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On Its 75th Birthday, Israel Still Can't Agree On What It Means To Be A Jewish State And A Democracy

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Under a portrait of Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948, declares the establishment of a Jewish state to be known as the state of Israel. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As Israel celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding, and nearly a century and a half after the first Zionists came to Palestine from Europe, the core tension behind the country’s establishment – whether a Jewish state could be a democratic state, whether Zionism could accommodate pluralism – is more obvious than ever.

Israel today is a military powerhouse and one of 38 members of the influential Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, formed in 1961 to promote cooperation among democratic, free-market-oriented governments.

Such strength and economic viability would be unfamiliar to the Jews whose identity was forged in the European diaspora. There, Judaism and its practitioners shunned political and military power. They saw themselves as a minority facing discrimination, persecution and violence. Power was the domain of gentiles.

Jews, often separated from the non-Jewish world, focused instead on developing social institutions to help the poor and weak, not asserting their will as a political community.

This attitude toward the state and politics began to change for Europe’s Jews in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when the majority of Jews lived in Europe, especially central and Eastern Europe. As some of the traditional legal and political barriers that kept Jews outside of mainstream society began to crumble, Jews began to integrate into broader society and culture.


Expert analysis of the birth of the state of Israel and the plight of the Palestinian people.


This process also brought about, for some Jews, new attitudes toward their Jewish identity.

Many no longer defined themselves as members of a religious community. As many other groups had begun to do in Europe, they saw themselves as belonging to a national community. For some, nationalism also offered a way out of the predicament that Jews faced in Europe: hatred and discrimination, which came to be known as antisemitism.

This nationalism was called Zionism. And the thinking went that if the Jews are a nation, then they should have their own nation-state, preferably in Palestine, the Jews’ ancestral homeland. There they could assume control of their historical destiny, not to be at the mercy of non-Jewish nations and rulers.

Zionism sought to solve a particular Jewish problem, gathering Jews dispersed around the world, ending the unique Jewish historical experience of centuries of life under the rule of often hostile governments, and universalizing the Jewish experience by creating a Jewish state and society like all other nations. It was the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State,” said Israel’s declaration of independence.

But just how universal would a Jewish state be? Could such a nation be both Jewish and democratic?

That is the central question that, more than a century later, has yet to be answered clearly and affirmatively.

A clipping from the London-based Jewish Chronicle by Zionist Theodor Herzl, saying the founding of a Jewish state is the 'solution of the Jewish question.'
An article by Zionist Theodor Herzl for the London-based Jewish Chronicle, Jan. 17, 1896.
Wikipedia

Reconciling universal and particular

Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Jew acknowledged as the father of modern Zionism, considered this tension in his 1902 utopian novel “Altneuland,” or “The Old New Land.” Herzl tried to envision what a future Jewish society in Palestine would look like.

One of the novel’s key plot lines involves a political campaign pitting a xenophobic rabbi who preaches the Jewish character of the community against a secular candidate who advocates inclusivity and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in this imagined Jewish society.

Herzl’s choice: the pluralist candidate prevailed.

But throughout the history of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel, what Herzl described has been a core source of tension. This duality was on full display in Israel’s declaration of independence, in many ways the quintessential manifestation of political Zionism.

On the one hand, the document offers a version of Jewish history that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Jewish experience and offers historical justification for the creation of a safe haven for the Jews.

After establishing the attachment of the Jews to their ancestral homeland, the authors of the declaration address the Holocaust, writing that, “the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe … was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem” of Jewish “homelessness” by “re-establishing” the Jewish state, which would “open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew.”

At the same time, the document pledges that the state of Israel would be faithful to the U.N. charter, protecting the rights of all minorities: “The State … will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, suggested that once the country was created, Zionism would wither away. The nation, as a Jewish state with laws that protect minorities, would resolve the contradictions inherent in Zionist ideology.

But as long as the majority of Israelis felt a sense of existential threat – both from neighboring Arab states and dire economic conditions – Zionism continued to provide a unifying ideological umbrella to most Israelis.

After 1967, a transformation

In the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria, the country emerged as a regional military and economic power.

It was a time of significant social, political and economic change.

