Ingroups, Outgroups and Out of Bounds

Peter Beinart, in his 3/18/2012 New York Times op-ed calls for a bizarre response to the insidious anti-Israel B.D.S. (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) movement: his very own version of B.D.S! His, of course, is morally superior. Curiously, it’s predicated on the notion that the West Bank (which he sanctimoniously wishes to rename “nondemocratic Israel”) is part of Israel, which has never been the case, with the exception of East Jerusalem. Has Beinart not heard that the Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank in cooperation with Israeli security forces — yes cooperation — with its headquarters in Ramallah? Has he not heard that trade and commerce between the West Bank and Israel are thriving? (He should visit Jenin on a Sunday to see all the Israeli shoppers flocking to its markets.) Would Beinart like to dismantle all the Israeli-Palestinian co-existence organizations that do not adhere strictly to his definition of the “green line” (yes, he has his own definition)? Are we surprised that Beinart places all the blame at Israel’s feet and nowhere mentions Palestinian terrorism, or intransigence and refusal to come to the bargaining table, let alone legitimate Israeli security needs? Rather than considering history — or the future for that matter! — Beinart is stuck in an eternal present defined by his “ingroup” and his perception of the “outgroup,” combined with a mammoth dose of “Jewish guilt” that goes something like this: Jews should never be in the position of having power over anyone else. Maybe celebrating Pesach will remind him what happens when Jews are utterly powerless.

If you ever spent any time on the playground in third grade, or in the cafeteria in seventh grade — places where those who hold the reins of power are easy to discern — you already know a great deal about social identity theory even if you don’t know the fancy lingo that accompanies this field of social psychology pioneered by Henri Trajfel. We humans have a proclivity to form “ingroups” (people with whom we identify and toward whom we have an affinity) and “outgroups” (who are often the subject of our contempt, opposition, and with whom we feel ourselves to be in competition). This all-too-human proclivity breeds prejudices, cronyism and collective narcissism.

Social identity theorists tell us, however, that our individual attitudes and behavior are not determined solely by our “ingroup.” Rather they lie along a continuum between interpersonal behavior and intergroup behavior. In simpler terms: I’m not an automaton of my social group; I choose my attitudes and opinions depending upon how I value and privilege my individual relationships and my membership in a social grouping.

Perhaps the most striking example is one I heard from a man whose family had had been saved by a Christian family during the Holocaust. His elderly grandmother went to the park each day and sat on a bench with another elderly woman, a Christian lady. That’s it. That’s the whole Torah. Here is the commentary: Each day these two old women sat together for an hour talking about their children and grandchildren. They did not visit one another’s homes. Their families never met or socialized. Yet these daily conversations imbued the Christian woman with a deep sense that this Jew was a human being in “her world” about whom she cared. At her insistence, the Christian woman’s family saved the Jewish family. The individual relationship trumped membership in a social grouping — all because two elderly women sat together for an hour each day on a park bench.

This Shabbat we pause in the cycle of Torah readings for the special reading designated for the first day of Pesach. Exodus 12:21-51 recounts the Tenth Plague, from the selection of lambs and gathering of hyssop to dip in the blood and smear on the lintels, to the horrifying account of the death of the firstborn sons of Egypt: “their” children die, but “our” children do not. The ultimate powerless people will be avenged from heaven. From the outset, Moses reminds the people earlier in chapter 12 that what they are doing in crisis mode at that moment, will set the stage for a yearly national remembrance of their redemption. What they do then to protect themselves from the Angel of Death they will repeat and incorporate into a series of practices designed to teach the next generation (and in every generation, the intent is to teach “the next generation”) of God’s capacity for redemption.

This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time…You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time… (Exodus 12: 16, 17)
So far, we presume that Moses is addressing the Israelites. But wait:

No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days. For whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is a stranger (ger) or a citizen (ezrach) of the country. (Exodus 12:19)
And further in the same chapter:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the law of the passover offering: No foreigner (ben neikhar) shall eat of it. But any slave (eved ish) a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised. No bound (toshav) or hired laborer (sakhir) shall eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house: you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house; nor shall you break a bone of it. The whole community of Israel (adat Yisrael) shall offer it. If a stranger (ger) who dwells with you would offer the passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall be as a citizen of the country (ezrach ha-aretz). But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. There shall be one law (torah achat) for the citizen (ezrach) and for the stranger (ger) who dwells among you. (Exodus 12:43-49)
Torah both acknowledges “ingroups” and “outgroups” but seeks to teach that the boundaries are permeable. People are not “other” if their intent is peaceful and they live their lives with you as neighbors and friends. All rights of citizenship apply to the ger (the resident alien) as much as to any Jew. Torah teaches us that our view should be mediated by how people behavior toward us: are they good friends and neighbors, or do they treat us as the enemy. Our arms and minds should be open, our boundaries permeable.

