Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hooray for Daniel Gordis

Having cited Daniel Gordis in my post yesterday, I want to bring attention to his latest piece, which should be required reading in light of Israel's frequent appearances in the news this week (due to PM Netanyahu being in Washington). As always, Gordis tells it like it is - lucidly, non-ideologically, and convicingly. Three cheers for a brave and passionate Jew.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Sri Lanka, continued

The situation in Sri Lanka continues to occupy the news. As of today, it appears that the war between the Tamil Tigers and the central government has finally been concluded.

Before addressing why I believe the Israeli-Palestinian issue is treated so differently, I want to underscore this discrepancy by referring to a recent issue of The Economist.

In an editorial printed in the April 25th issue, the editors refer to the Tamil Tigers as "dreadful", "cruel and brutal" and call their leader "bloodthirsty". They note that the Tigers have "resorted to virtually every despicable technique in the terrorists' manual: suicide-bombing, assassination, extortion...". They are clearly pleased to see that the Tigers' violent rebellion is about to be ended by the Sri Lankan military, and go on to say that the government needs to bring about a "political settlement" of the Tamil issue.

In other words: get rid of the terrorists first, and then talk about political arrangements. It sounds good.

Would anyone imagine a mainstream Western paper daring to write this way about Fatah, or even Hamas? The writers would be immediately met with a crescendo of wrath from the usual sources. But here in the case of the Tigers, The Economist has got it exactly right. (And for further proof, see the language used in today’s New York Times article about the end of the war).

So, then, why the distinction? Why are the standards against which the Palestinians are measured differ from those applied to similar struggles?

I think that there are several issues at play.

1. Let's start with a simple reason: there are not that many Tamils in the world to raise cries of protest, or to make the Tamil issue a pressing one on the world stage. By contrast, the Palestinians have the vocal backing of millions of Arabs and billions of Muslims, who have made their cause a central element of their political identities. Of course, we know that there are many cases in which Arabs and/or Muslims suffer - usually at the hands of their own governments (see: Sudan) - and we do not hear anything from the same countries that routinely villify Israel.

2. Secondly, the land of Israel is loaded with cultural meaning and geopolitical significance, far more than Sri Lanka is. Everybody wants to claim it as their own.

3. And, just as the land of Israel carries strong associations, so too does the notion of 'Jews' and 'the Jewish people' evoke many associations (often negative). To many, therefore, the idea that the Jews should have their own state does not sit well. In the early days of the second intifada, Amos Oz - no hawk - said something like: 'In Europe, it used to be 'Jews to Palestine'. Now it's 'Jews out of Palestine'. The message is: don't be here and don't be there. In other words, don't be.'

This is crucial to understanding why the Palestinians are media darlings, their cause the cause of our day, support for their aspirations the litmus test for someone wishing to demonstrate his or her bona fides as a progressive. Israel is an unwanted, troublesome guest in the international community.

This argument was made, infamously, by Tony Judt in a 2003 article called "Israel: The Alternative". (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/16671). In this piece, Judt (a professor at NYU) said that the nation-state is a thing of the past, and therefore Israel, with its stubborn insistence on a Jewish state, should give up that quaint identity and become, like all of the good citizens of the world, a state for all of its people. (For a superb response, see the always-wonderful Daniel Gordis, in his article, "My Anachronistic Home", available at http://www.ujc.org/page.aspx?id=49856). Thus, concern for the Palestinians becomes intertwined with the notion that Israel is per se an illegitimate country. Or, stated differently, if the Palestinians did not exist, the world would have to invent them.

I don't mean to say that the Palestinian conflict is not worthy of serious attention, or that Israel's behavior has always been appropriate. It is that the level of opprobrium reserved for Israel - alone among the world's countries - cannot be explained without its connection to the deep wells of Jew-hatred that have long been a part of both Western and Arab culture.

Thus, the issue is not that the Sri Lankan case is ignored; it is just that the Palestinian situation gains far more attention than any other conflict on Earth. But the strong parallels between the two conflicts have to make an observer why the Palestinians are so much more deserving than the Tamils (or, for that matter, the Kurds, or the Basques, or any number of other stateless groups).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Conflict in a small Asian country

The country in question gained independence in 1948, after many years of rule by foreign powers. Since then, two main sectors of the population have been fighting with each other. These groups differ in ethnicity, religion, and language. The dominant group views its connection to the land in both religious and political terms. The secondary group disputes these claims and prefers to refer to the country by its pre-independence name. It seeks to create an independent homeland within the country. The second group has created a militant organization to lead an armed struggle against its enemy. This organization is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other international actors. Both sides are frequently accused of abuses against civilians.

Of course, it would seem that I am talking about Israel. But, in fact, I am not. The country under discussion is Sri Lanka.

The similarities between the two conflicts are remarkable. The country has about 19 million people, 75% of whom are from the Sinhala ethnic group, and 20% of whom are Tamil, an Indian ethnic group (also found in southern India). The Sinhalese are Buddhists, the Tamils mainly Hindu. The Sinhalese espouse an ideology which has been referred to as 'Sinhalese political Buddhism', which views Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese Buddhist state. The Tamils have long complained about domination and oppression by the Sinhalese. Their militant wing, the Tamil Tigers (formally, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) are notorious for having pioneered the technique of suicide bombings, back before it took hold as a favored technique among Muslim terrorists. Sri Lanka is the name given to the country by its new Sinhala leaders some years after independence; the Tamils will often call it 'Ceylon', which was its name under the British.

In virtually each of the elements I've described, all you have to do is substitute the names and we could be talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Essentially, this shouldn't be a surprise. In both cases, we are dealing with relatively new countries emerging after decolonization. When both ethnic groups were subservient to the British, the ethnic tensions were more muted. Once the colonial rulers were no longer around, these tensions become more pronounced.

Since I learned about Sri Lanka in the late 80s, I've felt that it is a much better analog to the Israeli situation, rather than the South African analogy so frequently used by Israel's detractors. The key distinction, obviously, is how the international community has dealt with these long-running conflicts. In the case of the Tamils, there is no UN relief agency dedicated specifically to their needs; relatively few calls for their liberation on college campuses and in academia; few NGOs sending volunteers to shield the population from Sri Lankan army attacks; and - most significantly - no expectation that the Tamils will one day achieve statehood. This last point has been brought home in recent weeks. The conflict is entering what many reporters are calling its last phase: the Tigers are cornered in a small sector of the country, and the Army is pressing in on them. The assumption appears to be that the Tigers will be defeated and the conflict will soon be over.

Why? Why do the Tamils not deserve their own state, whereas the Palestinians do? Why is it OK for the Sri Lankan army to destroy the Tamil insurgency, without regard for the Tamils' right of self-determination?

I think it is important to think about this question. I invite your thoughts, and I plan to share mine in a follow-up post.