Saving Israel From Itself
A secular future for the Jewish state
By Bernard Avishai. Posted on Wednesday, February 9, 2005. Originally from Harper's Magazine, January 2005.
In the winter of 2002, I moved to Jerusalem for the third time, to join my new wife, a professor at the Hebrew University, and teach at an Israeli business school. It was not the best of times to move to Israel, for the Al-Aqsa Intifada was at its most terrifying and the Sharon government was preparing its response in Operation Defensive Shield. When I met one old friend, she put her hand to the back of my head and started feeling around through my hair. “I’m looking for the hole,” she said. I had spent the better part of the 1970s living in Israel, and most of the 1980s visiting and writing about the country, so the new disturbances, and the little ironic gestures of solidarity, were not unfamiliar. But something had changed, certainly among my graying friends: a sadder-but-wiser air, a barely suppressed hunger to speak of big categories and formative years.
Recent events—Sharon’s plan for Gaza, Arafat’s death—have raised hopes for new diplomacy but do not alleviate the tension. People call the conflict the matzav, the “situation.” Listen to talk shows, go out to dinner, and what leaks into nearly every conversation is uncertainty about how to envision Israel going forward in its existing boundaries. I don’t just mean geographic boundaries. I mean legal, institutional, and cultural limits. Nearly everybody here will tell you that they see Israel as Jewish and democratic. Almost nobody can tell you what this means.
Not that Israelis aren’t hearing clear arguments. The most common, which is widely considered hard-headed, argues that the occupation has presented Israel with a “demographic” threat. Maintain the occupation, the argument goes, lose the “Jewish majority” between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and Israel must become either an apartheid state or a binational state—a “Jewish state” or a “democratic state”—not both. Less commonly asserted, and widely considered hard-hearted, is an argument about Israel irrespective of its occupation. A Jewish state cannot be democratic, this argument goes, because a state in which the world’s Jewish people and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges is inherently discriminatory against non-Jewish citizens. Some kind of binationalism, if not inevitable, is more or less preferable. Both arguments are made by people in and around Israel, though only the former is made by people in and around the Israeli government.
So on the one hand are people whose preoccupation with “a Jewish majority” suggests an intuitive grasp of what it takes to preserve Jewish culture but whose grasp of building democracy is shallow and mechanical, who are painting by numbers—and (intentionally or not) laying the groundwork for ethnic cleansing. On the other hand are people who are more exacting about democracy but who’ve completely missed how radically, and for the better, historic Zionism has changed Jewish culture. The first group calls the second naive, the patsies of anti-Semites. The second group calls the first “racists” and “colonialists.” Little wonder people are disquieted and can’t explain why. It is becoming nearly impossible to say what has been right—and plainly wrong—about Israel since its founding and what needs to be done to save it.
Now, as before, the focus will be on occupied territory. But a quarter of Israel’s schoolchildren are Arabs. Were the West Bank and Gaza to disappear, and Israel did nothing to reform itself, it would face another intifada in a generation, this time from within. Israeli Jews know this in their guts, if not from their debate. Listen only to them, and the “situation” seems hopeless. Israel’s deficiencies as a “democratic state” were always most transparent to Arab Israelis. Paradoxically, it is only when I am speaking with them that I feel assured of the promise of a “Jewish state.” It will take at least a generation to fully realize this promise. That is the length of time it took all of us to create the disaster we will now have to unmake.
* * *
Arthur Koestler once wrote that becoming a Communist was an affair of the heart; in the summer of 1931, in Berlin, he fell in love with the Five Year Plan. In the summer of 1967, I fell in love with the Jewish National Fund—the old Zionist holding company, which formally owned the land on which most of Israel’s farming collectives had been built. I was eighteen, and had just finished my first year at McGill University. In what still seems to me an exhilarating rush of events, I arrived in Israel about a week after the end of the Six Day War and wound up volunteering to work on Kfar Yehoshua, the moshav (or cooperative farm) of an indomitable couple whose close neighbor had been killed early in the war. They were now working his widow’s dairy farm in addition to their own, so they needed an extra hand—a volunteer, they took pains to explain, since members of the moshav would not hire wage-laborers, certainly not Arabs, whom they refused “to exploit.”
