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Fortress Israel: Challenges to Jewish Identity and Democracy.

On Sunday 17th July I, along with Dr Leonard Suransky, was invited to speak at the 2016 Biennial Conference of South African Union of Progressive Judaism on the topic “Fortress Israel: Challenges to Jewish Identity and Democracy“.

Dr Suransky is an academic specialising in International Relations with a special interest in the Middle East and simulation methodology. I have long been interested in “identity” as a universal human psychological construct which plays an important role in political behaviour and choice.

Below follows a lightly edited version of my talk. In the course of the subsequent discussion I was tackled by a couple of audience members on my position which they saw as not congruent with the social progressivism of their movement. Contrary to what they saw as my rightwing and complacent position, they felt that Israel was experiencing a moral crisis.

Specifically, they mentioned the grip the Orthodox rabbinate had on aspects of Jewish worship at the Kotel and “the occupation”. In my response I replied that while I did not differ from their position in some respects – certainly their reference to the stifling grip of the Orthodox Rabbinate on aspects of Jewish (and not only Jewish) life in Israel – I differed on their approach to what they simplistically termed “the occupation”.

More importantly, I differed from them in the apocalyptic rhetoric and self-righteous tone they adopted and their negative labeling of those who differ from them. Afterwards two members of the youth wing approached me and said they would like to follow up on on the discussion in due course. I was delighted.

At a later stage I will try to deal with some of the specifics implicit in my own talk and the challenges mounted by some members of the audience. But for the moment I will simply republish the talk below for further comment and direct attention to a couple of very pertinent and enlightening articles.

Here is an extract from an article from the left-of-centre journal Fathom written by Polly Bronstein,.”The country’s future is in the balance…and the direction must be determined by the collective action of ‘moderate Israel’ rather than by the radicals on either side of the debate. Israel was created out of nothing, from the collective dream of a persecuted people. We have proven, time and again, that we can accomplish great things in this land, if only we dare to try. Now is the time to awaken, stand up, unite, and set a course for this country that will ensure its future. We are the people we have been waiting for.“…

And here is an extract from another article from the same Journal written by Mike Prashker “The story about Israel we should be sharing…is that of an ongoing effort against enormous odds; from the existential imperative of state building to the ongoing slog of constructing a better society.

All reasonable people should know – and the unreasonable will never care to know – that from its bloody birth, Israel has struggled with every kind of obstacle imaginable in building a new country based on recognisable Jewish and democratic traditions…Now, after decades of avoidance, the many diverse and previously excluded groups in Israeli society are staking their claim to work, marry, pray, participate and live – as equals. Seen in this light, Israel’s journey can be better understood.

In this regard, public-opinion polling conducted for Kulanana…paints a far more nuanced and credible picture about what Israeli citizens of all backgrounds actually want.

On one hand it reveals some troubling inter-group attitudes and relations. On the other hand it identifies grounds for hope and potential for change. Even in the current atmosphere of tension and suspicion, Israelis of all groups condemn discrimination on a number of different levels, including on a moral level. Between 65 and 80 percent of all sectors agree that discrimination is immoral, damaging and dangerous.” …

I can strongly identify with those sentiments with the following proviso. In a very unpredictable and ruthlessly tribalistic region one cannot substitute fine sentiments for power – the power to defend oneself, the power to shape one’s own identity, the power to deter determined enemies. So I would like to see less negative labeling and less rhetorical flamboyance and more tolerance for different perspectives in the pursuit of entirely legitimate social and personal ideals.

For some in-depth articles on aspects of the ME see also

  1. – A solid and informative piece by Martin Kramer
  2. – A controversial perspective by Roy Oliver.

So now to my talk…

Introduction to Identity

We all come with an intuitive sense of what we mean by the word but on attempting serious deconstruction it proves to be an elusive and complex term.

The identity construct arises from our evolutionary history formed over millions of years as a social species. It can be shown that personal and collective identity impact similar regions of our brains. In short, our collective identities are entangled in how we perceive ourselves as individuals.

