Only Jews get to say it

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People are talking about Jeffrey Goldberg’s very late epiphany that Israel is not much of a democracy for Palestinians and this clashes with American values. He cited both discrimination against Palestinians inside Israel and in the occupation:

[T]here’s very little Israel’s right-wing government has done in the past year or so to suggest that it is willing to wean itself from its addiction to West Bank settlements, and the expansion of settlements bodes ill for the creation of a Palestinian state — andthe absence of Palestinian statehood means that Israel will one day soon confront this crucial question concerning its democratic nature: Will it grant West Bank Arabs the right to vote, or will it deny them the vote? 

But Walt and Mearsheimer said much of this a long time ago. They were on to Israel’s intransigent refusal to end the occupation in 2006, and saw the clash with American values:

Some aspects of Israeli democracy are at odds with core American values. Unlike the US, where people are supposed to enjoy equal rights irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity, Israel was explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship. Given this, it is not surprising that its 1.3 million Arabs are treated as second-class citizens, or that a recent Israeli government commission found that Israel behaves in a ‘neglectful and discriminatory’ manner towards them. Its democratic status is also undermined by its refusal to grant the Palestinians a viable state of their own or full political rights.

At that time (and even after W&M retracted/regretted the word “blood”) Goldberg said they were anti-Semitic, and so did a lot of other Israel lobbyists, in the New York Times, Yivo Institute, the Washington Post, etc. In fact, there’s a basic prejudice at work here. It’s OK if Jews say it, but not gentiles. That prejudice is based on the belief that Jews are outsiders, a minority, and are vulnerable. Not long after he was scolding Hannah Arendt for having insufficient love for the Jewish people, the great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem said that only Jews could write Jewish history: “…Jewish historians… learned to insist, and rightly so, that Jewish history is a process that can only be understood when viewed from within…” Goldberg has the same view.

At this point in Jewish history, and American history, and American history, this attitude is an exclusive vanity. Jewish history is very important, and understanding American history means understanding Israeli and Jewish history, too.

The gateway for an understanding here is Michael Walzer’s brave statement at the Center for Jewish History a couple years ago about a new era of Jewish responsibility:

“We sustained a national existence for 2000 years without territory, sovereignty, and without coercive power… That is an extraordinary political achievement… one that has not been studied enough, or appreciated enough…. It may be that the talents honed by exile don’t fit the circumstances of statehood… We governed only ourselves, as best we could… Sometimes [we were] semi-autonomous… responsible only for ourselves. In the state of Israel, we have accepted responsibility for other people. That is something we have never had in all the years of exile, and we have not done terribly well.” 

With power comes accountability. Not just to ourselves.

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