Israel’s Ethical Challenges

A bitter irony of modern Israel is that the Jewish people have historically been at the forefront of tolerance, reason and egalitarianism but now have leaders who demand a Jewish religious state accompanied by the repression of Palestinian Muslims, a dilemma addressed by Winslow Myers.

By Winslow Myers

While Secretary of State John Kerry admirably shuttles around like the Energizer Bunny in search of Middle East peace, is there anything new to say about the intractable tension between Israelis on the one hand and predominantly Muslim peoples, especially the Palestinians, on the other?

One layer of the unspoken is Israel’s implicit status as a nuclear power.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama draw red lines in the sand concerning the threat of Iranian nukes, but say little about the only viable long-term solution: a negotiated and verified nuclear-free zone in the Eastern Mediterranean, even better, a planet-wide nuclear-free zone. Nuclear war anywhere on earth has become more unthinkable as it has become more possible.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (State Department photo)

Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (State Department photo)

Also rarely spoken, lest howls of anti-Semitism ensue, is an uncomfortable question: why do we frown upon the lack of separation of church and state in many Muslim countries, while Israel gets a pass in privileging a particular constellation of religion and ethnicity?

The historical rationale for the birth of the Jewish state could not be more reasonable. In the context of Jewish history over thousands of years climaxing in the Holocaust, no one could argue with Jewish fears of extinction and their need for a secure homeland.

Though all parties in the region ought to know from long experience how futile war, terror, obstruction and discriminatory harshness are as tools to suppress the universal impulse toward justice, each keeps trying one or another unworkable method, making the success of Mr. Kerry’s quixotic mission all the more crucial.

The present Israeli government derives its identity in large measure from fear of what it is against, and so it has encouraged injustices like the settlements that it would never tolerate were it a victim of similar treatment.

Obviously this is not to say that the anti-Semites of the Arab world are innocent. And it is unfair to compare the civil rights Israel has afforded non-Jews with the civil rights much of the Muslim world affords women and non-believers.  Israel does not order the execution of those who abandon Judaism.

However much it may wish to be even-handed, it sees its own Muslim population growing. If this population enjoyed full citizenship Israeli could eventually become a de facto Muslim state.  So it waters down Muslim civil rights to preserve its identity.

As we express our hope that Arab countries (and even the U.S. itself) evolve toward a more inclusive and tolerant politics, it is worth asking if the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state become counter-productive to its own long-term security? It is not that Zionism is racism, in the crude Arab formulation, but that Zionism has been transcended by the notion of a state relatively untethered to any one religion.

If the identity of Israel were re-established on the basis of equal rights for all ethnicities, ancient fears might begin to dissolve from within. The corrosive “us-and-them” dynamic could be undermined in a way that left Jews safer, just as Jews, while a minority in the United States, are surely as safe there, if not more so, as they are in Israel.

For Israel to become a fully secular state, the international community would have to guarantee the security of Jews, whether inside or outside Israel, a task that for understandable reasons Israel has always zealously reserved for itself.

Abdication of self-determined security is, to say the least, unlikely. Tragically however, maintaining a Jewish state will increasingly tie its citizens in knots as they are forced to choose between Jewish identity and full democracy. Jews and Palestinians for the most part do not know each other as people, and the predictable theatrics of their leaders do nothing to help reconciliation.

The entry point into a shared future beyond war is the face-to-face engagement of ordinary citizens at the heart level. It is people moving one by one from unfamiliarity, ignorance and fear, toward familiarity, empathy and enough trust to allow the heart to message the brain that it’s safe to get creative together.

The moral basis of the secular state, the tolerance and compassion that flows from the acknowledgement of universal rights, is ironically a major premise of the Jewish ethical tradition. An unbeliever once asked Rabbi Hillel if he could sum up the Torah while standing on one foot. The simple answer was “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the rest is but commentary.”

One of the many gifts world civilization owes the Jews is this confidence in an ethical universality that transcends specific sects and ethnicities. If I identify as a Jew but also as citizen of secular democracy, I am better able to interact with Palestinians according to our common identity as humans.