One prominent feature is its multi-dimensionality: the vast majority of individuals have multiple identities. These may include

  • ethnic group
  • a national identity
  • dominant ideological loyalties whether religious or secular,
  • socio-economic class, educational stratum, occupation and more broadly
  • an overarching cultural-civilisational identity with its values and norms.

Even characteristics like sex, gender, age and “race ” (or appearance), which are all universal aspects of personal identity, can have social-political, that is, collective  implications,  depending on context.

Besides the multi-dimensional nature of identity, the other characteristic pertinent to this talk is its fluidity or changeability. Identity is subject to various modifying influences. These include

  • More stable aspects arising from intrinsic temperament and early socialisation experiences within a given family embedded in a particular socio-economic context and culture, and
  • More fluid aspects, including cultural changes, and alterations in social, political and economic conditions… and so forth.

Thus each component sub-identity can assume differing psychological weights depending on changing context and feedback from the environment.

Finally, identity issues are strongly tied to moralistic emotions within the individual. By this I refer to notions of good and evil, ideas of loyalty and betrayal and the impulse to punish perceived apostates or evil-doers.

These three properties, multi-dimensionality, fluidity or changeability and moralistic cognition are central to our topic this morning.

In the political realm and in the battle for hearts and minds, it is useful to be aware that identity comes with subjective and objective components.

The objective components are what others perceive. These may be shaped by direct experience, but in the modern world are also enormously influenced by second-hand information and opinion from the media, msm or social media, and from one’s circle of acquaintances and family.

The subjective components on the other hand are our own feelings and values which provide the motivation for political choices and behaviour.

Thus to summarise this overview, the central messages I wish to convey are the following:

  1. Identity is a universal political-cultural construct arising out of our evolutionary
  2. It is multi-dimensional and, as a consequence, within any given broad identity there are many sub-identities which can fluctuate in importance according to context .
  3. Identity expresses itself in social and political choices and behaviour
  4. Consequently identity is frequently a domain of political contestation aimed at strengthening one ID over others

 Fortress Israel: Challenges to Jewish Identity and Democracy

With this brief introduction we return to our title  for today. Since time is limited I will start by offering some personal perspectives and opinions.

We can start by asking whether, ‘fortress Israel’ is an accurate factual description of political reality or is a moral commentary or both?  

Of course in one important sense “fortress Israel” is indeed a statement of fact. Israel was born amidst strife and its existence as a Jewish state has ever since been under constant threat. In that sense, at the very least, there is no question that Israel may be regarded as a fortress.

But to step up a level, we need to ask to what extent and in what ways has Israel become “militarised”?  Indeed, Israeli citizens are all (with some exceptions) expected to fulfil military obligations. Israel is a technologically advanced military power. It has pervasive  intelligence services, is partly enclosed by physical barriers to defend its borders and has created a not-excessively secret nuclear deterrent…and so on. But even more importantly, Israel has integrated the military dimension into its economy and its culture in many ways. Meritorious service within the broad embrace of the IDF is an important prerequisite for high office and even serves to smooth the way for economic success.

Does this degree of militarisation in itself make Israel a “fortress state” in a morally pejorative sense of the term? That is, have these realities seriously contaminated the Jewish Israeli sense of identity and political choices?

As I’ve already implied such questions are hot political topics and are thus the focus of intense PR/propaganda campaigns. One obvious source of negative perceptions which portray Israel as an illegitimate, colonial/imperialist enterprise is the broad BDS Project. In this formulation Israeli identity and politics is systematically depicted as non-democratic, militaristic and racist.

Supportive evidence is cherry-picked or exaggerated or decontextualised or simply falsified. This radical perspective is contradicted by far too much empirical evidence to deserve serious attention.

But away from the extreme it is worth examining one prominent figure as representative of the broader Left.  Aluf Benn recently wrote “Israel—at least the largely secular and progressive version of Israel that once captured the world’s imagination—is over. Israel’s current leaders—headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who metamorphosed after the election from a risk-averse conservative into a right-wing radical—see democracy as synonymous with unchecked majority rule and have no patience for restraint… In their view, Israel is a Jewish state and a democratic state—in that order.