They made it plain that Israel’s collectives enjoyed a certain authentic self-reliance. The old Hebrew motto of Labor Zionism was “kibbush avodah,” “the conquest of labor,” by which the real thing to be conquered was a Diaspora Jew’s civilized lethargy. And what had made it all possible was the Jewish National Fund, or Keren Kayemeth, whose green logo was still painted on the sign to Kfar Yehoshua. Members did not own their land, my friends explained; the land had been leased in perpetuity from the Keren Kayemeth, which had raised money abroad, penny by penny, then bought Arab estates in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, eventually distributing parcels to socialist halutzim, Zionism’s pioneers, their parents. As a child, I had myself slipped change into the Keren Kayemeth’s little blue tin collection boxes, for the fund kept on raising money for reforestation after the state was founded in 1948, after Israel could as easily expropriate land as have the Zionist fund buy it—and large tracts were expropriated after the 1948 war, effacing some 400 Arab villages. Anyway, we were now done with wars, and Kfar Yehoshua’s land remained the “inalienable property of the Jewish people,” that is, mine. I worked until I dropped. After about a month I was smitten: the warmth of welcome, the élan of revolution, the conviction that just war had brought lasting peace—that Israelis had won the former and Jews deserved the latter—the pleasingly triangular smell of cow’s milk, cow’s feed, and cow’s shit rising into Hebrew air.
This was not exactly love at first sight. My father had been a socialist-Zionist boy scout in Bialystok in the 1920s, and later a Zionist “leader” in immigrant Jewish Montreal. I had never really thought much about what his “Zionism” meant, except that it covered the bases for “modern” Jews. I understood, vaguely, that Zionism meant Jews could have fruit trees, fighter jets, a tan. More vivid was the prestige of the Hebrew language, which I had suspected since childhood contained a world worth knowing. When I was a pupil at Montreal’s Talmud Torah School, half my class’s day had been devoted to Hebrew studies, beginning in the second grade with readings from Breisheit, the Book of Genesis. Whereas the ABCs conjured scrubbed little boys watching girls play with kittens, the Alef Bet conjured families torn up by arbitrary fathers, jealous mothers, and rival brothers, all devoted to enigmatic things like “sacrifice” and “birthright,” or stirred by the promise of mysterious power. Hebrew stories seemed absolute, and talking about them seemed a kind of responsibility.
Zionism’s personal (or, if you were at McGill, “ideological”) requirement, that Jews should go and live in Israel, had always been finessed in my family. My father’s line, which I never quite bought, was that sending one’s money was “as Zionist” as sending oneself, though he often lamented that his “big mistake” was not joining his own pioneering group, which had founded Kibbutz Kfar Menachem in 1939. In May 1967, after my father told me that Israel was being “strangled” by Egypt’s blockade of the Straits of Tiran, he sat me down at the kitchen table and sketched a map on a napkin, explaining how Israel, whose reserves had been mobilized, would soon have to attack in Gaza. I became fixed on the vain fantasy I had had as a child—that were I to be lined up to board a cattle car, I would charge the guards in an ecstatic rage rather than get on the train. That is what “Israelis” did. In any case, I now had the body of a strong young man and told myself coldly that I could not just see it all end. I quit my job at Expo ’67 and determined to fly to Israel as soon as I could get there. My father finally went along, but to his relief (and mine), the war was over before I could leave.
* * *
Nothing prepared me for the atmosphere of the country when I arrived. It seemed that an entire people had done spontaneously what every human being should do deliberately—defend one’s life, touch one’s roots, spread progress, show magnanimity. The tokens of Israeli exceptionalism were everywhere. The radio played jingoistic songs, and no member of the Israeli government, however schlumpy, could appear in a newsreel without prompting the theater audience to burst into applause. Moshe Dayan visited West Bank villages and was greeted by “notables,” while Arab children pranced around him, a hand covering an eye in homage. Captured Russian trucks, looking like giant Ford pickups, appeared magically on the roads, and blond Swedish volunteers appeared magically in kibbutz dining rooms. Zionism had been proven right by, of all things, Zionism’s might.
I got to Jerusalem on June 28, driven in a lurching Citroën by a family friend, a paratrooper about my own age. We drove toward the Mandelbaum Gate, the old checkpoint in the divided city, just after noon, practicing how we might con the guard into letting us proceed to the Old City. But we found no checkpoint and no guard. We drove on, passing the shuttered Arab shops on Salah ad-Din Road, stopping the car a few times to stand silently at piles of rocks, topped by a rifle and a helmet, the makeshift memorials to friends who had been killed in the assault. Finally, somewhat bewildered, we flipped on the radio, only to discover that the Arab city had been annexed and the whole city declared united an hour before we got there. The government had decided to integrate all parts of Jerusalem by expanding Jewish neighborhoods in the Old City and in the eastern part, especially around Mt. Scopus, where the old Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University had been before 1948. An expanse around the Wailing Wall, we soon discovered, had already been bulldozed. The radio played the new Zionist anthem, “Jerusalem of Gold,” and tears streamed down my friend’s cheeks.
