At this point, attacking the excessively pro-Palestine crowd is like picking the lowest-hanging fruit off a tree. The thrill of the fight is almost completely gone. I know I’m right, and they’ll never know they’re wrong (and if they ever figure it out, they’ll probably go to the other extreme and become ultra-orthodox Jews or fundamentalist Christians). Instead I’m just refighting the same old lazy clichés that were there long before I reached any kind of political consciousness. Debating the Palestinian side is only getting stupider, but the Israeli side is growing ever more in need of people who can scare them straight. And because this is a new movement that is growing exponentially more in need, this will necessarily be a much longer post.
To the excessively pro-Israel crowd: There is an authoritarian virus spreading through the Jewish world. It’s present in the politics of Israel, it’s present in the politics of supporting Israel, and it’s present in every other aspect of Jewish life. It would have us reject the conversions and marriages of any Jew that was not performed by an orthodox rabbi. It would have those of us Jews not privileged enough to believe in God 150% die for the Israeli army while they get paid exemptions to study Torah. It would have us believe that settlers in Arab Majority land are pioneers and heroes instead of fanatics. And in a stunning reversal of feminist triumphs, it would have women slave away at work while the men do nothing all day but study torah. It’s also present in all of the people who accommodate those who believe this way as though it were merely a charming quirk of people who are fundamentally on our side. It is present in the Orthodox community, it’s present in any secular or non-orthodox Jew who still believes in ‘Greater Israel,’ it’s present in anyone who believes that Muslim life is cheap, it’s present in anyone who believes that assimilation is the greatest evil to beset the Jewish community, it’s present in any Jew who would choose faith over enlightenment, it’s present in any Jew who still believes that we can negotiate the dialogue between faith and enlightenment without choosing one over the other, it’s present in any Jew who believes that there can ever be either peace or security without negotiation, it’s present in any Jew naïve enough to believe that Israeli security is simply something we Jews can ‘take’ by ourselves if no one in the Goyish world gives us the right to it. If this is the true future of Judaism, I want out immediately.
It grows stronger with every passing election and debate, and has ever less regard for the decencies of human interaction and the necessities of geostrategic thinking. It rewards bellicosity and stupidity, it regards all change as a threat. It allows the worst elements of Israeli society to feed on the body politic, and it’s growing to allow the worst elements of fanaticism as unchecked a rein among Jews as it currently has among Christians. It refuses to acknowledge that the world has changed since 1967, and would like to keep Israel and the Jewish religion precisely as it once was when the evidence of an overwhelming change in both is all around us. It has allowed a newly rejuvenated Likud Party (right wing) to drive out any elements from its party which insist on rational considerations and deposit them in Kadima (the centrist party – founded by that liberal lion, Ariel Sharon) and has just approved a merger with the (far-right) Russian immigrant party which distrusts anything that smacks of liberal (aka American) weakness and the ever-swelling ranks of the ultra-orthodox religious parties who demand sums which bankrupt the Israeli coffers. This virus may yet kill Israel and lead Judaism back into the dark ages of pogrom, proscription, and persecution.
To those of us even slightly in touch with reality, it forces each of us to choose, are we for or against the idea that Jews can live without goyim. I am as sad as anybody else to have to make this choice, but I am 100% against it, and will fight it in every way I can for the rest of my life. I am a Jew, and a reasonably proud one. I don’t believe in the religion, and I don’t know how anyone else can. But I believe that Jews have a belief in learning and ethical conduct that produces much more success and purpose and happiness than people have in the general population. But if the Jewish community itself forces me to make a choice between belief and learning, I’ll choose more learning every time.
