If we don’t come around to understanding that Israel not live in the tranquil north of Europe but in the agitated centre of the tormented Middle East, a serious existential danger awaits us. Exclusive to Haokets: The full lecture of Sami Michael at the international conference of the Association of Israel Studies at the University of Haifa.
I was born in 1926, to a generation that is disappearing. Very few remember the catastrophic fall and collapse of the second-largest empire in the world. France, the mighty power that had built the Maginot Line, the most advanced defensive line in history, which had a mighty army and air force and navy, was defeated over the course of only three weeks, before our horrified eyes. Not only was it a shock, but since then my world has been worse. Concepts like eternity, obvious reality and a life of permanence disappeared from my personal dictionary, but despite that, they acquired central positions in the sacred Israeli lexicon, and they serve as a virtual Maginot Line. The words I am about to say may be harsh, but to me they are an alarm bell to the people of my country, and that is why I have chosen to say them in the language of my children and my grandchildren.
Israel is the only state that was established after the Second World War which was a dazzling success story from the dawn of its days. It could be held up as a model for dozens of countries that had emerged from colonial subjugation and not yet realized their dreams. How did it happen that that same Israel finds itself, only a few decades later, mired in an unresolved bloody conflict outwardly, and inwardly divided to the point of paralysis? I believe that the answer lies in the fact that Israel never dared directly to confront three fundamental problems that have accompanied it from the day of its founding: Israel’s place in the Arab world, social and racial divides, and secularism and religion.
The dominant culture in Israel has always looked to the West. But that West, as always, assesses the existence of Israel, like the existence of other states, in terms of economic benefits and strategic value. The Western settlers in Algeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa accumulated a much longer history than the Zionist settlement in Israel. The White stronghold in South Africa developed into an impressive power, but when international priorities changed, it turned out that the Western wall that supported it was but a passing, treacherous and deceptive illusion.
The State of Israel is in fact a product of traditional Jewish lobbying. When the fathers of Zionism in Europe were mobilizing sympathy for the idea of creating a Jewish state, they used the claim that the entity that would be created would spread developed European culture in the backward Middle East. That approach took root in the Israeli consciousness, and to this very day Europe is the spiritual Mecca for a large part of the Israeli intelligentsia and especially for several writers who are considered shapers of public opinion. In my eyes, this is one of the deepest internal conflicts in the Zionist idea. The Zionist ideology grew against the background of anti-Semitism in Europe itself, but despite that, the fathers of Zionism volunteered to serve as agents in the Middle East of that same culture that had nurtured hatred of Jews.
It turns out, then, that the proponents of this approach relate to generations of anti-Semitism, the expulsion from Spain and the atrocities of Nazi Germany as if it all had taken place on a different planet, in an imaginary era. In consequence of ongoing self-brainwashing, Europe stands out in the consciousness of many Israelis as a cultural beacon and as a source of inspiration for a civilized society. With pride we were portrayed by ourselves and by our sympathizers in Europe as a firm bridgehead of European culture in a backward and hostile world. With gross historical ignorance, the fathers of Zionism did not recognize the horrors of the European occupation of the Arab world from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. I do not think our obsequiousness to European culture gained us the sympathy of Europe, but we definitely won the intense hatred of the Arab peoples, both as agents who serve a dangerous enemy and as perpetuators of that enemy’s occupation. The Arab peoples paid a very heavy price to get rid of the European occupation, their struggle cost many victims, but they attained their formal independence. Therefore they might forgive the past crimes of the European occupation; but as long as Israel exists, they cannot declare their final victory over the European occupation. The State of Israel, from the day it was born, has proved just how well-founded and logical the Arab suspicion of us has in fact been, from Israel’s identification with the crimes of the French in Algeria in the 1950s, to Israel’s participation, along with the armies of Britain and France, in the 1956 attack on Egypt, which had nationalized the Suez Canal, all the way up to our active enthusiasm during the occupation of Iraq, not to speak of our direct occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel, a tiny island, has become a mark of shame on the brow of the Arab peoples’ pride. They had ground down and smashed every foreign actor that sought to gain a hostile foothold in the region, thus did they defeat the Mongols, the Crusaders and the European occupation as well.
The historical background of the region and Israel’s current status as a remote island give me worries and pessimistic thoughts. I will deal with the most significant problems, the ones that rob me of sleep.
