Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The politics of spiteful nationalism

Usually I'm not really a great fan of Jeffrey Goldberg, but his stuff on Israel of late has been interesting. Here's a good example from the NYT, focusing on the fundamental disconnect between the perceptions of ordinary Israelis, and some of the states more :

These Jewish leaders, who live in Chicago and New York and behind the gates of Boca Raton country clubs, loathe the idea that Mr. Olmert, or a prime minister yet elected, might one day cede the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to the latent state of Palestine. These are neighborhoods — places like Sur Baher, Beit Hanina and Abu Dis — that the Conference of Presidents could not find with a forked stick and Ari Ben Canaan as a guide. And yet many Jewish leaders believe that an Israeli compromise on the boundaries of greater Jerusalem — or on nearly any other point of disagreement — is an axiomatic invitation to catastrophe.

One leader, Joshua Katzen, of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, told me, “I think that Israelis don’t have the big view of global jihad that American Jews do, because Israelis are caught up in their daily emergencies.” When I asked him how his Israeli friends responded to this, he answered: “They say, ‘When your son has to fight, you can have an opinion.’ But I tell them that it is precisely because your son has to fight that you have a harder time seeing the larger picture.”

This certainly fits with my own, rather limited perception of Israel, which is a country in which a reasonable (if somewhat paranoid) majority, who'd like a two-state solution if they thought it was possible, is essentially being sacrificed to the whims of the vocal minority of religious lunatics determined to expand their settlements until they coincide exactly with those suggested in the Torah. The trouble is that, obviously, that the vocal minority does a much better job of marketing a romantic, religious vision of what a "homeland" should look like. "A "global vision" of Jews fulfilling their destiny and fighting some hazily defined menace is always much more appealing than just thinking of a bunch of folks trying to find a way to minimise their "day-to-day emergencies" and get along.

Uncritically adopting the really fundamentalist and unsavory aspects of the national politics of the "motherland" is a really easy way to prove your Jewish/Irish/whatever credentials. You don't need to know any of the details of the debate - just buy into a few fundamentalist polemics and, Hey Presto, you instantly get to feel like part of whichever movement tickles your fancy. Usually this sort of ethno-nationalism on the cheap can seem reasonably harmless. We've all met Irish-Americans in times past whose idea of respecting their cultural roots seemed to consist of being unspeakably rude to any English folk they met. All this meant was that I had trouble getting served in Irish bars when I went to New York (unless, of course, they had actual Irish people working there). The trouble starts when they delude themselves into thinking that they actually do know what's going on, and, in an attempt to put their money where their mouths are, start donating it to the IRA.

Anyway, the point is that Israeli politics in the US is like that times 1000. With regards to US policy towards Israel, this is all profoundly unhelpful. US presidential hopefuls have to genuflect to this cartoon-version of what a sensible Israel policy would look like, and this stops them from pushing the sort of sensible compromises that would actually help Israel in the long-run.*

*Matthew Yglesias, however, suggests a possible glimmer of hope in the form of J-street, a new US Jewish lobbying organization devoted less to crazy ideological wars and more to sensible policy proposals. Lets hope.


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