Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Inviolability of Israel

American politics is littered with third rails, topics or subjects that can't be broached or addressed in any meaningful way without frying the individual in question.


I think that was recent nominee for a senior intelligence position.

That highly electrified rail is the complex relationship between the United States and Israel.

On the one hand, Israel is a parliamentary democracy. It's an essentially free state in a region that is defined by monarchies, despots, and repressive theocracies. It has every right to exist, and exist in peace. It is also a reliable and natural ally for our constitutional democracy.

On the other hand, Israel is a nation state, with all of the flaws and foibles that exist in such entities. It is not perfect, any more than the United States...or any of us perfect.

After it's most recent election, Israel now is governed by what may prove to be an unusually truculent coalition of nationalists and ultra-nationalists. Given the ongoing provocations by Hamas, the results of the recent election were predictable. Human beings who perceive themselves as under attack will always seek hardliners to protect them, and Israelis are no exception.

Their new foreign minister, for instance, is an ultraconservative supporter of the expansion of settlements, who views any suggestion of negotiations with Israel's opponents as evidence of treason. He supports the institution of mandatory loyalty oaths for Israelis, to the point at which he's at odds with some of the ultra-orthodox, who view this as a violation of Torah. Their new prime minister is a hard core hawk, and one of the architects of the ill-conceived wars in Lebanon in the 1980s. Take this cadre of leaders, add in the militants on the other side of the equation who need conflict to justify their existence, and the odds are good that things will at some point get messy. Or rather, messier.

The challenge, of course, is that many folks have a great deal of difficulty "supporting Israel" if that support requires every Israeli action to be a priori correct. In the United States, those views are largely held by American conservative Christians, whose attitudes towards Israel are governed by a strangely warped biblicism. Using a few verses of scripture picked out of context, suddenly even speaking a word of concern about Israel becomes forbidden. Israel is God's Country! You can't say anything bad about the Land of the Promise! At least, not until after Jesus comes back, at which point they'll all either bow down before him or go to hell.

This is particularly strange given where the Bible stands on the subject. Pretty much the entire prophetic literature is filled with invective against Israel and Judah. God is endlessly pissed off at the stubbornness of His Chosen People, and does a fair amount of kicking their butts. That doesn't break the covenant, mind you. He still loves 'em. But when they step away from covenant and/or become tools of injustice, they are not above being held to account. As far as God is concerned, Zion is not inviolable.

The challenge, of course, is how to articulate a concern for justice without seeming to threaten the integrity of that often embattled democratic state. Progressives and liberals in the U.S. generally do a pretty crappy job of this, falling into rhetoric that only alienates them from the very folks they're trying to influence. My own denomination has managed to do a pretty clumsy job of it, alternating between open dialogue and destructive invective.

Not sure the way out of this one...but it's a serious conundrum.