A growing number of Israelis – especially those from the more secular, upper classes – began to question the country’s particularism, which conceived of the country as a shelter for Jews that would protect them from external threats. For these upwardly mobile Israelis, known as the post-Zionists, the founding myths of a vulnerable young state no longer seemed relevant.

They wanted Israel to become a fully normal part of the American-led global order. They believed the country should integrate into the region by resolving the conflict between Jews and Arabs. And they wanted to participate in the global economic market as the country transitioned from a state-run economy to the free market.

At the same time, religious Jews and poorer Israelis, mostly descended from Jewish communities of the Arab Middle East and North Africa, resisted this cosmopolitan liberal shift. They held tightly to their Jewish identity, rejecting what they saw as compromises driven by alien ideals like democracy and pluralism. To this group, known as neo-Zionists, the ideal was a Jewish state as protection from the rapid changes engulfing the country.

Men lying down on the ground with their hands behind their heads, overseen by armed soldiers.
Palestinians surrender to Israeli soldiers in June 1967 in the occupied territory of the West Bank, during what is known as the Six-Day War.
Pierre Guillaud/AFP via Getty Images

Palestinian question disappears

From the 1970s through 2000, much of the post-or-neo-Zionist divide was over the occupation of the West Bank, where 3 million Palestinians live. Could there be peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

Post-Zionists wanted peace, seeking a two-state solution that would see a Palestinian state next to Israel. Neo-Zionists rejected any territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

In the 21st century, in the aftermath of the peace process collapse and the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, the Palestinian issue has virtually disappeared from Israel’s political landscape.

Instead, the country’s attention has returned to the old divisions between those advocating policies that would enhance the Jewish character of the country and those who champion universal policies more favorable to excluded minorities.

The Israeli government that came into power in late 2022 represents the nationalistic, particular camp most forcefully. Its main agenda has been a plan to diminish and restrict the Israeli Supreme Court’s powers. To the ruling coalition, the court has been a hindrance in pursuing policies advancing the country’s Jewish nature.

This so-called reform has driven hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets. Their demand is a simple one: democracy.

Israel may no longer be a fledgling state – but it has yet to overcome the basic contradiction that has defined it from the very beginning: Can it be Jewish and democratic?

The Conversation

Eran Kaplan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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'Mistaken, Misread, Misquoted, Mislabeled, And Mis-Spoken' — What Woody Guthrie Wrote About The National Debt Debate In Congress During The Depression

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Guthrie questioned whether politicians really cared about the public interest — such as the welfare of these veterans demonstrating in front of Congress in 1932. Senate Historical Office

The debt ceiling debate between the House GOP and President Joe Biden could, if not solved, lead to economic chaos and destruction – so it might seem strangely lighthearted to wonder what a Great Depression-era singer and activist would think about this particular political moment.

Certainly, in all the research I did in putting together my book “Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie,” I never came across any comment Woody Guthrie made about the debt ceiling.

But he lived through the Great Depression and its aftermath. He also stood witness to legislators struggling to correct the direction that the nation was headed in during the 1930s and early ‘40s.

He had a lot to say about Congress in general and how it handled the national debt in particular.

He once made a folksy joke that suggests his feelings about this supposedly august body.

“The Housewives of the country are always afraid at nite, afraid they’s a Robber in the House. Nope, Milady most of em is in the Senate,” he wrote in his regular column for The People’s Daily, called “Woody Sez.”

Guthrie constantly railed against politicians, both Republican and Democrat, who he thought represented their own selfish interests rather than those of deserving working men and women.

What if he could survey today’s America? Would his comments on the state of the nation in the past suggest that he would have something to say in 2023?

In fact, some of his observations sound as if they were written about this political moment – rather than his own.

A man with a hat playing a guitar with a sticker attached that says, 'This Machine Kills Fascists.'
Guthrie, who was known as ‘the Dust Bowl troubador’ for his songs about the Dust Bowl and the Depression.
Library of Congress, World Telegram photo by Al Aumuller

‘Hearin’ the hens a cacklin’

When Guthrie visited Washington, D.C., in 1940, he managed to hear some Senate debates and provided his thoughts on their effectiveness.

“I gawthered the Reactionary Republicans was in love with the Reactionary Republicans; also that the Liberal Democrats was in love with th’ Liberal Demacrats. Each presented a brief case of statistics proving that the other brief cases of statistics, was mistaken, misread, misquoted, mislabeled, and mis-spoken,” he wrote in his column.

