In her column on the Haaretz website yesterday, Carleton University political scientist Mira Sucharov bemoaned the tendency of “some of the cleverest minds on Israel and Palestine” to “devolve” into Manichean thinking about Israel as either “good or bad.”
Sucharov highlighted my February 25 post at this very blog, among other pieces, to illustrate the failure of critics to “dwell for a while in the gray zones” of Israel’s record. Heeding a call from Thomas Friedman, she urged me and other observers to judge the Jewish state on more than its 47-year military occupation of the West Bank. (Her implied criticism of the refusal of AIPAC supporters to consider Israel’s flaws was intended to demonstrate her own ability to see past such “hardened binaries.”)
The charge leveled against my post, “The Ongoing Fantasy of Israeli Democracy Before 1967,” rested on my critique of a group of well-known dovish personalities like Yossi Sarid and Peter Beinart, whose support for targeted boycotts of companies that operate in the West Bank is premised on their wish to restore the apparent integrity of Israel’s pre-occupation democracy. Of course, neither Sarid nor Beinart are entirely blind to the racism deliberately built into Israel’s legal and political DNA in order to maintain the privilege of Jewish immigrant-settlers at the expense of the indigenous Arab minority that managed to remain inside the new state after 1948 — the main subject of my post and recent book. Still, their blunt rallying cries to “save” the nation by simply returning to the 1949 armistice lines reinforce a popular and well-established liberal Zionist amnesia about the systematic structural inequalities on which the Jewish state was not only founded but exists to this day (read: Israel before 1967, “good;” thereafter, “bad”). Their calls also silence the voices of the millions of Palestinian citizens and refugees who are actively working to attain justice (not just an undefined “measure” of it, as Sucharov would be willing to dispense) and the right to live with equality, freedom and dignity, including on land that in many cases was stolen from them or their families.
Sucharov wraps up with an admission that her column this week was inspired by her therapist’s advice not to issue a “zero-sum” referendum on herself as a person, since she — like all people — is a work in progress. Perhaps I missed the memo, but scholars are not in the business of treating states like individuals, or of judging them on their normative worth. Unlike in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, for instance, we no longer ask historians of US slavery or the dispossession of Native Americans to soften the stories they tell or to dull their insights into the damaging legacies those policies left behind.
It goes without saying that states and societies are always in motion, not fixed in time. Instead of worrying about whether I might hurt the feelings of a state, its policymakers or its military, it’s my job to observe them as they are.