective material upon which an individual citizen works his or her magic. It is the basis for freedom to, not just freedom from. It is the means through which Israelis construct fictions about one another, riff on the poetics of the Jewish past, innovate the art and technology that seeds the future. Sayed Kashua can use Hebrew to, among other things, mock the foibles of Israeli Jews and advance the equality of Arab citizens. But in the very way he uses Hebrew, with its inescapable allusions to Torah culture, and modern Israeli shtick, he is paying Jewish civilization an unprecedented tribute.

WHAT MY ARTICLE really aims to make vivid, then, is not just a psychologically necessary process (Israelis recognize Palestinians' rights to freedom and "return," Palestinians recognize Israelis' right to a national home) but an end-point in justice: two states, each committed to the equality of all of its citizens, each tied to the other in a host of confederative relations, but each recognizing the national life, the language and collateral culture, the other is trying to preserve.

These states would have to use confederative institutions to square circles where necessary: say, by allowing Jerusalem to remain united while serving as a capital for two states; or by offering a legal innovation allowing permanent residency but not citizenship, so that Arabs living in Israel who wish to educate in Arabic rather than Hebrew can do so, and vice versa. The territory in question is so small that such solutions are inevitable and feasible--unless, of course, fanatics on both sides simply bring us to a fight to the finish.

And I am reviewing these ideas because various bloggers have written to criticize the article yet seemed unwilling to engage the ideas themselves. Perhaps I might have made things clearer. But at least some of this criticism seemed less bothered with the article's ideas than with the chance to depict its author as an instance of a type. Does this kind of thing really advance our thinking?

One writer, apart from questioning my reporting skills, laments "liberal Zionism" (whatever that is) and its media power. Another comes to the defense of liberal Zionists "like Avishai" but with arguments and formulations that are not mine and I would never endorse (e.g., that Israel, as a Jewish state, "inherently privileges Jewish citizens over Arab citizens"). Yet another congratulates me for abandoning the two-state process, which any balanced reader could see I have not; and for offering confederative ideas, ostensibly "moving" closer to his own position, though I began advocating for these same ideas in various op-eds over twenty years ago, and even in this short New Yorker article in 1995.

I understand how radioactive this subject is. And writers are lying when they pretend not to like the attention. But things are pretty bad here now, and even if broad conceptions of justice cannot pull us out, ad hominem attacks certainly won't. If my argument is wrong--not just hopeless, or coming from the wrong mouth, or typical of a political type, but unjust--then I'd be grateful for refutations or refinements. Then again, if the argument is more or less sound, can we not talk about how to build on it?


David said...

Bernard, I have followed your writing for a while. I was in the audience at your presentation at the first JStreet convention. But what constantly strikes me is how privileged you are to slide between Canada, the US, and Israel, while your Palestinian analogs have no such similar freedoms of movement and are not invited to share their musings on their identity -- much less their grievances -- in the New Yorker and elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

I just don't understand how any of your stated goals are sustainable - "securing" Hebrew as the language of Israel is only as secure as the govt. who puts it into law.

Allowing the right of return will cause the demographic to shift so that Aravic-speaking persons will be the majority, and thus would elect an arabic-speaking govt. - Why couldn't they just decide to repeal the hebrew language stipulation?

Y. Ben-David said...

This whole manifest is simply wishful thinking that has no connection with the real world. This is the world of the secular Socialist Zionists who came to the country, built a successful state, ingathered a lot of the exiles but failed to square the circle of getting the Arab to accept its existence. Thus, in order to salve their conciences, they create a mythical Israeli "state of its citizens" that is supposedly magically going to make the problem of Arab rejection of Israel go away.
(1) Right of Return. So Dr Avishai advocates it. The Arabs do not view it merely as solving a "humanitarian problem" (i.e. how to get the refugees out of the refugee camps), nor is it a way to "acknowledge the pain" of the refugees. IT IS A POLITICAL WEAPON TO BE USED AGAINST ISRAEL IN THE ONGOING ARAB WAR OF ATTRITION AGAINST ISRAEL. This means Israel, if it is going to accept the ROR means it must accept an UNLIMITED ROR. Thus, Dr Avishai's "Hebrew Republic" is actually just another version of Lebanon, a multi-confessional, multi-cultural state where the different groups are perpetually at each other's throats.
(2) The Hebrew Language as a vehicle to foster "Israeli" national identity. Well, Israeli Arabs currently speak Hebrew. But Hebrew is a JEWISH language, the language of Bible. The Muslims, unlike the Christians, view the Bible as a fraud. The Arabs do not want to be inundated with Jewish culture and thinking. Don't you get the message of the election results in Egypt and Tunisia. The people there voted for AUTHENTICITY. A return to their Muslim roots. They are finally rejected secular pan-Arabism and "liberal" secular Western culture which is alien and threatening to them. Pushing "Hebrew" culture down their throats in Israel is just as threatening. Many North African Arabs leared English and French during the colonial period. Did this make them Englishmen or Frenchmen?

Anonymous said...

Some call this wishful thinking.
Some may call this a opium inspired utopianism.
This is material written by second grade hacks who never really made it in the first place.
In addition OSLO has been forgotten when they the "Palestinians" could have had the lion's share of their dream.Toches afen tish ( yiddish) you are nothing more than a self hating traitorous Jew.

