I. The Fact of Israel
Israel at 60 is an intractable historical fact. It has one of the world’s strongest armies, without peer in the Middle East, and its 200 or so nuclear warheads give it the last word in any military showdown with any of its neighbors. Don’t believe the hype about an Iranian threat – Israel certainly fears Iran attaining strategic nuclear capability, but not because it expects Iran to launch a suicidal nuclear exchange. That’s the sort of scare-story that gets trotted out for public consumption in Israel and the U.S. Behind closed doors, Israeli leaders admit that even a nuclear-armed Iran does not threaten Israel’s existence. (Israel’s security doctrine, however, is based on maintaining an overwhelming strategic advantage over all challengers, so the notion of parity along the lines of Cold War “Mutually Assured Destruction” with Iran is a major challenge, because without a nuclear monopoly, Israel loses a trump card in the regional power battle.)
Palestinian militants may be able to make life in certain parts of Israel exceedingly unpleasant at times, but they are unable to reverse the Nakbah of 1948 through military means. (Hamas knows this as well as Fatah does, which is why it is ready to talk about a long-term hudna and coexistence – although it won’t roll over and accept Israel’s terms as relayed by Washington in the way that the current Fatah leadership might.)
Israel, in other words, is here to stay – and its citizens know this, which may be why they appear to more indifferent to the search for peace with the Palestinians than at any time in the past three decades. So confident are the Israelis in being able to withstand whatever the Palestinians throw at them that they are able to turn away from the hellish life they have created for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Sure, let Olmert – a weak and skittish leader whose domestic political standing is comparable to that of President Bush, except that the Israeli prime minister can’t seem to shake off the whiff of corruption – engage in the charade of negotiating a hypothetical peace (let’s be very clear about this: the current talks between Abbas and Olmert are aimed only at designing a “shelf” agreement, the elaboration of an “horizon” not unlike the Geneva exercise by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed-Rabbo a couple of years ago – not a series of steps or deadlines that anyone plans to implement — this is its most optimistic outcome; even that seems doomed to fail, though…) with a hypothetical Palestinian leader. (To paraphrase Stalin on the pope, how many divisions does Mahmoud Abbas command?) Who cares? It’s not as if Olmert is going to confront the settlers or even dismantle most of the 600 or so roadblocks that choke life in the West Bank. So let him and Abbas perform their endless duet of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”…
The fact of Israel’s survival until now, and for the foreseeable future, is a grim reality for its 1 million Palestinian citizens, whose citizenship is at best, second-class – and more so for the 4 million Palestinians over which it maintains sovereign power in the West Bank and Gaza, without granting them citizenship – for whom Israel means living under an apartheid regime. And that, in turn, means that the trappings of globalized modernity enjoyed by Israel’s secular middle class – the American lifestyle, the high-tech economy and the European football – all come at the price of perennial uncertainty under a cloud of potential violence.
Just as there’s little chance of Israel being eliminated in the foreseeable future, so is there little chance of it militarily eliminating Palestinian resistance. There’s no serious peace process in the works, right now, and the geography created by Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since their capture in 1967 has made the prospect of a Palestinian state largely hypothetical, too – it takes an optimistic imagination to conceive of a viable independent state comprising of Gaza and those West Bank cantonments that lie between the major Israeli settlement blocs and the roads that connect them.
So, while Israel has prevailed in the conflict over its creation that has raged since 1948, it has been unable to end that conflict on its own terms. The Palestinians driven out during the Nakbah have not simply disappeared or been absorbed into surrounding Arab populations, as Israel’s founders had hoped. And without justice for the Palestinians, Israel is no closer now than it was 60 years ago to being able to live in a genuine peace with its neighbors.
At this point, however, the Israelis don’t seem to care.
The curious irony of history, though, is that while the Zionist movement managed to successfully create a nation state in the Middle East against considerable odds, that movement is dead — the majority of Jews quite simply don’t want to be part of a Jewish nation-state in the Middle East. And so the very purpose of Israel has come into question. It’s certainly not the “national home of the Jews,” as much as the Zionists huff and puff about this being the case (frankly, anyone who tells me my “national home” as a Jew is somewhere other than where I was born or chose to live, is an anti-Semite in my book, but let’s not go there for now) — the simple fact is that almost two thirds of us have chosen freely to live elsewhere, and have no intention of ever settling in Israel. Jewish immigration to Israel is at an all-time low, and that’s unlikely to change. In a world where persecution of Jews is increasingly marginal, the majority of Jews prefer to live scattered among the peoples, rather than in an ethnic enclave of our own. That’s what we’ve chosen.