Nobody thought twice about the families whose houses had just been razed. Hadn’t Jordan used the Old City’s Jewish gravestones to pave their roads? As for the 70,000 Jerusalem Arabs who might be encroached upon or pushed around, there was land enough for all in the new “Middle East.” Twenty-one countries for them, one for us. One undivided Jerusalem for us, Mayor Teddy Kollek’s liberalism for them.
Only one moment, several weeks later, gave me pause. On a visit with my cousins to the new campus of Tel Aviv University, I noticed huge posters with a puzzling map, which seemed exactly like the Arabic map of Palestine in which Israel has been effaced, only this was a Hebrew map of Israel on which the West Bank and Gaza were effaced. The posters, my cousins told me, were from a new organization, the Whole Land of Israel Movement, which opposed returning any part of the conquered West Bank, even for peace, since (as their statement read) “no government in Israel is entitled to give up this entirety, which represents the inherent and inalienable right of our people from the beginning of its history.” The clear implication of the statement was that the West Bank should now be settled by Jews.
Even then, this prospect struck me as oddly greedy and provocative, nothing like what my moshav friends’ parents had achieved. The times were completely different, after all. There was no Hitler, no proletarian internationalism, no British mandatory government enforcing property law but keeping Jewish refugees out. Zionists had settled some land by force in the 1940s. But Jews were desperate then. When Jean Valjean became a mayor, he didn’t continue stealing bread. My cousins, too, were skeptical. Israel was a Jewish state, they said, but it was “also democratic.” The land was ours but, less esoterically, it was also theirs. It didn’t matter which people wanted it more or longer. What mattered were boundaries that allowed each people, Jews and Arabs, to be more or less peacefully self-governing. When I asked others about the Whole Land of Israel Movement, I was reassured to find that few people took it seriously. Fewer still (myself included) noticed that this movement was merely proposing for the West Bank as a whole what the government, with almost universal acclaim, had already enacted in Jerusalem.
* * *
It is tempting to look back on those times with a certain wistfulness: young people, heady victories, reckless enemies, unavoidable hubris. Wistfulness goes well with what is probably the most common conception of Israel that educated people in the West have: that it was once a nicely social-democratic state that is being ruined by the blowback from its occupation—by its quickly multiplying and pietistic settlers, whom successive governments somewhat naively tolerated—that if only Israel could end most terrorist attacks, emancipate itself from the occupation, and replant most settlers back within the Green Line, the internationally recognized border prior to 1967, then Zionism could get back to being itself. This half-truth often is posed against the big lie—that Zionism was just a remnant of great-power “colonialism”—and so Jews have an understandable reflex to defend the moral prestige of historic Zionism and deflect criticism of its legacy. But even David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, knew that Israeli democracy had serious problems before there was an occupation: specifically, that ultimately it would be folly to preserve the Zionist movement’s improvisations and institutions in a democratic state. Thinking back to 1967, certainly, it is obvious that the settlers’ ideas and stridency did not just grow out of thin air. Both emerged from a revolutionary Zionist logic and a powerful Zionist bureaucracy—right for their time, in the 1930s and ’40s, but terribly wrong once the state was firmly established, after 1967—a Zionism that automatically assured Jews privileges that other people, non-Jews subject to Israeli sovereignty, could not get.
I am not speaking here of the reasonable discrimination of a nation-state in favor of a dominant national culture: a day off for the Jewish Sabbath, support for the Hebrew University, the Star of David on the flag. I mean material discrimination by the state in favor of Jews as individuals. Settlements may seem part of a grand, premeditated national project, and were to some extent, especially around Jerusalem. But they were more often a spontaneous series of decisions by quasi-official Zionist offices to continue putting families formally defined as “Jewish” in and around where Arabs lived, or to support Jewish squatters, while excluding non-Jews from living there.
When I finally moved to Jerusalem in 1972, I was given a virtually interest-free mortgage to buy an apartment in Jerusalem’s French Hill, a new neighborhood that the state, in collaboration with Zionist philanthropic agencies, was putting up next to Mt. Scopus in Arab East Jerusalem. All I had had to do was prove myself a Jew by birth, which I had done, to an Israeli consul back in Canada. I did not think of this apartment complex as “a settlement.” I did not think it strange that I was moving into a neighborhood stringently segregated by the very Zionist laws, dreams, and management I had come to identify with liberation. The point is, settlements were made in territories beyond the Green Line so effortlessly after 1967 because the Zionist institutions that built them and the laws that drove them—The Jewish Agency, Zionist land banks and mortgage companies, the Law of Return, regulations supporting the Orthodox Rabbinate’s determination of what a Jew is—had all been going full throttle within the Green Line before 1967. To focus merely on West Bank settlers was always to beg the question.
