Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Take 2

I remain unconvinced that "race" or "racism" is the best lens through which to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it plays out among the parties themselves. I think it's a very useful lens for understanding why certain third parties get involved, but the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, no.

But let's say for the sake of argument a convincing case could be made that some Palestinians have absorbed and reformulated traditional anti-Semitism, and that some Israelis would totally love the Palestinians, if only they were Slavs and not Arabs. Let's assume that racism is a valid lens. What's gained by opting for that lens, and what's lost?

As I see it, to use this lens is to, however inadvertently, a) essentialize the parties and their hatred for each other; b) give support to racist third-parties on both sides, who find it easier to openly hate Arabs if they can call them "anti-Semites," easier to hate Jews if they can call Israel a "racist" state; c) alienate otherwise liberal sorts among Jews and Arabs worldwide, who would be far more sympathetic to the "opposing"-such-as-it-is-for-relative-outsiders side, and far more (constructively) critical of their own, if they weren't under the impression that they were defending themselves, as it were, from Racism; and d) weaken the meaning of the term "racism," making it tougher to apply where it desperately needs applying, namely to fully outside observers who use a conflict they don't really care about as a pretext for being big ol' racists domestically, and whose voices we could simply ignore (it's not like we can de-racist racists) if we properly identified them. If we choose to speak of the conflict in timeless terms, such as that classic, "enmity," or words like "conflict," all of that's avoided.

What, then, is the benefit?


Anonymous said...

And there's also the point that
Arabs as also Semites. It's unfortunate that both sides use religion (history or myth)as the justification for their "ownership" of the land. In the 21st century there should be a political way to work this out and not have one population living in refugee camps and the other having their very existence threatened. And Israel doesn't even have oil; imagine if that was also part of the debate. JM

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Other than agreeing, of course, that there should be a peace agreement, I'm not sure I agree with much of that. Arabs are not the "Semites" to whom "anti-Semitism" refers, so I'm not sure what it accomplishes to point out that they've been so classified in other contexts. And all nations justify their existences based on some mix of religion and myth, all are artificial constructions morphed into/inspired by on-the-ground realities - unless we entirely scrap the nation-state, we're stuck with that fact, and shouldn't condemn the Israelis or the Palestinians especially for the fact that their nations were not some kind of universal truth for all eternity. But yes, agreed that it's currently a mess, and a tragedy for all involved.

Micha said...

It would certainly be better if we could view the conflict as only a conflict about land. But, if we want to describe how the conflict is occurring in the world right now, rather the way we would want it to be, we have to take into consideration the large degree in which it has been infected with racism on a very deep level.

Moreover, I think your definition of racism is too narrow. Wouldn't we say that there was racism in the US toward Indians and Blacks despite the fact that the problems between whites in the US and Indians or Blacks stemmed initially from the concrete issue of land and slavery? We would also say that Nation of Islam promoted racism toward whites, although blacks in the US certainly had (and have) real grievances.

I'm also not sure I agree with your characterization of the way racism got into the conflict from the outside. It could be said that the prejudices in Arab and Jewish-Israeli culture grew inside these cultures as the conflict developed, and even that it had origins prior to the beginning of the conflict. Zionists did not hate Arabs, but they did bring with them some of the prejudices of Europe toward Arabs. And the Palestinians from the very beginning were influenced both by the negative attitudes toward Jews in Muslim and Christian culture and the influences of modern antisemitism. They weren't living in isolation, after all.

So,while it is better as a matter of policy to emphasize that the conflict is about land and competing nationalisma, from the POV of present and historical understanding the racism has to be accounted for.

Moreover, the horses are pretty much out of the barn as to the way outsiders will view the conflict.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Your comment would have been a fine response to my earlier post, along the lines of Eamonn's and David's, but I'm not seeing the question I asked in this post addressed. My question is not, here, whether we can or cannot make a case that racism enters into it. That's a discussion about "present and historical understanding" that we can have, without necessarily fixing anything in the meantime, and that got commenters who otherwise agree in argument mode (but civil, thanks!) in the earlier post. It's whether, given the serious drawbacks of discussing the conflict in those terms, enough is gained by doing so.

I think I'd addressed the rest of your comment in earlier ones, but while I'm here...

"I'm also not sure I agree with your characterization of the way racism got into the conflict from the outside. It could be said that the prejudices in Arab and Jewish-Israeli culture grew inside these cultures as the conflict developed, and even that it had origins prior to the beginning of the conflict."