Racism and deep social cleavages are grave problems that have accompanied Israel from the beginning of its days until now. The visionary of the State grew up in Austria and was a man of the world. As a journalist he came into contact with various cultures. Unlike him, those who realized his vision were greatly influenced by the mentality of the Jewish ghetto in Eastern Europe. The Jews there were closed in on themselves for the most part and suffered oppression, isolation and pogroms. Perhaps for this reason Jews relate to the neighbours and to those who are different from themselves as a source of danger. Unlike the language of the Jews of the Arab and Islamic lands, the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe was completely different from the language of the surroundings in which they lived. Yiddish was the accepted means of communication between the various diasporas in Eastern Europe. Moreover, Jews there did not know much about the Arab East or about the Arab Jews. But the Jews of the Arab countries were open to Arab culture since the its days of glory, as well as its darker times, from flourishing Andalusia and the magnificent Abbasid empire all the way down to the dark time of the Ottoman occupation. There was no contact between the Jewry of the ghetto and the Jewry of the Arab lands. In the eyes of the ghetto residents, Jews spoke the mama loshen, that is – Yiddish. The Arab Jews, on the other hand, who enjoyed freedom of movement, learned that there were Jews all over the world who were different from themselves in language and customs. Still, they did not know a thing about the self-enclosed Jewry of the ghetto.
The meeting between the Jews of the Arab lands and those from Eastern Europe occurred in the Land of Israel and it was traumatic and full of suspicion. Eastern European Jewry had settled in the Land of Israel earlier and had stamped its seal on the spiritual, cultural and political character of the new state, even though their numbers were small when the State was created. I arrived in Israel in 1949, and the number on the ID card I was given was 433440, that is to say, fewer than three quarters of a million Jews lived in the State at that time. The expectation was that after the Holocaust, upon the birth of the State, Israel would be flooded with massive waves of immigration from among those Jews who had suffered the appalling crimes of Europe.
The disappointment within the veteran Yishuv was bitter, for the Jews of Europe did not knock on the doors of the Jewish state. Meanwhile, in 1948 a wave of harsh repression of local Jews swept over the Arab countries as revenge for the defeat of their armies. Until then the Jews had enjoyed an impressive and fruitful presence in the Arab world. They took advantage of their contacts with the outside world and enriched their Arab homelands on the economic and cultural levels. They were concentrated in the big cities, and so they had substantial influence in those countries, which were mainly agricultural. For example, over 20 percent of the residents of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, were Jews. That is a rare occurrence in the entire world. But upon the proclamation of the birth of the State of Israel, Jewish existence in Iraq, as in the other Arab countries, became impossible.
The vast majority of the Jews of the Arab countries streamed to the new state as refugees. In the eyes of the veteran Yishuv, those Jews were not much different from the defeated Arab enemies. They spoke their language, they had adopted their customs, they were dark-skinned like them, and they even gave their offspring Arab names. In the eyes of the veteran Yishuv they were primitive and inferior, very much like the enemy that they had subjugated on the battlefield. The shock was great. A leader of the veteran Yishuv expressed the feeling of frustration at the time by saying: The State was created for one people, and another people has come to settle in it.
To this very day, more than sixty years after the creation of the State of Israel, that rift has not yet been closed. Mentally it takes the form of racism, and socially it is expressed in a class gap. How strange, two streams, that differ ad nauseam in their orientations, strove so much to nurture that split. The salon Left – and in Israel, it should be pointed out, the Left never left the salon – avoided the Mizrahi Jews as flawed “raw material”, or in the Communist jargon of the time: “lumpen-proletariat”. That was in spite of the fact that immigrants from Egypt, Lebanon and Bulgaria, and especially from Iraq, had come with an impressive Communist record from their countries of origin. The Communist establishment in Israel treated all those immigrants with manifest arrogance. At the beginning of the 1950s there were maabarot [transit camps for new immigrants] where about 20 percent of the residents voted for the Communist Party in Knesset elections. Not one of them was promoted to any worthy position within the party. The Central Committee of the Communist Party was and remains to this day more “pure” of Mizrahi Jews than any other establishment in the country. Suspicion and arrogance towards the Mizrahi communities constituted a solid and impenetrable obstacle within the ranks of the Communist Party.
