The Paradox of Israel: Regional Super Power and the Largest Jewish Ghetto Ever Created

Trying to understand the psychology of a people at war is a lot like trying to find the bodies buried under a bombed-out building. 

For more than 40 years, I've been watching my own Jewish people in wartime, repeating the same self-defeating pattern over and over. Most Jews say that they want Israel to be more secure, and they really mean it. Yet they support and vote for leaders who perpetuate the conflicts that make Israel less secure. 

I've been digging for decades through the endless pieces of that paradox, trying to get to the bottom of it. Here's what I see now as the bottom layer (though there may be layers further down that I haven't reached yet): The root of the problem lies in the Jews' relationship to the non-Jewish world and, even more, in the way Jews understand that relationship.

Jews have a long, checkered history of relations with their gentile neighbors. Sometimes, in centuries past, they got along very well; Jews felt fully a part of a larger multiethnic community. But most of the Jews who came to Palestine to populate a Jewish state never had that connected feeling. They experienced the human world the way minority groups so often do: There's us, and then there's everybody else; there's a wall separating us from everybody else. So they could never see themselves as part of a larger Middle Eastern community, a web of interactions where each group influenced all the others.

All they could feel was a great disconnect. Before 1948, they saw themselves as a community separated by all sorts of invisible walls from the Arabs around them. After 1948, they had geographical borders that functioned as visible separators, much like the ghetto walls of old. Although Zionism began as an effort to make the Jews a "normal nation," it ended up creating the world's largest Jewish ghetto.

For many Jews, the sense of disconnection was rooted in real history. Some had ancestors who had been separated from gentiles physically by a ghetto wall. Many had ancestors who felt separated by invisible walls of law and social custom, which seemed just as thick and high.

Still others, though, came from relatively well-assimilated communities. They learned to feel separated from the non-Jewish world, for reasons of all sorts. And since the Six-Day War of 1967, many Jews in the United States and around the world, who grew up in very well-assimilated settings, have learned a similar attitude. For them, Israel is the symbol of a gulf that they imagine has always existed, and must always exist, between Jews and gentiles.  

That's why many Israeli Jews, and Jews everywhere who sympathize with them, have a hard time recognizing what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us: Whoever we are, whomever we live with, all the members of a community are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. That's not a moral platitude. It's a poetic way of stating a commonsense observation of fact: Whatever we do is bound to affect others in our community, just as what they do affects us; we are all responding to each other all the time.

No matter how isolated one group may feel, it is always interacting with the groups around it. A minority group knows that it's responding to the majority. It has a harder time seeing how the majority is responding to it. But in fact, the relationship is always mutual. And when anyone on either sides commits violence, the violence is actually a product of the ongoing pattern of relationship, although the majority typically holds the upper hand when it comes to force. 

Since so many Jews in Palestine could not recognize that network of mutuality, they could not see how much the Arabs were responding to them. They saw themselves simply living their ordinary lives, minding their own business, on their side of the invisible wall. When the first Arab rocks were thrown at Jews, they seemed like bolts out of the blue. Most Jews could not imagine that their own behavior and their own choices were triggering the attacks. They assumed that the Arabs' had some other motivation -- anti-Semitism, many assumed -- to single them out as innocent victims.

Today, the Palestinian Arabs' rocks still fly. Bullets and bombs and rockets fly, too. And the same great disconnect remains among far too many Jews, both in Israel and around the world. They assume that there is no network of mutuality, no web of give and take. There is simply the Jewish state, trying its best to live peacefully and mind its own business, constantly victimized by attacks for reasons known only to the attackers. All the trouble, it seems, begins on the other side of the border.

This view is at the root of all Israel's military and diplomatic policies and the support they engender throughout the Jewish world. When you see the world through the lens of the great disconnect, everything that the Israeli government does makes sense, including the recent massive attack on Gaza. It's all based on the premise that no changes in Israel's policies can ever affect the basic antagonism of its neighbors.

