Field Notes Editor’s Note
Both Sides Now
On an occasion engraved in my memory, the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Brandeis University (himself an architect of the “Strategic Hamlet” program in Vietnam for the US Army) reproached Professor Herbert Marcuse at a faculty meeting for having spoken at an anti-war rally: It is an intellectual and academic duty, he argued, to acknowledge both sides of disputed issues. Marcuse rose. “What,” he asked, “is the other side of the argument about Auschwitz?”
Under the circumstances, that silenced the dean. Of course, there was another side of the argument—the Nazis had made it for decades. Marcuse’s point was that the invocation of two possible perspectives was a bad faith strategy to sidestep intractable political issues.
I thought of this exchange while following the New York Times’s efforts to achieve journalistic “balance” in its discussion of the latest outbreak of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians. In perverse recognition of Marcuse’s point, the Times—despite its newfound concern for equity and racial sensitivity—can’t actually muster the “other side” to columnist Brett Stephens’s hardnosed defense of Israel and its policy of state violence. To date, there is no Guest Essay questioning “the right of Israel to defend itself,” as the official phrase has it. Instead, as an almost perfect expression of the wish for balance, we have an op-ed by Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. Speaking of the “tension” between Israel’s official claims to be both Jewish and democratic, he “insists on holding both.” “Jews need to … reassure Arabs that ‘Israeli’ is not a synonym for ‘Jew.’ Arabs need to come to terms with the fact that Israel will not abandon its Jewish identity and commitments.”1
Balance here steps into view clearly as an inherent narrowing of possibilities. And even more, as self-contradictory: in order for “Israeli” to cease to be a synonym for “Jew,” Israel would need to abandon its “Jewish identity,” and become a state not defined in religious or ethnic terms—precisely the terms laid out by the Israeli parliament in 2018 when it passed a law declaring Israel the “Nation-State of the Jewish People.” If it were not the Jewish state, but (as called for in a Times Guest Essay by Yousef Munayyer) one guaranteeing “equal rights [for Jews and Arabs] in a single state,” it might as well just be Palestine.2
Palestine would be a better name, of course, reflecting the history of an ancient geographical entity with a complex population, dominated socially in the 19th century by an elite of Arabic-speaking Muslims and Christians and controlled politically first by the Ottoman Empire and then by the British Empire. Israel emerged within Palestine out of settlements of Zionist Jews beginning in the 1880s. A specifically Jewish territory, alongside an Arab one, was created by the United Nations in 1947; the rejection of this partition by the Arab Higher Committee led to the war that ended with the establishment of Israel in 1948, setting the stage for its continued expansion, through a series of wars, into much of the territory of historical Palestine.
The centrality of ethnic cleansing to the creation of Israel is typical of modern nation-state formation. The long process of creating the United Kingdom, for instance, featured the Scots-English colonization of Ireland, the subordination of the “Irish race,” and the sale of tens of thousands of native Irish as slaves. The United States of America emerged directly out of the cleansing of the continent of its original inhabitants; when new sources of subordinate labor had therefore to be imported, they were explicitly defined as a population apart from citizenship (and indeed as counting only for three fifths of an American human being). With the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, newly formed Turkey killed as many of its Armenian inhabitants as it could, while Greece’s birth pangs involved the expulsion of Turks and other “non-Greeks.” The creation by partition of India and Pakistan was a double ethnic cleansing, with the usual massacres. To make a Jewish state naturally involved the expulsion of non-Jews, and the imposition of an apartheid system on those who remained, as well as on the inhabitants of the Palestinian territories occupied after 1967.
This would be no more of a “problem” than the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II, or the mass murder of Poles and Ukrainians in territories seized during the war by the USSR (an issue not raised at Nuremberg), were it not for the Palestinians refusing to suffer daily oppression on top of the loss of their ancestral homes and lands, not to mention the geopolitical interests of various other nations in an area that for a long time held the world’s greatest supplies of petroleum as well as important sea-transport routes. As it is, those who govern Israel, having long abandoned the effort to manage the Arabic-speaking population of the West Bank through some sort of Bantustan arrangement—the “two-state solution”—cannot accept a “one-state Solution” that maintains normal democratic procedures. Democracy with a Jewish minority would end the whole point of Israel as the Jewish state. For these rulers, like the American media, balance is out of the question; only an increasingly militarized maintenance of the status quo can keep the existing state in business.
There is in fact only one resolution to the problem—more properly, the social system—of exploitation, racism, war, inequality, and public corruption that Israel shares with every other nation of sufficient weight: the no-state solution. The function of each national state is to safeguard this social system of inequality and private property, with whatever local peculiarities ornament that structure. If you accept the system, you are stuck with the state, and with the plurality of states, tendentially in conflict as their political and economic interests rub against each other. This is the true “other side” of the argument, the one that is not spoken in public. But, however hard it is for people—and not just the editors of the Times—to take such an idea seriously, that’s just the way it is.
- Yossi Klein Halevi, “Israel’s Real Existential Threat,” New York Times, May 17, 2021.
- Yousef Munayyer, “This Moment is Different,” New York Times, May 19, 2021.