After the Yom Kippur War, in the summer of 1974, when I began writing seriously about these matters, I reported on Henry Kissinger’s effort to mediate a disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria. I recall standing in a crowd in front of the prime minister’s office, surrounded by a few hundred West Bank settlers; their Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”) movement was just getting started. Word had leaked out that Kissinger, then inside with Golda Meir’s government, was pressuring it to evacuate the captured Syrian town of Kuneitra. When he emerged, the settlers—a phalanx of knitted skullcaps—chanted, “Jew-boy, Jew-boy,” implying that one evacuation would lead to another, that the renunciation of one inch of promised land was something only a bare-headed court Jew like Kissinger could have entertained.
Mrs. Meir gave in to Kissinger on Kuneitra. She upbraided the settlers for their ugly behavior. And yet everybody knew her prejudices: that Jews had a right to live anywhere in Eretz (or Greater) Yisrael; that the Orthodox rabbis in her coalition, although not her type, were at least the genuine article; that Jerusalem was Israel’s “by historic right”; that pioneering settlement around Jerusalem, or on the Golan Heights, was heroic; that Western Jews who had never thought to settle in the Jewish state deserved an Israeli’s condescension. These prejudices reflected a basic cynicism about the fate of Jews in Western democracy, a cynicism that is even more widespread among Israeli Jews today, who decry the “anti-Semitism” of the press covering Israel. Meanwhile, the small band of Gush Emunim has grown to some 230,000 settlers today, not including those in Jerusalem. Army intelligence is rumored to have concluded that 10 percent of the settlers (not including their supporters in Israel proper) would violently resist being moved, and the army command warns against political decisions that would force Jews to shed the blood of other Jews.
* * *
Jaffa Gate, 1879.
Let us be clear: Israel is an open society. According to an Israel Democracy Institute poll, 81 percent of Jewish Israelis think “equality before the law” essential. And the judiciary is with them. The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, enacted in 1992, has something like the force of a Bill of Rights in Israel. Chief Justice Aharon Barak has applied the law broadly to protect civil liberties. Just recently, the court overturned the military censor’s effort to ban Mohammed Bakri’s 2002 film, Jenin, Jenin, which implicitly accused elite Israel Defense Force combat units (in the face of significant evidence to the contrary) of indifference to civilian casualties during Operation Defensive Shield. Israel publishes more scientific papers per capita than any other country, so silencing Israelis (including Arab Israelis) seems almost unimaginable. Israel is also a country, however, in which the institutional discrimination I spoke about has always been so routine as to be hardly noticed, especially among Jews. The most important continuing inequality is preferential residency on the land. Israeli Arabs, who are disproportionately engaged in farming, live mostly in separate towns having jurisdiction over 2.5 percent of the total land mass of pre-1967 Israel, augmenting their holdings with private land. This segregated pattern of settlement results from the fact that about 93 percent of pre-1967 Israel is public land administered by the Israel Lands Administration, which since its founding in 1960 has essentially taken over the mission of the prestate Jewish National Fund. Few outside observers have been able to penetrate the Lands Administration’s convoluted leasing arrangements with Jewish Agency mortgage companies, or with preferred contractors, or with large secretive holding companies such as Himanuta. Adding to the complexity, a 2001 Supreme Court ruling determined that old Jewish National Fund regulations, prohibiting sale of land to non-Jews, could not be used to keep an Arab couple from acquiring housing in the established village of Katzir. Yet nobody doubts that when any new housing developments are completed, only people with “Jewish nationality” need apply.
And what exactly is Jewish nationality? Now we are getting to the other side of the problem, the Zionist movement’s historic (and largely opportunistic) merging of rabbinic and state power. From its inception, Israel recognized two forms of personal status, ezrahut, most commonly understood as “citizenship,” and leom, which meant “nationality” or “peoplehood.” All citizens are entitled to equality in civil society, but people legally designated a part of the Jewish nation are entitled to immediate citizenship, and supplementary material benefits start from there. The courts came to rule that, insofar as the Law of Return applied, the child or grandchild of a Jew, or a convert by a recognized rabbinic authority, is a Jew. Under the pressure of the National Religious Party—to which Ben-Gurion pandered in order to maintain his own party’s hegemony in the early 1950s—other privileges were reserved for Jews as they are defined by Orthodox rabbinic courts. Moreover, a burgeoning, official rabbinical caste now supervises marriage, burial, and kashruth—critical for the restaurant, food-processing, and tourist industries. There is no civil marriage in the country, so no state official will marry a Jew to a non-Jew. Today, some 80,000 children in Jerusalem alone study in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, which are state subsidized in numerous ways. The state directly supports an even larger Dati Leumi (“national religious”) school system. Arabs have their own system, segregated and underfunded.
