Understanding Modern Israel
Nothing that Israel does in its affairs would be of quite such great concern to the world were it not for the fact that Israel drags along, willy-nilly, the world’s greatest power, much like some impressive-looking but feeble-willed, dazed parent stumbling along behind a screaming toddler demanding yet another goody. The threat of serious wars has grown exponentially in recent decades precisely owing to this fact, and not just wars but wars reflecting neither justice nor principle, the aggressive reordering of other people’s affairs by sweeping them into the pit of hell. The so-called war on terror is just part of the fallout of millions of the world’s powerless and abused watching helplessly and without hope the embarrassing public spectacle.
The terrible bloody war in Iraq was almost exclusively for Israel’s benefit. The Syrian “civil war” is a deliberately-engineered conflict for Israel’s benefit. The coup in Egypt, wiping away the sacrifice of thousands of Egyptians in a revolution for democracy and restoring a junta, again reflects Israel’s interests in the region. The constant threats and needless hardships imposed upon Iran, a country which has no modern history of aggression and which every intelligence service knows has not been working towards nuclear weapons, reflects yet the same interest. Indeed, so determined is the government of Israel to keep this huge country pinned down that it pulled out all stops in using its immense congressional influence trying to embarrass the President and prevent a sensible international agreement with Iran. And, more ominously, Netanyahu has threatened countless times to attack Iran, knowing full well that the United States would be forced to come to his assistance when Iran struck back, as it would have every right to do.
But it is not just constant wars and threats of wars, the liberal use of extreme force against the interests of others, which make modern Israel perhaps the greatest threat to peace on the planet. The effects of America’s unprecedented and inappropriate relationship with Israel have corroded badly the values and meaning of American society. America’s democratic government, always rather fragile at best, is literally becoming hollowed out. Today America copies a great deal of the ugly garrison state practices of Israel: aggressive and intrusive intelligence, anti-democratic laws, police and security being given close to a free hand in attacking human rights, secret prisons, and even extrajudicial killing on a large scale. The President speaks of governing by “presidential order” rather than by legislation, the intelligence establishment ignores the Constitution and the courts, the “homeland” security establishment heavily arms itself against public disorder, and even military men make the odd public reference to military government in an emergency. Where is the Constitution with its crucial Bill of Rights in all this? Cut in scraps lying on the floor like snippets from a film-editor’s work.
Of course, so far as rights go, Israel never had, nor can it ever have a Bill of Rights, given its peculiar organization and the practices of its garrison-state establishment. Imitating Israel’s practices and adopting its views remove any state automatically from the whole trend of western society since the Enlightenment. Israel’s leaders may speak all they wish about “the Middle East’s only democracy,” but the words are as insincere as television advertising claims for a new mouthwash. Can you have democracy for only one carefully-defined group? Can you have democracy without the restraints of a Bill of Rights upon an abusive majority? Can you have democracy which holds millions in perpetual isolation and subjects them to countless abuses? Can you have democracy where you prefer dealing with juntas and kingdoms to democratic governments in neighboring states? Can you have democracy which constantly threatens war on those who do not threaten it? Can you have democracy which conducts witch-hunts on a grand scale, just re-naming the witches as terrorists? Can you have democracy which interferes in the internal affairs of other democratic states? And, in the end, can you have democracy founded on the Orwellian principle that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal”?
The truth always and everywhere has been that a society heavily burdened by the military cannot be a truly free and democratic society. An armed camp like Israel has its values and future far more determined by the sheer weight of its military-intelligence-security establishment than by any elections or slogans about democracy, and this same unpleasant truth applies increasingly to America.
The effect of Israel upon the United States in some ways resembles the effect in space of a black hole with its immensely powerful gravity pulling matter towards the certain destruction of its event horizon.
It has become common for criticism of Israel to be conflated with anti-Semitism. Canada’s Prime Minister Harper, an ungracious man at the best of times, has been himself guilty of doing so. It is, of course, simple name-calling, certainly not the kind of thing we expect from a prime minister, but even more, it is a bully’s technique used to intimidate people who disagree.