The current government in Israel does not resemble the best traditions of Western liberalism even in the slightest. If the Likud party wins re- election, the only ‘First World’ government which Israel will resemble is Hungary, in which the right-wing is flanking to the most populist, pernicious, and bigoted elements of the far right in an attempt to expel any element from government that is not ultra-nationalist. Many governments have tried this – including France and the Netherlands, but only in Hungary has this ‘democratic’ course of action proven more successful than it has in the current State of Israel. It is amazing to think that only six months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli public would elect the Knesset opposition leader who did absolutely nothing to prevent the calls of ultra-orthodox rabbis for Rabin’s assassination. But that Israel would re-elect him fifteen years later after throwing him out the first time for corruption is beyond belief. And in this second premiership, Netanyahu responded by providing a right-wing government that is precisely as right-wing, corrupt, and authoritarian as his previous record would suggest.
Speaker of the Knesset: Reuven Rivlin – the first speaker in the history of Israel to break with the tradition of neutrality. In his first term as speaker, he used his platform to become one of the most vocal opponents of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan from Gaza. He's also used his platform to criticize Yad Vashem for allowing Pope Benedict XVI to speak there (as a former 'Nazi') and has advocated for an apartheid state in which the emerging Palestinian majority becomes Israeli citizens stripped of voting rights rather than a two-state solution.
Minister of Strategic Affairs: Moshe Ya’alon – who was removed by Ariel Sharon as Chief of Staff to the Israeli Army after he publicly protested Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza. He was then sued by citizens of Qana, a town in Southern Lebanon, for his role in an incident in 1996 when 800 Lebanese Civilians took refuge in a UN compound. As results of the incident, 106 refugees were killed and another 120 injured by artillery shells in an action which the UN ruled unlikely to be an accident.
Minister of Internal Affairs: Eli Yishai – who advocated blowing Gaza back to the middle ages and destroying all infrastructure. After the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, he declared that the failure to complete objectives was due to soldiers not being religious enough. He also tried to refuse African refugees and migrants because of his belief that the Africans brought large amounts of disease with them (scientifically proven to be mistaken, in case anybody thought otherwise).
Minister Without Portfolio: Benny Begin – The son of Likud’s founder, Menachem Begin, who during Netanyahu’s first term lead the right-wing of Likud in forming a separate ultra-right-wing party after Netanyahu announced that he would uphold some clauses of the Oslo Accords. Begin believes that Palestinians and Israeli Arabs should live as a semi-autonomous independent state with Israel controlling all security questions.
Foreign Minister: Avigdor Lieberman – who called for the execution of Israeli Arab members of the Knesset, bombing all places of business in Ramallah, suggested drowning Palestinian POW’s in the Dead Sea (admittedly, half-jokingly), and implied that the best solution to Gaza would be a nuclear weapon. He proposed that all Israeli Arabs be made to swear a ‘loyalty oath’ and to jail all Arabs who publicly mourn on Israeli Independence Day. He has also been investigated and indicted for corruption accusations and was once convicted of the physical assault of a twelve-year-old.
Minister of Environmental Protection: Gilad Erdan – who advocated for the use of Hamas prisoners as human shields against Qossam rockets and for the right of Israeli judges to revoke citizenship for ‘disloyalty to the state.’
Minister of Housing and Construction: Ariel Atlas – who called for the complete segregation of Arab Israelis from Jewish Israelis.
Minister of Justice: Yaakov Neeman – who was reported to say that Israeli law should be gradually made to be in accordance with Halakha (Jewish ritual law).
Minister of Culture and Sport – Limor Livnat – who called for gender segregation on public transportation in Ultra-Orthodox areas and for the National Anthem to be sung at all Israeli schools at the beginning of every school day.
Finance Minister: Yuval Steinitz – a former academic who has warned repeatedly that Egypt plans to remilitarize the Sinai Peninsula.