One Arab Israeli friend, the novelist Sayed Kashua (author of the Hebrew novel Dancing Arabs), told me recently that his childhood friends are feeling hemmed in and enraged, their towns in commercial despair, many coming under the threat of youth gangs. “When these towns blow, Israeli Jews will no doubt say it is for political reasons. But if the government would give us two meters for development, we’d all be volunteering for the army. Every time there is a suicide bombing I think two things: thank God my daughter is not among the victims, and I hope there is an Arab Israeli among the victims, so they won’t blame my daughter.”
Terror has always warped debate about these matters, making talk of Arab rights seem a failure of Jewish nerve. Since the beginning of the latest intifada, there have been four suicide bombings just blocks from my Jerusalem home (and Kashua’s, for that matter). The cousins with whom I stayed in 1967 were killed when their TWA plane was blown out of the skies of Athens by a Palestinian terrorist bomb in 1974. No sane person could doubt that various barriers against terrorist cells are justified, or that preemptive attacks on terrorists may be defensible if innocent bystanders could be protected from harm. Moreover, terror has prompted an understandable desire for “separation,” manifested in the controversial security fence. It is in the context of separation that one hears expression of demographic fears. Israel has 6.8 million citizens, so the argument goes, of whom about 1.3 million are Arabs. Gaza and the West Bank have another 3.2 million Arabs. The Arab birthrate in Gaza is triple that of Israeli Jews; in Israel proper and the West Bank, it’s double. Now do the math. If you keep the territories you lose the “Jewish majority” sometime after 2010. Meanwhile poll after poll shows that 61 percent of Israelis support Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza and 20 percent more support the security fence. The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg put the choices this way in a chilling article about Jewish settlers last spring:
Israel is faced with two options: keep the settlements, and risk either apartheid or binationalism; or separate cleanly from the Palestinians, by withdrawing settlements and raising a wall between the two sides.
What’s wrong with putting matters this way? Notice, first, that Arabs who are Israeli citizens are casually folded into the demographic projections. This is not just sloppiness; it betrays a curious slide into racial simplifications. If one assumes what is manifestly true, that Israel’s young Arab citizens have come into their own (albeit tensely) in Israel’s Hebrew culture, then equality of rights, not withdrawal behind a border or fence, is the only peace process that will mitigate fatal tensions between them and Israeli Jews. Even if terrorism could be crushed, even if the West Bank and Gaza could be taken completely out of the equation, Israel would still be left with hundreds of thousands of Arab citizens and a burgeoning number of young people. If a great proportion of them are not absorbed as equals into Israel’s civil society, the country will face within its 1967 borders virtually the same dynamic that it began to face in the occupied territories in the 1970s.
Clearly, “democracy” is being debased here to mean only some vague notion of national self-determination, like the sophomoric “ideology” I came to Israel with in 1972. For most, a democracy that enshrines “inalienable rights” seems an invitation to Arabs to swamp Jews, or it means a celebration of the bourgeois self, which sanctions moving to America. Old prejudices are at work here, too, casting Israel as a kind of work-in-progress for the world’s Jewish people, justifying its borders as provisional by, on the one hand, claiming the elastic, dream borders of ancient Eretz Yisrael and, on the other, recalling the horrific crimes of sixty years ago—crimes driven by anti-Semitic attitudes whose traces are still allegedly found in gentile countries. Who knows, so the argument goes, how many Jews Israel will eventually have to accommodate, or where the Palestinians will have to be placed to make Jews safe? Who knows how big Israel will have to be while the Zionist revolution continues? And until that revolution ends, why not continue to assure Jews special privileges: refuge, land, housing, investments—in a word, settlements?
Worse, there is an obvious way to safeguard a “Jewish majority” that hardly comes up in conversations, though the way most Israelis now grasp their history should give us pause. I mean ha’transfer, reducing by forced expulsion or economic pressure the numbers of Arabs living where Jews do. The fact is, it is impossible to get the “clean” separation Goldberg speaks of without extensive ethnic cleansing. And Israelis know this. A June 2002 poll by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies revealed that 46 percent of Israelis entertain the idea of expelling Palestinians.