The racism filtered down to many domains, while the social gaps grew shamefully. To this day we are witness to under-representation of Jews from Arab countries in the vast majority of the important institutions of the State, especially academic and cultural institutions. The Israeli Left adopted that approach and continued with its racist policy to the point of suicide and its conversion into a marginal elitist cult in Israeli society.
The other stronghold of racism is located in a surprising sector of the Jewish population in Israel. If the Left conducted its policy covertly and employed tactics of denial, the Ashkenazi Haredi bloc was vocal and strident in its racism. In the eyes of the Haredim, the Mizrahi Jews constituted an existential danger. The religious faith of Mizrahi Jewry was not extreme in nature. It had developed in the bosom of Arab Islam as a pragmatic religion. It had developed an elaborate network of cultural and economic relationships with the Islamic political establishment. The cruel competition between the controlling rebbes and between rival extremist sects did not exist in the East at all.
In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt the Jewish religious establishment related with tolerance to the streams that called for changes and progress within the Jewish community. Moreover, that establishment did not stagnate and even on its own initiative handed down halachic rulings that were appropriate to the time, the place and new conditions. The Ashkenazi Haredim saw that approach as an existential danger and so they related to the pragmatic Mizrahi Judaism as invalid and impure. Over generations they had adopted the skills of violent sectarian warfare and within their fortresses of seclusion in Israel they directed the arrows of racism towards the Mizrahi communities, without inhibition or shame. Even Mizrahi Jews who gave up the pragmatic tradition and joined them and adopted their rigid codes were surrounded with racist isolation by the Ashkenazi Haredim within their communities in Israel.
Two years ago I personally was forced to stage a one-man demonstration in Tel Aviv against manifestations of racism by the Haredim at a school in Immanuel. There a separation fence was erected in the schoolyard in order to prevent any contact between the “pure” Ashkenazi girls and the “impure” Mizrahi girls. That same school also imposed a school uniform, but the colour chosen for the Ashkenazi girls was different from the one for the Mizrahi girls.
During Nazi Germany’s period of power, I encountered the following graffiti on the walls as I was on my way to school in Baghdad: “The Jew is an inferior race” and “Hitler is destroying the bacteria”. Those slogans had arrived in Iraq directly from Berlin. Those words still sear my soul even after the passage of about seventy years. According to the Haredi racial doctrine here in Israel, my children and grandchildren, who have an admixture of Iraqi-Russian-French-Polish-Dutch blood, are forced to stay behind the fence, along with hundreds of thousands of other offspring. I will not deny that that strange fence has invaded my nightmares. I dedicated my youth to war against the influences of European racism and especially against racism on the basis of religion, colour or origin. A third of my people perished because of that. In distant Baghdad my friends – Jews and non-Jews – including close friends, paid with their lives for the struggle against this accursed racism.
How did we bring the vermin of racism into our homes here? How appalling to realize that a people that paid a terrible price in blood in the last century because of the construction of fences around them, permits the construction of such a loathsome fence in its homeland. We know very well when such an abomination happened, and where. We remember very well the price our people paid for fences and for separation on the basis of colour. In my eyes, it is sacrilege that is happening in a Jewish school that claims to be imparting sacred doctrine. If someone in another country set up such a revolting fence, we, the Jews, would raise a hue and cry. And here, in Israel, most of the Left stands aside in silence. The ruling Establishment does not lift a finger. The High Court of Justice ruled that the fence should be moved, but the builders of the fence declared unhesitatingly that they would continue on their path, even at the cost of going to jail.
Now, with the collapse of the false Left in Israel and the rise of the Right in general and the Haredi Right in particular, the racial divide has nearly become an accepted fact. Racism is becoming naturalized in Israeli society with the growth of the political power of the religious Right. Racism has many objects, including: Jews from Arab and Islamic countries, immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia, Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinians in the Territories, refugees and migrant workers, homosexuals, and the list is still longer. As the level of racism continues to rise, figures in the Knesset and the government encourage its manifestations, both by unacceptable public statements and by the passage of draconian laws against democracy, against those who are different and foreign and against human rights organizations. In any case, Israel can glory in the dubious honour of being the most racist state in the developed world.