Peter Beinart seems to have missed this lesson. His “outgroup” is demarcated by the Green Line — a line on a map that he fails to understand was an armistice line (a cease-fire line) and never intended to be a permanent border. In his propensity to ignore history in favor ideology, Beinart has ossified it, as he has calcified his views of what a Jewish nation is. So a quick review:

The 1949 Israel-Egyptian agreement specifically states: “The Armistice Demarcation Line is not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary, and is delineated without prejudice to rights, claims and positions of either Party to the Armistice as regards ultimate settlement of the Palestine question.” The Jordanian-Israeli agreement is similar.

Prof. Stephen M Schwebel who, in 1967 was deputy legal advisor to the U.S. Department of State, wrote in the American Journal of International Law (1970) that “…modifications of the 1949 armistice lines among those States within former Palestinian territory are lawful (if not necessarily desirable), whether those modifications are… ‘insubstantial alterations required for mutual security’ or more substantial alterations — such as recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem.” In a footnote, he wrote: “It should be added that the armistice agreements of 1949 expressly preserved the territorial claims of all parties and did not purport to establish definitive boundaries between them.”

We all want to see a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It will only be achieved when we can look beyond “ingroups” and “outgroups” and see human beings with legitimate rights, needs, and aspirations.

Oh, and by the way, you might find it interesting to know that Henri Trajfel, the British social psychologist who pioneered social identity theory was born Mersz Mordche in 1919 in Poland. Facing restrictions placed on Jews seeking education, he left Poland to study chemistry at the Sorbonne. When World War II broke out, he volunteered to serve in the French army. Within a year, he was taken prisoner by the Germans and rode out the rest of the war in a series of POW camps. At the end of the war, Trajfel learned that his entire family and most of his friends in Poland had been murdered by the Nazis. He dedicated the remainder of his life to studying the psychology and interplay of bigotry and intergroup relations.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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4 Responses to Ingroups, Outgroups and Out of Bounds

  1. Rabbi Scheinerman is quite right in asserting that there is nothing intrinsically important or permanent about the Green Line — it is not divinely inspired, and it does not necessarily track the precise border between Israel and a future Palestinian state (though it seems obvious that the border will be “based on ’67 lines” — what else, exactly, would it be based on? Throwing darts?). The Green Line is mostly irrelevant save for one fact: on one side, all persons have equal democratic rights to vote for the sovereign that controls their territory, and on the other, they don’t (Israel remains the ultimate sovereign in Israel and the West Bank, though not Gaza). We might call this, oh, I don’t know, the difference between “democratic” and “nondemocratic” territory. Or if you prefer, the difference between where “[a]ll rights of citizenship apply to the ger (the resident alien) as much as to any Jew”, and where they don’t. Whether or not the Green Line has de jure force as an international border is entirely irrelevant to this critical point (indeed, if anything, it makes it more, not less, incumbent on Israel to respect the equal democratic rights of all the inhabitants, as if it’s not a temporary occupying power then it’s denying these rights to persons whose citizenship claims are, in all relevant respects, identical to those of a Jew born in Tel Aviv).

    That distinction matters. It’s not the only thing that matters, and the lack of its resolution does not lie wholly at the feet of Israel. But one does not have to support a boycott (I don’t) to be tired of putatively pro-Israel writers who seem to demand we wait for a Palestinian go-ahead before Israel acts to preserve its Jewish, democratic character. Palestinians are not interested in doing our work for us — as far as they’re concerned, they can just play the waiting game until they have a demographic majority and then demand voting rights. Bam, game over, thanks for playing. Unfair, maybe; but being Jewish isn’t about the world being fair to us.

    This post tries to tell us, though, that there is no difference between Israel inside the Green Line and outside of it (a claim enthusiastically echoed by Palestinian one-staters). It thus borders precipitously on one-stateism — in that it seeks to blur the line between Israel and the West Bank into nothingness, without any proposal or plan for how to maintain Israel’s Jewish, democratic character without cutting loose those territories which threaten that status. One-stateism is per se anti-Israel (as agreed to by, among others, the ADL and AJC), and insofar as this post (inadvertently, one hopes) advances a de facto one-state vision, it is fundamentally adverse to the core of being “for Israel” and for Zionism.

  2. David, I understand that you are obsessed with claiming that explicit two state arguments are somehow one state arguments. We’ve already had that debate regarding our advocacy which is clearly, in the minds of everyone else we’ve ever dealt with, and obviously based upon a future two state solution. This is the last time, I am going to take the time to respond to this.

    That no two state solution is necessarily easily achievable or even possible in the near term, does not necessitate that Israel act as if a one state solution is in force. It is utterly absurd to claim that because a people have become occupied that therefore they deserve to be treated as equal citizens precisely because they have themselves refused to accept a peace agreement creating their own state and ending the war that resulted in their occupation.

