FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Preserving a Jewish state or the Jewish soul?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Preserving a Jewish state or the Jewish soul?


AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN, that nasty member of the Israel cabinet, wants to get rid of the Arabs so his country can remain a Jewish state. It's not a new idea; shoving Arabs around helped Israel get started. And it didn't work all that well. Fifty years of misery as the Israelis and the Arabs competed to prove whose victimhood was the worse, a battle no one ever wins. And Israel still has more Arabs than America has Latinos.

Gene McCarthy once said that 80% of the world's problems could be attributed to British mapmakers. A slight exaggeration to be sure, but it is still true that souls and governments don't live in the same places. And when governments "settle" a dispute they don't pay much attention to how people really live. They just draw a line and say, Well, now, that's taken care of." And, of course, it isn't.

One of the rare exceptions happened in Switzerland. Dietrich Fischer described it in the Progressive Review in 1991:

"[The] conflict developed in the 1950s in the canton Bern in Switzerland, where a French speaking Catholic minority in the Jura region felt constantly overruled by the German speaking Protestant majority. The cantonal government in Bern sought to persuade the French speaking minority that it was in their own best interest to remain with the canton, since they received economic subsidies.

"But only the people of the Jura themselves could decide what they valued more, economic subsidies or self-government. As the process dragged on, demonstrations became more frequent, and some cases of politically motivated arson occurred. No one was killed, but there is little doubt that if the conflict had remained unsolved, it could ultimately have developed into a civil war like that in Northern Ireland.

"After a long delay, the Bernese government finally agreed to hold a referendum to let the people in the Jura decide whether they preferred to form their own canton or to remain within the canton Bern. The first vote was about evenly split. So a second vote was held separately in each of six districts. Three districts, bordering on the German speaking part of the canton, had majorities preferring the old arrangement, while the three districts that were farther removed from the center preferred separation.

"After that vote, each community along the borderline was allowed to choose whether it preferred to stay where it was or switch sides. Some switched. In 1978 the new canton Jura was founded and welcomed by the voters of Switzerland as a member of the confederation. Since then, the violence has subsided, since most people got what they wanted, or respected the verdict of the voters.

"Self-determination is an effective means of conflict resolution. It does not guarantee that the optimal decision will be taken in all cases. But if people make a mistake and suffer the consequences, they have nobody but themselves to blame, and they simply have to try to do better at the next opportunity. If, however, some far removed central government makes a decision for the people and they suffer, they have good reason to project their anger at those responsible. . .

"The secret of Switzerland's long-lasting unity and stability may lie in its diversity. It does not impose uniformity from a center, but allows a great deal of local self-determination. Cooperation is the result of negotiations between all of the parties involved and is entirely voluntary, not forced upon them."

A number of factors involved in the Swiss case have been absent in the Middle East:

- Opportunity for self-determination

- Flexibility in drawing borders based on small scale preferences that reflect community desires rather than those of nation states.

- The substantial devolution of power so that subcultures call their own shots wherever possible.

- Change by negotiation and cooperation.

Of course, it was easier since the parties all had loyalty to a common state. But it would be a far more sensible route than the one that Israel has been following.

Israel faces the prospect of one day becoming like much of the world - a culturally diverse and contentious population living under a single flag. It can, in fact, point to few parallels - the Vatican is among the lonely - for its dream of ethnic purity. The last big country to try it included Jews among its victims and, in the end, lost the battle.

The mythology of a Jewish state as a noble goal can be easily punctured by imagining someone campaigning in the U.S. for a white Christian state and, in the spirit of Lieberman, proposing to moving our latinos down to Mexico. But then you don't have to imagine. We have such people. Only we call them Nazis but they also hate Jews which makes it all a bit confusing.

The fact is that the airplane and television pretty much sabotaged any dreams of ethnic purity around the world. No lawyer or dictator in the world has yet figured how to get around them. And it's probably time for Israel to accept the fact.

Admittedly the job of retaining a culture is incredibly difficult these days but using apartheid and cluster bombs isn't going to help. Having something that others admire and encourage will.

Most of all, a culture is transmitted by the magic of its nature and the witness of its members. This Anglo-Irish kid was raised in an era when Jews were saving our politics, writing some of our best literature, and keeping us laughing. You couldn't help but become a citizen of the Jewish state of mind. That's one reason I'm both angry and sad about Israel's present course. It purports to be preserving itself but is really tearing itself apart and alienating the very people it should instead be offering passports to its soul.

A good place to start getting things back on track would be to pull out the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel which describes a place that "will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and

And the nice thing is, you don't need cluster bombs to get people to go along with that.