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Some thoughts on Israel and the Political Center

25 May 2012

Some friends of mine have been talking about the recent upheaval in Tel Aviv. I suppose upheaval is a nice way to say race riots of the kind the U.S. used to have on a regular basis to intimidate people of color by white folks marching in the streets, destroying their property, burning torches (and crosses), and from time to time lynching someone. I’ll avoid the comparisons of the Tel Aviv riots with the Nazis and Kristallnacht, as they are obvious and painful. On a good day, the difficulties of talking about Israel within a Jewish context are legion, and one always risks being labeled an anti-semite for criticizing Israel or being labeled an imperialist for supporting Israel. The rhetoric is heated, divisive, and in my opinion counter-productive. That said, I’m going to dare to dip my toes into the turbulent waters to talk about a particular trend that I see in current conversations about Israel, especially among younger people:  the desire to somehow split the difference between the “two sides” of the issue, that there is an “extreme” right and an “extreme” left when it comes to Israel, and so the correct or best answer must lie somewhere in between the two “extremes.”

Without having an actual person or article to argue against, I want to in this blog just hold up for examination the (admittedly decontextualized) idea that taking a middle position between two political positions, i.e., the political “center,” is not only possible, but indeed the most desirable political position. The language of the “center” that I have heard invoked often over the past several years (e.g., in analyses of Obama’s presidency, in discussions about the economic collapse, even about torture policies) poses some serious problems for me, both in terms of the ethics involved and in terms of its political efficacy to solve our collective problems. Just on the surface, I would observe that sometimes the center is the desirable position; but sometimes it is not. Sometimes the center is the best choice; sometimes it is the most dangerous. I remain unconvinced that the center position (whatever that might be) is going to be the best possible answer to the ethical problems of the state of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians or to its internal inequalities with its castes of partial and incomplete citizenship for arabs, refugees, converts, civilly married and mixed-marriages, etc.

To begin, I disagree with the valorization of the center as such. Arguments for the value of the center per se fail, for me, in that they make of the center a political end-in-itself, as somehow superior to any other political position per se. This makes the center into a kind of received or pre-approved morality or politics, excused from the burden of vetting its own values or policy positions. Empirically, the political “center” only exists relative to the political range of its social and historical context, so the “center” is a moving target as you jump from place to place and through history. Such a moving target cannot be said to be the best position, then, in any particular case, anymore than a right or left position can be taken as the de facto best answer to any grounded political problem. The center, moreover, is in fact just as ideological as any other political position. But the ideology of the center is often more insidious, because the center more often than not favors the status quo and resists change; the status quo is often the “hidden” ideology, that is, the ideology invisible to itself because it is the ideology of the habitual, the already-is. Choosing the center, then, doesn’t free you from any of the pit-falls of the so-called “extremes”; rather, it places the onus of critique upon the center to justify itself in terms other than the status quo. This is not necessarily the case, but looking for example at the last three years of Obama’s presidency, that seems to be true of what is currently the center in the U.S.

The problem for me comes not in the center as a position, but when the center is a valued as an end-in-itself, when the center is the default political position, valorized for its very character of being “between” or “in the middle”; here the center has become what is valued, rather than the contents of the specific political position. The center risks becoming in practice a means to avoid having the hard political and value conversations of a particular issue or within a specific context; it is seen as a position of wisdom, as if slicing the political baby in half to find the middle will automatically give one the best policy or value position.

While a careful consideration of a full range of political values and positions is the sine qua non of a healthy democracy, the normative claim that we should always end up in the center—a claim often facilely made in television “debates” about policy (or by my students in their papers)—in practice actually forestalls a careful evaluation of the range of values and positions, since we already know normatively that the center is the “correct” ending place of our evaluation. Such a normative claim for the center both forecloses the democratic process of deliberatively arriving at best policies—we need to be able to evaluate the range of possibilities and pick the best one, not simply the “center” one— and in effect often defaults to favoring as little disruption to the status quo as possible.

I think of middle-class white folks during the mid-century American Black Equality (Civil Rights) movement, for example, who as a group argued for blacks to stop protesting, use the courts, be patient and wait for change to happen. The primary value of the center is to make transitions and policies the least discomfiting and disruptive for those whose lives are relatively stable and good in the status quo. They weren’t against black folks have equal treatment under the law; but they also weren’t in favor of black folks demanding equality. So they, the sages of the middle, sought the answer somewhere between Jim Crow and Black Equality. We only have to look to the early 19th century “gradualists” to see how that middle way would have worked out.

Another problem with the valorization of the center is that it relies on positing a left and right that are somehow equivalent, both equally valuable and equally problematic. But empirically, they are not. Both left and right represent a range of values, practices, and policies that can be evaluated in terms of ethics and efficacy. The strategies and tactics of various political movements and ideologies (wherever they fall on an already problematic dichotomous left-right scale) differentiate them fundamentally and they can and should be evaluated accordingly; both the real and possible outcomes of policies (a consequentialist perspective, I suppose) as well as the ethical implications of specific practices and policies must be the focus our judgment. The most intellectually dubious normative is to judge a political position based on how closely it allies to the center.

In the case of Israel, it is not the left clamoring for exclusion of non-Jews, gerim, and Reform American Jews (let alone refugees). It is not the left with a stranglehold on religious institutions ranging from marriage to adoption to education to military service. It is not the left building settlements while dissembling to the public and the world. I see a right wing that has dominated Israeli politics since at least the early 1980s. I do not see a left in power or a left dominating political discourse in Israel (let alone American discourses about Israel, which is dominated by a love-it-or-leave-it or be called an anti-semite ideology). Nor do I even see a unified vision for the state of Israel on the left; rather I see a range of possible values and policies to the left of the status quo—and likewise to the right. So arguing that the two sides are equal and equally dangerous doesn’t make sense on the ground. And arguing for a “center” makes no sense in that context.

To be clear, I am not saying that the left is innocent or necessarily desirable. Far from it. Rather, I am saying that it is not the same as the right, in morality, outcomes, or practices. And I am saying the “middle way” wants to have its cake and eat it too, while pretending that it is itself non-ideological, a peacemaker (if you’ll excuse the King James Christian word), the “wise” who sees Israel more clearly than the “extremes”—when in fact, as I said above, it is just as ideological as any other political position. In the case of Israel, the so-called moderate center has the dubious distinction of having enabled for nearly 30 years the increasingly far right control of both politics and religion within Israel, to continue the expansion of settlements, to continue exclusion of non-Jews from the state, etc.

In both the U.S. and Israel, the “center” position more or less amounts to, as I said above, favoring the status quo while refusing responsibility for the consequences of the “centrist” political positions. In the real world, that could amount to the potential end of the state of Israel, in my opinion, for continuing on its present course will inevitably result in the demise of the state, or at the very least its final decline into the unapologetic colonial oppressor and exploiter its Arabic enemies have been accusing it of being for the past 60 years.

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