“How we relate to each other as human beings”
“The question, which I am asking here today, is how we relate to each other as human beings.” That is definitely an excellent question, and its source is none other than Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of SodaStream. [Full disclosure: I own a SodaStream machine. I bought it with the knowledge that the company was Israeli, but without knowing that it was manufactured in the West Bank.]
Or perhaps I should say: the Israeli CEO of the Israeli company SodaStream, which has a factory in Occupied Palestine. And his question was posed to Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, after seeing the degrading treatment some of Birnbaum’s Palestinian employees were forced to endure as a security measure when they accompanied Birnbaum to Peres’ house.
The entirety of the interview and related story are worth reading (here), as is making the effort to digest these comments and others of Birnbaum’s, such as: “Our factories are apolitical. We don’t take sides in this conflict.” or “…we provide our Palestinian employees with respectable employment opportunities and an appropriate salary and benefits. We ‘even’ purchase medical insurance for them from a private company, because I am not confident that the money we pay to the Palestinian Authority for such social benefits will actually be used for medical insurance.” I’m not sure it’s possible to be something in between the problem and the solution, especially in a situation where clarity may be hard to come by but articulating an overarching humane and moral response is not. Sidestepping bigger questions of moral impact by paying for health insurance–which certainly has its own (positive) moral impact–feels instinctively wrong, once the initial good feelings wear off.
In fact, it reminds me of the old arguments for “separate but equal” citizenship rights for white versus “colored” Americans.
As does this “news analysis” of the New York Times, by Leo Rennert over on the American Thinker blog. In a nutshell, Rennert is unhappy that as a result of “selective interviews with disaffected Arabs, Rudoren, the Times‘ Jerusalem bureau chief, tells her readers that Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens raises ‘real concerns over the health of Israeli democracy.’“
More from Rennert: “But is this ultra-gloomy assessment accurate? Far from it. Arabs in Israel are on an equal plane when it comes to legal, civil and political rights. Yes, there are remaining gaps on the economic and social scene, but these gaps have steadily narrowed. In fact, Israel’s Arabs enjoy far better lives and better living standards than their counterparts in neighboring countries.” He then goes on to cite a range of statistics about living standards, educational attainment, and consumerist acquisitions of cell phones and refrigerators.
Here’s the thing: the statistics–while heartening, if true–do not disprove the assertion by some of those interviewed that Israeli Arabs suffer from persistent discrimination. Moreover, it is all too easy to be denied equal rights as a matter of practice, even if those rights exist as a matter of law. These numbers represent communal improvements and are not insignificant, but in this context they validate the separate-but-equal view that held sway in the US for decades: oh, well, blacks are getting an education and their health is improving, and that’s what matters, not that we force them to sit elsewhere on the bus, use different public bathrooms, or in some cases prohibit their presence near ours altogether.
At the end of his post, Rennert also takes a swipe at Arab Israeli political parties, and suggests that it is somehow “better” for Israeli Arabs to focus on “bread-and-butter issues,” as if there’s something wrong with Israeli Arabs who decide that they are concerned about Palestinian treatment by Israel AND decide that this is a valid political issue around which to organize as Israeli citizens. That also sounds to me like an old American problem, as embodied in the McCarthy/HUAC era: you can be political, as long as you’re political correctly. For Rennert, being “radicalized” about the situation of the Palestinians is clearly politically incorrect for Israeli Arabs.
No doubt Rennert would approve of SodaStream employing Palestinians whose land is occupied by Israel and whose movements are tightly controlled by the security needs of the Occupation. That Palestinians take these jobs is, of course, understandable: you’re a Palestinian with a wife and children to feed; there’s a job, offering an “appropriate” salary and benefits, but it is a job with an Israeli company. What any of us would do in such a situation is difficult to say. But it is Birnbaum’s nation and his fellow citizens who have sustained the occupation of the West Bank for decades. It is the Israeli dissection of Palestinian lands and destruction of Palestinian businesses, olive groves, and lives, that have created a situation where people must make the kinds of complicated moral choices at play here, even if Birnbaum thinks his factories are apolitical. Just because choices must be made does not make the outcomes or implications less political, or less morally fraught.