Benny Elon of the National Union argues openly that if Arabs are not willing to accept alternate citizenship they should be expelled. Efi Eitam, leader of the National Religious Party, proposes resettling Palestinians in the Sinai. In or out of Sharon’s coalition these parties now have 13 (out of 120) Knesset seats, and are gaining ground. Exclusion of Arabs from Israeli civil life is included in the platforms of the theocratic parties—Shas, Yahadut Ha’Torah—another 16 Knesset members. We have not even begun to explore attitudes in the dominant Likud, whose 40 Knesset members, and over 230,000 active members, anchor Ha’Machane Ha’Leumi, the “National Camp,” a coalition of Greater Israel advocates, ideological hardliners, Russian immigrants, and less well-educated Mizrahim, immigrants from Arab countries. Signs for the transfer of Arabs regularly paper the underpasses on highways between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They read, NO ARABS, NO TERROR.
Sharon is withdrawing from Gaza anyway, pointing to the polls that show a national majority behind the move. But by the end of last August, 3,700 new housing units were under construction in the West Bank and Gaza. Jewish Jerusalem is at the heart of the new construction. Its young people increasingly betray the limited horizons of the settlers’ cult, rooted in Orthodox education. Ultra-Orthodox haredim (or “awestruck”) are now a third of the Jewish population, and the city has elected a haredi mayor, Uri Lupolianski, the father of twelve children.
While Sharon is being depicted by the zealots he once coddled as caving in to Palestinians, the route of his fence is already responsible for the migration of thousands of them. It is creating Palestinian enclaves separated from Jerusalem and from one another—enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements that are linked by exclusive highways and bypass roads. It leaves hinterland towns separated from metropolitan centers, a rupture that denies any Palestinian business the prospect of viability. About two miles from my home is the neighborhood of Jabel Mukhaber. The fence is cutting it off from its sister village, Sheik Sa’ad, whose 2,000 residents are themselves cut off from the rest of the West Bank by steep cliffs. They are in danger of being “strangled.” One leader of Jabel Mukhaber told me that a third of those people—their own family members—have left, while the remaining villagers are living off the gifts of family abroad. Elsewhere in Jerusalem, the eastern suburb of Abu Dis (home to Al-Quds University) is cut off from the northern suburb of Hizma by Jewish settlements—which cuts both off from East Jerusalem’s businesses and hospitals. Yasir Barakat, one of the most established merchants in the Old City, tells me he knows “nobody whose educated children are not planning to leave Jerusalem if they can.”
Speak of this cruelty with Israelis and someone will counter with Yasir Arafat’s recalcitrance at Camp David during the summer of 2000. “We offered him 95 percent, and he came back with terror”—I must have heard the sentence a hundred times. This version of events is not unchallenged, but let us concede the retrospective logic: that today’s terror could justify, or even seem to justify, Israel’s continued occupation of the territories after 1974, when Jordan recognized the PLO’s hegemony there. Nevertheless, how could terror have justified Jewish settlement and its transformations? Why should democratic reasoning ever have been preempted by apocalyptic reasoning? What if, instead of settling the Palestinians’ land, Israeli officials had simply said they wanted for Palestinians what American officials said they wanted for the hated Germans in 1948: that the German state’s sovereignty derive from the consent of its governed, that it should have an integrated population and economy, the rule of law, conditions for the investment of advanced corporations, schools and universities that teach liberal values—and that an occupation army, reinforced by a Western coalition, would stay in place until it was safe to withdraw and not beyond? What if, at the same time, Israeli leaders had invested in Israel’s Arab citizens at a rate equal to Jews, and privatized state land and subjected its purchase to market forces? Would not Israelis and Palestinians be facing a very different reality today?
This is not the way Israelis are re-imagining their history. Instead, more and more young people I talk to are becoming resigned to a new master narrative, which sees the state’s founding in an exchange of populations, beginning with the Shoah and moving to attacks on all fronts by Arab states in 1948. In this flattened history, 750,000 Palestinian Arabs either fled or were driven from their homes, while the Arab states dispossessed and expelled some 800,000 Mizrahi Jewish refugees to Israel, especially during the 1956 Suez war. Israelis were not perfect, they say, but the pattern is unmistakable.