The practice of calling critics names is closely related to the endlessly-repeated argument of Israeli governments that settlement negotiations must start with the Palestinians accepting that “Israel is the country of the Jewish people.” On first hearing, that might seem plausible, but a moment’s reflection shows its dangerous nature and calculated dishonesty. It is not up to people outside a country to characterize the country’s nature or make-up, and no one has ever expected that in any case, until now in the case of Israel.
Negotiations are, by definition, between parties who have different views, not between parties who have agreed in advance, nor are they between parties where one has been served an ultimatum by the other. But straining the sense of things even more in this case, the subject of negotiations is really not supposed to be Israel’s definition but Palestine’s. Is Israel saying that the Palestinians must grant permission or authority for Israel’s idea of itself? No, of course not, so some other purpose is implicit in this bizarre demand.
How would one define a country like Canada or the United States, countries of immense variety of ethnic, national, and religious origin, under Israel’s idea? You could not. Of course, they are understood by everyone as the countries of Canadians and Americans. And just so, Israel is the country of Israelis, and nothing more, with the large majority of the world’s Jews in fact living elsewhere. Moreover, what is called Israel today was the home of other people for an exceedingly long time, longer than the history of most of the world’s modern states, and those people have not disappeared.
So, Israel’s position is that you do not negotiate with people who refuse to parrot your definition of yourself. That is, it seems fair to say, a pretty unusual approach to negotiations. Imagine Americans refusing to negotiate with the Russians during the Cold War unless the Russian negotiators first formally recognized America as “the land of the free and home of the brave.” That demand, I’m sure we can all agree, would have yielded stony silence, and just so Israel’s demand. You surely make such demands only where you do not want negotiations. Israel, for public relations reasons, always maintains an appearance of being ready to negotiate for peace, but the truth is that negotiations happen only when its benefactor-in-chief periodically decides that they should. There is no evidence beyond words that Israel wants to do so on its own initiative. Indeed, all hard evidence points in another direction.
Israel is chewing away ceaselessly in numberless small bites at what is left of Palestine, reducing it to a set of meaningless, unconnected islands in a sea of armed hostility called Israel. When Israeli officials speak ponderously of “facts on the ground,” that is what they really mean. In the end, Israel intends to solve the problems with its neighbors completely on its own terms. There already is little need, in the minds of Israel’s leaders, to negotiate anything, and there will be less with each passing year. Gaza, surrounded by fences, radar-operated gun towers, tanks, its society riddled with spies, its people having no ability to go anywhere without application, permission, interrogation, and search is the model, although Gaza, through the accident of 1948 events is a bigger concentration of people than would be the ideal, Israel’s terror campaign having created an undesirably large huddle of refugees rather causing them all to flee the territory.
Apart from the absurdity of declaring the exact definition others must employ for Israel, using the kind of national definition upon which Israel’s leaders insist first requires that you define Jewish people. Why would anyone want to open that conversation? The Nazis had difficulty even defining what it was that they hated so much when they implemented their dreadful laws against Jews. Reading the details of how the Nazis determined Jewishness should be instructive for anyone suggesting this approach. Israel, too, has failed to come up with a rigorous definition, despite its need for one under the policy of all the world’s Jews being able to claim Israeli citizenship and assistance in settling.
The religion of Judaism certainly cannot enter your definition because close to half of Israelis identify as non-believers, and even Israeli politicians recognize the problems of theocratic states since they constantly disparage those that do exist in the Muslim world. But this reality does not stop Israeli politicians who lobby American Christian fundamentalists for support from encouraging the conflation of modern Israel with biblical Israel and of worldly Israelis having a good time in Tel Aviv night clubs with the thundering prophets of the Old Testament. Nor does it stop them from passing many pieces of legislation which have the oppressive character of a theocratic state in order to please Israel’s extremist minority parties always required to produce a majority government.