A few things should be said about this list. The first, obviously, is that a list of ministers in any Palestinian government thus far in Gaza or the West Bank would probably include a litany of actions and comments five-times as blood-curdling as the one you’ve just read – and will probably remain so for another generation. Secondly, every Israeli government since its inception has included at least a few militant nuts. One of them, Yitzhak Shamir, even became the second-longest serving Prime Minsiter. But the true nuts, even during the Shamir era, were exceptions rather than the rule. But look at the composition of the current Israeli Knesset. The Knesset holds 120 seats. 27 of these are Likud, another 15 are Yisrael Beitenu, still another 18 are comprised of Israel’s various religious parties. Together they form a governing coalition of exactly 60. If the coalition members were a bit more rational, they could include the centrist Kadima and their 28 members in their coalition for a super-majority coalition of 88. When one adds the four seats of the still further right-wing National Union party, that means that there are roughly 28 current members out of the 120-strong Knesset who are well-disposed to speak up for any point of view that is left of the current Israeli center. Of those twenty-eight, seven are Israeli Arabs.
Even now, to call Israel anything but a democracy is pure sophistry. Israel may be flawed, and now more than ever, but it is not a dictatorship, and is still by exponential quantities the most liberal state in the Middle East. To draw any sort of moral equivalence between what Israelis do to Palestinians and what Palestinians do to both Israelis and themselves is pure moral frivolity. But the moral equivalence between the Israeli government and the Palestinian government is drawing too close for anyone who believes that Zionism and Liberalism have proven absolutely compatible in the past and should still be compatible today. It has to be wondered if Israel’s ability to maintain itself as a democracy is stretching to the breaking point – is the break imminent?
There was a time, not too many decades ago, when the State of Israel and the state of political liberty were not seen as two distinct entities by any sane person. The world saw Israel correctly for what it is, an embattled democratic underdog encircled by authoritarian neighbors who long for nothing more than its destruction as a replacement goal for the hard work of liberalizing their countries. Israel is still the most democratic country in the Middle East by far, and yet the rest of the region, admittedly at a crawl, is beginning to catch up while Israel jogs backwards. It is conceivable that in our lifetime, the false moral equivalence or superiority from Arab to Israeli policy which many insist already exist, will be true.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly awaits a green light from President Obama to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, as though an attack on Iran will put an end to the nuclear threat on Israel. Even if Israel successfully destroys the entire Iranian nuclear program, there still remains the problem that any Israel-hating country, any Israel-hating terrorist organization, can still import a nuclear weapon from the A. Q. Khan network in Pakistan (remember them?) or from North Korea. An attack on Iran is all Iran needs to declare holy war on Israel – for which political Islamists will line up, perhaps by the tens of thousands to be holy warriors with suicide bombs for the cause. Any missile which lands or even detonates in the air can contain radioactive material or chemical weaponry. An Iranian nuclear weapon is a serious, serious problem. But an attack on their nuclear facility is about as far from a serious solution as can be imagined.
It’s not hard to believe that had Ariel Sharon survived his second stroke without brain damage, he’d have known better how to handle it. One of the great ironies of Modern Israel is that Arik Sharon, supposedly ‘the bulldozer’ barred from high office for so long because no one thought he would ever give up on the settlement project or on the occupation of any territory, was the only Prime Minister in Israeli history to dismantle settlements and leave occupied territory in either Gaza or the West Bank. Like Richard Nixon before him, he stoked right wing fears as a means to achieve high office, and then used his credibility from the ultra-right as a tactic to pursue some diplomatic policies that were almost left-of-center.
After all that worry about World War III breaking out during an Ariel Sharon premiership, it turned out that Arik wasn’t a fascist after all, he was merely a brilliant demagogue willing to say or do anything to get the desired result. The unilateral Gaza evacuation was no great triumph for either Israel or Palestine, but it’s certainly preferable to continued occupation and insurrection. I have no idea what Sharon would have done to neutralize the Iranian threat, but I’m sure he’d have found a better solution than Bibi’s.