The famous historian Benny Morris, in a recent New York Times op-ed, described just how things look from inside this great disconnect: "Many Israelis feel that the walls -- and history -- are closing in on their 60-year-old state. … The Arab and wider Islamic worlds … have never truly accepted the legitimacy of Israel's creation and continue to oppose its existence. … The West … is gradually reducing its support for Israel."

In other words: Nobody likes us, and we can't understand why. We are, as always, passive victims of unprovoked antagonism, and there ain't a thing we can do about it.

Then comes the inevitable conclusion: Though we can't change our opponents' feelings, we can change their behavior. Conciliation and compromise may produce marginal improvements. But the only way to change their behavior substantially is through the fear that comes from overwhelming force. So the best thing we can do is fight back. When the targets of our force try (quite naturally) to resist, we say: See, they really do hate us! It's a self-confirming illusion that is hard to escape.

That's the greatest danger of the great disconnect: If you don't acknowledge your own role in creating a conflict, you are working with an unrealistic view of what's happening. So you can't craft realistic policies that will actually make your nation more secure. When you start out from an illusion, you are bound to end up in self-contradiction -- which is just what has happened to Israel. With its political culture rooted in memories of oppression (and the eras of cooperation largely forgotten), it continues to assume that the Jews are a beleaguered minority. Its policies all stem from that premise.

But it's an illusion. Any realistic assessment of the Middle East must begin with the obvious fact that Israel has a preponderance of power over everyone else -- and a massive preponderance over the Palestinians. Imagine the United States basing its policies toward Mexico on the belief that we are seriously threatened by Mexico's power. That's pretty much how Israel deals with the Palestinians. 

It isn't just absurd; it's lethal. It creates policies that get people killed -- mostly in the Occupied Territories, but far too many on Israel's side as well. Yet Israelis keep saying they only want security, while they go on electing leaders whose policies make them less secure, repeating the same excuse: "Those [fill in the blank] understand only one thing!"

It's a common refrain, a reminder that the great disconnect is hardly unique to Israel and the Jews. It shapes relations between many groups all over the world, including relations between the United States and the many groups it defines as enemies. Many Palestinians may view their conflict with Israel through the eyes of the great disconnect, too.

In fact, when I offer this analysis of the Jewish community, I'm often met with the objection: Why just criticize Israel? What about the other side, with its rockets and suicide bombers? That question, too, emerges from the viewpoint of the great disconnect. It's a way of saying, "Why focus so much on our side? Isn't the real trouble coming from the other side?" -- as if the trouble could come from only one side.

Of course the trouble comes from the relationship, to which both sides contribute. But I don't live among Palestinians. I'm not in any position to understand them. So I speak to my own people. I point out that we have no control over the choices others make. We can control only our own choices. And it's only by making new choices in our own community that we can hope to affect the choices of others.

Fortunately, there are plenty of Jews who understand this. Their numbers are growing. And they hold the key to peace and security for Israel. People who are trapped in the great disconnect are not likely to listen to anyone on the other side of the wall. Only when voices within their own community offer a new, more realistic view can they have a chance to hear it. 

But the message has to speak directly to the heart of the problem at its deepest level. It has to name the great disconnect, acknowledge the real and imagined history behind it, but insist that now it is too dangerous -- for ourselves and for others -- to cling to a past memory as if it were present reality.

To explain the great disconnect is not (as some fear) to absolve Jews of their moral responsibility. In fact, it's the only way to bring the Jewish community back to its moral responsibility. The great Zionist thinker Martin Buber said that responsibility is really "response-ability:" the ability to tear down the imagined walls separating people and communities from one another, so that all can respond to the reality of the situation.

The first step toward responsibility is recognizing the reality that no one ever lives shut up behind a wall. We are always in mutual relationship with the people around us, whether we know it and like it or not. Once people tear down the imaginary walls that they think surround them, they can realize that their borders are not walls but bridges, connecting them to the people on the other side. Only then can they begin to reach across those borders and make peace.


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