I delayed responding to Andy Arato in the hope that Tariq Ramadan and Tariq Ali might clarify some issues by demanding a boycott of the Olympics to protest the killings in Tibet, a poor land occupied brutally since 1951. Alas, I cannot report that Ramadan has called on members of the Arab League or Iran to act against Beijing, which is also a chief patron of Sudan’s genocidal government. Ali does not seem to be urging intellectuals to action on China comparable to his (and Ramadan’s) campaign to deny Israel honors at European book fairs. Perhaps sport must just go on as it did the Olympics in 1972 after the Israeli team was massacred.
I’d like to know if they think that it was right for the games to go on then and why; and I’d like to know if Andy Arato thinks that it is no longer the right time for the Olympics to take place in Beijing as he thought it is “not the right time” to honor Israel in Turin and Paris. He says “it just so happens” that Israel occupies certain places. But it didn’t just so happen and that was why I said that definitions of states and laws must be contextualized. It has to do with the political impact of historical memory too, and so I do not quite understand how Arato can refer to an “aggressive Israeli war” of 1967 yet declare that it doesn’t matter who was at “fault.” I’d still like to know: What would you do if three states in a legal state of war with you mobilize their militaries? And one of them demands removal of the international buffer force that had prevented war for a decade. And the UN complies and your second largest port is blockaded. What do you do? Explain an ideal speech situation to a populist-nationalist dictator (Nasser) or an overtly fascist party (the Baath in Damascus)? Wait until international law secures universal values?
Aggression isn’t only a matter of who fires the first shot. It is also a question of who creates circumstances in which the use of force becomes the only intelligent option. So Andy Arato and I do indeed have differences about the word “history,” how to use it, and how things “just” happen. Saying it is all a matter of interpretation is too easy; we need to be a bit more precise, especially since our argument is (partly) about legalism, politics, and history in solving an international dispute. According to Arato, “a lot of people” think “Judea and Samaria” are “historically parts of the state of Israel.” I wonder where they are. Certainly not in Israel. Look at public opinion polls in recent years and you will find that solid majorities there accept the principle of a neighboring Palestinian state if peace is secured. That would mean withdrawal from “Judea and Samaria,” whatever the clamor about historical or religious rights by extremists of the religious and nationalist right.
I assume that Arato uses “Judea and Samaria” to mock claims made with biblical terminology (he notes, properly, that I do not use them). He speaks of the “West Bank” (as I do). But here we need just what he dismisses as “ridiculous and ambiguous” truisms to clarify historical “interpretation” – especially of legalities. Jordan did not annex the West Bank in 1948, as Arato says. It invaded Palestine that year, as did other Arab League armies. The Arab League, as a whole, was unhappy about King Abdullah’s ambitions there. But its alternative was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin el-Husseini, who had just spent World War II cheering the Nazis. Those were the only Palestinian Arab options then. The part of Mandatory Palestine that Jordan annexed (in 1950) became known as “the West Bank” as counterpart of “the East Bank” in the Hashemite Kingdom.
One need not be a positivist to recognize that historical details like these sometimes tell us important things. In this case they show us that “Palestine” is as “amorphous” and “legally uncertain” as “Israel,” if not more so. After all, the Palestinian Arab side and the Arab League warred against the 1947 UN Resolution to establish an Arab state in Palestine because it established a Jewish one as well. There are no legally defined, let alone meaningful boundaries of “Palestine” today. This is not particularly urgent when it comes to peace-making. Arato says that Israel should not be recognized in advance of negotiations, so I presume he thinks that Israel ought not to recognize Palestine either. But here “ridiculous” history intrudes: mutual recognition was already agreed at Oslo (although Gaza’s current ruler, Hamas, rejects it). Would it be helpful to annul this recognition? In any event, it was pretty obvious that I was not referring to Lieberman (C’mon, Andy!) but to Ehud Barak’s suggestion at Camp David in 2000 that even Israel’s 1949 borders would not be sacrosanct if a peace deal could be worked out. His offer to swap some land came with a willingness to yield over 90% of the occupied territories if an agreement was reached. This is not quasi annexation. It is a bargaining position–-a forthcoming one.
This offer to swap represented a significant change in Israeli policy and opened all sorts of possibilities for negotiation. Arafat was not up to the historical moment. He imagined he should get everything he wanted in advance of negotiations – unlike any other negotiation in the history of diplomacy. In any event, legality is again not very relevant. What was needed then is still needed: a sustainable political deal, a compromise between two peoples who contest one land. Again: if a particular land swap was illegal by international law but Israeli and Palestinian leaders included it in a workable accord, would you insist on fidelity to international legality down to the last Palestinian and the last Israeli?
