Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Primacy of Politics

I honestly appreciate the many thoughtful comments people have been writing here the past few days, including over the weekend where I disappeared from the blogosphere. Thanks for the interesting perspectives.

I see the time has come to write a few basic posts about long-term matters such as what my position is on the potential outcome of peace negotiations, Jerusalem, settlements and such matters, so that readers can understand if they agree with me or not at all. I take pride in the fact that not all of you will agree: this blog has a mildly eclectic readership

OK, I've noted the need.

In the meantime, one fundamental position which seemingly wasn't clear enough in my post about human rights in Hebron. Although there's much about the matter I still need to study, for the time being my position is that politics are superior both to international law and to human rights. I expect some of you may cringe, and there are millions of folks out there who'll never read this blog who would respond with abysmal derision, but that's life. As JRR Tokien once wrote, I don't expect I'd much like what they write, either.

Human rights and international law are not the same thing, though people who unthinkingly bandy the terms around as magic charms to ward off reality don't always recognize this. That post I just mentioned wasn't very well written, I see, but its point was to say that since human rights are separate from matters of international law, you'd expect its champions to be able to recognize that the current desolateness that is central Hebron is better - from the narrow perspective of human rights - than its preceding alternatives in which lots of people were dying. Yet they can't recognize that, and one of the reasons they can't is that they aren't truly champions of human rights. They're bearing the mantle of human rights in vain, while actually talking politics.

The reason they engage in this charade isn't hard to understand. Human rights are noble (really!), and we'd all like them to exist, and be respected, on a higher plane than mundane and unseemly politics. Moreover, using the terminology of human rights in a political discussion is like playing poker with only the strongest cards: the other side can't win. If one side is noble and the other is mundane and the best it can offer is the cynicism of politics, clearly the noble side wins automatically. My point was to poke a hole in the intellectual pretension. B'tselem and their like are framing their view of human rights in Hebron (and everywhere else) in the terms of their political position, not in terms of some universal context as they ought in order to be intellectually consistent.

The other point I made, but mostly in order to set up the main argument, was that international law and human rights aren't the same, and at times can even contradict each other. It may be that international law frowns on Jews living in Hebron (which is a reason to have reservations about international law), but human rights can't have an opinion on the matter. A champion of international law may feel comfortable in saying there should be no Jews in Hebron; a champion of human rights must say the international law is irrelevant for the matter of the rights of the Jews who are there, irrespective of how they got there.

Having hopefully clarified that, let me add that in my humble opinion, politics trumps them all, human rights and international law. Yes, at first glance politics is messy, cynical, full of backhanded deals between tired and jaded negotiators with all matter of hidden agendas, while international law and human rights, both, profess to be clean systems of orderly thinking and finest principles. How nice, and what is there not to like.

Politics, like them or not, are the space where societies work out how they're going to get things done, and then change their mind when reality intervenes; they're also the space where different societies work out how to live with each other, or fight with each other, or fight and live. A society which is contained within one political unit will hopefully have a healthy balance of law, rights, needs, agenda and so on, and its political discussion may take place within the limits of its accepted consensus. Separate societies which don't share a basic set of assumptions, don't. Pretending they do won't change that. Suggesting they ought to is.... politics. It's legitimate, but as part of the political discussion, not as some divine set of aces which over-ride the political process.

Coming down from the heavenly spheres, this means that Israelis and their neighbors need to find accommodations that work. Human rights, international law, emotional drives, history, economics, clashing religions, global warming, hummus and tabuleh, American politics, European politics, South American politics, swine flu, military power, water tables, and zillions of other things are all relevant if they are. It all gets worked out - resolved, or unresolved - in the space where societies work these things out.


PS. In democracies, at least, politics are where the will of the people expresses itself. Can't get any nobler than that, can you?


Victor said...

You're very clever, Yaacov. For a Soviet Jew, however, "everything is politics" can have more cynical, less noble meanings, encapsulated, essentially, as the pursuit of power. Politics is a tool; it should not be an end in itself, its human subjects reduced to dried husks, drudging towards death, as they are pranced around the chessboard.

