Sunday, May 11, 2008

Israel’s 60th Birthday: Some Thoughts

This week marked the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state. As Jeffery Goldberg at the Atlantic Monthly points out, Israel is the culmination of one of the most successful nationalist movements of the last century, and yet it still faces stark questions with respect to its identity and future.

I am Jewish by birth: my mother is Jewish, and Judaism is a matrilineal religion/culture. Like many Jews raised in New York City in a secular home with little exposure to explicitly Jewish culture, I have mixed emotions about both Judaism and Israel. I know that my ancestors were often singled out and persecuted, and that to this day Jews are still a hated minority in many parts of the world. I do not take lightly the struggles and pain of the Jewish people.

There are many things about Jewish culture that I respect, particularly its strong intellectual tradition and the fact that Jews by and large do not believe in proselytizing. At the same time, my strong aversion to organized religion puts me at odds with much of Jewish identity; I also find the notion of a “chosen people” offensive.

It is with respect to the state of Israel that my feelings are most mixed. There is something uplifting about a people so long reviled and persecuted finally realizing their dream of a state of their own, one which they have turned into the most prosperous in the Middle East. But the human costs on both sides have been tremendous; I’ve been reading about the history of the Israelis and the Palestinians for more than a decade, and I’m still not sure where the blame really lies.

Some things, however, are clear.

There is no doubt that suicide bombing is evil, and that the Arab states bent on Israel’s destruction are largely filled with vile opportunists who use the Palestinians as pawns to deflect attention away from their own corruption. Israel is not free from blame, either. The continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank clearly violates both international law and any proper sense of justice.

More importantly, the very nature of a “Jewish state” troubles me.

The essence of liberal democracy is that states are defined by ideals, not by ethnicity; yet so much of Israeli domestic and foreign policy is driven by the goal of maintaining a majority ethnic Jewish population. Because of higher Arab birth rates, this ultimately means that Israel will either have to create a two-tiered socioeconomic system (akin to apartheid in South Africa) or somehow decrease its Arab population (through expulsion or other means). In some ways the Jews may be suffering the “winner’s curse”: after thousands of years of struggle, they return to their homeland only to see demographics deny them their dream.

The bottom line is that Israel will eventually be faced with a difficult choice—either be democratic or be Jewish. Since I believe strongly in democracy, my own choice is clear; yet I can still sympathize with the fears and hopes of my ethnic relatives half-way across the world.

I hope and dream that one day humanity will be drawn together by shared ideals of freedom and universal human rights. In the meantime, religious and ethnic bonds will remain some of the strongest that both keep people together and tear them apart. Israel is ground zero for this dynamic, and will likely be for the foreseeable future.

Jason Scorse

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