Curiously enough, the very “normality” achieved by Israel in an era of globalization has prompted three quarters of a million Israeli Jews to move abroad. “You have wonderful children,” Ehud Olmert told a gathering of French Jewish leaders two years ago. “I wish they would come home.” Not only are the bulk of French Jews not planning to move to Israel, the supreme irony is that Olmert’s own sons have joined the quiet exodus of Israeli-born Jews leaving Israel to live abroad. Today, it has become the norm for any Israeli who can to acquire a foreign passport.
Israel may be an intractable historical fact, but the Zionist ideology that spurred its creation and shaped its identity and sense of national purpose has collapsed – not under pressure from without, but having rotted from within. It is Jews, not Jihadists, that have consigned Zionism to the dustbin of history.
So what, exactly, is Israel, now? Avram Burg, former Knesset Speaker, appeared to sense the writing on the wall in his plaintive op ed in 2003:
We live in a thunderously failed reality. Yes, we have revived the Hebrew language, created a marvellous theatre and a strong national currency. Our Jewish minds are as sharp as ever. We are traded on the Nasdaq. But is this why we created a state? The Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs or anti-missile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations. In this we have failed.
It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies. A state lacking justice cannot survive. More and more Israelis are coming to understand this as they ask their children where they expect to live in 25 years. Children who are honest admit, to their parents’ shock, that they do not know. The countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun.
What Burg seemed to recognize is the absurdity of seeing the modern State of Israel as some kind of prophetic fulfillment of the Jewish story. If we were to imagine that this, indeed, was what God had intended, we’re imagining a deity with a very, very twisted sense of humor. Three years later, Burg concluded that he could no longer think of himself as Zionist, and recognized that Zionism itself had become an obstacle to Israelis finding peace — and to his own pursuit of his Jewish values.
II. Israel is a Monument to Anti-Semitism…
I visited Israel the year I finished high school, which was the 30th anniversary of its founding. My officially-organized itinerary (I was there as part of a Habonim contingent for intensive ideological training) started the same way as those of any visiting head of state today: At the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem.
It is impossible to complete this vivid encounter with the industrial-age savagery meted out by the Nazis on the Jews of Europe without being profoundly moved and angered. It certainly added a jet of gasoline to the Zionist flame that burned in my teenage heart, and I can only assume that it’s the shaming effect of the exhibits that has the likes of President George W. Bush mumbling about how the U.S. should have bombed Auschwitz. Oy, who puts these ideas in your head, Mr. President? (I can guess, actually, but we won’t go there.) Speaking selfishly, perhaps, I’m rather glad the U.S. didn’t kill Primo Levi. And actually, Mr. President, if you want to be atoning for failing the Jews of Europe in the 1940s, a better place to start might be the fact that anti-Semitic U.S. immigration policy prevented two thirds of the survivors of Auschwitz from actually settling here. Not that the Zionist movement of the time was at all upset by this — as Morris Ernst recalls of his efforts to lobby his friend President Roosevelt to admit more Jewish immigrants at the end of the war, they were furiously denounced by Zionist leaders. The fate of the Jews of Europe had never been a foremost concern for Israel’s founders. As Ben Gurion put it in 1938 in his diary, “If I knew it was possible to save all [Jewish] children of Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to Eretz-Yisrael, I would choose the latter – because we are faced not only with the accounting of these [Jewish] children but also with the historical accounting of the Jewish People.”