Dr. Uzi Arad, the former director of intelligence in the Mossad, has proposed that if a Palestinian state could be negotiated, Israel’s largest Arab towns in the “little triangle”—from Umm al-Fahm in the north to Kfar Kassem in the south—should be annexed by it. Not coincidentally, Arad is also the co-author of a new “Zionist Manifesto” for Israel, which would give “constitutional status” to Israel as a “Zionist-Jewish state,” a state of world Jewry; a state that would teach “the feeling of a right to the Promised Land, which is a central principle of Judaism.” The manifesto calls for “the preservation of democracy for all of its citizens.” It does not say if this is a central principle of Judaism.
* * *
This is where the demographic argument gets you. You put West Bank Palestinians behind a wall where economic life is virtually impossible, and you hive off another hundred thousand Arab Israelis and put them behind the wall too. Meanwhile, you expand your border to include new Jewish settlements and maintain existing political economic barriers for Arab Israelis, a barrier of institutional practice and law, a barrier of land and common ideology. You say Jews and Arabs must be separated because even if Israel’s Arab citizens will make the most of what liberties Israel gives them, they could not possibly want to be absorbed into Israel. And after all of this, you suppose yourself a democracy because you represent the general will of the “Jewish majority.” But is the choice really apartheid or binationalism?
People who put things this way, presumably to maintain Zionist momentum, have actually lost touch with what Zionism was mostly about at its inception, the power and grace of Hebrew culture. They underestimate the capacity of Israel’s cities to absorb new generations, including Arab citizens and foreign workers, to something both fully democratic and patently Jewish, yet in a way that does not presume to straighten the crooked timber—in short, to make Israel Jewish the way France is French. With the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, secluded in their spreading neighborhoods, nearly everybody in Israel (Arabs, too) is marinated in a popular Hebrew culture in which the international terms of science and business are incorporated, in which one shuttles from Hebrew fiction to subtitled Hollywood movies, or CNN, or the Lakers’ games, from Mizrahi music to sentimentalized Jewish holidays, or the beach. Go to a wedding or funeral in Tel Aviv, or an award ceremony in Haifa, and you’ll see that most feel homage when somebody reads, say, a poem by the late Yehuda Amichai, not when the rabbi chants perfunctorily from the traditional liturgy.
Israel’s Arabs remain close to the Arab world, and most will not likely assimilate as completely into Israel as, say, shtetl Jews have into New York City. But this does not mean they will not assimilate sufficiently into Hebrew culture to become responsible, even wonderfully iconoclastic, citizens. “One of the first novels I read,” Kashua told me, “was Saul Bellow’s Herzog in Hebrew translation. Then I bought all his books. I felt that Jews like Bellow understood me, understood what a democratic culture means when you’re a minority. Then I loved Primo Levi, then Zadie Smith. Arab literature, even the Koran, is full of stories of lost empire. The Arabs say, ‘We were once great and now have been brought low.’ The Jews say, ‘We were once slaves, but now we are free.’”
Kashua—who writes only in Hebrew—is unusual, but he is not an anomaly. Israel’s Declaration of Independence declares Israel “a Jewish state,” as the U.N. intended it to be, but also promises to ensure the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex. . . .” When he read the declaration aloud, Ben-Gurion unselfconsciously substituted the phrase “Hebrew people” (Am Ivri) for “Jewish people” when referring to the Zionist home. Perhaps the most original Zionist of them all, Ahad Ha’am, argued (after his distant hero, Herbert Spencer) for an organic view of Jewish community, wired together by the Hebrew language, struggling for existence, competing on progressive sophistication. He advocated enlightenment, self-reliance, newness. Living in Odessa in the 1880s, he argued for colonial settlements in Palestine, not because he wanted a state—not yet—but because he wanted a “Hebrew national atmosphere” that could provide a new and more congenial space in which Jews could work out in individual ways what it means to be Jewish—a place they could ask modern questions in Hebrew. He edited and mentored the generation that created the state’s DNA: A. D. Gordon, the founder of the kibbutz movement; Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the creator of the modern Hebrew dictionary; Chaim Weizmann, the moderate leader of world Zionism during the Mandate; even, indirectly, Ben-Gurion.
It is Zionism’s singular tragedy that all of these figures are just street names today, while “Zionism” is applied to the people with caravans, Uzis, stylish forelocks, and visits from Pat Robertson. Once, Israel’s sympathizers took Zionism’s innovations for granted. Today, ironically, only Arab Israelis seem to grasp how radical Zionism was for Jews. About 70 percent say that the thing that makes you Israeli is the Hebrew language. Until the intifada began, a larger proportion of Arab Israelis than Jewish Israelis (over 63 percent) claimed “Israeli” for their primary national identity.
