The website +972 published an article about Israeli hotel staff warning Jewish guests that Arab patrons will also be at their establishments over the coming holidays. The commentary which they chose to attach to this particular piece on social media was the following:
Imagine the outcry if American hotels warned whites they would have to share the pool with black guests.
Without commenting on the actual event, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about a common phenomenon in Western media of which this writing is a prime example, where Western criteria are applied to discuss Israel and an analogy is set up for this purpose. A word of warning before we proceed: As the reader will see, my definition of the West here is a rather loose one.
The assumption that “all places are the same, therefore the same rules apply” should have been discarded long ago. The West should have understood this when the Afghans and the Iraqis proved, for whatever reason, incapable to adopt democracy at American insistence. Prior to that, a whole plethora of failed European colonial projects carried out in the name of “civilization” also showed that Western political culture is not always the best path for everybody, at least not when change is brought about in an inorganic manner. Even the members and satellite states of the former Soviet Union, where European ideals are relatively prominent in public discourse, are struggling with their own democracies.
That quick recap should allow us to see that the notion of “one size fits all,” whether in solutions or analytical tools, is really not something we can find unanimous support for in the historical record. Still, we are constantly plagued by this mindset, insisting to understand and solve the world’s puzzles not on their terms but on our own. This might come in handy for our own political conscience and desire to be part of a larger global movement for something, but when we translate it into actual politics it’s an easily predictable disaster.
When we make these analogies, we are essentially making the same erroneous — though seemingly logical — assumption that George W. Bush made: That all people will equally want to uphold Western ideals if given a chance, and that their desire for this will be so strong that they will immediately forget not only who they are, but what their current situation is in favor of a result that the West will find palatable. Consequently, we campaign for political outcomes which are unlikely fits for the situations we try to apply them to.
To pick a random example, we sometimes pretend that a whole host of problems would disappear if the security barrier in the West Bank would be done away with, since it’s wrong to segregate different folks. When we actually consider a realistic outcome, the result would be a drastic increase in Palestinian terrorism from Yehuda and Shomron. We know this because rampant terrorism is why the wall was erected in the first place, and because a recent poll taken by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that 32% of West Bank Palestinians who would participate in a legislative election support the belligerent Hamas movement, while 36% are enthusiastic about the relatively moderate, but not necessarily dovish Fatah. Elections at Birzeit University have seen a pro-Hamas student group win by a wide margin, and only 47% of those surveyed attributed this to current trends among young people. 8% of West Bank Palestinians actually think ISIS represents authentic Islam.
In the end, the wall proved to be a successful solution, albeit it did not reflect Western aesthetics. Instead, it echoed an Israeli desire for everyday security from terrorism. That sentiment, at least when compared with Israel, is largely foreign to European public opinion. The average American may also rank that concern below the importance of the lessons of the United States’ racial history, especially if the location under discussion is 7,000 miles away.
Thus we see that when we equate Israel with the West, we can easily become guilty of suggesting incorrect suppositions. Practically speaking this means we are either knowingly misleading people or are completely oblivious to the realities of the Levant. Let’s take a quick look at +972’s analogy.
Comparing Palestinians and Jews to blacks and whites in America, here are some important details that we gloss over. Jews and Palestinians have separate, competing, and mutually exclusive national identities in addition to vastly different political concerns. Because of this, in the foreseeable future, there is no chance of these two groups seamlessly integrating into a single mutually inclusive society. Setting up our analogy as if this was the obvious goal, we should consider that the most popular proposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the two-state solution. The comparison ignores that outcome being fundamentally different from the social reconciliation aimed for in America.
Incidentally, the overwhelming majorities of Jews and Palestinians also don’t profess unconditional support for the West’s liberal ideals which are largely rooted in various interpretations of and reactions to Western Christianity. In the West, at least formally and legally, national identity is post-ethnic and post-religious. I mean by this that you can be a Muslim from a Pakistani background and be a British national the same way as a white Anglican with deep roots in the UK. You may have cultural differences, but you will probably not see yourself as a member of a different national group. Not so in the Israel.