And just what were politicians arguing over then? The national debt.

Bipartisan legislative efforts raised the debt ceiling three times under President Donald Trump. Now, House Republicans are balking unless certain conditions are met, while the Democrats are demanding a clean bill with no restrictions.

Guthrie witnessed much the same situation in his era. During his visit to Washington, D.C., he listened to “senators a making speeches – on every conceivable subject under the sun, an’ though the manner in which they brought forth their arguments, their polished wit, and subtle maneuvers, were all very entertaining, I come out of it as empty handed as I went in,” he wrote in “Woody Sez.”

He then compared their debates to “hearin’ the hens a cacklin’ – and a runnin’ out to th barn.” Despite the scene’s being “loud, noisy, and plenty entertaining,” the result was “no eggs.”

There’s a lot of noise coming from Congress today also – but no results.

What could happen if the two sides cannot agree? A telling example occurred in 2011, when the bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling came so late that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country’s credit rating – which hiked the interest that needed to be paid on the U.S. debt.

But if an agreement does not happen, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that such a crisis would bring on “economic and financial catastrophe” on a national and global scale.

Guthrie would find this kind of brinkmanship troubling. Not because he was a political operative, with merely an intellectual understanding of the risks. Instead, he was driven by a personal knowledge of the day-to-day hardships, the human toll of such momentous political decisions. His family had fallen from middle-class safety into abject poverty even before the onset of the Great Depression.

A family on the road, standing next to a rickety truck with their belongings. Two boys in overalls are wearing no shirts.
Guthrie knew and sang about the needs of America’s poor, such as this Depression-era impoverished family of nine on a New Mexico highway.
Dorothea Lange, photographer; Library of Congress

Because of falling agricultural prices in the aftermath of World War I and his father’s real estate speculation in some small farms surrounding their hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, the Guthries could not keep up with their mortgages. They were forced into foreclosure.

Guthrie joked that his father “was the only man in the world that lost a farm a day for thirty days.”

Foreclosures would likely be just one of the ruinous effects of default now, along with interest rates hikes, slashing of social programs, unemployment spikes and decimation of pension plans. All are negative results, but they are certain to hit the poor and working class the hardest.

Those are the people whom Woody Guthrie advocated for throughout his career. Those are the people whose hardships he lamented in such songs as “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Dust Bowl Refugee.”

But he also expressed optimism about the power of those same people to make a positive change, such as in “Union Maid” and “Better World A-Comin’.” Individual and collective action was necessary, according to Guthrie, and he celebrated both. The union maid would “always get her way when she asked for better pay,” and in “Better World” he sings, “we’ll all be union and we’ll all be free.”

Perhaps his best-known comments about the nation appear in “This Land Is Your Land,” with the popular version praising the American landscape. But in his early version of that song, he ended it with his narrator surveying a line of hungry people lined up “by the relief office” and then asked, “Was this land made for you and me?”

That question could rise again in 2023: If congressional leaders debating over the debt ceiling fail to find common ground for the nation’s greater good, perhaps someone will challenge them and ask if the politicians are in office for the American people, or for themselves – just as Woody Guthrie would have.

The Conversation

Mark Allan Jackson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Symbols Of The Confederacy Are Slowly Coming Down From US Military Bases: 3 Essential Reads

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People pose next to a newly unveiled Fort Moore sign on May 11, 2023. Cheney Orr/AFP via Getty Images

Without much fanfare, a federal panel is removing the names of Confederate generals from U.S. military bases and replacing them with names that exemplify modern-day values and patriotism.

Most recently, on May 11, 2023, the U.S. Army base in Georgia originally named after Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry Benning was renamed Fort Moore after both Lt. Gen. Harold “Hal” Moore, who served in Vietnam, and his wife, Julia Moore, who had been an advocate for military families and reformed the military’s death notice procedures.

In stark contrast to the Moores, Benning was a leader in the South’s secession movement and strongly defended slavery.

Over the years, The Conversation US has published numerous stories exploring the legacy of Confederate nostalgia, everything from national monuments to U.S. military bases. Here are selections from those articles.