Still, by the 1960s, the Israeli leadership began to recognize the utility of making the Holocaust the centerpiece of its national story, overcoming its own reluctance to engage with the survivors and their story. By representing itself as the state of the survivors, bringing Eichmann to trial in Jerusalem as a way of educating its next generation in the horrors of the Holocaust in order to offer them a unifying perspective on their common national identity, Israel could establish a narrative frame for rationalizing its behavior in respect of the Palestinians, too. So deep has been the penetration of this particular construct that when Jimmy Carter challenged the apartheid policies Israel has adopted on the West Bank, he was quite seriously accused of giving aid and comfort to Holocaust-deniers! (The demented logic here held that by failing to give adequate attention to the Holocaust when discussing the West Bank, he was effectively denying the former!)
Still, I think Yad Vashem is an appropriate starting point for any visit to Israel, because I believe that the Holocaust really was the key to Israel’s creation. The modern nation-state of Israel did not emerge from the spiritual yearning for a “return to Zion” that had long been an essential part of the Jewish liturgical tradition — that “return” had always been clearly tied to the arrival of the Messiah; that was never understood as a recipe for the creation of a nation state in Palestine before the Zionists arrive on the scene, in concert with the rise of nationalism in Western and Central Europe in the late 19th century. The Zionist movement, which called for the creation of a Jewish nation-state, emerged as a response to the political crisis facing Western European Jews at the turn of the 19th century, as the breakdown of empires stirred nationalist passions that threatened the status of Jews in many European countries. And also the ongoing oppression of the Jews of the Russian empire. Still, even then, it was hardly the dominant response to that crisis: The Zionist movement had been a minority trend in mainstream Jewish politics in Europe before World War II (and it hardly existed at all among Jews of the Islamic world).
But the Holocaust destroyed most of the Jewish leadership of Europe, and it shamed the world into granting Jews a nation-state in Palestine — settling there became a matter of survival for two thirds of the survivors of the Holocaust, who despite the ordeal they had suffered, were mostly denied any alternative.
Israel, then, rather than some kind of Jewish achievement or prophetic triumph, looks to me more like a huge monument to Western anti-Semitism. Zionism had demanded that the Jews have a nation-state of their own, claming that for Jews to live among others was simply unnatural and untenable, and that anti-Semitism was a natural and inevitable consequence of gentiles having Jews in their midst. Apparently vindicated by the Holocaust, they set about building a sovereign nation state that would serve as a “national home” to the Jewish people. Israel was never intended to simply be a state of the Israelis, Arab and Jewish. It was a state for the Jews of the World, and it dedicated itself to “ingathering” them as it “redeemed” the Biblical land of Israel. It’s precisely for that reason that I, who was born in Cape Town South Africa, can automatically assume the rights of citizenship and land ownership in the place where my friend, Jamil, was born, but was driven out of at age 4, and to which he is forbidden from returning simply because he is not Jewish.
It’s also this logic that rationalized the ethnic cleansing of 1948, and the calamitous policy of settling Israelis in the territories occupied in 1967.
III. …But anti-Semitism is on the Wane
The founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl, framed the movement’s attitude to anti-Semitism in his diary comments while covering the notorious Dreyfus trial in France in the late 19th century: “In Paris, then, I gained a freer attitude toward antisemitism which I now began to understand historically and make allowances for,” wrote Herzl. “Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of efforts to “combat antisemitsm”.
The premise of Zionism has been that anti-Semitism is inevitable and immutable when Jews live among gentiles, allowing Jews only a truncated and perennially threatened existence in “exile.” This was the very basis of their case for creating a separate Jewish nation-state, in order to achieve “normality” alongside other nations and nationalisms.
This premise, of course, was never accepted by a majority of Jews, although the Holocaust had made Israel an historic imperative for hundreds of thousands of Jews who found themselves with nowhere else to go.
Still, today the political crisis of European Jewry that produced the Zionist movement has passed. Anti-Semitism has become a marginal threat to Jewish life in much of the world, and the majority of Jews have voted with their feet to live in a wider world, rather than in an ethnic ghetto. Today, the preferrred destination of Jews leaving former Soviet territories is Germany; and tens of thousands of the Russian Jews who emigrated to Israel during the Russian economic collapse of the Yeltsin years have since returned to Russia. The head of the Russian Jewish Congress estimates the number at up to 120,000, while the Israeli embassy in Moscow says that 90,000 Israeli citizens are currently living in Russia. And Russia is hardly the most philo-Semitic option. The Zionist authorities in Israel have long ago accepted that they’re unlikely to see signficant immigration from the Jewish communities of North America and Western Europe, where there is little significant pressure on Jews to vacate.
