Micah Goodman Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War Part I General Background

The biggest difference between this book and that of Yossi Klein Halevi’s (Letters to my Palestinian Neighbour) is that Goodman’s book is about dialogue among and between Jewish Israelis and not between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. However, neither book takes up the issue of a necessary dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis. It is important to realize that Sayed Kashua, the Palestinian Israeli author of BildungsromanDancing Arabs (2002), Let It Be Morning (2004), and Exposure (2010), has given up on writing his comical weekly column for Ha’aretz and even given up on the idea of an Israeli Palestinian identity for himself and his family. He moved to the United States in spite of the enormous room he had for expressing the Palestinian Israeli experience. Both Goodman and Halevi ignore this dimension of a necessary dialogue.

Goodman argues that (and I would also argue, as in much of the political world elsewhere) reasonable disagreement has collapsed as different factions have moved into their own intellectual silos. The capacity to listen has vanished. But Goodman’s book is not about listening to different narratives, but listening to different positions and the arguments in their support among Israelis.

The result according to Goodman: Israelis recycle the same ideas over and over again. There is no exchange on the central issue of borders and the future. On that, Goodman begins the book with a map of how the West Bank is divided among Areas A (under both Palestinian and security control – the large Palestinian population centres in the West Bank), Area B under Palestinian civil jurisdiction but Israeli security control, and Area C where most of the Jewish settlements are under both Israeli civilian and military control.

While Israelis, according to Goodman, are driven by two types of fear, Palestinians, as Halevi argued, are driven by a history of humiliation. However, Goodman’s focus is on the differences between the two Israeli positions as outlined above. I appreciate Goodman’s book for his effort to break through the impasse on the peace process. I largely agree with him concerning his approach to dealing with peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, I find that I disagree with how he arrived at his conclusions. I particularly disagree with him with various points in his narrative of the development of Zionism. This raises questions about how these differences affect both his analysis and conclusions. As well, I disagree with both his logic and some of his theoretical assumptions. Sometimes, I am just confused about his position.

For example, how is it that Goodman claims that the solution requires detaching opinions from identities if the position of the Right, as articulated above, is a matter of interests rather than an identity issue? However, at other times, he considers the motivation on the Right to be an identity issue, an identification of Zionism with occupation and control of the whole of the Mandate territory and not just fears for the security of Israel. If so, how then is it that the Right is driven mainly by security issues and not ideology?

The Right may be driven by military security fears, but their position is framed in terms of passions rather than interests.  Thus, unlike Halevi, the core issue is not one of passions, of existential anxieties, but of interests. However, the passion of the extremist Israeli zealots offers the greatest obstacle to peace because it is they who do not accept the Talmudic injunction to control one’s passions. Rather, they lionize warrior believers and portray the Palestinians as Amalekites who need to be ethnically cleansed from the land of Israel, and exterminated as a national movement at the very least.

That means, for Goodman, that the passions have to be bracketed, passions identified with two respective positions. The war within Israel is simplified as one between peaceniks and those who believe in a Greater Israel where the whole of the West Bank would remain part and parcel of Israel. It is a war between Leftists who want to withdraw to the Green Line established before the Six-Day War and once more be regarded as a normal non-occupying state respected by the international community and Rightists who do not want to give up any territory, not only because they believe in Greater Israel, but because they believe withdrawal would leave Israel “shrunken, weakened, vulnerable, and doomed to physical destruction.” But then one becomes confused, for Goodman argues that it is a conflict between identity politics (the Left) and fear of an existential threat, though couched in messianic visions (the Right).

Goodman offers the model of the debate between Hillel and Shammai in the first century CE and claims that Hillel won the debate because Hillel demonstrated that he understood and could take into account the position on the other side, that his side was “agreeable and forbearing” showing restraint rather than extremism, a willingness to teach the position of the other side and genuinely listen to it and even modify one’s own position in light of what one hears.

Other than which direction to light Hannukah candles, the key debates between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were more serious. Members of the House of Shammai were elitists; members of the House of Hillel were democrats – learning was open to anyone. Shammai was a dogmatist and absolutist when it came to ethics; Hillel was nuanced. Shammai permitted marital divorce only in cases of serious transgressions; Hillel insisted that a man and wife could divorce for any reason. The followers of Shammai were Zealots, the followers of Hillel much more willing to compromise with foreign authorities.

Goodman seems to be saying that there is a correlation between unbending dogmatism and elitism, hard ethical standards and very restrictive grounds for divorce while Hillel not only listened but was a liberal and a peacenik. If the parallel is continued, then Leftists are the modern equivalent of the House of Hillel while Rightists follow the path of the House of Shammai. The Left appears to be less dogmatic and more open to hearing the other side, more, however, when that other side is Palestinian rather than the Israeli Right.

Does Goodman suggest that the Left listens while the Right does not, a position upheld with respect to the different political positions in the U.S. by Professor Nicole Hammer in her study, “Messengers of the Right”? It is not that CNN is the propagandist voice of the Left and Fox News that of the Right, but that Fox News is a propaganda medium and CNN is not. (See Jane Mayer, “Trump TV,” The New Yorker, 11 March 2019). It would appear not, since Goodman argues that both the Left and the Right are locked into silos where they only hear echoes of their own positions.