1. Reconsidering Confederate iconography

For decades, nine U.S. Army bases have carried the names of men who fought against the United States and its Union army – in a war waged to defend and perpetuate the slavery of people of African descent.

These military installations, all in Southern states, were named to honor such figures as Gen. Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army, and John Bell Hood, an associate of Lee’s known for being both brave and impetuous.

Until recently, the military installations honoring Confederate leaders received little scrutiny from the media. As a newspaper reporter four decades ago, Jeff South gave the names a free pass. In 1981, South wrote, he covered the Boy Scouts Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia without mentioning that the base was named for a man who had turned against the United States and fought to defend slavery.

“In recent years, more Americans, including those living in the South, have reconsidered the use of Confederate iconography,” South wrote.




Read more:
US moves to rename Army bases honoring Confederate generals who fought to defend slavery


2. Memorializing modern-day values

As a professor of pop culture history who studies Black statues within mainstream society, Frederick Gooding Jr. wrote about America’s reckoning with its oppressive past.

“The nation (faces) the question of not just which statues and other images should be taken down,” Gooding explained, “but what else – if anything – should be put up in their place.”

Gooding pointed out that the lack of Black statues, for example, is an overlooked barometer of racial progress and “sends a clear message of exclusion.”




Read more:
Old statues of Confederate generals are slowly disappearing – will monuments honoring people of color replace them?


3. Memorials have expiration dates too?

Alan Marcus and Walter Woodward have been studying the role of Confederate monuments and other nostalgia in American memory.

“Historical monuments are intended to be timeless, but almost all have an expiration date,” they wrote. “As society’s values shift, the legitimacy of monuments can and often does erode.”

This is because monuments, including the names of U.S. military bases, reveal the values of the time in which they were created and advance the agendas of their creators.




Read more:
Monuments ‘expire’ – but offensive monuments can become powerful history lessons


Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

The Conversation

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How China Uses 'geostrategic Corruption' To Exert Its Influence In Latin America

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The successful courting of Honduras is the latest example of China’s influence in Latin America. Lintao Zhang/Pool/Getty Images

Corruption has long been a scourge in parts of Latin America.

Traditionally, it has funneled down domestic routes, with local politicians, business interests and drug lords benefiting from graft and dodgy dealings. Indeed, a 2022 report from Transparency International found that 27 out of 30 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have shown stagnant corruption levels with no improvement in recent years.

But over the last two decades, a new form of corruption has taken hold in countries in the region, a phenomenon we call “geostrategic corruption.”

It is characterized by external countries using corrupt methods – no-bid contracts, insider financial deals, special relations with those in power – to become stakeholders in multiple facets of the politics, economy and society of a country. China is a master of the art; the United States, less so.

As scholars of Latin American politics, we have seen how China has used geostrategic corruption to gain a foothold in the region as U.S. influence has waned.

What is geostrategic corruption?

Geostrategic corruption builds on traditional pervasive patterns of clientelism and patronage. In Latin America in particular, the growth of the drug gangs since the 1980s introduced “narco-corruption” in which police and local officials collude with organized gangs, which are able to “buy protection” from prosecution.

As a result, police, local governments and elected representatives are considered by watchdogs as among the most corrupt political entities in Latin America, with the region consistently scoring low in annual global corruption perception rating.

This pattern of corruption has coincided with a period in which the U.S. has turned its attention away from Latin America and toward first the Middle East and then Asia.

The vacuum has largely been filled by China. Trade between the region and China skyrocketed from US$10 billion worth of goods in 2000 to $450 billion in 2021. China is now the top trading partner of South America, making up to 34% of total trade in Chile, Brazil and Peru.

China’s expansion in the region is largely driven by the country’s search for resources such as cobalt, lithium, rare earths, hydrocarbons and access to foodstuffs, which are abundant in Latin America. In the past 20 years, China has also poured massive investments into infrastructure, energy and financial sectors of Latin America.

And China isn’t alone in upping its interest in Latin America. The last two decades have also seen an increase in investment and influence in the region from Russia and Iran.

These countries have found Latin America a fertile ground due in no small part to the region’s culture of corruption and weak institutions, we argue. Local criminal networks and the disregard of democratic norms on the ground have made it easier for countries that themselves are perceived to be dogged by corruption to gain a foothold in Latin America.