Real life shows that Jews and Arabs do not view religious and ethnic identity as private matters; instead, they consider them part of their national destinies. This is why even avowed Israeli Jewish liberals are fearful of a one-state solution. If their Jewish identities weren’t part of safely guarded national aspirations, they would simply be interested in living in a plain old democracy without concern for “demographic threats.” Likewise, most Palestinians are not particularly fond of the idea of living in a Jewish state. Supreme Court judge Salim Joubran’s understandable rejection of singing Hatikvah is a telling symbol of this.
Simply from reading the news it’s also obvious that these two groups do not view violence as inherently wrong. Rather, they see it in more Clausewitzian terms, as a valid everyday political tool. While the West is largely horrified by the use of aggression, Jews and Palestinians are not afforded this luxury. Both Palestinian and Israeli leaderships and factions use force regularly. This tactic creates a considerably different domestic political reality than anything currently imaginable in the West.
In Israel and the Territories, Jews and Palestinians are separate peoples whose ultimate goal is not simply coexistence but self-determination, preferably in separate national frameworks. They have a deep history of political violence and not primarily of racial animosity. (This is a good time to note that Judaism is not a race.) Despite the contents of its charter, this is why Hamas recently tweeted that they “don’t have problems with Jews. To be anti-Semitic is to be anti-Hamas.” Even if you are prepared to take this at face value, while Hamas might not have a problem with Jews living in Canada, they certainly have a problem with Jews who have national goals in the land which they view as Palestine.
In contrast with this, while American blacks and whites may not share a unified historical narrative, they definitely have a common national narrative. The comedian Patrice O’Neal joked to a receptive audience that he’s not going back to Africa, because he wouldn’t want to wear sweatpants and tuxedo shoes while fighting with an AK-47. “I’m an American,” he concluded. All jokes aside, he was right. African Americans are part of the US, even if they are a disenfranchised part of it. This is why they aren’t emigrating en masse to Africa as part of a national liberation movement; they see themselves as Americans. Average white Americans are also not interested in African Americans leaving, in spite of what the 24-hour news cycle might have you believe. US citizens in general understand that being an American has to do not with what you were born to be but with shared ideals. Does this sound like an accurate description of the relationship between Jews and Palestinians?
I have personally heard an ocean of examples of this type of analogy made either formally or informally: Benjamin Netanyahu and Viktor Orban, the security barrier and the Berlin Wall, Religious Zionists and Evangelical Christians, the Holocaust and the Nakba, Israel and European colonies, the Chief Rabbinate and the Catholic Church, the wars in Gaza and Bosnian Genocide, Israeli security measures and apartheid, the Palestinian Territories and Bantustans, the IDF and the Nazis, JSIL (sic) and ISIL, et cetera. All of these comparisons can only be made if we ignore the fact that they try to pair up distinct personalities or historical phenomena which have very little to no connection, and they certainly deserve to be analyzed on their own unique particulars.
We play this game and allow it to be played because it saves us the time of actually having to consider something in depth. We don’t have to spend the time figuring out what’s happening in the world, we can simply use our existing arguments from a situation that we are (hopefully) already familiar with. It saves us the trouble of learning new languages, of delving into complex realities, of making an effort to understand different cultures. More importantly, it allows us to point a finger, create villains we can be comfortable with, and place ourselves into stories in which we may not have the expertise to meddle.
I’m not saying that we should abandon the quest for creating a better world, or that we shouldn’t be weary of unnecessary hatred. I am also not saying that we shouldn’t be engaged in comparative exercises, because those can be immensely useful if executed well. But we should make sure that when we are doing these things, we are focusing on the actual problem and not on reinforcing our own political identities. We should try to take a lishma approach to evaluating alien situations, that is, we should try to look at them for their own sake and not for our own. If we want to make a meaningful contribution to discussions about faraway places, we should not assume that our own realities are always valid starting points. Instead, we should try dealing with the actual issue at hand.