Religion and state
An individual or a state that adopts a religious text as a spiritual guide and as a document that confers property-rights cannot be secular for long. With the increase of the electoral strength of Haredi Judaism, both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, the socio-political situation has become very complicated. The power of the Haredim, like the power of the settlers, originated in the hothouse of secular Zionism. Ben-Gurion validated the religious parties, while obsessively preaching Jewish consciousness. The Bible became a preparatory course even for teachers of literature. Over the years, from election to election, the Likud increased the momentum of Haredization, as it was willing to pay an ever-higher price to win power. The Haredim could not withstand the great temptation and held out their hands to get their share of the government pie, without respecting the secular institutions of the State, like the courts, the army and democratic values generally. Israel therefore became an international pioneer in the encouragement of religious factions to act within the framework of political parties. And it thereby brought destruction both to the religion and to normal democratic political life.
The religious bloc is accumulating power and influence – not due to ideological vitality and originality, but rather to the corrupting political bribes it receives for being part of a dubious coalition. This deterioration is due in no small part to the Left’s alienation from the popular street along with its arrogance. The decline of the security situation, along with the shattering of the impossible dream of attaining peace while maintaining the Occupation are bringing more and more around to the belief that only a miracle or heavenly favour can save us from catastrophe. We must remember that despite its power, in the past 45 years Israel has not won any decisive victories on the battlefield, even against simple militias. After every confrontation a commission of inquiry was set up to see where we had failed. When the tank and the airplane do not provide an answer, then messianic tendencies flourish.
Moreover, the nationalist conflict between Israel and the Arab world has gradually turned into a religious conflict between Judaism and Islam. We are living in the glory days of Jewish halacha, as well as Islamic sharia. Year after year the fortresses of democracy and secular government crumble before our eyes under the consistent pressure of religious nationalism. More than a few years ago Salman Rushdie wrote that two theocratic states exist in the world, and they are Iran and Israel. Meanwhile that list is growing following the disappointing Arab “Spring”, which was the hope of secular youth, and which has proven them wrong. In his book The Satanic Verses, Rushdie writes: “Something was badly amiss with the spiritual life of the planet ... too many demons inside people claiming to believe in God.”
My friend A.B. Yehoshua claims that a Jew can be normal only in Israel. And I believe that the secular visionary of the State is turning over in his grave at the sight of the state that is voluntarily abandoning its fate to abnormal demons. Bibi Netanyahu was carried to the throne of power on the wings of the slogan of the Haredim: Netanyahu is good for the Jews, meaning the Haredim, that is, the destruction of secular democracy and the establishment of a destructive halacha state. The triumphant march of religious nationalism is both impressive and frightening. Thousands of people with higher education escape from Israel every year, preferring to lead lives that are abnormal by A.B. Yehoshua’s definition, in countries that are far away but more normal. I envy them. But I am too old to face again the test of the trauma of the emigrant, so I prefer to remain as an immigrant within my country.
The Occupation is the embodiment of disaster for Israel. Greater Israel,  the enthusiasm to conquer, rule and colonize in the very heart of a dense Palestinian population, that sweeping wave was fostered in the very bosom of Zionism that sees itself as civilized, secular and socialistic. The term “Greater Israel” germinated not in the Likud or in the yeshivas of national-religious Judaism, rather it was coined at Kibbutz Ein-Harod by poets, writers and intellectuals, nearly all of them from the moderate secular stream. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main factor shaping of the image of Israel from various perspectives: politically, culturally and economically. Over the years the Left and the Right radicalized their positions until they created, both sides equally, two contradictory delusions, the links to reality of which are quite precarious. The Left created the image of the Arabs as innocent angels, who are victims of the brutal Israel aggressors. The Right nurtured burning hatred of the Arabs, as if they were monsters without inhibitions. It is well-known that in any prolonged conflict, both sides become brutalized.
A leading poet said: Ehud Barak is useless. He should send tanks their way and mow them down with machine-guns. That poet is a member of the moderate camp, which has supposedly sought a peaceful solution. He probably knows that our machine-guns have already fired billions of bullets of all types in the past decades, to no avail. Three times we converted Sinai into the graveyard of Egyptian soldiers. We razed Beirut to its foundations and occupied it. We smashed the Jordanian army. We threw nearly the entire Palestinian fighting intelligentsia into Israeli prisons in the past forty-five years. For every Jew that has been killed in the past three generations, at least ten Palestinians have laid down their lives. Our ammunition nearly ran out in 1973 from all the killing we were doing to the Egyptian army, and without an American airlift we would have been left with empty barrels. A young man in a refugee camp living a life of wretched poverty is willing to die a heroic death. He has nothing to lose. How many of our children are willing to commit suicide and die a heroic death?
