Identity, Israel

Engagement not Apologetics: a response

This guest post by Stuart Tochner is a response to Aryeh Cohen’s piece on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations.” Cohen’s post can be found here. Coate’s essay is here.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations is one of the most stunning social arguments I have read in years. It’s remarkable because it’s not simply a case for mass payments to an entire people in compensation for past wrongs. It is a call for national reckoning. It is plea to come to terms with the centrality of slavery and its progeny upon the creation of what we call the American Dream, and to wrestle with what those implications are for our society. It is, in a sense, a plea to look within ourselves, and our story, and to admit how we became what we became, and if there are demons within that narrative, to confront them.
In that narrow sense, Aryeh Cohen is absolutely correct to draw an analogy with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, that national reckoning has been going on now—or has at least started—for years now. With the publication over the last fifteen years or so of books from the so called “New Historians”—and from Benny Morris in particular– Israelis have been fed a steady diet of meticulously researched and documented hard truths about the birth of the State of Israel. Difficult decisions were made in the years surrounding 1948, and ugly actions were taken. Some Palestinians suffered greatly as a result of the miracle of Zionism, and that’s a truth that can’t be ignored. Increasingly, those truths are being wrestled with, and they need to be appropriately reconciled with the Jewish values to which we aspire.
But it is important to note that the analogy abruptly ends there. Slavery was a conscious decision by white colonists in the Americas to forcibly kidnap and enslave African human beings, haul them across an ocean in unimaginable conditions, and create an entire economy built upon the backs of the labor of those individuals and their descendants. Slave owners had nothing to fear from the Africans they kidnapped, they had no issue or problem with them; they had no dispute that divided them. They simply held persons with black skin in contempt, as persons with rights inferior to them, and therefore entirely free to plunder. Coates goes on to describe persuasively how that plunder has continued right up to this day, in the form of Jim Crow laws, housing policies, and loan practices,.
Indeed, the word “plunder” appears throughout Coates’ essay. It really is the theme of his argument.
The creation of the State of Israel, by contrast, couldn’t be more distinct. At its core, the conflict is about two people claiming the same plot of earth as their own. One claims it as its ancestral homeland for over a millennium. The other similarly claims it as its ancestral homeland, and also as the land deeded to them by God. Both claims are deeply rooted and genuine; indeed, that’s what makes the conflict both so controversial and intractable. And if one accepts the existence of an intractable territorial dispute, then one cannot be surprised by the violent movement of people as a result.
Coates’ argument is about the plunder of another people for the strategic long term benefit of another. The “nakba,” by contrast, is not in any sense about such economic plunder. It is the sad result of a wartime displacement of persons who for the most part did nothing to create their predicament. It’s a tragedy, it is a truth filled with pain, but it hardly rises to the level to the conscious import and subjugation of an entirely innocent people to serve as the vassals necessary “to create a more perfect union.” The “nakba” is the story of refugees caught up in a regional conflict. And in fact, unlike most conflicts that result in populations shifts, this one results from a conflict among two peoples with competing, and valid claims to the same land. Modern arguments to the contrary, Zionism was never about Western colonization of a foreign land. It was, with justification, a movement motivated by a sense of coming home.
Coates’ finished his article by describing how reparations paid by West Germany in the 50’s to Israel benefited not only Israel, but also Germans. By paying compensation, it helped Germans come to terms and accept responsibility for the crimes of their Nazi predecessors. Most responsible Middle East peace proposals today involve some payment of reparations to Palestinians in lieu of a right of return. Perhaps such reparations would help Israelis come to terms with their own (but not sole) share of responsibility for the pain suffered by generations of Palestinians.
A national reckoning is important. Both for Palestinians and for the souls of Israelis. But comparing the conscious and voluntary economic sins of slavery to the far more complex and existential sins undertaken in the course of a national rebirth seems supremely unfair.

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