(crossposted on Daily Kos)
In April, in anticipation of Israel’s independence day, fellow Israeli activist Ofer Neiman sent us an op-ed for feedback. I ended up co-signing the article. It appeared on Ynet, the website of Israel’s largest daily. I planned to translate it to English but was too busy.
A couple of weeks ago, as the Gaza flotilla was cruising towards its tragic end, I thought up another article – a sequel if you will. This time it was Ofer who joined me as a co-author, and the article appeared in Haaretz – but wasn’t translated on their English mirror.
Both articles deal with Israel’s existential problems rather than focus on current events. The Ynet article reminds Israelis, that the deteriorating quality of our public life bears a direct impact upon the raison d’etre for the Jewish state itself. The Haaretz article tackles Israel’s recent foreign-policy philosophy (embraced by most of the public) head-on.
Neither article was received well by Israeli readers; no big surprise. At least we tried. Below is an annotated translation of the Ynet piece, with additional remarks I’ve never written before regarding my personal experience. The Haaretz article – hopefully in a day or two.
The Most Dangerous Place for Jews
Ofer Neiman and Assaf Oron, April 22, 2010
The State of Israel was established to be a safe haven for Jews, but it seems that since its establishment this has been the only place in the world where Jews are killed on a regular basis in military conflicts or terror attacks, supposedly for being Jews – but more precisely, for their affiliation with the Zionist enterprise. Generations of ceaseless self-armament, during which Israel has turned into a regional power with the strongest military in the Middle East, have not served to allay our fears. Even now many feel threatened – for example, by the potential of an Iranian nuclear weapon, or by thousands of rockets on our northern and southern borders.
While bereavement and existential fears grip the public in Israel every few years, in many other places around the world Jews live a prosperous stable life, maintain a rich community fabric, and actively participate in the surrounding local culture. The state that was set up “to prevent another Holocaust” is the only place in the world where local politicians dare threaten Jews with… another Holocaust, as the speeches during this year’s Memorial Week once again demonstrate.
[note: Israel`s Memorial Week starts with the Holocaust day a few days after Passover, and continues a week later with the military and terror-victim Memorial Day, right on the eve of Independence day. Right-wing politicians like Bibi use the event to remind citizens how all the world is against us, and how grave is the existential threat du jour]
The vast majority of Israelis (at least those who are not religious fanatics) see the protection of Jews’ welfare and safety as a primary mission of the state, a mission far more important than, say, the ambition to extend the national borders beyond those recognized by the world in 1949. Therefore, it is no surprise that the citizens most at ease with the present political reality are messianic fanatics. Effi Eitam, for example, already declared that Jewish sovereignty over the entire “greater Israel” is a goal worth sacrificing human lives for. We, the rest of Israelis, must ask ourselves: are we ready to sacrifice our children and other children, when we can guarantee them a future of security and contentment somewhere else?
At this point, one might think that the article’s main goal is to convince people to emigrate from Israel. Bear with us: we are being intentionally provocative. The point made by the article’s first part is that even on security proper – that major deity “justifying” pretty much every failure and crime our government commits – successive Israeli governments have actually scored very low grades. Fact of the matter is, the average Israeli would be much safer grabbing whatever foreign passport or visa they can get hold of, and emigrate to where most Diaspora Jews live, i.e. some wealthy peaceful country. From a pure security perspective, that is.
Of course, even with Israel’s higher rate of conflict-related deaths vs. the West’s, is still fortunately too low to make Israelis run for the exits en masse like Iraqis had done recently. Yet, the ongoing sense of paranoia and trauma has been quite damaging.
But there are other reasons beside security for Jews, even non-fanatics, to live in a Jewish-dominated state, and we continue by listing some of them.
True, even non-fanatics can suggest answers to the question “Why live in Israel?” for example “Only here we control our destiny” or “Only here there is a sense of a shared fate”. But the validity of these answers needs to be revisited in view of recent developments.
Recently, our public sphere has been monopolized by the new-old consensus that we must live on our sword, as a “Villa in the Jungle” facing our “Barbarian” neighobors who “do not accept our existence here”. This is not controlling our destiny, but the complete opposite: fatalism and a dead end. As to the shared fate, Israel’s once-famous social cohesion has been unraveling in recent decades because of rifts between major population groups, the disintegration of the education system, cruel economic policies, and the epidemic of corruption in high places that eradicates the public’s trust in its leaders. This is not a coincidence: when all of us are consumed by an outbreak of existential fears, or are busy recovering from the previous outbreak – who has the energy to deal with society’s core problems and hold politicians accountable?
Of course, there are other answers that can be given besides the two we addressed. We could not cover all of them in a 575-word article. For example, “Participate in the re-connection of Jewish life and culture to our ancient ancestral land” (not necessarily in the religious sense). This is a very popular theme, and one which, as a history buff and former nature guide, I personally identify with. But in recent years Israelis’ collective view of the Middle East has become so hostile and disdainful. So do we see ourselves as part of it, or not? In particular, it is clear to anyone paying attention, that Palestinians have preserved much of the material culture and traditions of ancient Jews. What kind of Jewish revival in our ancient land is this, when we come to see Palestinians as inferior and repulsive – which is what, unfortunately, Israeli kids are indoctrinated into nowadays? This mindset, which after some lull in the 1990’s has re-emerged with a vengeance, is directly related to the damages we have inflicted upon the country’s natural and cultural scenery, most recently with the destruction of thousands and thousands of olive trees.