So, it turns out, we’re able to live quite comfortably among others, which is where the majority of us choose to spend our lives. Israel has emerged as one of the world’s largest Jewish communities, but it seems a little wishful to imagine it the sine qua non of Jewish life on the planet — we managed without it for 2,000 years, after all. And do we really believe that the reason Jews today feel safe and secure living in the United States or Canada, for example, is the existence of a well-armed Israeli Defense Force?
IV. Be Careful of What You Wish For
The greatest impulse driving the early Zionists was the idea that by separating themselves into an independent state of their own, Jews could achieve the “normality” that eluded them in Europe. They could right what the Marxist-Zionist Ber Borochov called the “inverted triangle” of the Jewish class structure, building a society founded on Jewish agrarian and industrial labor. Jewish farmers, Jewish worker, Jewish soldiers, marching together singing the Internationale. For those of more liberal persuasion, Zionism offered the opportunity for nationalist nationhood with all the trappings of romantic illusion, just like the German nationalists, or the Italian nationalists or the Hungarian nationalists.
This nationalist “normality” has longsince been achieved, of course. Despite its ongoing conflict with its neighbors, Israel has Jewish farmers and Jewish soldiers and Jewish cab drivers and gangsters and prostitutes — along with the more familiar crop of doctors, scientists, mathematicians, violinists and chess players. And, in keeping with the “normality” of the age of globalization, its Jewish entrepreneurs create companies in Silicon Valley, its Jewish footballers play in Europe, its Jewish live in lofts in New York, its Jewish club kids wander the pyschotropic beaches of Goa… I could go on, but you get the picture. We’re a wandering people (even before the Romans ostensibly exiled us from the Holy Land, there were thousands of Jews living all over the Mediterranean basin…), and many young Israeli Jews, like young Jews — and young people of whatever background — everywhere, want to be part of a global conversation, a global economy, a global playground. Globalization mocks national sovereignty and its boundaries, and its patterns of integration today may be a greater threat to the Zionist project than any Jihadism.
Even when I was first there in ’78, giddily lapping up the ideology, I was warned that one of the biggest crises Israel faced was that its own young people didn’t give a toss about Zionism. Why would they be any more likely to embrace nationalist kitsch than would kids raised in East Germany or Franco’s Spain?
The very “normality” created by Israel over the past 60 years undermines the nationalist mission of the state’s founders — if the wider world is sufficiently comfortable for Jews to make their homes all across it, then why not Israeli Jews, too? As we noted earlier, 750,000 — 15% of Israel’s Jewish population — already live abroad. The likelihood of the world’s Jews moving to Israel to bolster its Jewish population to keep pace with the Palestinian birthrate is increasingly remote. More likely is a net loss of Jewish population as Israel’s best and brightest see no obstacles, and plenty of allure to going forth into a wider world.
V. Israel Without Zionism
On Yom Kippur in 1979, instead of going to shul — a pointless exercise for an atheist who no longer felt the need to pretend for the sake of communal bonds, now that I was forging my own community — I stayed home and read Uri Avnery’s seminal book, “Israel Without Zionism.” His work was a revelation that had a major part in my “deprogramming” as a Zionist. Here was a soldier of the Haganah speaking bluntly about the crimes committed against the Palestinians in 1948, laying bare the brutal truth beneath the national mythology I’d been spoonfed. Avnery recognized that for Israelis to be able to live in peace in their neighborhood, their starting point had to be relinquishing the ideology that rationalized their conquest and displacement of others, and instead to forge a common commitment to justice.
Zionism rationalizes conquest and colonization as “redemption” of Jewish territory on behalf of the world’s Jews. It treats the Palestinians only as an obstacle and threat to its own purposes, not as people with the same rights as Jews and with legitimate claim to the land on which they were born. And yet, there’s a guilty conscience that sometimes emerges in flashes — a rare moment of Jewish ethical recognition, that is quite at odds with Zionism. My favorite came from Ehud Barak, world class chump though he may be in the annals of statesmanship, when he was on the campaign trail in 1999, and was asked by a TV talkshow host what he’d have done if he’d been born Palestinian. “Join a fighting organization,” he said in a flash of honesty he’d later regretted.
