The bedrock of Israel’s claim to moral superiority in the Middle East (ME) is its liberal democratic pluralism. It is the only ME state ranked ‘free’ by Freedom House. This separates it from the dictatorships, openly islamist governance of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Gaza or the pan-Arabist nationalist narratives so common elsewhere. In a neighborhood filled with illiberal, particularistic ideologies rooted in the conservative communalism of race or religion, Israel has hewed to a liberal universalism. This morally elevates it above its neighbors and appeals to the West, to whom liberalism is modern, and Arabism and Islamism feel like 19th century reactionary throwbacks.
Yet this is only partially true, of course. Israel too has a nationalist-religious narrative – Zionism, the restoration of Eretz Israel. This narrative is well-known, but its formal proclamation as Israel’s legitimation would be problematic. That would place Israel’s intellectual justification in the same particularist/communalist realm as its neighbors. Instead of a liberal, open state contending with reactionary aggression, de jure Zionism would make the Middle East into a competition of religio-nationalist projects, in which one is triumphant through force of arms.
Arab and Islamist ideologies claim Palestine as national soil or holy ground. Western liberalism finds this reactionary and distasteful. To the extent that Israel argues for and practices a liberal use of this space (as it does, e.g., in permitting free worship for all in Jerusalem), then the West will sympathize with its attempt to defend liberalism against reaction. But if Israel overindulges a soil/blood/religion narrative too, then western sympathy diminishes. If Palestine is read as sacred Zion, holy soil, by Jews, then the conflict slides easily toward a religious or cultural contest in the vein of a clash of civilizations.
Clearly the settler movement endorses exactly this sort of thinking. For them, Eretz Israel is a holy and nationalist project. But more disturbing is when such logic is directed as justification at Americans who should not be expected to support a religious, nationalized project. This violates our liberal values, and opens the door for Arabists and Islamists to ask why we prefer the Jewish religio-national project for Palestine over their own. The answer, of course, is greater cultural and religious affinity between Americans and Israelis, as well as more political comfort with Israel over its (dangerous and badly governed) neighbors. But if we openly assert this, then we lose all moral claim to arbitrate neutrally the Arab-Israeli dispute. Then we become a partner to one side in a particularistic cultural showdown, rather than a defender of liberal universalist values. This is exactly the suspicion that Obama worthily tried to overcome in Cairo.
I am thinking here of M Peretz’ and Netanyahu’s rejection of Obama’s Cairo speech. Peretz is miffed that Obama did not validate the zionist narrative of Israel’s foundation. Obama sought “to diminish the determination of the Jewish people through the ages, and especially since the age of nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century, to reclaim their homeland, to bring its very earth out of desolation and restore its dispersed sons and daughters to Zion–all this not as a reparation [for the Holocaust], but as a right.’ And Netanyahu: “The right to establish our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel arises from one simple fact: Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish People.” To boot, Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state.
Yet Obama is exactly right to reject such illiberal logic. To endorse such conservative romantic metaphysics would be politically disastrous and violate core American liberal beliefs. It is exactly this sort of rhetoric, even from the avowedly liberal New Republic, that convinces Arabs and Muslims that Israel is just another religio-nationalist project they must contend with their own. This sort of ‘holy soil’ rhetoric fires the conflict, not softens it.
We all know that Israel was founded in great part on the intellectual basis that Peretz and Netanyahu describe. But this sort of religious nationalism no longer commands normative respect in the West. The reason the West today prefers Israel to its neighbors is its liberalism – civil rights, elections, religious freedom – not its Zionism (except for the US religious right). So every time Israeli leaders and defenders wander into zionist, antipluralist territory about the Jews’ ‘right’ to Palestine – well, then Westerners just can’t go down that road. Invoking divine rights, national privilege from time immemorial, Moses, or God to claim territory is exactly the same logic Muslim ideologues use to denote parts of the world as ‘Muslim lands,’ which may therefore be purged of non-Muslim influences. The claim that Israel must be ‘Jewish’ has never been demanded of the Palestinians before. It is creepy, because it implies demographic control measures should Israel’s Jewish majority status be jeopardized. The US can hardly be expected to support such language.
Hence, the dilemma seems to be to square the zionist desire to have a de facto Jewish state with the liberal need to have Israel be a de jure pluralist democracy. This problem is similar to Quebec’s desire to be both liberal and francophone. An open constitutional declaration of a Jewish national-religious state would make Israel into a more liberal, Jewish version of Iran. But Judaism could heavily influence national life if Jews were a strong majority within a liberal democratic frame, as is the francophone case in Quebec. The best way to achieve that is to cut the occupied territories loose as soon as possible and keep the overt zionist jargon under wraps. Israel can be a Jewish-majority state, as the US is a Christian-majority state or Quebec is a francophone society, but Israel should never seek to constitutionally be a ‘Jewish state.’ This is what religious ideologues in places like Saudi Arabia or Calvin’s Geneva do. Zionism needs to try to be as liberal as possible. If not, Israel is just another competing tribe in the factionalized Middle East, with no principled claim on Western support.