Let me clarify. It's not that no preexisting hostilities existed. Anti-Semitism preceded 1948, of course, and Edward Said has told us all about anti-Arab discourse in the West. And you're right, of course, that no one lives in a bubble. It's that what puts these two parties in conflict has zilch to do with one thinking the other is racially inferior - the theoretical underpinning of slavery in the U.S., for example, and of colonialism. Zionists did not show up in Palestine because they thought Arabs were racially inferior, but because their own situation demanded it. Palestinians did not up and choose to focus on Jew-hating, but the fact that it was their bit of the world Zionism also claimed made the Jewish state their enemy. The two parties could, in theory, after years of peace, retreat into armchair bigotry or descend into more sinister forms of racism, but as it stands, they don't have the luxury, as it were, of forming distorted ideas about the Other, because there's too much on-the-ground happening that's taking center stage.

Micha said...


The only benefit of talking about racism in this conflict is that ignoring it would obfuscate the way the conflict is actually happening right now and therefore our ability to understand it and deal with it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


This is closer to what I'm looking for, but other than the general notion that furthering understanding can't hurt, what exactly changes? I attempted, in this post, to outline, pragmatically, what changes for the worse when we call this a "race" conflict, or when we choose to focus on that angle. What would outweigh that? We could ask that extremists on both sides tone down their rhetoric, but to what end? If what's motivating them isn't racial hatred, what gets resolved? Doesn't portraying it in this light just reinforce the idea that there's more to the conflict than there is? There's already plenty to it without making overmuch of reappropriated racist motifs.

Micha said...

I should point out that I'm Israeli, that I used to belong to Peace Now and that I'm still against the occupation but very pessimistic of the willingness of the Palestinians to make peace.

I have to reasons why I think the issue of racism cannot be avoided.

First, it is my belief that the reason the concept of peace and withdrawal were completely discredited in Israeli society (and possibly the Palestinian too) is because the people who were promoting peace (myself included) were presenting a rose colored, over-optimistic picture of reality. When the rather unpleasant reality caught up with all the optimistic predictions, and the optimists were caught unprepared, we were discredited. So today I feel very strongly that when I make my case against the occupation, I always do it without trying to cover the inconvenient aspects of reality. And reality is that racism, definitely on the Palestinian side, and to a lesser degree on the Israeli side, played a huge role in this conflict. This is something that has to be admitted if a case is to be made for ending the occupation or pursuing peace.

Secondly, and even more unpleasantly, as an Israeli I feel that my country is under assault. And although I oppose the settlements and am critical of other aspects of Israel, I am committed to defending it and i don't believe the attacks can be ended by any peace deal at present. Part of the attack is laced with a heavy dose of antisemitism. Part of this attack involves accusing Israel of racism (beyond what is justified). So I feel it's justified to point out the much greater racism on the other side in order to defend Israel from these kinds of attacks.

It's unpleasant. In the past I would have been there with you saying that we should scrub away the ugly racism to better deal with the real issues of land and nationalism. Now I don't think it's possible to do so for the two reasons I mentioned.

David Schraub said...

I think this pragmatic attack is the strongest case against using "racist" or "anti-Semitic" in this context. In fact, I used to subscribe to similar logic urging cautious usage of "racist" in America. While I've moved away from that position, I still recognize it makes some valid claims. Ultimately, the most important thing is what helps the parties come to a fair, equitable, and sustainable deal -- if "anti-Semitic" helps push us there, use it, if it pushes us away, don't.

That being said, there are a couple of benefits to keeping the terms in our vocabulary in this case. First, there is something to be said for allowing victims to tell their stories as they experience them -- and lecturing them otherwise can be as alienating as feeling like one is wrongfully being accused of racism. For every Palestinian aggrieved by being told they're taking an anti-Semitic position when they don't think that charge is fair, there's an Israeli whom you'll lose if you tell him that a Palestinian announcing that he bakes the blood of children into his Matzah isn't Anti-Semitic.

Second, anti-discrimination norms -- here defined as not engaging in racist or anti-Semitic behavior -- have a lot of moral pull and thus have particular importance in insuring that the rights of others are respected in circumstances where parties are particularly susceptible to only looking to their self-interest. When one is under occupation, or faced with an enemy who has announced their intent to slaughter you worldwide, it's obviously tempting to only care about one's own interests. As Britta put it in the other thread -- why should Palestinians care about what Jews are due? Except that perspective is disastrous if the goal is to craft mutually agreeable solutions consonant with principles of justice. Invoking obligations of anti-racism is the sort of moral norm strong enough to help pierce that outlook.

