The sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel was the occasion of parades, philanthropic dinners, celebratory articles and festive events here in the United States, but in Israel the mood was pensive and somber. Israelis did not ignore the milestone, but many called for restraint in marking it. An online petition demanding official frugality for the celebration received more than 90,000 signatures. With a series of corrupt leaders, little hope for lasting peace and the increasing nightmarish possibility of an “Islamic” nuclear weapon making its way into the hands of someone in Tehran who just might use it, Israelis, as pundit after pundit pointedly observed, were in no mood to celebrate.
It has long been the case that Israeli writers and intellectuals engage in a discourse about their nation and its problems that is far richer, more nuanced and grounded in reality than that of their American counterparts. As Barack Obama bravely told a Jewish gathering in Cleveland during the Democratic primary season, he was “struck” while visiting Israel by “how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States.” The contrast between Israeli pensiveness and American cheerleading puts one in mind of an early-twentieth-century remark by one of Zionism’s founding philosophers, A.D. Gordon. “We don’t have to check the pulse of our nationalism,” Gordon said, speaking of the Jews who lived in Palestine. It is, after all, a country full of Jews, as Philip Roth’s Portnoy marveled thirty-nine years ago. “Jews eating ices, Jews drinking soda pop, Jews conversing, laughing, walking together arm-in-arm…a sea full of Jews! Frolicking, gamboling Jews!” And they all speak a language that was considered dead for, well, I don’t know, a thousand or so years. Even the Arabs speak Hebrew. It’s a moving miracle to these eyes and ears today, I have to say, much as it must have been back then.
For reasons I cannot fully explain even to myself, despite an intense feeling of engagement with Israelis and their problems and a constant reading of the Israeli press, Israeli novelists and the global press about Israel, I had not visited there in roughly twenty years until I arrived in the late spring of this year. I was eager to get in touch with the people I had known in the past–including those I had studied under at Tel Aviv University nearly thirty years ago–as well as those I have been reading regularly for the past decades. I wanted to see how they assessed Zionism’s successes and failures over the past six decades outside the narrowly restrictive and conflict-focused coverage of our own media. Because most American reporters in Israel live and work in Jerusalem, and their focus is usually on issues related to the Palestinian conflict, terrorism and security, one tends to forget that the country is engaged in much more than a destructive and sometimes brutal occupation, on the one hand, and a fight for survival amid a sea of largely hostile neighbors, on the other.
My biggest shock upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, outside Tel Aviv, was to find that Israel is a different country from the one I knew and that lives on in popular mythology. Its population has nearly doubled, thanks in part to the immigration (and largely successful integration) of nearly a million Russian and other Eastern European Jews. This population surge, moreover, has corresponded with an economic and cultural transformation that has turned Israel into the equivalent of a small successful European nation with a per capita income approaching $30,000. Tel Aviv is filled with shiny new skyscrapers, shopping malls, pricey boutiques and expensive, decidedly nonkosher gourmet eateries–all of which are packed, by the way, on Friday night, when religious Jews are supposed to be in synagogue or at home enjoying a Sabbath meal. Israel’s cultural and artistic flowering is no less impressive. National museums are participating in a nationwide exhibition of sixty years of Israeli art, which frequently manages to be politically provocative and true to the confusing cultural and physical terrain of this quite young nation. (Remember, Israel is twelve years younger than John McCain.) Galleries are everywhere, and the theater and film industries are thriving. With its hedonistic beaches and Bauhaus architecture, Tel Aviv feels like a Hebrew-speaking Barcelona.
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Israel’s multicultural moment was nicely embodied for me at a party at the home of Israeli pop star David Broza. Gathered around a feast of grilled shrimp and steaks, dozens of musicians, dancers, choreographers, artists and the like from a dozen or so different counties chatted in Hebrew with one another and then sat down to sing. And what did they pick? Led by Zahi, who, I later learned, is of Yemenite origin, and Beto, who is from Brazil, they launched into a folky-acoustic version of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” (I had to Google the chorus, as I was apparently the only one in the room who didn’t know the song). Believe me, no one danced the hora.