Similarly, all answers will share the same flaws we pointed out here, which boil down to this: Israel is not the same country anymore. It is not the same country I grew up in, and it is not the country you happened to visit 10 years ago. We now know that it had never quite lived up to its image, but earlier on one could argue that Israel was still in formation, that the threats were objectively more massive (e.g. the Egyptian army backed by the USSR’s power, etc.). Now the excuses have become too lame (and/or racist) to be taken seriously.
Keep in mind: we’re not discussing here who’s worse, Israel or “the Arabs”. We are discussing whether life in Israel might have become too ugly to be worth it. Blaming “the Arabs” doesn’t help; in fact, as I just showed, it makes matters worse.
Still, perhaps the strongest and irrefutable answer to the question “Why live here?” is simply “This is Home.” This is always true for any country in which one happens to grow up in. I, too, had an extremely strong sense of home in Israel until the late 1990’s and even until year 2000, and didn’t even dream of spending years on end outside the country; of raising my kids anywhere else.
And then, as the second Intifada broke out, at the most basic personal level I just could not reconcile myself with the reaction of most of my fellow Israeli Jews, and with the events that had transpired. And something in my sense of home just broke, within about 1.5 years it was all but gone. It wasn’t any fear for personal safety; our family life was very safe from terror attacks. It was the feeling that your home has become this strange place you cannot recognize anymore.
This is really hard to explain if you haven’t experienced something like this yourself. It might take a whole book to explain it. But I think this fraying of the sense of home is something that has happened to many people in many countries. It’s part of human nature and human heritage. I think it’s reversible, and in my case the sense of home had seemed to mend itself gradually at times. However, it’s really hard to bring it back completely, when the same national condition that has damaged it in the first place is only getting worse.
Our article nails down the observation that once life somewhere – anywhere – deteriorates beyond a certain stage, sooner or later many people will stop calling it home. The deterioration does not have to be absolute; it can be relative to somewhere else people feel they are able to go to. It so happens, we Jews are fortunate and blessed by the suffering and hard work of our ancestors, that nowadays most Jews including Israeli Jews have many options.
But now we stop talking about personal migration decisions, turn the entire argument on its head and spear the governing consensus with it:
The immediate conclusion from all this seems depressing: those who promise us eternal anxiety and hostility with the hundreds of millions of our neighbors in the Middle East – also guarantee that there will be no essential justification for life in Israel, except for inertia. But this conclusion relies upon acceptance of this governing “truth”, that Israel really has “no choice.”
Whoever remembers some of our history, knows that Israel’s wars have mostly been wars of choice. PM Golda Meir’s disdain towards Sadaat’s peace initiatives cost us the gratuitous death of thousands in 1973. In 1982, PM Menachem Begin openly declared the invasion of Lebanon to be a “yes-choice war”. The same goes for the various wars and operations of the past decade, all of them carried out against small and irregular forces while inflicting catastrophic harm upon civilians. These operations surely were not the only options available to Israel’s governments.
As she warned us in advance about the self-fulfilling war prophecies inherent to present-day Israeli discourse, Hannah Arendt had already written in 1948:
The ‘victorious’ Jews will be surrounded by a completely hostile Arab population, closed behind always-threatened borders, consumed by physical self-defense to a degree that will overshadow all other activities and interests.
The only way to break out of this vicious cycle, is to engage in a determined struggle against the “no-choice” brainwash, and the endless parade of “yes-choice” military operations.
The Jews of Israel must decide at last, whether we prefer land (“Sharm-El-Sheikh without peace is better than peace without Sharm-El-Sheikh”), forcible control (“under any agreement, Israeli will retain a presence around the borders of the Palestinian state”), and eternal conflict (“There is no partner”) – over human life.
Only the second option, as the Torah says “and choose Life”, justifies life in this country and not overseas.
The 3 quotes in the last passage are:
1. Security Minister Moshe Dayan explaining in 1968 why there’s no need to negotiate with the Egyptians, rather it’s better to hold on to Sinai.
2. PM Bibi in early 2010, explaining his vision for Palestinian statehood – which, rather than being “extreme” in the Israeli spectrum, reflect pretty well the security-establishment consensus.
3. PM Ehud Barak’s infamous (and dishonest) summary of the failure of the Camp David talks in fall 2000, as given in a live speech to the nation – a single phrase that destroyed the Oslo process, destroyed the Israeli left-of-center camp, and the destroyed the future of Barak’s own political party.
Let me reiterate in closing: the article is highly critical of Israeli policies and of what life in Israel has become. But the fault is not with the messenger. Rather it is the negative message upon which the Israeli Establishment bases its power, that is undermining the very essence of what Israel is supposed to be about. Our message is actually positive: urging Israelis to see beyond the cheap “no-choice” lies, that there is actually a way out of this trap.
Even more strongly: in a sense, there really is no choice. There is no other option for healing our nation and its relationship with its region, except by uprooting once and for all the deadly life of “we have no choice but to keep on fighting”. Just like the Biblical quote in our last sentence, taken from Moses’ farewell message to the nation. The choice is yours. You can choose to live ignominiously, ruled by politicians who manipulate your fears. But this choice is equivalent to a death spiral.
The only way out, as a nation, is to overcome fear and choose life.
Written by Assaf Oron
Assaf Oron works as a statistician and moonlights (voluntarily) as a human-rights activist and blogger. He arrived in Seattle from Israel in 2002 for studies, and for now is sticking with the local greyness, dampness and uber-politeness, while plotting his glorious repatriation to the land of eternal sunshine and rudeness. Meanwhile, he tries to explain to anyone who cares to listen, what the Occupation is and why it must be ended now, not later. Assaf is webmaster for the Israeli human rights organization `Villages Group`