Culture, identity, human interaction... all need not be politics.

Anonymous said...

Also, isn't the notion of human rights supposed to express certain values that "trump" politics and prevent a tyranny of the majority? Like I explained it to my son (in first grade) - if there are more girls than boys in his class, and if they decide (majority rules, after all) that only girls can have candy - that would be an unfair use of the democratic system. Politics and the will of people are great things, but even they have limits, and that's where human rights is supposed to come in. That's the difference between formal democracy and constitutional democracy: even the majority is bound by certain rules and has to respect certain fundamental rights of the minority. So really, human rights and politics ideally go hand in hand.

And just a point about settlements: international law aside, there is something fundamentally problematic about an occupying power - which maintains military rule in territory subject to its control - creating civilian settlements in the occupied territory, and granting full citizenship rights only to its own citizens who live there. The question isn't whether Jews should be allowed to live in Hebron, but whether Israelis should be allowed to live there *as Israelis*, with full political rights in Israel - while their neighbors remain subject to military rule (no vote, military legislation, military courts, etc.) for over forty years. Seems like a pretty fundamental violation of human rights to me. A country can't occupy a territory, settle it with its own citizens, apply its civilian law to them, and keep the "natives" under military rule for decades and call itself a democracy forever...

Anonymous said...

Your argument that the human rights of Jews in Hebron must be observed "irrespective of how they got there" seems highly problematic, since it would confer human rights to any invader anywhere -- which is not meant here to deny the historic Jewish connection to Hebron.
But let's say the Iranians managed to conquer a part of Tel Aviv, and to hold out there for a while and establish a nice little Revolutionary Guards commune. Would your argument about human rights apply to them?
Moreover, I think you have a problem because it's one issue whether Jews should have any right to live in Hebron, but it's quite another whether Jews should have a right to live as Israeli citizens in Hebron.

Victor said...

Anonymous, the Jews of Hebron were massacred in 1929 by their Arab neighbors. By calling the Jews who live there today "invaders", you are legitimizing the act of violence which purged the city of Jews to begin with.

And why stop at 1929? Why not go back 1000 to when the Arab Muslim horde first conquered the area and converted the inhabitants to Islam by the sword? Explain to me again who the invaders are.

This is precisely what Yaacov is talking about. If you want to discuss human rights, then everyone's rights are equal. The current conditions have been established to separate the two sides and preserve life, the most basic human right - and they are working.

Once you start discussing the legitimacy of who lives where, and who has what claim to what, you're not longer discussing human rights; you're talking politics, and you should stop pretending that your primary concern are the human rights of inhabitants.

Furthermore, it may surprise you to learn that the vast majority of Hebron's Jewish quarter is Jewish land - literally, the homes and lands were purchased by individual Jews. Are you actually proposing we deny Jews property rights simply because their Arab neighbors would prefer not to live near them?

Make sure you examine your position more carefully and evaluate what positions you are taking out of respect for human rights, and what you assert as a consequence of your political leanings.

Victor said...

For the record, many Palestinians have Jordanian or American citizenship, and thus are free to participate in the political process of these nations.

To address the earlier Anonymous, should they be allowed to live in Hebron as "Jordanians" or "Americans"?

This is a silly argument. The settlers are not in Shomron and Yehudah as a consequence of forced transfer by the government of Israel. They were free to do as they wished, in a territory that was and is disputed under international law, and which Israel placed under (what was thought at the time to be temporary) military administration, while extending Jordanian and Ottoman law to ensure continuity.

The Palestinians have always had their system of courts - both Sharia and tribal - and have carried out irreversible exercises in autonomy, including multiple elections and civil administration.

Prior to the 1980s, Palestinians could freely enter Israel to work and enjoy the beach. The controls on movement and security restrictions were only instituted when conditions deteriorated due to PLO terrorism.