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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.
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
So now to my talk…
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
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
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:
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:
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