“It’s time to recognize this basic truth: Israel is not what’s wrong about the Middle East. Israel is what’s right about the Middle East.”
I’m guessing this Bibi gem won one of those 29 Congressional standing ovations on Tuesday.
Probably a facepalm – or laugh-out-loud – moment for many Israelis. Here’s our PM in plain view of the entire world, demonstrating in first person what is domestically known as the Ugly Israeli: a ridiculously arrogant, pushy, free-riding, zero-self-awareness caricature of a person. (For Americans, think about that rude sloppily dressed Yankee tourist barging into a vegetarian restaurant in India and demanding a hamburger.)
Or as Carly Simon would put it: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about YOU.”
But seriously. Leaving aside the pitiful circus that Congress becomes when they do Israel, and also leaving aside Bibi’s bad personal taste, most Israeli Jews would agree with some version of his statement, and a majority is suspicious or outright hostile towards Obama’s gentle attempts to nudge us towards acknowledging reality.
How can we be so collectively blind? What follows below is not a polemic, but rather an attempt to provide some insight to a nation that sees itself, in some ways, as sitting outside history and not subject to its laws.
What is this History that we are Ignoring?
One problem when discussing Israel-Palestine, that the first thing to go down the drain is that simple beautiful principle: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.”
To try and mitigate this problem, below is a simple (incomplete, time permitting) list of major, glaring, important existential facts that most Israelis nowadays either completely ignore, or brazenly defy that they have any practical implications.
A friendly tip: this can be used a self-selection list. If you find most of the facts in the list unbearably false, twisted, maliciously selective or unfair, just save yourself the time and go elsewhere.
But before you do so, consider this: the point in this diary is not to claim who’s morally “right” or “wrong” (my stand on the matter is well-known, and although it is not 180-degree opposed to Bibi’s, it is certainly well over 90-degrees away from him).
The point is to demonstrate that from a practical standpoint, Israel is now facing a multi-dimensional historical train wreck, mostly of its own making. Yet it is precisely this train wreck that the Israeli mainstream – whether in its brazen Bibi version, or in its more savvy Olmert-Livni-Barak version – is still ignoring.
And the diary further tries to explain why this deliberate blindness to history, from an Israeli insider’s perspective.
- Historically, for centuries Jews in Palestine were a small minority with no national aspirations until near the end of the 19th Century;
- The trickle of national-minded Jewish immigrants to Palestine (later known as Zionists) received a major boost when they became officially sponsored by the British colonial power that took control of the country in 1918;
- Around 1950, following the Holocaust, a local war and Nakba, Jews became a majority in the land and a 90% majority within the new State of Israel, largely emptied of its Palestinian population.
- World powers (which earlier pushed a Jewish state down the region’s throat via the UN) were lightning-quick to recognize and integrate Israel into the world community, even though in 1950 it was little more than a huge refugee camp for people sharing little in common except a religious heritage and nowhere else to go. The West went on to bankroll Israel’s economic stabilization, and to abandon and punt towards the future the teeny side problem that the majority of Palestinians in the land have, virtually overnight, become penniless refugees.
- Fast-forward 57 years: in 2007, Jews once again stopped being a majority in Israel-Palestine (due to “demographic realities” – genuine ones, not the fabricated one of settlement-building). They are now still a plurality, but are scheduled to be outnumbered by Palestinians sometime over the coming decade AFAIK. Outside Israel, Jewish demographics are stagnating at around 5-7 million worldwide, and most of the young generation lives an affluent secular life, tends towards mixed marriages and is not expected to generate a mass immigration wave to Israel in any foreseeable future.
- Last but not least: the less than 6 million Jews now living in Israel are surrounded by over 150 million Arabs, who unlike them are quite aware of this history, roughly in the context in which I presented it – and whatever spins Bibi or “moderates” like Thomas Friedman might spin about the Arab Spring, the issue of injustice to Palestinians still matters very much to citizens across the Arab world, and ranks very high on their to-do lists for their governments. Yes, those would be the same citizens who just rebelled against their leaders and are installing popularly-based governments.
In short, your average Middle Easterner might disagree that Israel meets the definition of “What’s right about the Middle East.” But as we sadly know, 1948 is not the end of the story.
I don’t want to add 50 bullet-points here and lose the audience. So let’s summarize in a paragraph: even though the initial economic integration and exploitation of the Occupied Territories and their residents had generated for Israel what is to this date still the greatest economic boom in Israeli history, in 1967-1973 (don’t believe? check it out on gapminder.org). – despite this, continuing to stick with Occupation has exacted an increasing toll upon Israel in every conceivable way. Moreover, no country – not even the US – has recognized Israel’s claim to control any of these territories by right (as opposed to as a “temporary measure”).
Are We Really Ignoring This?
In one word: yes. Consider for example the single biggest cost, in my opinion of Israel’s Occupation: the loss of its democracy. Any typical Israeli, not just wingnuts like Bibi, will argue with you blue in the face that Israel is a democracy, and that the Occupied Territories have “nothing to do with it”, are “irrelevant” or whatever. Forget for a moment the West Bank; bring up the issue of what the regime is in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, and they’ll say “East Jerusalem Palestinians are all citizens.” Wrong, of course; they are only residents; the Shin Bet secret police keeps a close tab on them; their rights to residency, property ownership and travel abroad are far more limited; and most saliently – if they linger abroad too long, they lose their residency rights automatically and simply cannot return except as “tourists”.