But if the roles had been reversed, and it had been the Israeli Jews who’d been first driven out of their homes in 1948, and then occupied in 1967, you can bet that Barak and Rabin and all before them would have been leaders of the PLO. Ariel Sharon would have been in Islamic Jihad!
The end of the Zionist moment leaves Israeli Jews facing — although in many cases not necessarily facing up to — the reality that the people with whom they’re going to share the Holy Land are not the rest of us Jews, who have no intention of moving there, but the Palestinians, who they found there and displaced and dispossessed, and continue to rule over — supposedly in our name, but without our consent.
Zionism — contemporary Jewish nationalism — is unlikely to bring Israel peace, because of its failure, or inability, to accord full equality to the claims of others.
As Rami Khouri noted in 2006 during the Lebanon war, in one of my all-time favorite columns on Israel and its neighbors,
Deuteronomy, a pivotal book of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), is supremely relevant here because it blends the three issues that I believe Israeli, Arab and international journalists must affirm in order to honour their professional dictates along with their own humanity. These are: good governance anchored in the rule of law; a moral foundation for human relations anchored in the dictate to treat others as you want others to treat you; and the towering divine commands to ‘choose life’ and ‘pursue justice’.
Deuteronomy is an appropriate balm because it emphasises – in both human society and the divine plan – the central value of justice that is anchored in a system of codified laws that are administered fairly by compassionate and competent judges. The most beautiful and powerful part of Deuteronomy is verses 18-20, ending with: ‘Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.’
…The single biggest reason that Israel has found itself locked in ever more vicious wars with assorted Arab neighbours is its refusal to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians and other Arabs on the basis of the rule of law, and to resolve disputes on the basis of both parties enjoying equal rights.
On the two occasions that it has made resolutions on the basis of law and equal rights – the peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt – Israel has found calm, official acceptance and some normal contacts with citizens in those Arab lands. But in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, where Israel has acted unilaterally and in a predatory and violent way, it has reaped only resistance, ever more fierce and proficient with the years.
The common Israeli view … sees the Arabs and Iran as pits of Islamic terror and anti-Semitic savagery that want only to kill Jews and annihilate Israel. They are free to live in this imaginary world if they wish to, but the consequences are grim, as we see today. Subjugated and savaged Arabs will fight back, generation after generation, just as the Jews did historically, inspired as they were by the moral force of the ‘Deuteronomistic’ way. If the world does not offer you justice, you fight for your rights.
The missing element in Israeli behaviour is to ask if Israel’s own policies have had any impact on reciprocal Arab behaviour. If this is a war between two sides – which I believe it is – then both need to examine their policies, and make concessions to resolve their disputes. Peace-making and conflict resolution must be anchored in law that dispenses justice equally to all protagonists. The law we have to deal with here comprises UN resolutions and bodies of international conventions and legal precedents.
We cannot pick one UN resolution we want implemented – say, 1559 – and forget the others, such as, say, 242 and 338. This is what has happened since 1967 and even before. The rights of Israel have been given priority over the rights of Arabs, and this skewed perception has been backed by US might.
I wish Israeli journalists would apply to their writing and analysis the moral dictates and divine exhortations that their Jewish forefathers passed down from generation to generation: obey the law, treat others equally, pursue justice, choose life. Journalists should identify the legitimate rights, grievances and needs of both sides by providing facts rather than propaganda.
Israel and the US have ploughed ahead for decades with a predatory Israeli policy that savages Arab rights, land and dignity. In return, public opinion in the Arab world has become violently anti-Israeli, and resistance movements have emerged in Palestine and Lebanon. If current policies continue, similar movements will emerge elsewhere, just as Hamas and Hizbollah were born in the early 1980s in response to the Israeli occupation of their lands.
Moses had it right, perhaps because he accumulated much wisdom during his 120 years of life. Meet the legitimate demands of both parties to a dispute, he said, and a fair, lasting resolution will emerge. Ignore the centrality of justice and equal rights for both parties, and you will be smitten by divine fire – or fated to fight your adversaries forever, as Israel seems to have opted to do.