Third, and related to the second, if one identifies anti-Semitism and racism the way I do, I'm not sure it is possible or desirable to expunge it from the conversation anyway. The goal, again, is to craft a mutually agreeable solution consonant with principles of justice. That the solution isn't anti-Semitic or racist -- that, grappling with the specificity of Jewish and Palestinian life, experience, needs, and desires, it gives all parties their due -- is obviously a part of that. How does one create a solution without a robust understanding and discussion of what anti-Semitism and racism are and how they play into the conflict? In entrenched conflicts, there are lots of touchy areas and flash points, but those are precisely the areas that will have to be worked through -- otherwise you're just delaying the day of reckoning.

Britta said...

so, moving some of my thoughts to the new party, I want to say that I agree with bits of what everyone says. I really agree with Phoebe that, even if there is truth to it, calling the other side racist/anti-Semitic/colonialist/barbaric is for all practical purposes counterproductive. If the end goal is peace, then inflammatory insults from any party aren't helpful.

Secondly, I think my major difference with David is in semantics. I think we have different definitions of anti-Semitism, so what he might call anti-Semitic, I might call anti-Jewish prejudice, or such. For me, the term anti-Semitism is so rooted to its origins and carries along so many of those original meanings that IMO it's really hard to apply to anti-Jewish sentiment that originates with groups outside of Europe, even if those groups do pick up on and use anti-Semitic discourse. Anti-Semitism as a concept came about out of a potent combo of mid late 19th century racism, several strands of Orientalism, European language ideology, (particularly German philology), Christianity, and romantic nationalism, (Postone would throw in modern industrial capitalism as well) and you need at least most if not all of these cultural elements in some form to get what I call modern anti-Semitism, so even the adoption of anti-Semitic rhetoric or tropes doesn't mean that those who use them have the same logic or beliefs that European anti-Semites do. It may be, as David points out, this doesn't really matter except to academics whose job it is to fight over the meaning of terms (and certainly many academics wouldn't agree. I'm told my advisor, for example, finds Postone's definition of anti-Semitism morally offensive), and that we can use a broader brush stroke, but I guess this is why I find the term applied to non Europeans so difficult. My guess is in substance I more agree than disagree with David on this.

In terms of how groups of people perceive/treat other groups, I feel like my argument is being set up as a straw man. I don't feel like anywhere I have advocated for ethnic chauvinism, and obviously everyone should try to view the world from beyond their own immediate perspective and take others' humanity into account, and if everyone could treat others with understanding and empathy, the world would be a far better place. My initial response was to the idea that the Palestinians ought to consider what the Jews "deserve." I guess i have a hard time with the term "deserve," in that it implies that certain people are owed something and can demand it from whomever they please, regardless of their culpability in the initial wrong. It seems to veer uncomfortably close to saying that Palestinians should pay for Germany's crimes. I think it is possible to make a case for Palestine as the natural site for a Jewish homeland, but to frame justification for Israel as restitution for the holocaust makes its establishment in that precise location undoubtedly unfair to the Palestinians. Secondly, while I don't think groups of people should consider solely their own needs and disregard others, I also don't think they should completely subjugate their own needs to those of others. An analogy is I think people should be generous and conscious of others and strive to do good deeds, but I don't think people need to be doormats, or give so generously they end up homeless. Again, maybe David and I are arguing against straw men of each other's arguments, because I don't think we disagree terribly much.

David Schraub said...

I think Britta is right that we're mostly fighting off strawmen. I don't have any intrinsic objection to using another term other than "anti-Semitism" so long as whatever it is we do use actually solves the problem.

I've always thought of racism as characterized by acute morphology, a "scavenger ideology" (to quote Les Back and John Solomos) which grabs whatever is at that moment convenient to maintain the racial hierarchy. So Blacks are simple, happy-go-lucky sambos, except when they're bestial, over-sexed rape machines. And likewise for Jews, who are alternatively too cosmopolitan or too provincial, too orthodox or too secular, too capitalist or too Bolshevik. The only unity is in the oppression, and it's the oppression that is the problem.

Likewise, I agree with Britta that there is no obligation to wholly sublimate one's own interests to those of others. "Deserve" isn't meant to refer to some karmic account Jews are "owed" for sins committed upon then; rather, I'm speaking more generically about what everyone is owed as part of our stake in justice -- fair treatment, due consideration, etc.. In a plural world, I do think one needs to be attentive to particular histories in order to accurately determine what any given person in fact is "owed" -- that is, how to treat them in a fair and equitable manner. Hence why the question is what "Jews" or "Palestinians" are owed, rather than "what are humans owed". But all I was trying to say was that any non-trivial relationship we enter into -- intentionally or not -- has to be mediated by concerns of justice and fairness towards the other.

Britta said...

Ha, looks like we pretty much agree but were using different terminology. It's amazing at how much agreement a debate over the I/P conflict can produce. I think we should get the internet commentariat of the year award ;)