The new high-tech, globalized Israel is profoundly different from that built on the foundations of a Spartan collectivist culture of Labor Zionism, with its reification of the anti-individualistic ideology of the kibbutz and the hardscrabble agricultural life. As Aluf Benn, diplomatic editor of Ha’aretz, explains to me, this new nation “is the project of the second generation. My parents took part in the nation-building. My grandparents were pioneers. Our generation traveled abroad, we saw a better standard of living, better services, lower taxes on imports. We were fed up with the socialists’ way of thinking.” Adds Nissim Calderon, a literary critic and professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, “We are no longer a country of self-sacrificing pioneers.”
Benn points out that while the Olso agreements have been widely condemned as a failure by most Israelis (and Americans), they played perhaps the key role in inspiring Israel’s economic and cultural renaissance. Nation after nation opened up diplomatic and commercial relations with Israel during the peace talks and almost none closed them down after Oslo’s failure. The Arab economic boycott withered away. Israelis saw their opportunity and ran with it. Under the hyper-laissez-faire ideologies of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel shed most of its state-owned industries and pension funds, creating many multimillionaires in the process. This–just as the capitalist textbooks say it should–unleashed a wealth-creating entrepreneurial spirit that has resulted in a far more vibrant (and unequal) economy as well as a decline in the level of services the socialist state had previously provided.
Naturally the transformation rankles some older Israelis. Veteran filmmaker Amos Gitai, who left the country for Europe in disgust in the 1980s but returned when Yitzhak Rabin came to power and tried to negotiate a peace deal, asks, “Do you need–in order to survive in this region–a shining egalitarian nation or can it just be a Western individualized society?” Answering his own question: “You cannot preserve an idea longer than the idea can survive in reality.”
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.”
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.”
The increasing strength of Hamas, the weakness and corruption of Fatah, a rash of suicide bombings, the shelling of Israeli cities from Lebanon and hateful rhetoric emanating from so much of the Arab world have all but drained Israelis of their compassion and patience for the Palestinian “other.” “Political Islam has undermined the appeal of the Palestinian plight in the West,” Avishai Margalit explains. During the weeks I was in Israel, much of the country appeared obsessed with the negotiations with Hezbollah over the return of the bodies of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. When the exchange finally occurred, Israel had agreed to release Samir Kuntar, who almost thirty years ago had carried out the brutal terrorist murder of an Israeli father and his young daughter (banging her head against a rock), along with four other prisoners and the remains of 199 others. The terrorist/child murderer was met with a hero’s reception, including patriotic parades in Lebanon and victory proclamations issued by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Such scenes tell many Israelis all they believe they need to know about the possibilities of peace with the Arab world and clear their consciences about whatever misery the Palestinians are forced to endure in the name of preventing future attacks.
One might well respond that inhumane Israeli policies on the West Bank have helped fuel these and other unhappy developments. (As Margalit notes, “We put a million and a half people in jail.”) One might add that Israel’s coddling of the settlers–including settlements the government considers illegal and Israel has promised to uproot as part of its “road-map” agreement with the United States and the EU–appears to be destroying the possibility of an economically viable Palestinian state ever living peaceably alongside Israel.
The great Israeli novelist and Peace Now activist A.B. Yehoshua recently caused a stir when he wrote an op-ed for La Stampa in Turin, Italy–reprinted in Israel but not in the United States–calling on America to recall its ambassador to Israel as long as the practice of expanding the illegal settlements continues. (For instance, despite its promises, on June 1 Israel revealed plans to build 763 homes in Pisgat Zeev and 121 homes in Har Homa; two weeks later, a regional planning board approved construction of at least 2,550 homes in the West Bank and disputed parts of Jerusalem.) When I visited Yehoshua in his Haifa home, he explained that many longtime friends criticized this position–even Amos Oz disagreed–but Yehoshua replied, “If America loves us so much, they could help us to keep our promises…. It’s like a father with a son and the son is taking drugs. I love him and I want to help him. But to help him, we have to break until he stops with the drugs.”