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Which brings me, finally, to a curious petition, filed with Israel’s High Court of Justice last December. The petitioners are thirty-eight citizens of Israel, most of them Jews but a number of them Arabs: businesspeople, professors, entertainers, writers, jurists. Their petition enjoins the court to order the Ministry of Interior to inscribe them as “Israeli” in the Registry of Population. Given how much else is being contested in the country, one would think a petition to recognize Israelis as “Israeli” is frivolous. It is anything but that.
The petitioners are asking the state to recognize an inclusive, earned form of nationality, coterminous with and redundant to citizenship. They believe that fifty-five years after Israel’s founding—when two-thirds of its citizens have been born in the country, and half of those are third generation—the experience of Israel itself must be determinative of national identity. More important, they want to close the door on discrimination against individuals on religious or racial grounds.
“I have staked my life on the moral and cultural power of the Jewish people,” says Yoella Har-Shefi, a civil-rights attorney, who is leading the group, “but you can’t say, ‘Everybody is equal here, it’s just that a Jew is valued differently’—and if there is international or internal protest, well, that’s proof that ‘the whole world is against us.’ If Arab citizens can’t become ‘Israelis,’ the country will come apart. We are sitting on the edge of a volcano, because Israel is the only country on earth that does not recognize itself.”
The state’s attorney has so far responded to this petition predictably enough, arguing that it will divide the Jewish people—that it “undermines the very principles under which the State of Israel was created.” Barak’s court has not yet ruled definitively. But whatever the outcome, the petitioners are right to see that Israel’s real challenge in the coming generation is not only to get back into a peace process but to shore this up with a democratic revolution in civil rights; that is, to get Israeli Jews to “recognize” Israel. This Israel would not be a binational state; it would be a Hebrew republic, though what would be wrong, ultimately, with Israelis and Palestinians entering into some mutually convenient federal structure—or joining a larger one—to share jurisdictions that cannot be effectively exercised by either nation-state alone; to work on their roads, commercial links, water, labor standards, monetary policy, immigration, tourism, telecommunications policy, and more? The need for security cooperation around Jerusalem and its holy sites is obvious enough, and would probably require some international policing. I have yet to meet an Israeli businessperson who would not want Israel included in the European Community. Carl Hahn, the former chairman of Volkswagen, and an architect of European integration, told me recently that Israel would “certainly strengthen” the EU. But there is a caveat: “Israel must have peace with its neighbors and civil rights that conform to European law.”
Turkey, which has been Israel’s partner in so many economic and military ventures, is in advanced discussions with the EU. Why not an Israel subject to the EU’s collective security provisions, or formally joined to NATO, so that an attack on Israel would prompt a collective response? That Israel would still be a “Jewish state,” whose national literary and artistic masterpieces, created in Hebrew, would be open to the cultural and scientific currents of the developed world. But it would also be a country in which any citizen of the EU could choose to work, or start a business, and eventually go through a defined process of naturalization; that is, learn how to make the most of the Jewish nation’s civil society. And something very much like this process of naturalization would be the key to the advancement and integration of Israel’s Arab minority, who would be learning to be Israeli from primary school on, though individuals might well choose to live in the Palestinian state or to work in any country in Europe.
Israel would have to replace the Law of Return, but it could still have laws that prefer immigrants who are Diaspora Jews or victims of anti-Semitism. Greece has similar laws. At the same time, Israel would be a state in which, by law, the religious imaginations of citizens would be a matter of private conscience and voluntary assembly. It would be a state in which anyone could marry anyone, no religious institution would be supported by state funds, and all young citizens would be conscripted for some form of national service.
A pipe dream? Perhaps. The alternative, however, is a nightmare, and not only for Palestinians. According to recent polls, nearly half of Israel’s young people “do not feel connected” to the state, and a quarter of them do not see their future here. If the attitudes of my own business students are relevant, the brightest and most highly educated are as infatuated with America today as I was with Israel in 1967. There will be many interpretations of this poll, but one thing is clear: The absence of a coherent democratic vision cannot compete with the presence of a coherent, if outdated, Zionist vision. There will also be laments about how the Jewish state was supposed to be a “light unto the nations.” Perhaps Israel could just learn from the European nations for a while—not too much to ask, with its nemesis dead, its champion backtracking, its patron in too deep, and its once noble revolution in doubt.About the Author
Bernard Avishai is the author of The Tragedy of Zionism: How Its Revolutionary Past Haunts Israeli Democracy. He teaches business and public policy at Duke University.
This is Saving Israel From Itself, a feature, originally from January 2005, published Wednesday, February 9, 2005. It is part of Features, which is part of Harpers.org.