    Likewise absurd is the contention that Israel could simply withdraw and open its border to the east without losing security control. Your solution is a non-solution. It is a solution that will create a war zone with no safe state and certainly no Jewish one. Beinart is totally wrong and by adopting his “Israel needs to concede” rhetoric, you are taking a position that undermines the existence of any Jewish state at all, inside or outside of the 1967 lines.

    It takes both sides to create a two state solution. Israel cannot create two states on its own. David, you are not advocating for a possible or realistic two state solution. You are advocating for a solution that would result in a very insecure Israel which would ultimately either have to fight a horrific battle in which many thousands would die in order to secure the West Bank again at a latter date after giving up border control or would have to give up the possibility of maintaining a semblance of Shalom. It is suicide. Talk about anti-Israel. Enough already.

  3. I don’t necessarily disagree that Israel can’t will into existence a two-state solution. I do disagree that this implies Israel can’t do it’s side of the work unilaterally. Israel can, at any time, elect to withdraw the settlements, and the case for doing so isn’t really affected by whether or not the PA is a peace partner or not. It’s a “concession” only in the same way that I “concede” to eat my vegetables with dinner. (As for my proposal for Israel’s security, it’s the same as Israel’s security posture now — maintaining a strong military capable of deterring threats via the promise of being able to blow them to hell and back again before they can blink. In other words, I don’t know whether unilateral Israeli action will bring peace. Maybe it will, and that’s great! Maybe it won’t, in which case Israel’s in the same boat as it is now, except more democratic and less overstretched. Win-win.).

    That being said, you seem to disagree with Rabbi Scheinerman on the characterization of the status quo. You say that “It is utterly absurd to claim that because a people has become occupied that therefore they deserve to be treated as equal citizens precisely because they have themselves refused to accept a peace agreement creating their own state.” And I basically agree — Palestine is occupied, it’s not part of Israel proper, and thus its denizens have no claim on Israeli citizenship. But Rabbi Scheinerman apparently disagrees — this post proffers the argument that the Green Line is no real border at all and that to distinguish between the Israel within and the Israel outside the Green Line is to impermissibly create an “outgroup”. In other words, she makes the precise argument that you reject — is the West Bank a separate entity from Israel proper, or isn’t it? If we take Rabbi Scheinerman’s argument seriously, though, that’s an argument that we are in a one-state situation, as Israel is not occupying Palestine but rather has and is in the process of enforcing a valid de jure claim on the territory as sovereign. In which case, basic democratic theory says yes, every adult who lives inside the borders of a sovereign state needs suffrage — that’s a non-derogable right. There’s nothing absurd about that — indeed, the only way to reject it is to adopt precisely those points Rabbi Scheinerman is denying.

    But you are, I think, catching on to the metapoint. The point of this site is to set limits on valid discourse regarding Israel and what it is to be” pro-Israel.” There are plenty of people who dislike that sort of “discourse policing”, but I’m not one of them. As I’ve said, I don’t disagree with the premise of the project. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander — part of opening this can of worms means that other elements of the pro-Israel community are going to challenge your own proposals and your own bona fides, and protestations of a history of Zionist advocacy or a deep commitment to Israel’s well-being are going to be of no more help than they’ve been to Mr. Beinart. You’ll be judged on your proposals, and your proposals are, for my tastes, offering only timorous support for Israel’s longevity. If you want a discursive regime where anyone who says they’re “pro-Israel”, is; anyone who says they’re “pro-two-state”, is; that’s fine. But if you think we have an obligation to peek under the hood, don’t act aghast when people peek under your own.

  4. David, my frustration is in that you keep implying that we are somehow supporting a one state solution when in fact where we may differ is in how to achieve or when to try to achieve a two state solution. If you want to argue that you believe our way of achieving that is not going to work, be my guest. We’ll disagree. I do however try my best to allow people the benefit of the doubt and only accuse people who either state explicitly that they seek a one state solution or who will not support the concept of a Jewish state of being “one staters.” There is a big difference between believing in a two state solution but also that it may not be possible to achieve in the short term and believing in a one state solution.

    Anyway, regarding the issue at hand, the status of the West Bank, the situation is not a simple cut and dry one. The Green line is an armistice line. The territory on one side is recognized as Israeli territory. The territory on the other side is disputed territory, not Palestinian territory. No Palestinian state ever existed to lay claim to it. Since the Oslo process began, both that territory and its inhabitants have a new status. The people who live on the “other side” of that line are made up of two groups of people, Israeli citizens and Palestinian Arabs, the latter of whom are citizens of the Palestinian Authority or potentially Jordan or both. Many of them have Jordanian citizenship, something totally ignored in most discussions. Meanwhile, in Israel, while there are inequalities for certain, Israeli Arabs are citizens of the state. Palestinians are citizens of the Palestinian Authority not of Israel. They do have the right to vote in elections that govern their fate, those elections of the Palestinian Authority. The PA in fact governs 98% of Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel does not govern them.

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