By Jim Miles
The Hebrew Republic – How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last. Bernard Avishai. Harcourt (Houghton Mifflin), Orlando. 2008.
Two events have severely diminished the prospects of this book since it was published in early 2008 – the IDF attack on Gaza and the current global recession. In what are somewhat hopeful but weakly expressed arguments, Bernard Avishai was on slim grounds to begin with. His two main pillars of Israel of the future are of a Hebrew republic based on “globalization” – essentially the Washington consensus economics of finance capitalism. While there is some room for hope that he has expressed certain ideas that are progressive, they are surrounded by misleading ideas and omitted ideas. Finally his arguments are based much more on philosophical musings without a significant amount of practical logistics on how to achieve his end – a Hebrew republic that is also secular and democratic, inclusive of the Palestinians in Israel.
Avishai admits to being within the Zionist tradition, but that of the ‘progressive’ viewpoint of a socialist all-inclusive state of Palestinians and Jews. It is fairly obvious that Israel is here to stay as its military dominance is unquestionable and its relationships with its Arab neighbors of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, at least the elites that make up those in control, seem relatively stable. Avishai develops his ideas within the concept of the elites, both for the Arab states and for Israel. Given that, Avishai attempts to formulate some ideas that are “centrist” in that they avoid the extreme views of the Orthodox fundamentalist Jewish sects and the extremes of the right wing secularists fearing the Palestinian demographic explosion. I am not sure I have interpreted Avishai’s definition of centrist properly, but that view is what remains after reading his mostly philosophical musings.
At any rate, the positives, at least for those supporting the right of an independent Palestinian people are his statements about Palestine itself. For historical items he recognizes that “large tracts [of Palestinian land] were expropriated after the 1948 War, effacing some four hundred Arab villages,” after “some 750,000 Palestinian Arabs either fled their homes or…were driven out.” The current settlement initiatives are seen as “oddly greedy and provocative,” not in his mind similar to the initial “pioneering settlements.” Recognition is given to the ongoing attempts to deprive the Palestinians of their land, from the lack of a constitution (which in many U.S. minds denies the ideal of democracy) and the development of the Basic Laws, “the Jewish Agency, Zionist land banks and mortgage companies…the labor federation Histadrut…the Law of Return…the Orthodox rabbinate’s determination of what a Jew is…all of these mechanisms for appropriating and distributing land.” Finally he recognizes that the current occupation is counterproductive for the development of the Israeli state.
Looking towards the future Avishai posits some progressive views on Israel/Palestine. His first point is that Israel “would have boundaries” and “agree in advance to a border based on the internationally recognized Green Line. It would welcome a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem in return for an internationally recognized Israeli capital in West Jerusalem.” Secondly Israel would “pass a bill of rights and a formal constitution, guaranteeing all of its citizens an impartial state apparatus,” and “would retire the Law of Return and replace it with an immigration bill.”
The third suggestion is that “Israel would guarantee equality of property rights” and within ten years, privatize all lands in open, impartial auctions.” While this latter point sounds positive, the vast inequalities in economic positions between Palestinians and Jews within and without Israel proper, and the same inequities within the Jewish population would lead to a great land grab by the same “elites” he is citing as being the leaders into the future.
Avishai’s final change is that Israel would separate religion and state. That would lead to “civil marriage, divorce, and burial,” rather than control by the Orthodox Rabbinate, and a “true public schools system” that taught a full curriculum of science and the humanities rather than the strict Orthodox teachings now in place in many schools. Hebrew would be the official language with Arabic and English taught from the first grade on.
Much of this possible, much of it falls within the frameworks that have been accepted by the Palestinians for some years, but also much of it is antagonistic to current trends in Israeli government policies and actions. Whether any of it is probable is highly arguable, as I am sure Avishai would be in full agreement.
There are two levels of concern with the text. First is the lack of much definition of logistics on how to achieve all this. Avishai presents long arguments of a philosophical nature regarding differences between the various interested Israeli parties, but does not come to grips with the problems of how specifically to do this, nor how to keep it successful other than the weakly argued implication of a trickle down effect from an economy based on globalized high technology. Attached to that are the omissions that tend to complicate the situation, such as the recognition of the militaristic nature of all that high technology.
One of the biggest problems is that lack of recognition of U.S. support for the current Israeli government, both economic/military support as well as diplomatic support from Congress. Nowhere is the $3 billion in annual aid monies recognized (well more than enough to guarantee that all the settlements continue with their associated economic and social benefits for the settlers). Nowhere is the power of the Jewish lobby, AIPAC mentioned other than being obliquely referenced as “American Jewish organizations” who “rallied” Congress, when in reality they do much more than rally Congress and had all presidential candidates bowing before them while seeking election.
This brings the reader up against current events. In a phrase that now reads like “Oops, did I write that?” Avishai sees that a “rightist coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu could well make a comeback; if, say, a terrorist shoots down a jumbo jet landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, a rightist victory would be certain.” Obviously without that happening, the rightists and their allies had to create their own “terror” with the Gaza missiles and execute their plan to invade Gaza and destroy Hamas. This one action alone, the terror of an occupying force using a pre-conceived terror image to attack and kill hundreds of Palestinians, most of them civilian, worked reasonably well (for the Israelis, not the Gazans) in the following elections. Avishai is strictly against Hamas, giving them little recognition as a political and social force as well as an armed insurgency against an occupying force. He takes their election out of context, not recognizing the U.S. push towards this “democratic” event and not recognizing that it was the withdrawal of economic support by the U.S. and its servient allies that led to the weakening of the government – and not that the support was withdrawn after the Hamas almost-government had become weakened and ineffective.
The second current event is the global recession. One of Avishai’s central arguments for a strengthened Israeli economy that would also strengthen the Palestinians within and without Israel proper is that of going full out within a “globalization” of the economy based on the strength of the Israeli technology sector. This has several faults. First off is that “globalization” is mainly a corporate led wealth grab by the elites and is based mostly on consumption and finance capitalism, the latter dealing recklessly with great amounts of debt at many levels. Admittedly technology has its hardware and software components, but it also falls under the rubric of military hardware, and Avishai says little of standing down the Israeli military (and its nuclear weapons) when all else is settled. This of course ties in with the globalized economy as it currently stands, with U.S. military bases, and its mercenaries in NATO, creating and supporting that economy.
The world is now in a global recession, created by the wonderful corporate bosses who are the “elites”, who are not democratic nor transparent nor open and who are supported by the largest military in the world (understanding also that the military is not always beneficial for civilian corporations but great for the likes of Boeing, Intel, Lockheed-Martin and hundreds of others). Israel has joined that recession and its recent economic success is just as shallow as that of the rest of the world when based on corporate finance capitalism.
While much of what Avishai writes is possible, the probabilities of building a democratic, secular yet Jewish state (mainly through the language), and maintaining it within a “globalized” economy based on a corporate-military model are very slim. While I have touched on the main arguments above, there are other smaller items that creep in as well (for example, comparing Israel to Quebec in Canada with its official French language; unfortunately for his arguments Canada as a whole is officially bilingual, something I believe Israelis would find great difficulty accepting). The weakness of some of the presentations, the reliance more on philosophical musing rather than logistics, and the omissions and avoidance of certain issues (nuclear non-proliferation, U.S. support, a corporate sponsored elitist economy) ruin much of the possible becoming a probable. Within that, give it a read for the various philosophical arguments as they do present some insights into the variety of thoughts within Israel itself.
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.