If the American president Arik Sharon most resembles is Nixon, then the president Bibi Netanyahu most resembles is George W. Bush. Bibi is a far more articulate man than Bush in both Hebrew and English, but in his decision making he appears no more intelligent, and has no more spine when faced with right-wing nuts who whisper in his ear. Like Bush, Bibi comes from something approaching right-wing royalty in his country. Bibi’s older brother, Yoni Netanyahu, was the commander of the Entebbe Raid that rescued 102 Israeli passengers from an Air France plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and brought to Idi Amin’s Uganda. Yoni was the only Israeli soldier killed in the raid, and only four of the 106 hostages were killed. Bibi’s father is the historian, Benzion Netanyahu, perhaps Israel’s most important ultraconservative intellectual from its founding until his death just this year at the age of 102. For three generations, Benzion Netanyahu was a living link to the original circles of ‘Revisionist Zionism’ which advocated the forcible removal by any means necessary of all potential enemies of a Jewish Israel whether British or Arab. Even after turning 100, Professor Netanyahu continued to warn in public pronouncements of the coming nuclear threat from Iran and the necessity of bombing their nuclear facilities. Bibi’s uncle is a famous mathematician, and his aunt is a former Israeli Supreme Court Justice.
If Sharon’s insane rhetoric and behavior masks a Nixon-like realist, then perhaps Bibi’s Bush-like charming swagger similarly conceals the brazen heart of a true believer. And yet his rhetoric, while overheated, isn’t entirely wrong. Netanyahu denies that there is such a thing as a Palestinian – a not quite as insane view as it might seem. It might have had some legitimacy if the people who now call themselves Palestinians hadn’t been left to rot together in refugee camps by Israelis and Arabs alike for sixty-five years. If there wasn’t such a thing as a Palestinian people in 1948, there is certainly such a thing now. But Netanyahu has made some still more insane statements – such as that the Arab desire to rid Israel of the West Bank is like Germany’s desire to rid Czechoslovakia of the Sudetenland. It’s a very dramatic wording, but well... many Arab leaders probably do want to rid Israel of the West Bank as a way to conquer more of Israel down the road. It can't be denied, there are many powerful people in the Middle East who see Hitler as an ideal model of how to treat Jews.
However, any question of whether or not Bibi was sane was put out of my mind ten days after the Barack Obama’s Cairo address to the Arab world. When Obama gave the Cairo speech, he fed Netanyahu a golden egg only for Netanyahu to spit it out immediately. The only true criticism of Israel Obama made was over the issue of settlements. And yet because Obama included that little criticism of Israel (and perhaps because he didn’t praise Israel more in front of an Arab audience…waaahhh….), Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet. Ten days later, Netanyahu made a speech at Bar-Ilan University stating that Israel will only accept a demilitarized Palestinian state which accepts with an undivided Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and the right of Israeli settlements to exhibit ‘natural growth.’ It was a speech designed for the specific purpose of stopping peace negotiations before they could even begin.
It’s not hard to see why Netanyahu did it, and perhaps it’s even easy to have a bit of sympathy with his problem. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that all this talk of a new generation of rational Muslim liberals powerful enough to take over the Middle East from authoritarian oppressors is as completely idiotic and simple-minded as it was when people said the same thing about 1979 Iran. But now, we’ll never know, because Netanyahu closed the door on perhaps the key way in which relatively liberal Arab leaders like Salaam Fayyad and Mohammed Morsi (do we even know if Morsi is a liberal yet?) might have proven themselves serious leaders for the future – a bilateral peace agreement with Israel in which the Arab states recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, renounce the Palestinian right of return, and prosecute those who would do Israel harm in exchange for Israel recognizing an independent and completely equal Palestine, giving up all claims to territory in Gaza and non-Jerusalem West Bank, give Muslims control of their holy sites, and renounce East Jerusalem so that it may be the Palestinian capital. In giving that speech, Netanyahu may have signed the Arab Spring’s death warrant before it even began, and in doing so, there’s at least a small chance he may have also signed Israel's death warrant too.