That passage is not atypical and is certainly compatible with the negative idea of “fortress Israel”. It’s assertions are open to factual refutation but, perhaps more importantly, a scrutiny of Benn’s article in Foreign Affairs reveals that in his mind the Palestinians are merely props for the Israeli political drama. They serve as a backdrop to the moral choices of Israeli Jewish politicians and play no serious contributory or contextual role in Benn’s analysis.

He and others within this camp minimise factors in both the regional and global environment which may help understand rational choices made by the Israeli electorate. Here is a brief extract from one fairly representative example  “Today, more than ever, there is fertile ground – with the grace of God – for the annihilation, the wiping out, and the collapse of the Zionist regime. In Lebanon alone, over 100,000 missiles are ready to be launched….They are just waiting for the command, so that when the trigger is pulled, the accursed black dot will be wiped off the geopolitical map of the world, once and for all.” Tehran on July 1, Revolutionary Guards Deputy Commander Hossein Salami

My point is this: discussions of Israeli or broader Jewish identity and political choices which systematically neglect such regional political context, including the rise of jihadist-terror movements, the dissolution of national boundaries and the consequent political unpredictability, cannot be taken seriously by anyone wishing to understand the findings of polls or the behaviour of Jews either in or outside of Israel.

So it is not surprising, considering these existential phenomena and other historical and sociological factors, that Israeli and Western Jews have a somewhat different identity and political profiles. To summarise very briefly what I have extracted from much empirical data as well as general reading and personal observation:

  1. Israel has an exceptionally diverse religious and ethnic community whose traditions and historical experiences differ considerably from one another. These core differences are reflected in different political perspectives. For instance, among the more “extreme” religious segments of the Jewish Israel population the attachment to the universal principles of democracy and to Zionism are both weaker than in the more secular.
  2. At the same time, all Israelis (with the partial exception of the Israeli Left) are committed to Israel as a national home for Jews. The religious see it in more specifically Jewish-religious (Halachic) terms while the secular see it through a Zionist prism. But there is a broad sense of peoplehood amongst Israeli Jews.
  3. There is intense distrust of Palestinian leadership and Arab-Muslims in general among a plurality of Israeli Jews and a feeling that reducing the Arab population within Israel would be desirable. Of course these feelings are reciprocated and there are exceptions on both sides – especially Jewish.
  4. American Jews differ from Israel in the following ways
  • They are more assimilated into the majority non-Jewish population but with religious pockets of intensely Jewish-religious (not national) identity. Thus feelings of Jewish peoplehood are diluted by dual loyalties (religious and national), minority status and assimilationist temptations in the USA.
  • Jews in the USA are dominantly cosmopolitan-democratic in orientation and often find the nationalist ethos of Israelis disturbing.
  • On more subtle level American Jews reflect the dominant American social culture insofar as personal behaviour is concerned, whereas Israeli Jews are more assertive and brash

I don’t want to overstate these differences. They are matters of degree and are far from immune to context and persuasion/propaganda. But in general, Israel is more nationalistic  and right-wing than USA/Western Jews at this juncture in our history.

Does this translate into “Fortress Israel” and the need for urgent moral resuscitation? I would argue, no.

On every measure of Western values and achievement Israel continues to score remarkably well. Here’s one summary of democratic rankings by country from Global Democracy worth pondering by those who continue to selectively agonise over Israel’s moral failings:

On top are the heavy hitters Norway, Switzerland,  Sweden, Finland, Denmark.

The USA ranked 16 and Israel ranked 21-24. South Africa is ranked 43 (2008)–71 (2014), Turkey 64, Lebanon 88,  Jordan 89th in 2009. Iran and Saudi Arabia are not rated

So from an objective and even broadly liberal-Zionist point of view there are segments of Israeli population and events that are troubling and sometimes shameful. But given context and realism as distinct from highly selective Utopianism, in my view Israel is something to treasure and a source of pride rather than focus of moral and existential concern.

Mike Berger 14 July


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