Israel Turns 60 | The Nation


Israel Turns 60

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A related transformation in Israel has been the splintering of its once strongly defined national identity. Increasingly influential are the Haredi--Orthodox Jews who purposely restrict themselves to their own enclaves within society, do not serve in the army and in many cases do not accept the legitimacy of the state. Owing to their savvy exploitation of Israel's proportional-representation voting system, however, they are able to ensure a generous flow of funds into their schools and social programs. Many Israelis resent this--as well as the capricious control the Haredi exercise over the state's marriage and divorce laws--but they are powerless to prevent it. The million or so Russians who came to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union have also helped transform the country. They, too, have chosen to retain their own language and culture and to act as a voting bloc rather than embrace the notion of an Israeli melting pot. And when you consider that a fifth of the population are Arabs, with their own school systems and the like, it becomes harder to conceive, much less speak, of a single Israel. What others call a "nation of tribes," the Tel Aviv University historian Anita Shapira, who received the Israel Prize in 2008, terms a "sectoral society." "We have superstition and high-tech living side by side. You can come across reverence of cameos, tombs of 'holy men,' and in the same neighborhood high-tech incubators, gourmet restaurants, and boutique wineries."

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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It's not only the lost commitment to egalitarianism and inspiring myths that evoke nostalgia among Israeli liberal intellectuals for what is now called "Little Israel" or for the nation that existed before the 1967 war led to the occupation of the West Bank and (until recently) Gaza; Israel is experiencing a profound crisis in leadership. The current--accidental--prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is accused of receiving over a thirteen-year period more than $100,000 in cash from Morris Talansky, a right-wing Long Island financier, to fund his luxurious lifestyle, and also of double- and triple-billing state and charitable agencies, including children's charities and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, for the same airline flights when he was mayor of Jerusalem and a government minister. Israel's previous prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was also embroiled in multiple corruption investigations, and ex-president Moshe Katsav was accused of multiple rapes and sexual harassment of subordinates before stepping down to be replaced by the perennial election loser, Shimon Peres. In addition, the past year has seen a finance minister indicted for massive embezzlement and a vice premier found guilty of forcing his tongue into the mouth of a female soldier. To make matters worse, no leaders appear to be emerging to replace them. The coming elections are expected to pit the favorite, former failed Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the right against former failed Prime Minister Ehud Barak on the left, while the candidate of the Sharon/Olmert centrist party, now in power, will be determined by a primary between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the daughter of an extremist minister, and Shaul Mofaz, the hardline transportation minister. "We have no pool of leaders we have not touched," notes Benn.

Itamar Rabinovich, a Baath scholar who oversaw Israeli negotiations with Syria and was Rabin's US Ambassador, and who recently stepped down as president of Tel Aviv University, gave the nation's initial leaders--particularly its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion--high marks during the 1948-67 period for their initial willingness to accept the UN partition lines of 1947; their successful prosecution of the War of Independence; their building of a nation of refugees from all over Europe and the Arab world following the horrors of the Holocaust; and their creation of a functioning, vibrant, multicultural and democratic society in the midst of countless hardships in a hostile corner of the world that had known only autocracy. "I can take you through a litany of dozens of mistakes and missed opportunities," he avers, yet from the perspective of sixty years, the balance sheet on Israel's early leaders is viewed quite positively today.

Among their many mistakes, observes Anita Shapira, the most significant involved the treatment of Israel's Arab minority, who appear to have grown increasingly alienated from their (admittedly complex) identity as both Arabs and Israelis, and identified increasingly with their occupied Palestinian brethren. "During the first decades of statehood," she explains, "the major preoccupations were absorption of newcomers, keeping the economy afloat and, of course, security problems. The Israeli Arabs were not considered a priority. They were better off than before in an economic sense. But we did not invest as we should have in making them feel as equal citizens. This did not change much even twenty years after Independence." "The state, to put it bluntly," notes Zionism scholar (and another winner of this year's Israel Prize) Ze'ev Sternhell, "was created for Jews, not for Arabs, no question. There was no plan for expulsion but the idea of 'the fewer the better,' for sure."

Liberal Hebrew University theologian Moshe Halbertal says he thinks the State of Israel today has no more important responsibility than to make good on its promise to its Arab minority of legal and economic equality. "It is central," he says, "because the very justification of our national revival rests on three Jewish principles, that we grant the same right we are looking for to other nations, including the Palestinian nations. The redrawing of boundaries means you must give full rights to a minority." When I ask Halbertal why Israel has apparently failed this test in so many fashions, he explains it primarily as a political problem. "When Arabs stopped voting for Jewish parties in the middle of the '80s, Jewish parties had fewer and fewer reasons to court them. And then they decided they were not a minority but an occupied population, and so you could not form a coalition with them. So now they get very little. The Haredi population, which is also much despised, has done things quite differently."

Then, of course, there is the separate but related post-1967 problem of the Palestinians, the settlements and the occupation. I heard myriad views on this from Israelis I spoke with, but almost all of them said that they see a two-state solution as the only conceivable path toward not only long-term security and prosperity but also the preservation of Israel's democracy and its Jewish character. (Support among Israeli Jews for a single binational state of the kind Tony Judt proposed in The New York Review of Books not long ago is so small that calling it "marginal" would be to inflate it. As philosopher and author Avishai Margalit puts it, "a one-state solution is a recipe for Lebanon.") Sternhell says he'd rather live in Paris or New York than in a binational state. He insists that a two-state solution is the only solution that makes "Israel's existence meaningful as a state of the Jews in which the Arab minority would enjoy full and equal rights" and is therefore "the only way to keep the Jewish state alive."

Yet while the Israeli peace movement has finally convinced a broad consensus of Israelis that it is in Israel's interest to get the hell out of the West Bank as soon as possible, these same Israelis are no less convinced that they have no choice but to stay. Jerusalem-based author Bernard Avishai, borrowing from pundit Thomas Friedman, notes that Israel appears to have gotten itself "permanently pregnant with a stillborn Palestinian state in its belly." That former hardliners like Sharon, Olmert, Livni et al. have come to accept the need for withdrawal is a victory for the movement. They see, as Halbertal explains, that "the continuous control of the West Bank would not allow Israel simultaneously to be a democracy and to be a Jewish state." But "the tragedy of this," says Halbertal, "is that just at the moment Israelis realized this, the Palestinians turned to Hamas and turned Gaza into a base for radical Islam to launch attacks on us. So if the world is going to criticize us for this situation, they have to recognize that this is not our choice."

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