Abbie H. said...

The animus--morphing into hatred--directed toward Avishai for raising questions about the impossible impasse is striking. That voices of "No" are loud and legion is no shock; and that many of them vibrate with hatred is likewise unsurprising. Surely there are, on both sides of the Green Line, many with more nuanced and humane perspectives and therein hope lies.

ARTH said...

I don't understand what the innovation is here. All of the Arabs in Israel know Hebrew, many of them very well. They already participate in an unofficial way in Israel's Hebrew culture. There is even a segment of the Arab citizens of Israel which read and write Hebrew better than Arabic. This could be because they attending Hebrew-language high schools with Jews or it could be because they work in Hebrew and have studied in the Israeli education system in Hebrew.
As any Arab who knows Hebrew will attest, Hebrew is an easy language for them.
There is another issue, which Avishai ducks, which is if the Hebrew of Israel is really capable of transmitting a culture of its own and for that matter even Jewish culture via classical Jewish texts. So much of Israeli Hebrew sounds like the American English of its pop culture translated into Hebrew words. So much of the culture of Israel seems like a culture in translation, from other places.

Potter said...

Anent Phil Weiss: “with all due respect”- he mentions respectfulness 3 times w regard to BA and then proceeds to the disrespect and mischaracterization and ( yes) envy : “Boy these Liberal Zionists get platforms!”

Weiss rips the Harper’s piece apart, making it personal, using phrases like “he struggles”. He pigeon-holes Avishai into a category he and others in his group are calling “Liberal Zionist” (is this a pejorative?). I understand that term to be for Zionists ( whatever that means) who are anguished (amongst other things) as opposed to, say, anti-Zionists (whatever that means) who are anguished and call themselves “Progressives”. Confusingly, one poster here calls BA a “Progressive” (unmistakably a perjorative).

We need categories so we don’t have to consider the content/ideas on their own merits too much, so we, heaven forbid, don't cross a line of sorts from our category into another. We don't, heaven forbid, want to struggle a little within. Israel criticism is a business too after all. And a vehicle for some. I sometimes think that this criticism (for the principals) is all about hubris- pushing a personal point of view over another when it should be a conversation. This is where I think this blog is "coming from".

For instance reading the posts here I never got the sense that Dr. Avishai had no or little respect for the ROR or the Palestinian perspective, that he has not talked much to Palestinians. Yet from Weiss: “Still, I wonder what will happen when Avishai talks to even more Palestinians.” “Bernie, where are you coming from? I would like to know.” Has he read here?

The ROR has resurfaced with a vengeance, Phil, possibly because it is one of the last issues to be resolved ( see the Abbas–Olmert NYT article… the NYTimes that platform you envy yet criticize.)

Oy! I could go on…..

Weiss says he mocked the Olmert-Abbas piece because it mentioned a 25 mile long tunnel. Is that the only reason Phil? (There have been many suggestions put forth about how to connect the territories- so what?)

Potter said...

From Bernard Avishai’s article in Harpers on ROR:

“An Arab has also the right to be elected president of the state, should he be elected by all” Ben–Gurion told the government in June 1948. “If in America, a Jew or a black cannot become president of the state, I do not believe in the quality of it’s civil rights. Should we have such a regime- then we would have missed the purpose of the Jewish state. And I would ass that we would have denied the most precious thing in Jewish tradition.” Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion told his ministers that same year: ‘We must do everything to ensure they[the Palestinian refugees] never do return”.

So why did Ben-Gurion change his mind so quickly? Was it was because he felt or was convinced there would be a real threat within if he allowed them to come back? He lost the courage of his ideals? Was it, at the time, more about survival in a very narrow and immediate sense… ( or not as we see it now)? I think so.

So Dana in his criticism says, omitting the above:

In 1948, Ben Gurion’s nascent army attempted to put the Zionist dream of separation from the natives into practice by forcibly removing as many of Palestine’s native inhabitants as possible and thus creating the Palestinian refugee problem.

Of course it is true but also this is Dana’s own very apparent anger obliterating some facts to make a case. That is, those of good will genuinely seeking resolution need to consider the whole history from both sides with sensitivity. This I think the Harper’s article tries to do to come to some terms, to come to another place. This Phil Weiss calls “moving” because it is successful at digging further into the psychology of the other side. For me it’s a hand reaching more than halfway.

The question above, Why did Ben-Gurion change his mind? Should also be asked, or better, understood by the Palestinian side.

War mongers at heart, on both sides, instead shoot in all directions trying to kill solutions instead of opening up to further understanding. Maybe they need war, need this conflict to feel alive. Some are so used to this conflict, at least the war of words, that they don’t know how to think about life without it. Either that or they are just dead inside to it… in denial about the creeping urgency, the status quo that is not.

It could be that current generations, those not part of the original conflict, are by now less likely to let go and move forward than the older generations would have been.

And/or maybe nothing can happen before it’s “cosmic time”. Still I can’t help but feel that the pain is being prolonged because of the entrenchment of the sides, including, as in criticisms, the sorting of opinion by some into slots with labels. Maybe this gives some people meaning- sadly.

(sorry to take up so much space)

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