Goodman, like Halevi, holds that Palestinians are largely governed and driven by the emotion of humiliation while Israeli Jews are driven by fear. Ironically, the Jewish zealots agree that Palestinians feel humiliated by the way they are treated. On 24 May 2004, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a long piece in The New Yorker called, “Among the Settlers.” As Goldberg tells the story, “Look at this,” Eliyahu, a zealot said. “It’s humiliating. We should kick them out of here for their own good. What they have to go through, it’s too much.” However, the reverse might be true. Palestinians desperately want the soldiers of the IDF to feel ashamed because the soldiers sometimes kill unarmed civilians, sometimes prevent Palestinians at checkpoints from reaching medical help in hospitals, and sometimes even kill children, something hard to prevent when children are used as child soldiers and as shields.

However, unlike Halevi, Goodman does not count on empathy and understanding of the Palestinians to overcome differences in the two different narratives of the two peoples. Goodman would certainly not go as far as the zealot who remonstrated Jews for their empathy. “Stop being Jewish! Only a Jew would say, ‘Imagine yourself as a Palestinian.’ Could you imagine a Palestinian imagining himself as a Jew?” Goodman is sympathetic to empathy but does not consider empathy the main tool for pursuing reconciliation.

Here again, as I have alluded to in other blogs, currently, and in spite of the flare up in Gaza over the previous weekend, Jewish Israelis have never felt more secure. The Israeli Democracy Institute before the last election showed that the foremost question in the minds of Israelis was not security and terrorism, war and peace, but bread-and-butter issues. This was also true of Palestinian Israelis. Further, the issue of leadership ran a close second followed then by security. Just 19% of Jewish Israelis and only 3% of Palestinian Israelis prioritize defense issues.

Further, with greater security has come greater compassion for the Palestinian position on the Right as well as the Left. The sense of fear, in spite of Gaza, has abated. In fact, because Gaza was evacuated of settlements such as Gush Katif, and this resulted in much greater insecurity, Israelis of virtually every ideological position but the far Left have become convinced that settlements are not the key obstacle to peace. Israelis are generally quite willing to continue the occupation to prevent a recurrence of Gaza.

Further, they “know” that the settlements cannot be the core issue because Arafat turned down a fair offer from Barack to exchange land for peace, an even fairer offer from Bill Clinton and the fairest offer possible by Olmert in 2008, though, to be precise, Olmert was an impotent Prime Minister when he made the offer and it was very unlikely that he could have backed that offer with real action. Further, Palestinian officials in their national literature still object to the existence of Israel, still refuse to recognize any historic Jewish connection with Palestine, and still reward terrorists as martyrs of their cause, specifically child soldiers who sacrifice themselves as screens and stone throwers for militants and sometimes even serve as suicide bombers. For Arafat as for Abbas, “This child . . . that hero, becomes a martyr? We are proud of them.”

Goodman contends that the Gaza withdrawal transformed messianic Judaism. “Nationalism did not transform secularism; secularism transformed nationalism instead. Secularism provoked a form of nationalism among Religious Zionists that found justification not only in the Bible but in the soil and redemption as well.” Here, I confess, I could not follow Goodman since, in my reading of the movement of messianic Judaism, it was never simply about a Biblical commandment and always both about security and “blood and soil.”

The major shift that took place, as I understand Israeli history, is that Israelis know that the 440,000 Jewish Israelis outside of annexed Jerusalem in the West Bank cannot be uprooted and relocated in return for any peace deal even if Israelis believe that a real peace is possible, even though a majority objected to the settlements in the first place and even though they find messianic Judaism antithetical to everything they believe. The egg, as they say, is hopelessly scrambled.

Most Israelis, like retired General Moshe Ya’alon, believed and continue to believe that the settlements do not serve a security purpose, but, on the contrary, exacerbate the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and enhance the need for greater security measures. A diplomatic peace treaty would provide more security than occupation. Goodman argues that this belief is founded on two mistaken assumptions, one which minimizes the power of the historic conflict, what I have referred to as the passions, and a second which overestimates the value of any diplomatic accord.

On this I concur with Goodman, but will argue that the real issue is uprooting the settlements now that they have been established. Look at the difficulty of uprooting 5% of that number in Gaza. And look at the result, not only from the Palestinian point of view, but from that of the international community. I suggest that Israelis are not so much driven by insecurity and fear as by despair, at least with respect to prospects for peace.  

Look at a map again, this time of actual Israeli Jewish settlements. The vast majority of the Israeli Jews in the West Bank live in Area C. Out of 127 settlements, Modiin Illit, 2.3 km. from the Green Line (73,000), and Beitar Illit (Gush Etzion), 10 km. south of Jerusalem (59,000), two primarily ultra-Orthodox settlements, account for about 30% of the population of about 440,000 outside of Greater Jerusalem. The issue is not just drafting a peace accord that does not endanger Israelis, but one that can be realistically implemented by both sides. Uprooting the vast majority of settlements in the West Bank cannot be implemented by Israelis. Guaranteeing a peaceful neighbour with Palestinians of all political stripes cannot be guaranteed from their own side.

In sum, in this general overview, I believe the focus of the book on the Left versus the Right as the fundamental dichotomy leaves out both Palestinian Israelis and the vast majority of Jewish Israelis who do not align with either the extreme Right or extreme Left who insist on the Green Line as their reference for establishing peace. No peace plan premised on uprooting most of the settlements on the West Bank, let alone in Greater Jerusalem, is workable. And I remain unconvinced that Israelis are primarily motivated by fear while Palestinians are driven by humiliation.

In the next two blogs, I will examine Goodman’s narrative of Israeli history to test both its historical accuracy and whether it supports the peace process he recommends. I want to follow this up with an examination of his logic and his theoretical assumptions.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

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