our second speaker

Our second political speaker, David, got together with us today. Our guides felt somewhat guilty about our first speaker (which might have to do with his answer to my question). The second speaker was a lot different and also more upfront than the first. Not surprisingly, he was a reserve officer in the IDF and works for the Israeli strategic department. Obviously our Birthright organizer was intent on getting a speaker with the least amount of bias and personal stake in the status quo *sarcasm*. However, he didn't claim any special status for Israeli "purity of arms." He didn't take an obnoxious, and moreover, hypocritical moral stand.

He was an academic who spoke from a very specific theoretical framework:
International Relations Realism with an emphasis on Game Theory. This limited what anyone could directly challenge him on because this framework so powerfully narrows ethical debate. We sat there in what seemed like a college class for two hours listening to him. I looked back and forth over my shoulder hoping that the audience wasn't thinking, "we're all sitting at this lecture because of YOU!"

He prefaced his talk with the complexity of the situation in the Middle East and how it is a multi-level conflict. And therefore the lines are not so clearly drawn. He referenced the fact that in the 1980s, Maronite Christians, teamed with Shiite Muslims, supported by Israel, fought against Hezbollah. "Anyone who says they can explain what's going on in the Middle East is a liar," he said. There was potential here.

After that he got straight down to business defending Israeli security policy, stating that X number of possible attacks were thwarted by Israeli security forces each week. One member of the audience scribbled this down on a piece of paper, eager to collect ammunition. David would not talk in detail about how he came to these numbers because of military confidentiality. But it would certainly be interesting to know in what stage these "plots" were "thwarted." Were participants just talking about an attack? Planning logistics? Obtaining explosive materials? From what I know about police responses to demonstrations in the U.S. against the WTO and IMF, cops are eager to pretend that normally common household items like paint thinner, glue, paper-mache, and hammers are bomb building materials and weapons.

Certainly I'll admit that there are a handful of people planning to commit suicide attacks against Israel on a given week. But in a state that condones torture as an interrogation method (to be discussed in another post), I wonder how much Israeli security forces "cook the books" by extracting confessions out of people that haven't actually done anything.

Obviously David is a statist (otherwise he'd have nothing to study). He also bandied about the belief that most nation-states are based on a cohesive ethnic group and that when there is a single ethnic group in a nation, you're more likely to have peace. If there is more than one ethnic group then conflict is more likely. I think the theory is just too simplistic, a touch racist, and of course totally ignores any economic factors that may set groups of people in conflict.
It privileges the idea of ethnicity (itself a fluid term, usually categorized by common ancestry) over any other possibilities that might bring people together such as class.

also made a big deal about another theory: if Palestinians actually want a two-state solution they just need to "declare independence." He suggested that they draft a document similar to the U.S. Declaration of Independence. After drafting the document, he argued, Israel might formally recognize the Palestinian state, and then make peace with it. He seemed genuinely excited about this proposal, as if he were the first to make it.

The problem with this theory is that a Palestinian Declaration of Independence has existed at least since the 1980s. And one could see the resulting Palestinian Intifada as a war for independence.
He argued that Palestinian leaders are not interested in real independence because they would have to take full responsibility for the new state. These same leaders are probably so complacent because they are benefiting from the current arrangement with Israel either economically or by retaining their current power. This is something Edward Said had been suggesting for a long time before. And I agree with him. I don't think Palestinian leaders are representing their people (as it is impossible for a few people to make decisions for a mass) and more often than not sell them out. Which brings us to the simple but often forgotten distinction between criticizing leaders and criticizing a given cause.

He did get a few things right. First, he acknowledged that states can engage in acts classified as "terrorism." Second, he stated that each Palestinian is equal in value to each Israeli in his calculus. He also brought out two messy words that had not been uttered by an authority figure on the trip: "military occupation." I thought this might "break the spell" of the trip, though I didn't notice anyone flinch. He clearly stated that the West Bank and Gaza Strip were under a military occupation by the IDF. However, he later argued that a military occupation is acceptable under International Law.

He contradicted himself when saying that people should take statements from Iranian and Fatah websites very seriously and literally; but then later, that statements from Europe supporting the Palestinian cause should not be taken seriously. So, how do we know which public statements to take seriously? He also sidestepped the events of 1948, saying that there wasn't sufficient time to discuss them (though I suspect if he did our group may have also heard the term "Palestinian expulsions" for the first time in the trip).

Even more interesting were the reactions of other participants after the speech. They turned to me, dying to know what I thought of him. As if the right speaker could easily repair the fissure in the group. As if the state of Israel could now officially be considered a completely unproblematic, democratic, benevolent country as long as the opposition gets a chance to speak (then the substance of their argument can then be ignored). I sincerely hope this wasn't the case in their heads. Or perhaps they felt guilty that I had been feeling left out and hoped David's speech could change that?

I tried to explain that I didn't agree with his framework, how it simplifies our world into reductive and sometimes sadistic games, but there wasn't much more I could say. After all, it didn't seem like there was much more than that they wanted to hear.
Sometimes I don't think people realize the sheer amount of time and energy it can take to construct a new theoretical framework, especially if a given audience is not familiar with it. In a situation (like a lecture) that requires such concise statements from someone in the audience it's nearly impossible to present new ideas.

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