Most Israelis – including, to my astonishment, my own mother who is progressive, well-educated, has mostly “lefty” offspring and has lived in Jerusalem for most of the past 40 years – did not know that simple fact, that the Palestinians who live in her city have to live under a structurally inferior citizenship status. Heck, most Israelis don’t know anymore where the 1967 lines pass on the ground, because the settlements and “Israel proper” have been so thoroughly integrated in so many places. But tell Israelis that the integration of our flagrantly undemocratic control of the West Bank, with the supposedly pure democracy of “Israel Proper”, means that Israel is not a democracy anymore – and they will throw a hissy fit and see you as a lunatic self-hater (if you are Jewish) or an anti-Israel type (if you’re not).
Moreover, tell Israeli Jews that we must, must, must end the Occupation or Israel might simply implode or explode – and they will shrug “what’s the rush?” Most will add some lip-service saying that the “settlements” (which – see above – they cannot really identify; what they mean is places with people who look like settlers, Orthodox and crazy) – the “settlements” are wrong of course, Palestinians need their state of course – but, but – the punch line will be some currently-fashionable version of “there’s no one to talk with on the other side.” Which really boils down to the immortal Bibi phrase opening this diary: the rest of the Middle East, esp. the Palestinians, is just innately wrong, and we – the innately right ones, will just have to stiffen our upper lip and hang tough until they become more civilized.
This is what some 80%-90% of Israeli Jews think nowadays. Everything else is semantic decoration.
So Why This Blindness?
I mean, ok, you don’t have to like or even respect your neighbors, esp. considering all the bad blood. But where’s the pragmatism? I mean, 6 million and 150 million, loss of majority in the country itself, erosion of popular support across the entire world, the refusal of any country even our friends (upon whom we rely like air to breathe) to recognize any part of the Occupation, etc. etc.?
Here’s the deal. Any person, any group, any nation has their share of exceptionalism – some irrational level of hubris and unwillingness to acknowledge their true nature. But in Israel this is taken to the absolute extreme: we honestly think that history, and the laws of nature in general, do not apply to us.
There are very good reasons for this. It is easy to forget, especially in the US (where nearly all 535 members of Congress are thoroughly trained to forget it). But Israel itself is neither a natural, nor even a likely, phenomenon. The Jewish national project in Palestine was spearheaded by a band of misfits with various extreme ideologies; it had taken 50 years – against immense odds – for it to even reach the mainstream of the Jewish world.
But what the leaders of soon-to-become Israel have demonstrated at nearly every turn is an uncanny ability to leverage and surf the huge historical upheavals of the 20th Century, and to take advantage of every lucky break. Time after time has the Zionist train seemed to head into a brick wall – and time after time the wall miraculously crumbled at the last moment, or a side-spur materialized out of thin air, and Zionism – later Israel – emerged not only unscathed but actually empowered.
I am not giving specific examples. If you know any of the history, you will find them yourself.
Moreover, another tendency that Zionism and Israel have demonstrated, is a brazen willingness to experiment on itself. The Hebrew language which seems so natural on the lips of millions of Israelis (including myself) is really known to linguists as “modern Hebrew” (opposed to Biblical Hebrew). As recently as 1900, according to accepted lingustic definitions, it simply did not exist. It was created by thousands of those crazy initial pioneers forcing themselves to talk with their children not in their native languages (mostly Yiddish), but in a language they were inventing on the fly based on the ancient Biblical structures. It worked; in my opinion, modern Hebrew is Zionism’s greatest unqualified success. A more famous social experiment – the Kibbutz movement – while posting great achievements, is now largely seen as a failure with generations growing up in kibbutzim mostly deserting them with deep psychological scars, and others not taking their place.
But a far greater experiment is the Occupation itself. The mere willingness of a nation to tamper with its own regime and shatter its own laws in order to achieve some limited practical outcome (in this case, de-facto expansion of borders without acknowledging the expansion) – is so unimaginable to people outside Israel, that foreign leaders and even experts continue to misunderstand what has actually transpired on the ground post-1967.
But in Israel this tinkering is taken for granted and seen as natural. We can fly through walls. We can jump off buildings. If we say we are a “democracy”, we can re-define the term as we wish so that we still fall under it – or simply stare at our non-democracy in the face and ignore its true nature. We can subjugate our entire society to a huge and corrupt military, and still claim that it does nothing to us, that we are in fact a vibrant life-loving civil society.
Instead of counting our blessings, being grateful for the immense, truly generous breaks history has afforded us over 63 years, and moving off the fast lane – we Israelis delude ourselves that these astounding privileges and being bailed out for failure after failure are our God-given right, and are insulted to the point of hysteria whenever reality manages to bite us. Like the famous quote from George W. Bush’s inner circle, Israel believes in making up its own world, its own reality, its own rules.
It is this deep self-conviction with which most Israeli Jews communicate their delusional and a-historical view of their nation, that fools many outside observers, most of all Diaspora Jews with longtanding ties of friendship and family. These “friends of Israel” then go on to promote the delusions as if they were the Gospel Truth, and thus help Israel continue running away from itself and gamble the entire nation away – straight into the increasingly unavoidable abyss.