Whether the enemy is Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ayatollahs of Iran, there will always be someone still more insane on the horizon. Israel tried to work its way around Yassir Arafat, and the result was a Gaza (and perhaps soon a West Bank) controlled by Hamas. 25.5% of the Egyptian parliament is currently comprised of “the Islamist Bloc,” a collection of three Islamic political parties for whom the Muslim Brotherhood is too moderate. If Mohammed Morsi proves unsuccessful, his replacement could be far more extreme.
But what is true for the Arab world is just as true for the Jewish world. Neither Menachem Begin, nor Yitzhak Shamir, nor Ariel Sharon, nor Ehud Olmert, nor Bibi Netanyahu could solve the neighborhood conflict by force. Yet each uses force more overwhelming than the last, and each time, a plurality of Jews decide that the situation requires the use of still more force. Rather than being easier after the Arab spring to be a liberal in this region, it may well turn out to be harder to be one than ever before.
Israel’s best and brightest seem to leave the country in droves and the statistics for it are staggering, Meanwhile, the birthrates of the ultra-orthodox increase exponentially. The vast majority of those who remain are fundamentally cut off from any international discourse and see the rest of the world as hostile to everything Israel is – in many ways, they’re not wrong. But if Jews engage rational critics of Israel while dismissing irrational ones, it will be Jews who control how Israel is viewed in the world. If Jews dismiss all criticism of Israel, it will be the most irrational and strident anti-semites who control worldwide discourse about this most important subject.
The world has changed immeasurably. And yet many if not most Jews still pretend we live in 1967 – the year when the Jewish idea of a prosperous secure Israel lined up best with the world opinion’s image of a secular, semi-socialist state that took no side in the Cold War. By the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, both images were shattered. Within the next six years, it became clear that Israel would be insecure for the duration of its existence, and its survival could only be ensured by the backing of American military and financial power’s most distasteful elements. Since 1973, Israel underwent an eighteen-year quagmire in Lebanon and assumed an endless series of ground assaults in Gaza and the West Bank. Whatever one’s feelings about the morality of these actions, you would have to be blind to the present realities to still believe in the idea of an Israel that remains secure, secular, and democratic. Many if not most Israelis have chosen the first at the expense of the latter two, and while one can’t blame them, one can still question whether or not they’re ensuring the impossibility of their security by not concentrating on the two elements simultaneously.
The era when Israel was seen as an important liberal cause is a half-century in the past. And yet we address the Israel problem to the larger public as though the Holocaust still means what it did to public memory in the 1960’s, as though Israel is still a plucky little quasi-socialist state with little infrastructure or foreign investment, and as though Israel’s support from the United States is not guaranteed. Every time we allow this discussion to proceed as though we’re still living in 1967, we allow authoritarians who live in 2012 to get away with whatever they wish. In an era when the Justice Minister of the world’s one liberal Jewish state can start talking about bringing Israel to Halakhic law, when its Minister of Housing can advocate for complete segregation between Arabs and Jews, when its Minister of Strategic Affairs was probably involved in a mass murder, and when its Foreign Minister implies that the best solution to the country’s problems would be to nuke a contiguous state, this is not just an unfortunate aberration. This is a systemic problem which every Jew among us has allowed to happen by allowing a virus to grow in the entirety of Jewish society – both in Israel and outside of it. Ze’ev Sternhall, chair of the Political Science Department at Hebrew University and a worldwide expert on fascism remarked, “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs were in power in post-World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain…a crude and multi-faceted campaign is being waged against the foundations of the democratic and liberal order.” In 2008, a settler set off a pipe bomb in his house.
And the future probably holds still worse. In 2009, a mock-election of high school students around Israel produced Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman and 56 percent of those students polled would oppose the idea of Israeli Arabs being elected to the Knesset. Both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have warned about the coming demographic shift that would lead the combined Palestinian and Israeli Arab populations of Israel to exceed the Jewish Israeli population, perhaps as early as 2017 – in which case Israel would truly be an apartheid state like South Africa.