Since only about a third of the world’s people identifying as Jews live in Israel, Israel cannot even claim some exclusive relationship. Its only real connection with the diaspora is that it promises they may all claim Israeli citizenship if they wish. It is hard to imagine what Israel would do were even a large fraction of the diaspora suddenly to act on the promise, showing up on the door step, as it were, suitcases in hand. But Israel knows that will not happen. Life is too good for Jews in dozens of places to exchange it for life in Israel.
So far as a definition based on ethnicity, the task becomes more difficult, as well as unacceptable to the liberal mind since categorizing people by ethnicity has a terrible historical record, is innately unfair, and is always inaccurate. Trying to define Jews by national origin is a non-starter because Israel accepts people it identifies as Jews from any country. Realistically, since Israel ceased to exist nearly two thousand years ago, no person can be a Jew owing to national origin, any more than someone can be a Trojan or a Phoenician today.
Two thousand years make about a hundred generations, and no one can accurately trace his or her family tree that far back, anywhere. Even if you were somehow magically able to identify a certain ancestor of the desired ethnic origin a hundred generations ago, there would be only the most infinitesimal trace left in the mix of your genes after centuries of marriages, migrations, wars, and plagues. To use the name of that nano-bit of hereditary identity to characterize the whole person and the country in which he or she lives does seem to beggar logic.
We know that most people have a quite mixed background if you go back just a few generations, and under the hypothesis of “out of Africa,” if you could go far enough back, you would trace a common origin for all people on the planet (much, as it happens, in the Adam and Eve myth). So, how far back do you go in anyone’s ethnic background in trying to label him or her? Going all the way back means there are no labels possible. So, just where do you stop to get the label you want? At which point in an inconceivably complex history of migrations and disasters and the rise and fall of states do we select just the “right” origin? Religion – and any matter influenced by religion – does tend to be peculiarly selective in these things, as we see from the stuck-in-the nineteenth-century dress of Mennonite Christians or ultra-Orthodox Jews (why not an earlier century, we might ask?) or the Middle Ages’ dress-occasion costumes of Catholic Bishops.
It is a futile and foolish exercise to start, and that is true even if “out of Africa” eventually were proved inaccurate as we may discover several geographic sources of origin. It then would still come down to common ancestries for huge groups of people who do not now regard themselves as related.
Shifting the definition of Israel from the “home of Israelis” to the “home of Jews” has many serious implications the general public may not appreciate. Today in Israel, being a passport-carrying citizen does not mean that you are equal in treatment and privileges by your government to other citizens. Israeli citizens who are also identified as Jews – and documents of every kind in Israel unpleasantly identify your “ethnic” identity over and above your citizenship – enjoy a special class of citizenship not attainable by others. Now, Israel is free to do this in its internal affairs, but it is not reasonable to expect others to formally ratify it, and it is not reasonable to expect that many of the world’s people to approve such a prejudiced and divisive practice. It is pretty easy to guess the fate of more than one million non-Jewish Israeli citizens if the Palestinians were to accept Israel’s definition.
The last way to categorize Jews, and one that plays a role in Israel, is by cultural identity. But what is a culture devoid of the context of religion and ethnicity and national origin, surely the richest ingredients in any cultural stew? Almost nothing, except possibly a language. Hebrew has been artificially imposed as the main language of Israel, despite the reality of Arabic’s total dominance in the region, despite the fact that many immigrants and settlers in Israel can speak little Hebrew, despite the fact that this more-or-less dead language was only kept alive because of its role in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and despite the fact that Hebrew is a useless language in the world’s commerce and affairs, much as Welsh or Navaho would be. Are an almost-dead language and a couple of holiday celebrations to determine Jewishness and the entitlement to be an Israeli? If so, it is a pretty feeble thing over which to fight.
