The different meanings of ‘covenant’

A response to an Arab journalist’s analysis that Israelis vote “to kill the prospects of peace.”

Palestinians, activists block Route 443 370 (photo credit: Marshall Pinkerton)
Palestinians, activists block Route 443 370
(photo credit: Marshall Pinkerton)
At the end of the day, all political analysis is refracted through the personal and cultural lens of the political analyst. In some, the refraction is minimal, and the account attains a degree of political objectivity, perhaps universality. In others the refraction is maximal, and the political account is subjective, and parochial. It was therefore instructive to examine the view of the Arab analyst, Jamal Kanj,on the Israeli elections, published in the January 24th edition of the Bahrain-based, Gulf Daily News. My purpose in this article, however, is not to analyze Arab perceptions of the Israeli political process, but rather to suggest some of the deeper reasons why there are serious limits to the Arab, comprehension of it. Those reasons lie, in no small part, in the notion of covenant.
Jamal Kanj is known to some readers from his interesting book, Children of Catastrophe. It is a partly biographical, partly a polemical description of his “liberation” from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, his training as an engineer in the US, and his return to his Palestinian roots, via his personal and political writing. In his article this week, entitled, “A Vote Against Common Sense,” Kanj demonstrated some knowledge of the Israeli election, but little understanding of the Israeli political psyche. His view was that Israelis voted “to kill the prospect of peace,” that they, “chose right wing parties advocating land annexation, and “Jewish-only settlements.” He spoke of“deep-seated Israeli racism”founded on the fact that an, “overblown fear triumphed over reason.” That reason was able to conjure up, “fictitious, remote enemies.”Kanj concluded that, “Jewish settlement building,” based in “illegal land theft,” wasn’t just a local problem, but “a threat to world peace.”
I would suggest that his lack of understanding is underpinned by cultural currents in the Arab psyche so deep, that they have proven to be a virtually total impediment to the political process.I would further like to suggest that Kanj’s lack of insight can be understood in terms of the notion of ‘covenant.’
In general terms, a covenant is an agreement between two parties to cooperate towards a particular end. It typically operates in the legal, socio-political, and religious spheres. But the commonalities end there. One man’s agreement, his “covenant,” is another man’s disagreement. For the Jews, covenant is traditionally theological. It is underpinned by a series of Biblical promises between God and the people that chose to accept the conditions for those promises, namely the Children of Israel. 
In the modern world, the theological covenant has been reinterpreted in political terms by Daniel Elazar and his colleagues at the Jerusalem Center Public Affairs. They are collaborating with a comparable group at the Center for Federalism at Temple University in Philadelphia. Essentially, they are retracing the steps of the Jewish enlightenment, and retrieving the baby from the perceived bathwater. They are reconstructing Jewish political history employing the idiom of present-day political science. Nonetheless, it can be considered authentic Biblical history. Surely this is a form of intellectual dissimilation, a subtle return to the Jewish roots of modern Jewish and especially modern Israeli, society. It is a way of resacralizing Israeli culture, albeit through the refracting lens of the political process.
For the sake of the argument, in reductionist terms one could say that the Jewish mind, and specifically the Israeli mind, has a completely different take than the Arabic mind on the notion of covenant. For Elazar et al, covenant means a promise between God and the Jews, and between one Jew and another Jew. It is that promise which has permitted Israel to thoroughly absorb Jewish refugees from the Diaspora into local society for some 2,000 years. It is a process intensified over the last 100 years, and peaked following the birth of the State of Israel, with the absorption of refugees from post-Holocaust Europe, from Arab countries and from Russia. That absorption was based in the Biblical Covenant. It was not merely a political expedient, rather it was a religious commitment. Islam and the Arab world have not been known for its covenantal commitments to its confreres. Hence the persistence of refugee camps across the Arab world.  They persist only 15 miles from Jerusalem at Aqabat Jaber and Ein as-Sultan, in the Jericho Governate.
And that is where Jamal Kanj parts company with local analysts of the Israeli elections and with the Israeli political process. He is party to a culture which owes little or no covenantal allegiance to its members. For Kanj, the Palestinian refugees are Israel’s responsibility, not his, or the Arab world’s. Palestinians remain refugees across the Arab world. As guest workers in the Gulf States—including Bahrain where the article was published—they are treated as second-class citizens. In America, they have equal rights. In the Arab world they have no rights. Yet they believe they have rights to the Land of Israel. The sad fact remains that ne’er the twain shall meet.