The majority of Israelis oppose the expansion of the settlements and would be happy to see them demolished; however, they are in no mood to risk the kind of civil upheaval–possibly even Jew-on-Jew violence–necessary even to consider such a move on behalf of a peace process in which they have all but lost faith. Like many longtime liberals and leftists, Ruth Gavison, who helped create the Israeli Association for Civil Rights, finds herself less and less in sympathy with her former self. She explains her transition thus: “I came to see that many Arab organizations were using human rights rhetoric while not giving any weight to the rights of Jews. I came to understand the significance of the right of return in their rhetoric. And as I listened to their rhetoric, more and more, I became less convinced that the question of a Jewish state had indeed been resolved. Part of the struggle was still to delegitimate this state and undermine its right to exist.” Peace Now has rarely enjoyed less resonance with the Israeli public than it does today. Menachem Brinker, professor of Hebrew literature, winner of a 2004 Israel Prize and a founder of Peace Now, tells me the organization has sworn off demonstrations for the time being, owing to low turnouts, and is focusing on documenting settler land grabs and abuses of the local population by settler fanatics.
Even in the event of a genuine agreement supported by majorities on both sides, the settlers present a daunting practical problem for Israelis. As political philosopher and former director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (and winner of the Israel Prize in 1996) Shlomo Avineri points out, “Very few Israelis on the center-left can answer the question of what to do with 250,000 settlers. We need not only politically correct slogans but also clear and specific ideas of how to implement them. I don’t think there should be a single Jewish settler. But how in the world can they be resettled?” Avineri’s pessimism on pragmatic grounds is reinforced by his understanding of the ideological forces at work in Palestinian society. “Ever since the 1920s,” he observes, “the Palestinians have not produced a political leadership that has proven both responsive and responsible.” Though he was an early supporter of a Palestinian state, Avineri notes that during his nearly half-century of engagement with the Palestinians, he has met perhaps one who was willing to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state: Al Quds University president and much-admired author Sari Nusseibeh. He says he has never met any who are willing to advise their brethren that, if only for pragmatic reasons, they must come to some sort of symbolic compromise on the Palestinian “right of return.” And without these concessions, Avineri says, “there can be no real basis for negotiations.”
Others in the peace camp do not take issue with Avineri’s assessment but argue that to focus on ideology is to doom any hopes for peace. Naomi Chazan, an Israeli political scientist, feminist leader and former Knesset member, thinks his emphasis is misplaced. Over tea at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, where she is sandwiching me between meetings with Palestinian officials and aid workers, she tells me she is no longer interested in discussing “what we have to hear” and would prefer to focus on “what needs to be done. I don’t need a validation for our narrative,” Chazan argues. “We are putting the onus on the Palestinians when it is the Zionist enterprise that is not going to survive without a two-state solution. We are bringing all our fears to the table when we are the dominant power. We act as if we are still in galut [exile]. When we wake up one day and realize there is only a one-state solution or a semi-sanctioned apartheid, nobody in the world is going to want to associate with us. And there are alternatives. But it is five minutes to midnight.”
Margalit estimates that roughly 60 to 70 percent of Israelis and Palestinians would acquiesce to a peace deal if a strong, trusted leader–in the manner of Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon–would promise to guarantee and campaign for it. But he distinguishes between this largely passive population and the active opposition of the settlers and their supporters–to say nothing of those who would seek to derail the agreement with suicide bombings and the like. And as Avineri implies, the settler issue is not going anywhere. Indeed, most of the Israelis I interviewed think it will be necessary to work out a way for the hard-core settlers to remain where they are but be located inside Palestine. After all, if they are so attached to the land–rather than the state–let them stay on the land in another state. Yehoshua was particularly animated on this point. “If you will give the Palestinians the maximum amount of the territories but say to them, ‘You will have to take 60,000 to 70,000 Israeli Jews as Palestinian citizens, and you can have your secular Palestinian state,’ that would be a great outcome and could facilitate the transition. The American Jews will pour money on them, and this will benefit their economy.” His hopes go so far as to plan for platoons of Israeli Arabs to protect the settlements inside Palestine to provide a “bridge” between the two nations, “knowing, as they do, the intimate codes of the two people.” Yehoshua shares Chazan’s view that if you strip the conflict of ideology and religion, it is solvable. “If they would get an honorable peace treaty, meaning part of Jerusalem, most of their territory and the integrity of their territory, I think the majority of them are ready.”