I think the truth is, and there is a good deal of evidence to support this, that Israeli leaders are motivated by an (unproved) sense of Jewish ethnicity, or perhaps more accurately, the wish to create an ethnicity which does not now exist. That too does seem a feeble thing to fight over, as well as being in the end a hopeless pursuit. Israel is a state formed by migration, recent migration, and migrants always and everywhere bring their former customs, language, and habits with them, and the larger each group is in relation to the country they join, the more it will deeply influence the place’s future culture and identity. Parts of the United States are now more Spanish-speaking than English, and such changes are underway all over the world. Parts of Toronto or Vancouver have as a first language Cantonese. The relatively huge numbers of recent Russian migrants to Israel, for example, remain to a great extent Russians who happen to have moved to Israel. The many Americans who have served in prominent positions are clearly identifiable as Americans who happen to have moved to Israel.
The dilemma is unavoidable: either Israel is a state for Israelis, or it is a state for a self-defined group, the mysterious nature of the group’s self-definition not subject to scientific scrutiny. If someone for any reason wants to call himself a Jew in many places, it makes no difference to anyone else, but in Israel to be a full citizen you cannot just choose to be a Jew. The fathers of the Zionist movement were in many cases intellectually-gifted men, but they were, after all, intense ideologues, truly fanatical men in a number of cases, and they were seeking a solution for problems they experienced in European society, a solution, as it turns out, as unrealistic in nature as the religious fantasy of a better afterlife which has comforted various unhappy groups through history. The solution they fixed upon also is one that comes loaded with intractable new problems. And those intractable problems, regrettably, are now becoming the entire world’s problems.
Israeli leaders have long wanted to rid their country of its non-Jewish population. The late Ariel Sharon wanted to overthrow the government of Jordan and turn the place over to the Palestinians who would all migrate there with Yasser Arafat. It was just one of many hare-brained schemes proposed over modern Israel’s brief history. A prominent Israeli military historian, Martin van Creveld, offered the notion of a massive moving artillery barrage to chase the Palestinians across the Jordan River. Moshe Dayan spoke of making the Palestinians miserable enough to want to leave. A number of prominent Jews have advocated killing the families of Palestinians found guilty of terrorism, and Israel has practiced destroying their family homes. Clearly, with such ideas, we see Israelis begin to slip into the mental framework of the very people who inflicted horror upon the Jews in the 1940s, and when you observe that kind of thing, it should be an early warning that what you are doing is dangerous and not well thought-out.
Why do people get such desperate ideas? Because the basic assumptions of their enterprise were faulty from the start and have driven them to pernicious and unwanted results with the apparent need for still more faulty corrective measures, an endless vicious cycle. The foundation of modern Israel involved a series of manipulations and back-door deals with European colonial powers entering their decline. They often involved favors exchanged, but in no case did they reflect law or sound logic. And in all cases, the foundational ideas had more of emotion in them than intellect. Then came the Holocaust, and a United States – which hadn’t lifted a finger to save Europe’s Jews when Hitler made it possible to do so, the first Nazi policy having been mass emigration – decided to play the good guy by fixing crushing penalties on still another group of people, one who had nothing to with the suffering of Jews.
This pose of America as big brother to Israel was certainly not just a reflection of guilt and regret, it reflected a new political reality that emerged about the time of Harry Truman’s re-election campaign. A well-organized lobby for Israel in the United States began offering campaign financing and press support for friendly candidates as well as the opposite for those not so friendly. Truman was inundated by lobbyists for the quick recognition of Israel, and while his own first instincts were against doing so, he yielded to the lobbyists, facing as he was, a tough, uncertain re-election campaign.
And the pattern of lobbying behavior has only grown in size and sophistication over time. At the same time, American national elections have become the most money-drenched political exercises on earth with the Supreme Court declaring money to be free speech and billions spent regularly just for a slate of candidates.
The idea of a pure state for just one people – however defined, as by religion, ethnic background, or cultural identity – is ultimately unworkable, however much you may be able to force it for a time, and Israel works immensely hard in trying to force it through countless unfair laws and the constant hot breath of secret police forces and the military. The concept, importantly, violates all of the progress in democratic and human values established since the Enlightenment, and, on a strictly pragmatic basis, it stands in defiance of the inexorable workings of a globalized world. Even the European nations once seemingly so well identified by populations with centuries of common history, as the English or the Germans, are now facing unavoidable changes in the structure of their populations. They are all in the process of becoming more like Canada or the United States, nations formed by many diverse streams of migrants. You cannot hold your finger in the dike or shout at the raging sea to stop, yet that kind of activity truly is implicit in Israel’s concept of itself.
