The Zionist Dream is Becoming a Nightmare
Zionism's drive to create a state for the Jewish people was designed to serve two purposes. The most fundamental of them was to provide a refuge that would ensure the well-being and security of the Jewish people, wherever they were endangered by the ever-recurring historical cycles of murderous global anti-Semitism -- most recently, of course, the Holocaust. Beyond that, the Jewish state of Israel was to be a moral exemplar for all mankind, "a light unto the nations," the model of the kind of state that a liberal, well educated, sophisticated, and morally sensitive people -- "the people of the Book" -- could create.
The Zionist dream is becoming a nightmare. There is no place in the world where the Jewish people are more insecure than in Israel, in part, of course, because of the continuation of anti-Semitism, especially in the Islamic world, but also because of the policies and behavior of the Jewish state. As for its role of moral exemplar, today defenders of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians don't even bother to claim a higher morality; rather, they wish Israel to be judged as an "ordinary" state and typically complain bitterly that the West has a double standard, condemning Israel's human rights record but minimizing the even worse record of typical Arab autocracies. What a defense -- it's a long way from "a light unto the nations" to "better than Syria."
Zionism's "original sin" (in the language of many Israeli critics) was the political dispossession of the Arab peoples of Palestine, who had a more compelling historical case for political sovereignty over Palestine than did the Jews. True, Palestine had been the original Biblical homeland for the Jews, before the Romans had expelled them two thousand years earlier. But it hardly follows that this history gives the Jews an inherent right to the land in perpetuity, particularly in light of the incontestable fact that for thirteen hundred consecutive years the area had been largely inhabited by Arabs, and also because religious and historical claims to the land by both Muslims and Christians are no less powerful than those made by Jews.
Thus, the religious argument for Jewish sovereignty over Palestine is unpersuasive, and the argument based on previous possession of the land is even more so.
There is no place on earth that hasn't at one time or another "belonged" to a different people than its current inhabitants, and no place other than Palestine where it even occurs to anyone to argue that the passage of two thousand years is irrelevant to judging current land rights. Far worse, by blinding the Israelis -- and their equally unseeing supporters among diaspora Jews, especially in the United States -- to the reality of the conflict, these childish arguments have had devastating consequences for the Israelis and the Palestinians alike.
The tragedy is that these deeply flawed arguments for privileging Jewish claims to Palestine over those of its indigenous inhabitants were so unnecessary because by the early 1940s there was one incontestably good -- and sufficient -- argument. After the Holocaust, it was clear to people of good will everywhere that the creation of a Jewish state was now morally imperative, and that there was no practical place to put such a state other than in Palestine. True, this would create an injustice for the Palestinians, but one that could be mitigated by dividing the land of Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs. Tanya Reinhart puts it this way: "As an Israeli, I grew up believing that this primal sin our state was founded on might be forgiven one day, because the founders' generation was driven by the faith that this was the only way to save the Jewish people from the danger of another holocaust. But it didn't stop there."
Everyone knows, of course, that the Palestinians -- insisting on holding 100 percent of the land for themselves, regardless of the consequences for world Jewry -- refused to accept the UN's partition plan of 1947. What is not nearly so well known, however, is that Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, and most of the rest of the Zionist leadership also never truly accepted partition. Rather, they regarded their agreement to the UN plan as merely a tactical necessity, one that would later be reversed when Israel became militarily strong enough to resume its drive for Jewish sovereignty over all of the Biblical land of Palestine. And so they did, and so -- as Tanya Reinhart argues -- Israel continues to do today, in an only somewhat modified manner.
Thus, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a continuation of an historically unavoidable "Original Sin"; rather,it has become an avoidable, ongoing, and ever-worsening sin. Avoidable because there was a reasonable chance that the conflict might have been resolved long ago, had the Israelis acknowledged the inevitable harms done to the Palestinians by the creation of Israel as well as the subsequent expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and villages, and resolved to do everything possible to make up for these injustices in any manner possible, short of abandoning the Jewish state in one part of the land of Palestine. Israel's failure to acknowledge its responsibilities and moral obligations to the Palestinians has turned a tragedy into a crime.
Tanya Reinhart, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University and a regular columnist in Israel's biggest daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, has written two recent books of blistering, unsparing, and entirely persuasive criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. The first, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948,Ã¢â‚¬Â covered the 1999-2002 period; her most recent book, Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Road Map to Nowhere; Israel/Palestine Since 2003,Ã¢â‚¬Â updates her analysis through early 2006.
Reinhart argues that under the administrations of both Ariel Sharon and current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the real goal of Israeli policy has been, at a minimum, to unilaterally annex some 40 percent of the West Bank, including the most productive lands and most of the water resources of the area. Beyond that, Olmert is continuing the process of what Reinhart openly calls "ethnic cleansing" that began with the expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians in 1948. Reinhart contends that the brutality employed in the 1948 war is no longer feasible, if only because of the potential condemnation of the international community and the consequences it would have for Israel, so it is being replaced by the more indirect method of "slow and invisible transfer" -- that is, making life so miserable for the Palestinians that they give up and move elsewhere.