Finding ourselves in this shared human context, we will stand a measurably better chance of resolving our differences. To the extent that Jews allow themselves that larger identification with the “other,” they may not only come closer to fulfilling the ethical promise of their heritage, but also may find the security that has eluded them since the founding of the Jewish state.

How poignant that after thousands of years of their culture contributing so much to the world, this idea should still feel so risky. Godspeed, Mr. Kerry.

Winslow Myers, author of Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide, writes on global issues for PeaceVoice and serves on the Advisory Board of the War Prevention Initiative.

5 comments for “Israel’s Ethical Challenges

  1. Ross
    January 20, 2014 at 17:09

    Mr Myers (and others) make compelling arguments for a single, democratic state for both Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs, Jews, and Christians. The world has several examples of successful, multi-ethnic states: Switzerland and Canada which are democracies, Singapore which is not.
    Unfortunately, the world also has many, unsuccessful multi-ethnic states where people have not been able live together peacefully. Many are neighbors: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and there are more.
    Multiculturalism works in big cities such as Paris, London, New York, and where I live, Los Angeles in part perhaps because many people seek the vibrancy and opportunity of cosmopolitan centers.
    But where people seek not diversity but supremacy for their group, conflict and hardship beget civil war. Where one side trains children as suicide bombers, the other builds walls and checkpoints which buy temporary relief at a horrible price.
    With Lebanon and Syria as immediate examples, why should either side agree to unitary, bi-national state?

  2. John
    January 15, 2014 at 23:29

    Israel may give land back but then they close the door, by stopping export and other exchanges to take place acorss the border. That naturally causes a response which Israel and the friendly press towards Israel exploit.
    And who helped Hamas grow in the occupied territories, Israel. They undermined Arafat who truely thought he had peace by bringing in Yassin, the Muslim Brotherhood proponent to whom they gave the right to collect funds and was actually given funding from Israel until the last election when Hamas was suddenly number one. Arafat was at a loss over that.
    As for the history, those wars were long ago, not 1948. There was not mass removal of a people from their legitimate homes. More it is like the removal of the North American Indians from their homes to reserves, but the world no longer accepts that behaviour we hope.

  3. Morton Kurzweil
    January 7, 2014 at 15:32

    ” leaders who demand a Jewish religious state’ is the reason given by those who historically promote the existence of Jews. The necessity of a Jewish State is the answer to millennnia of religious oppression by religious states that demanded control of the minds and bodies through obedience to church dogma, Catholic, Islamic. and Christian.
    God is not represented in the perversion of myths that follow the interests of political successors who invent and prostalitize for personal ambition. Such individuals are among us today creating sects, inventing new prophecies and new religions, all based on the real and the true cultural behavior that separates one group from another. That separation of groups is the paranoia that makes for genocide in the name of belief.
    The State of Israel is a political reality as an expression of the right to exist and defend itself equal to all other cultures who might believe that faith is knowledge beyond Natural Law.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    January 6, 2014 at 23:10

    Winslow Myers says it well. There is nothing in this article I can disagree with. Well said!

  5. Hillary
    January 6, 2014 at 20:35

    Jews in Israel are of mainly Eastern European origins with only the mental connection with the Middle East and the modern day Jewish people are not the Israelites of old.

    The Israelites of old were promised to become a multitude of nations as the Scriptures tell us. Jacob Israel blessed one of his grandsons and said:

    Genesis 48:19 “… his seed shall become a multitude of nations.”

    Israel is not a democracy – it is a democracy-by-genocide that is far, far worse than the former Apartheid South Africa. Of 12 million Palestinians, 6 million are forbidden to even step foot in their own country that has been continuously inhabited by their forebears for thousands of years to the very dawn of agrarian civilization.
    Of 12 million Palestinians, only 13% are permitted to vote for the government ruling all of Palestine , namely the 1.6 million Palestinian Israelis who subsist as Third Class citizens under Nazi-style. Apartheid Israeli race laws.

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