The abstracting of Israel

The abstracting of Israel

My new favorite defenders of Israel are a Pakistani-Canadian physician and an atheist who doesn’t believe in Zionism.

I’ll explain. I was in Woodstock, NY, over the weekend, where I saw a lone protester carrying a sign that read, “We are witnessing the Brutal Failure of Zionism and the Human Failure of the state of Israel.”

It wasn’t exactly the kind of rioting they are seeing in Paris, but his message was still infuriating. I understand people who are upset with the enormous loss of life in the latest Gaza operation. I can respect those who disagree with Israeli policy and who demand human rights for Palestinians.

But when the critics jump from protesting a military operation to questioning the historical foundations or very existence of a sovereign state, I’m done with the conversation. Over the decades my own government has done many things people abhor, but those decisions and actions don’t discredit the idea of the United States or the humans who make it up. If someone ever holds a rally to protest the slaughter in Syria, I don’t expect to see signs talking about the “failure of Syria” or hear speakers calling for a return to the French mandate.

It’s all part of what I call the abstracting of Israel. You see it in how protesters use the word “Zionism.” It’s our word, I know, but it has been co-opted by those who hate Israel. Unable to bring themselves to say the word “Israel,” they find it a handy euphemism. And using “Zionism” as a curse turns the reality of Israel into the abstraction of a political idea. Debating Israel’s founding ideology allows you to ignore — even dehumanize — the eight million people who live there and aren’t going to be argued out of their homes or country.

Sometimes American Jews are guilty of this abstracting, but in a very different way. We defend Israel’s every move as if it is not run by an elected government, but by an infallible Sanhedrin. We treat every military action as fully justified, if not divinely blessed. We regard anyone who voices sympathy for the Palestinian plight as soft on terrorism. And we treat it not as a real country, but as a sort of Jewish identity clinic for Americans who can’t figure out their own path. 

As a result, our Jewish institutions — including our Jewish newspapers — aren’t always the best places to have a sophisticated conversation about Israel. When they (okay, we) aren’t defending Israel from unreasonable attack, we’re boosting the morale of supporters, trying to earn new recruits, or comforting people who hear enough tough talk about Israel from the “outside.”

So it was refreshing to see Israel defended by two people who seem to have no dog in this fight. Ali A. Rizvi describes himself as a “Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician, and musician.” All I know about him is that he wrote a piece for the Huffington Post called “7 Things to Consider Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East Conflict.” Rizvi is critical of the “recklessness, negligence, and sometimes outright cruelty of Israeli forces.” But he does ask his fellow Muslims why the killing of Arabs by Jews garners so much more outrage than the mass killing of Muslims by Muslims. Why, he asks, does the world defend a group — Hamas — whose charter calls for genocide, and whose strategy relies on civilian casualties? 

Rizvi pulls off a balancing act that gives credit and blame to both the Israeli and Palestinian sides in the conflict — acknowledging the legitimacy and restraint of Israel while criticizing settlement expansion, acknowledging the rights of both sides to a state while abhorring Hamas’s moral bankruptcy. It’s difficult but essential reading.

The noted atheist Sam Harris, meanwhile, does not think Israel “should exist as a Jewish state.” But don’t run away — he doesn’t believe any state should be “organized around a religion” (he’s an atheist, remember) and admits that Israel is hardly a theocracy. 

That being said, he too defends Israel’s right to defend itself, admires its “restraint” in doing so, and decries the “shocking” anti-Semitic discourse in the Muslim world. And he is able to hold in his head two ideas that many others somehow see as incompatible — that is, “the Palestinians have suffered terribly for decades under the occupation,” and the “Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions toward them.” With those two assertions he is ready to describe “an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies.” He explains it this way: “You have one side [Israel] which if it really could accomplish its aims would simply live peacefully with its neighbors, and you have another side [Hamas] which is seeking to implement a seventh-century theocracy in the Holy Land.” 

Neither Harris nor Rizvi would be the most likely speaker at your next sisterhood breakfast — although maybe they should be. Israel can’t rely just on American Jews, evangelical Christians, and members of Congress to defend the country. It needs clear-eyed outsiders who recognize Israel for what it is: a secular, pluralistic, and sometimes flawed democracy trying hard to live up to its founding ideals in a very bad neighborhood.

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