Insistence on a narrowly-defined citizenship in a place shared with millions of others means of course Israel can never have a Bill or Charter of Rights, and the truth is that without a Bill of Rights no state can claim to be a true democracy. Just having periodic elections does not define a democratic state because a majority of any description may impose its prejudices and even tyranny on a minority at any time, as we have seen in South Africa or the American Confederacy or indeed in modern Israel. The very idea of a democracy for only one group of people – again, however defined – is a contradiction in terms. Bills and Charters of Rights are about protecting minorities, but Israel does not want the minorities it has, and it certainly has no will to protect them, seizing their property periodically and subjecting them to gross abuses.
Without some degree of true democracy, a society cannot have democratic values, that important sense of values which becomes part of the fabric of a society over time. Israel feels it cannot afford to embrace and respect democratic values owing to its security situation: it doesn’t say this, but it is implicit in Israel’s behavior. Thus we see contradictions like Israel happily doing business with governments along the lines of the Saudi royal family or Egypt’s thirty-year president, Mubarak. Israel has expressed contempt for genuinely democratic movements, again like those in Egypt. It would rather deal with an unelected, accommodating hanger-on to power like Mahmoud Abbas rather than recognize the democratic aspirations of Palestinians so clearly demonstrated with Hamas.
Israel’s habit of declaring every party or organization which represents some barrier or inconvenience to its long-term desire to ethnically-cleanse most of Palestine and annex the territory as “terrorist” is akin to Christians of long ago declaring certain different or odd people to be witches, worthy only of killing, as by burning at the stake (It is also akin to Israel’s habitual name-calling of critics). Thus Hamas, which is by all available evidence more dedicated to democratic principles than the government of Israel, is a witch to be dealt with as witches should be. Thus Hezbollah, a freedom fighting organization owing its very birth to Israel’s long and bloody occupation of part of Lebanon and one which has never invaded Israel, is another witch.
But they are not witches: they are parties representing legitimate interests and aspirations in the region. People with democratic values would recognize this and treat them accordingly.
From the point of view of many, the re-creation of Israel was a mistake simply because it created more problems than it solved and added to the world’s stock of misery and injustice, to say nothing of instability. Much as was the case with the Soviet Union, Israel almost certainly will not survive in its present form. There are too many faulty assumptions and too much flawed logic in its make-up for it to be viable in the long term, but its dissolution will be a natural process, again much as was the case with the Soviet Union, not the violent act of invaders or enemies. In the meantime, Israel’s intense ferocity towards all who question its behavior and toward all of its neighbors, when combined with its unnatural relationship with the United States, will prove a growing threat to the world’s peace and stability. And as Israelis themselves begin to realize the genuine paradoxes and terrible conundrums their enterprise has created, we are likely to see even increased ferocity and irrational behavior, as so often happens when dreamers see their dreams failing.
Israel’s leaders have in recent years been little more than a series of meglo-maniacs determined to play the role of a mini-world power and dictate the fates of those for a thousand miles around, all while proving incapable of solving even their own society’s most fundamental problems, which are numerous and pressing.
Only the United States has the power and authority to restrain Israel and to insist on Israel’s obeying the laws of nations and respecting its neighbors, but since politics in the United States is now hopelessly mired in money and lobbies for the foreseeable future, and since America has voluntarily joined the delusional war on terror, adopting many of Israel’s ugliest practices, it seems impossible that America can summon the strength needed for genuine leadership. It will remain the hopeless lumbering giant of a parent being yanked around by a screaming child. With the gradual recognition that the national dream is becoming a nightmare, and as the more reasonable people leave Israel for a better life in other places, the intensity and desperation of the screaming child will only increase. The next couple of decades are going to be dangerous times indeed.
John Chuckman lives in Canada.