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June 2004

Let's Talk about Israel

I read somewhere a while back in a pop neurology book that our political opinions are mostly formed in adolescence. My attitudes toward Israel were certainly formed then. As a matter of habit, I do not think about Israel very much as it presents me with an irreconcilable social conflict: I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state and to my strongly atheist mind in adolescence, Israel is a theocracy. The reality is of course more complicated than that, but any state founded on a religious identity is not something I can feel comfortable supporting. On the other hand, a larger percentage of my friends as a teenager were Jewish and were very sentimental about Israel. Such warm fuzzy feelings are contageous, and so I have a second-hand sentimentality about Israel with no particular cognitive basis. I suppose I felt a special obligation to share this sentimentality because of my German ancestry: I'm one quarter German, the product of 19th century immigration. While as an adult, I see that this ancestry is mostly irrelevant to what I ought to feel about Israel, as a teenager, that was not so clear.

The question of the Palestinians, their treatment, and their rights did not enter into this until I was an exchange student in Germany my senior year of high school, and discovered that the European media took a rather different view of Israel than my hometown newspaper. (That the German press should take a dimmer view of Israel that the American press will not seem like much of an argument to some; my point is that this was my first exposure to the Palestinian point of view.) That a theocracy would opress those who were not of its religion was completely consistent with my general suspicions about theocracies, so learning of the plight of the Palestinians did not alter my perceptions of Israel much.

The resolution of this conflict for me, on an emotional level, is to believe that Israel should be expected to behave in accordance with international law; that its status as a theocracy gives it no special rights or privledges regardless of the rationele for and special circumstances involved in establishing the state of Israel. Israel frequently violates these expectations, but because I retain the feeling, from adolescence, that it would be uncouth of me to say so, I don't say much about it and don't think much about it. But it was on this basis that allegations that, say, Jason Raimondo was rabidly anti-Israel cut no ice with me. I find myself entirely unable to be interested in such condemnations. I did, however, restrain myself from responding "so what?".

But it has been 25 years since I developed my basic take on Israel, and as a 42 year-old concerned with contemporary politics, I really ought not hide behind conflict avoidance mechanisms developed when I was seventeen. There are claims that Israel as a democracy. But I am unable to see it as a democracy both because I retain the suspicion that it is a theocracy and because a large portion of its population seems to be banned from participation in its democratic processes. Throughout my life, I feel I have been asked to see people moving to Israel as returning to their homeland. I persist in seeing them as settlers, whether their ancestors lived there a thousand-odd years ago or not. I cannot buy the argument that they are returning home. Finally, and most importantly, Israel is a showcase for the argument that extraordinary enemies require extraordinary tactics; tactics in frequent violation of the Geneva convention. This last point leads me to believe that if I took a sustained look at Israel or thought much about the Palestinians, I would rapidly lose the warm, fuzzy feelings toward Israel instilled in me as a teenager. This would cause me social problems, as some people would think badly of me for being anything but supportive of the State of Israel. I'm not sure how much longer I can avoid this confrontation.