Finally, we return again to the law of return and to “the most obvious ethnocentrism.” Affirmative action addresses long standing, deeply rooted patterns of discrimination and/or persecution. It assumes that there are collective, particular problems that require, at least in part, collective, particular redress. Arato’s objection to the Law of Return reproduces the common logic deployed against affirmative action: If you have it to remedy sexism, middle class women will prosper but individual men will be disadvantaged; if you have it for blacks, white individuals will suffer discrimination. These contentions are not without merit, but since I am a social democrat–which means I am an egalitarian who doesn’t think there is one seamless solution to all problems – I would argue for affirmative action combined with policies that seek vigorously to mitigate its problematic consequences.
The problems of sexism or racism in America (and elsewhere) don’t simply dissipate in the moment that there are middle class blacks or women in positions of power. Anti-Semitism targeted Jews as a people (usually as a “race”). It culminated in mass murder–and “mass” is all important here. It’s a good thing that American Jews are safe today, unlike their European counterparts in the 1930s and 1940s. But broad historical perspective must inform responses to the history of anti-Semitism. Just as I oppose integral nationalism, so I oppose integral cosmopolitanism and the abstract universalism that animates it. One must know and address particularities too.
Arato preaches about a “Jewish tradition” that goes back to the 18th century. I guess he means Moses Mendelssohn, a very admirable figure. This is original intellectual history. Jewish “tradition” was plural then, as now, and the vast majority of European Jews were then traditionalist–that is, nothing at all like Mendelssohn. That doesn’t mean they were “ethnocentric.” The word is a meaningless anachronism when applied (even comparatively) to their context–that of communities that were confined, restricted and/or persecuted by the surrounding societies. Their descendants suffered the failure of universalist programs of emancipation in the ensuing century and a half. But by the twentieth century, there were some Jews who promoted a politics that sought to be both universalist and particularist.
Call it a rooted cosmopolitanism that rejected one-dimensional approaches, that assumed that someone could have multiple roots, say, in the left, in the Jewish community, in Western culture. It was neither abstract nor “ethnocentric,” but it did–and does–contrast with those liberals or leftists who imagined that the rights of man or the revolution, or some variant of these, would simply dissolve anti-Semitism, indeed all other problems. Arato can defend this latter view, although it is not obvious to me how the 20th century bears it out. Finally, no, I do not think that the Palestinian refugees should return to pre-1967 Israel. The consequence would be the end of Israel. There’s no way around that. But please explain why 10-12 million Germans who lost homes in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of World War II ought not also to have a right to return, or Indians and Pakistanis.
Because the consequences would be unmanageable, if not disastrous? Yes, they would be. Because those populations do not all live as miserable refugees in contrast to so many Palestinians? Yes, unfortunately massive numbers of Palestinians live in wretched conditions. You might ask elites in Damascus, Cairo, and other Arab capitals (and some Western intellectuals), if there is any other population that was displaced in the immediate post-World War era that was likewise denied resettlement in neighboring lands. They have a Palestinian identity, you protest? Yes, surely, legitimately so, and Jews identify as a people too and sought legitimately to reconstruct themselves as such after integral nationalism slaughtered them and integral cosmopolitanism failed them. Sometimes right and right clash as do wrong and wrong–and there is no possibility of reconciliation “in principle.” Then, compromise is needed.
I, for one, remain a supporter of Middle-East doves who want a realistic two-state solution. I am not optimistic these days and know that in all events, this solution wouldn’t be perfect. But I can imagine a Palestinian law of return in a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state (middle-class Palestinians living elsewhere need not make use of it) just as there is a law of return in a Jewish state (which American Jews need not use). In the meantime, some 20 per cent of Israel’s population is Arab; these Arabs are citizens of Israel (in contrast to Arabs in the occupied West Bank). Many of them, like Arab members of Israel’s parliament, denounce the Israeli government regularly and loudly–and in much more safety than, say, a member of Fatah denouncing Hamas in Gaza City these days. Their rights as citizens should be secure and fortified, and where need be (it is considerable), their social and economic circumstances should be enhanced by affirmative action.
Mitchell Cohen is co-editor of Dissent and professor of political science at Baruch College–CUNY. He recently wrote on French politics and the ‘new’ Atheism. The interview and exchange originally appeared on Reset: Dialogues on Civilization. ©ResetDOC.