As anyone who spends time speaking with Israelis cannot help realizing, Israel is a far more complex country than is portrayed in the American media. This complexity is one reason, Avineri notes, that Israelis are coming to resent what he believes is the “harm caused by [some] American Jewish organizations.” He believes that Israel’s “contentious political culture is totally lost when seen from the prism of advocacy, which presents Israel as a one-dimensional country, as if everything has to do with survival, attacks, counterattacks.” What’s more, he adds, “the shrillness on exhibit doesn’t help. It does not enhance Israel in any way.”
The Israelis I spoke with were grateful for the fraternal support they receive from Jews around the world, particularly in the United States, but were nearly unanimous in their resentment–even condemnation–of what they see as the ignorant and malevolent meddling in their affairs by wealthy right-wing Americans like billionaire gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is investing heavily in Netanyahu’s career, and Morris Talansky, who was stuffing cash-filled envelopes into Ehud Olmert’s pockets. The neoconservative hardliners in the US media and national security establishment who parrot this hard line are hardly more popular. Former ambassador Rabinovich explains that one of the problems he faced while trying to represent his country’s government in Washington was that “the neocons were undermining our policy. Feith, Gaffney, etc. were trying to abort the policy of the government of Israel.” AIPAC, Avineri adds, “is basically a right-wing lobby and a lobby for Likud–it is not a lobby ‘for Israel.’ After Oslo, it lobbied openly against an agreement signed by the Israeli government. Forgive me,” he adds, “I have a bias against someone who lives in New York and tells us not to give up ‘our’ land.” Giving voice to similar concerns, filmmaker Amos Gitai worries that many American Jews are reluctant to relinquish what he calls Israel’s “mythical role with the gun in their hand fighting the Arabs…fighting to the last Israeli.”
Amazingly, I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Iran–the issue that preoccupies the official American Jewish community, many of whose members fear what they call a “second Holocaust” should Iran be allowed to achieve its aim of creating a nuclear weapon to use against Israel. Over lunch respected historian–and extremely controversial political analyst–Benny Morris walked me through the terrifying scenario that he believed would occur were the United States to fail to bomb Tehran: given that the Iranian leaders say they welcome martyrdom and have proved willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of Iranian children in the Iran-Iraq war, and given that no Israeli prime minister could risk allowing a nuclear threat from Iran to materialize and that Israel lacks the ability to take out the Iranian nuclear program conventionally, Israel is forced to consider a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Iran (as incredible and horrifying as that sounds). “The Iranians are driven by a religious ideology that says Allah will protect them, and Allah, they believe, says they must destroy Israel,” he tells me. “You can’t rely on deterrence with them.”
This shocking conclusion was recently seconded by a number of participants in a symposium in Moment, a liberal-minded Jewish magazine at which I am a columnist. Shortly after I met with Morris, Shabtai Shavit, a former head of Mossad, gave an interview in which he warned that Israel had just twelve months in which to destroy Iran’s nuclear program or risk coming under nuclear attack itself. Shavit told London’s Sunday Telegraph that such an attack was far more likely should Barack Obama be elected President, as Israel felt it could rely on McCain but not Obama to undertake a sustained conventional attack.