The tactics used to achieve this goal include the killing of more than two thousand innocent Palestinians as the result of Israel's indiscriminate attacks on "militants" or "terrorists" via bombs, missiles, artillery fire, and the like. Besides the killings, the Israeli government has imposed collective punishment and deliberate impoverishment of the entire Palestinian population by, as Reinhart describes, creating "a complex system of prisons... [pushing the Palestinians] into locked and sealed enclaves, fully controlled... by the Israeli army." This is done by the "Separation Wall" and other barriers, as well as by military roads, patrols, checkpoints, and roadblocks; the closing of Gazan trade and commerce with the outside world; and the repeated incursions of the Israel Defense Forces. Beyond even that, other measures seek to destroy the Palestinian economy and ordinary life, including the destruction of Gaza's main electrical power plant; the severe restrictions placed on Palestinian drinking and agricultural water; the daily humiliations and often severe hardships imposed by draconic Israeli laws against the free movement of Palestinians throughout the West Bank; the disruption of the private and public health systems -- and more.
Faced with this catastrophe, it is no wonder that the Palestinians have revolted; as Reinhart notes, international law and the Geneva Conventions "recognize the right of an occupied people to carry out armed struggle," although not to resort to terrorism against civilians. Even non-terrorist armed Palestinian resistance may not have been wise in practice, Reinhart concedes, but what alternatives did the Palestinians have? Many -- including Tikkun -- have proposed nonviolent strategies of resistance, but there is little reason to believe that approach would have been any more successful. Reinhart goes into great detail on the tactics the Israeli army, police, and intelligence services have used to suppress even nonviolent demonstrations -- including the use of tear gas, stun guns, rubber bullets, and occasionally even live fire.
Reinhart focuses primarily on the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. She might well have added that the Occupation and repression have had devastating direct and indirect effects on Israeli institutions, society, and quality of life. As regularly discussed by the Israeli news media and academicians, these include the following:
Israeli Democracy: All of Israel's democratic institutions are in severe decline. The Knesset is widely regarded with contempt, as are politicians generally. The judiciary in general, and the Supreme Court in particular, have largely abandoned their imperative role of upholding law and human rights against widespread governmental abuses, so long as the government cites "security needs" as its justification. Not surprisingly, the power of the military and security services in Israel are greater than in any other Western democracy.
Democratic and Human Rights: There are many Israeli commentaries about the radical decline of values and ordinary moral norms and constraints. Among the consequences are the growth of (1) class and intra-Jewish ethnic and religious conflict; (2) organized and unorganized crime, including routine intra-Jewish violence; (3) anti-Arab sentiments and other forms of racism; and (4) the abuse of women, including white slavery. As academics like Aviad Kleinberg and journalists such as Tom Segev have concluded, "interest in human rights has never been so negligible," and Israeli society, gripped by "moral and political paralysis," is "gradually coming undone."
Economic Injustice: Israel has completely abandoned its earlier goal of creating a democratic socialism in favor of "rampant capitalism." Consequently, while some Israelis grow fabulously wealthy, other sectors of the society suffer through high unemployment rates, high inflation, and continuously widening income inequalities.
To add to the picture of this third-world style pathology, Reinhart notes that a 2005 World Bank report found Israel to be one of the most corrupt and least efficient Western states.
Education and Culture: Religious messianism and fundamentalism are on the rise. This together with the secular but primitive nationalism of Sharon and his successors has created an environment in which academic freedom is under severe attack, Israel's intellectuals are increasingly regarded with scorn, and the education system as a whole has radically declined, becoming increasingly government-controlled, politicized, and ineffective. As Adir Cohen, a chaired professor of education at Haifa University, recently wrote, the deterioration in the Israeli education system (as reported by a spate of recent studies) is accompanied by a national move in "an anti-cultural direction. The art institutions are being suffocated, the orchestras choked, the theaters closed down. ... Public libraries are in a terrible state. For 2,000 years we were People of the Book. Now we've become the country bumpkins."
Though it cannot be said that all of these problems are attributable only to the consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor that they would disappear if that conflict were settled, it is equally obvious that the conflict, the Occupation, and the repression of the Palestinians has played a major role in either creating or exacerbating them.
What Can the American Jewish Community Do?
Not only is Israel's democracy and society at stake, but even its basic security. As Reinhart puts it, Israel is a "small Jewish state...surrounded by two hundred million Arabs," and it "is making itself the enemy of the whole Muslim world. There is no guarantee that such a state can survive. Saving the Palestinians also means saving Israel." Sooner or later the most fanatical of the Islamic fundamentalists by one means or another are likely to acquire nuclear weapons -- and they may very well use them against Israeli cities, regardless of the obvious consequences to the Muslim world from Israeli retaliation. And that will be the end of Israel, and much of the Middle East.
Only serious pressures by the American government, including making continued political, economic, and military support contingent on the end of the Is-raeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians, can stop the Israelis from marching over this looming cliff. Given the confluence of rightwing ideology and domestic political realities in the United States, however, it is hard to imagine any American government imposing such tough-love policies on Israel without strong support from the American Jewish community. Reinhart argues that "Part of the reason why the pro-Israeli lobbies [in the U.S.] have been so successful... is the massive lack of knowledge about what is really happening in Israel-Palestine." However, matters are even worse: it is not so much innocent ignorance that accounts for the unwillingness of most of the American Jewish community to help save Israel from itself, for by now there has been considerable coverage -- even in the super-cautious American news media -- of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians and to its own best interests. Thus, the real issue is the willed ignorance -- the psychological need not to know -- of our community. The price -- to the Palestinians, to the Israelis, and to American national security -- is already unbearable, and it may well soon become apocalyptic.