More than a few people condemn the shocking declarations of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in Israel and outside it. But Lieberman is right when he claims that he expresses out loud what others are thinking. Let us not delude ourselves, the culture in Israel has long been poisoned no less than the extremist streams within Islam. From kindergarten to old age we nourish the souls of our children with a load of hate, suspicion and loathing of the foreign and the different, and especially the Arabs. The voice of sane culture is fading away. The authors of the fascist book that preaches the murder of Arabs, Torat ha-Melech [The King’s Torah] escaped being put on criminal trial for incitement to racism and violence. Weinstein, the Attorney-General, closed the case against them, in the process also permitting the sale of that repulsive book. In today’s Israel the buds of spiritual and cultural fascism are swelling. A vocal author who has enlisted in the service of the Establishment demands that only books that advance the Zionist ethos be chosen for literature classes. A jest of fate: amusing phenomena occur even as we hurtle towards the abyss. In Rekhasim, a community near Haifa, the head of the religious council ordered the public library to lock all the secular works in an enclosed room that is not accessible to the curious reader except through advance coordination and for a limited time. The verses of of the poet who wanted to use a machine-gun to murder Arabs are confined in that intellectual prison. And the books of the Establishment author are also gathering dust. My books too.
I still define myself as an Israeli patriot, but an Israel in decline, which turns its back on the values of humanism and human rights, cannot be a spiritual homeland to me.
Eternity is an illusion
Nearly two thirds of the territory of Israel is desert, where traditional agriculture is impossible. The State is also poor in natural resources. Nevertheless, it is one of the few states founded after the Second World War that have been propelled to the status of a prosperous country. Thanks to the diligence of its residents and their resourcefulness, sophisticated agriculture, high technology and excellent medicine have developed within it. Israel has joined the world’s leading states in more than a few fields. Not for nothing has it won several Nobel Prizes in various professions. Despite all those accomplishments we are in a grim era. Over the course of history it has not always been dramatic events, like total defeat in war or a colossal natural disaster that decreed the extinction of one culture or another. Banal factors have brought about the moribundity and death of vast entities like ancient Greece, the ancient Egyptian civilization, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the White regime in South Africa and the French colony in Algeria. Only those lacking in imagination and capacity for profound thought wave lofty terms like “eternity”, “forever” and “for generations”.
I believe that the Jewish religion too is in a state of profound ideological and spiritual crisis after the shattering of all ideologies. Spiritually, the religion has reached a low point of graveyards, idolatry and grim extremism. The religious leadership seems to have gone back hundreds of years to a world of superstition and appalling ignorance. The religion that knew how to flow with the developments of life thanks to brilliant figures like the Rambam [Maimonides], is today crying out for a leadership that will undertake a fundamental reform. That same crisis has also befallen the political leadership. Opportunistic midgets float to the top and it pains the heart to see how the people have accepted and even also a corrupt and mendacious leadership that is barring the path to enlightened leaders of the stature of Abba Eban and Moshe Sharett.
Israel is faced with grave existential danger if the existing leadership does not come around to understanding that Israel not live in the tranquil north of Europe but in the agitated centre of the tormented Middle East. There is no place for us in the Middle East for long after we have made ourselves hateful to it and after we have emphasized day and night that that it is hateful to us. So hateful. If we don’t find a solution besides the machine-gun and the tank, which we have already seen are helpless in the face of a barefoot boy with a stone in his hand, we could lose everything. The State of Israel could turn out to be a transient phenomenon like the First Temple and the Second Temple.
The terrible tragedy is that our neighbours find themselves in the same bad situation; they have no Gandhi and we don’t even have a mini-Roosevelt.
1. Or `immigrant`. The Hebrew word mehager means both, and has been translated as both in its two occurrences in this sentence.
2. In Hebrew: Eretz Yisra’el ha-shlema - literally “the complete Land of Israel”.
Translated from Hebrew for Occupation Magazine by George Malent