Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Rights Talk

Several years ago, I read a book titled, "Rights Talk", the author of which I've long forgotten. The book argued that American political discourse had become bogged down in assertions of absolute and inviolable 'rights' claimed by different sides on almost every issue. The worst problem with this tendency was that it ignored the fundamental truth that rights are almost never absolute, since each exists in tension with the rights of others. Individual and communal rights are, by their very nature, 'rights against'.

In discussions of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, any number of rights are asserted on either side. The two most critical, it seems to me, are the Israeli 'right to exist', and the Palestinian 'right of return', which is really a reframing of the almost wholly ignored 'right to remain'. For now, I'm going to set aside the nuances of right of return, in order to focus on the meanings and implications of right to exist.

When people invoke Israel's 'right to exist', they often seem to conflate several, distinct rights, which leads to the claim being treated with more deference than it might otherwise receive, or merit. Because of this, it is extremely important to distinguish between at least three very different rights that may be at issue: 1) Jews' right to exist, 2) Jews' right to exist in the land of Israel, 3) the right of a political entity called the State of Israel to exist in its current form.

The first right on this list is as close to absolute as anything is likely to get; it is difficult to imagine a counterposing right (such as the Nazis' 'right' to live in a Jew-free world) that could compete. When people speak about Israel's right to exist, I believe that much of the claim's rhetorical power (and fierce emotion) is really rooted in this subtext.

The second right is, certainly, less compelling than the first. Without getting into the arguments for and against, I'll simply say that I consider it a strong, although not absolute, claim. This claim, too, seems to account for much of the power and passion of the 'right to exist'. This includes, among other things, the basic Christian Zionist interest in the conflict.

The third right, which is the element actually in conflict with the Palestinian right of return, seems much more dubious. First of all, it is open to question whether a political abstraction can have 'rights' in the sense used here. If we say that, rather, the Jewish people have a right to the State in its current form, then we certainly exclude the tens of thousands of religious Jews who object to the State's very existence; if we limit ourselves to Jewish Israelis, the relevant percentage probably increases. Then, for each lesser increment of hypothetical change which we reject, we exclude those Jews who would find that change desirable. Using fictitious numbers to illustrate: letting every Palestinian decide whether they want to live in Israel - 5%, letting 1,000,000 more Palestinians live in Israel - 10%, letting 500,000 more Palestinians live in Israel - 20%, letting 100,000 more Palestinians live in Israel (Geneva Accord?) - 50%, etc.

So, maybe we're saying that the Jewish-Israelis representing the margin of victory against any particular reform have a right to decide whether Palestinians should be permitted to live in Israel. But what about the Palestinian-Israelis? Shouldn't they get to vote (certainly many already do) and, if so, why? Well, one might say that, living under Israel's laws and paying her taxes, these people have a right to participate in the political process. Unfortunately, this also applies to couple of million people who are currently excluded, but then I never said the situation made much sense.

Well, here's the 'right', more or less: for the Israelis (both Jewish and Palestinian) representing the margin of victory in a vote against any particular reform to decide whether the Palestinians covered by that reform should be permitted to live in Israel. Now all we have to do is decide how to balance that right against the Palestinians' right to live in their own country, on their own ancestral land (to keep things simple, let's focus on the majority of Palestinian land which remains unoccupied).

In order to help folks think about this question, I offer the following list of Palestinian villages that were ethnically cleansed (and in most cases physically destroyed) in the 1948 war. These are just the villages in the Jerusalem area, which was pretty typical. As you read this list of communities driven into exile, I hope you'll ask yourself, how many violated rights can be justified in the name of achieving, or maintaining, an ethnically dominated State?

'Allar, founded < 1596 CE, pop 440, Muslim
'Artuf, founded < 1596 CE, pop 350, Muslim
'Ayn Karim, founded 2nd millenium BCE, pop 3180, Muslim & Christian
Bayt 'Itab, 4th century CE, 540, Muslim
Bayt Mahsir, < late 19th century CE, 2400, Muslim
Bayt Naqqubu, < late 19th, 240, Muslim
Bayt Thul, < 1596 CE, 260, Muslim
Bayt Umm al-Mays, <= crusade period, 70, Muslim
al-Burayj, unknown, 720, Muslim & Christian
Dayr Aban, Roman period, 2100, Muslim & Christian
Dayr al-Hawa, unknown, 60, Muslim & Christian
Dayr Rafat, unknown, 430, Muslim & Christian
Dayr al-Shayk, < 1596 CE, 220, Muslim & Christian
Dayr Yassin, < 1596 CE, 610, Muslim
Ishwa, < 18th CE, 620, Muslim
'Islin, < 1596 CE, 260, Muslim
Ism Allah, unknown, 20, Muslim
Jarash, < late 19th, 190, Muslim
al-Jura, < late 19th, 420, Muslim & Christian
Kasla, Canaanite period (Chesalon), 280, Muslim
al-Lawz, unknown, 450, Muslim
Lifta, <= crusade period, 2550, Muslim & Christian
al-Maliha, biblical period (Manahat), 940, Muslim & Christian
Nitaf, unknown, 40, Muslim
al-Kabu, Roman period, 260, Muslim
Qalunya, Canaanite period (Mozah), 1260, Muslim/Christian/Jewish
al-Qastal, crusade period, 90, Muslim & Christian
Ras Abu 'Ammar, < late 19th, 620, Muslim
Sar'a, Roman period, 340, Muslim
Saris, < 1596 CE, 560, Muslim
Sataf, < late 19th , 540, Muslim
Suba, Persian period, 620, Muslim
Sufla, crusade period, 60, Muslim
al-Umur, Byzantine period, 270, Muslim
al-Walaja, < 1596 CE, 1650, Muslim