Most people with whom I spoke found Morris’s prediction of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, nuclear or conventional, to be no less difficult to imagine than I did (though, in contrast to most American liberals, many would be pleased if the United States decided to do the job instead). In any case, Israeli concern about the inability of nuclear deterrence to operate on Islamic would-be martyrs further complicates hopes for a two-state solution, as it deepens Israeli insecurity and diminishes sympathy for the victims of the occupation. With the erection of the separation wall and the creation of more than 600 army checkpoints, according to a recent UN report, around Jerusalem and the West Bank the mere act of living one’s life and conducting one’s normal business is becoming an increasingly impossible burden for Palestinians, draining the peace process of its potential supporters and Hamas of its likely opponents. Many with the opportunity to do so are fleeing to the Gulf states, explains the longtime journalist Danny Rubinstein, where jobs are plentiful and well paying. The preferred Israeli response to this creeping crisis, however, appears to be denial. As Aluf Benn tells me, “Most Israelis are happy with the reduction of terrorist attacks and fear if you give away the West Bank, you are going to get Palestinian attacks on Ben-Gurion Airport. They don’t care about the settlers or the settlements. Most people would support their removal, but we can’t go through that ordeal and get rockets landing on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.”
Even leaving the plight of the Palestinians aside, many Israelis fear that their society’s de facto denial of demographic reality amounts to a kind of slow-motion suicide for a nation that seeks to remain both Jewish and democratic. As Prime Minister Barak admitted to the Jerusalem Post in 1999, “Every attempt to keep hold of this area as one political entity leads, necessarily, to either a nondemocratic state or a non-Jewish state. Because if the Palestinians vote, then it is a binational state, and if they don’t vote, it is an apartheid state that might then become another Belfast or Bosnia.”
Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy makes the point that the solution to the Iranian crisis is the same as the solution to most of the rest of Israel’s security problems. “Imagine peace with the Palestinians, the Syrians and most of the Arab world,” Levy writes. “Would Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dare threaten Israel then, too? On what pretext? Imagine that Israel announces it will not attack Iran until all other means have been exhausted, simultaneously calling on the West to talk to Iran about security guarantees. Does it sound unreal? Will we not contribute more this way to reduce the danger?”
As Moshe Halbertal notes, Israel “tried to get a peace agreement and that failed. Next we tried a unilateral withdrawal and that turned into a base for radical Islam to launch attacks on us.” Friends of Israel and the Jewish people must understand this, but understanding is not enough. We must also help Israel look beyond the relative comfort of the present moment toward the nightmare that awaits it just down the road should it continue in its current direction. Menachem Brinker, who notes that Israel will never find a “better partner for peace than [PA President Mamoud Abbas, aka] Abu Mazen,” avers that “without an element of enforcement of the international community as there was in the Balkans,” most Israelis cannot even envision the possibility of peace in the near term. “We need to be forced into good sense.” Many of his compatriots concur. “I have been very much disappointed with the American Jews who do not oppose settlements,” explains A.B. Yehoshua. “They have been educated on liberalism and democracy. And they could see what is happening here and help us. I understand the idea of automatic solidarity, but all their good democratic values vanish when it comes to Israel.”
Listening to Yehoshua, Brinker and so many others, I was repeatedly reminded of the moment in the film Exodus when the handsome young warrior Ari Ben Canaan, played by Paul Newman, pleads with his Palestinian boyhood friend not to fight against the Zionists but to join them in the battle to end British colonialism and to forge a new society: “Now we will be equal citizens in the free state of Israel,” Newman/Ben Canaan swears. While it’s true that Hollywood dreams are just that, dreams can be necessary to sustain a people through difficult historical moments. Zionism is the product of exactly such a dream. In Theodor Herzl’s utopian 1902 novel Altneuland, the movement’s prophet goes so far as to imagine Palestine’s Arabs thanking the Jews of future Israel for helping them find the freedom and prosperity that today is still lacking in Arab societies. Although that hope is likely to remain out of reach for the foreseeable future, the best way to help Israelis and Palestinians move closer to their dreams is to insist that each society allow the other to develop and flourish peaceably side by side. The alternatives are too awful to imagine, which may be why Israelis–sixty years into their continuing miracle–remain unready to face up to them.