US-China global competition

China’s presence in the region forms part of the country’s long-term strategic objective to challenge U.S. influence across the globe through economic, military, financial and political means.

That process has been aided by global trends. Countries such as Brazil and Argentina have increasingly sought to diversify bilateral relationship and become less dependent on U.S. trade.

Meanwhile, Russian aggression in Ukraine has seemingly given China more weight on the international scene, with Beijing positioning itself as an alternative diplomatic force to Washington, especially to countries that feel nonaligned to the West. A recent example was seen in March, when Honduras announced it would establish diplomatic relations with Beijing and break off ties with Taiwan – a development that Taiwanese officials say followed the “bribing” of Honduran officials.

What gives China an added competitive edge as it extends its influence is that it is able to eschew constraints that bind many would-be investors in the West – such as environmental concerns or hesitation over a country’s labor rights and level of corruption. Chinese companies are judged by international watchdogs to be among the least transparent in the world, and bribery watchdogs have long noted Beijing’s reluctance to prosecute Chinese companies or individuals accused of bribery in regard to foreign contracts. A 2021 study found that 35% of China’s “Belt and Road” projects worldwide have been marked by environmental, labor and corruption problems.

The U.S. administration, in contrast, is more restricted by commitments to encourage democratic development as well as public pressure and international image. Washington does not have the same privilege of diplomatic pragmatism as China.

U.S. companies are, of course, not spotless when it comes to engaging in corrupt practices overseas. But unlike China, the U.S. government is bound to an international treaty prohibiting the use of bribes to win contracts. Moreover, the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act strictly prohibits American companies from bribing foreign officials; China has no such equivalent.

Chinese corruption in the region

Chinese investment has been easier where populist regimes govern and where the rule of law has long been undermined, such as Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela.

For example, in Bolivia during the 14-year tenure of President Evo Morales, Chinese companies achieved a major foothold in key sectors of the economy that has translated into a monopoly over the lithium industry there, despite a strong anti-mining movement in the country.

Geostrategic corruption in Argentina is firmly rooted at the local level, in provinces and regions across the country, feudal-like governors have enabled a sophisticated corruption network that China has seemingly used to invest in everything from nuclear plants and building lithium battery plants to constructing a satellite-tracking deep-space ground station, railroads, hydroelectric plants, research facilities and maybe even fighter jets.

In Ecuador, such projects include a dam built in exchange for oil contracts; the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant, which developed massive cracks soon after construction; and the Quijos hydroelectric project, which failed to generate promised volumes of power. Similarly, the Chinese-financed Interoceanic Grand Canal in Nicaragua was estimated by opponents of the project to irreversibly impact the ecosystem and displace about 120,000 people, while local activists faced harassment, violence and unlawful detention.

In Venezuela, China initiated but never completed construction of a multibillion dollar bullet train line, and an iron mining deal not only allowed the Asian country to buy Venezuela’s iron ore at a price 75% below market, but also turned out to be an instance of Chinese predatory financing, leaving Venezuela in a catastrophic $1 billion debt. Likewise, in Panama, port concessions and a high-speed train line were frozen or canceled, while the investor is under investigation in China.

Throughout the region, Chinese firms have been cited in numerous cases involving bribery and kickback schemes that have enriched local officials in return for contracts and access.

What does it mean for the US?

This use of geostrategic corruption works to the direct detriment of U.S. interests.

In Argentina and Bolivia, Chinese expansion means that sectors that are crucial for the success of the U.S.’s green energy goals are increasingly under Beijing’s hold. It also undermines U.S. efforts to counter corruption and human rights abuses in the region.

And U.S. companies are unable to compete. The Biden administration has set high standards for U.S. investment in the very sectors where the Chinese have a strong foothold. These include transparency and accountability, as well as commitments to environmental, labor and human rights standards.

President Joe Biden has stated that adherence to these standards is what distinguishes U.S. foreign investments from its competitors. But it does hamstring American companies when it comes to competing with China.

In the meantime, while the U.S. is looking for answers and trying to figure out how to reestablish influence in Latin America, China is quietly and pragmatically increasing its presence in the region.

The Conversation

As an academic and as director of a university research center, I’ve received funding from foundations, US government agencies, and multilateral institutions.

Valeriia Popova does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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