A Deep Ideological Crisis

About a year ago I took a train to Tel Aviv. As this is the place that the Zionists created, where Jews can be safe, I took a taxi from the train station to where I was going. You don’t get on a bus in Israel if you don’t have to. The radio was on and the driver, wanting to make conversation, reacted to it. He repeated what he and the rest of us heard on the radio all day from politicians, callers, ‘analysts’: This Sharon doesn’t know how to fight. He should go into Beit Jala and crash and smash… “if you do a war, do it right”.

When he was done I said “I think the problems here can also be solved without wars”.

“Yes,” he said thoughtfully. “This is true”.

I believe that this exchange illustrates a lot of what is reflected and perceived as “public opinion” in Israel. It is perhaps difficult to understand it if you live in a country where opinion is less intimidated, uniformity of thought is less of a requirement, toughness not the central value. Humanistic attitudes, in the Israeli Sparta, are at best smiled at; at worst condemned as ‘softness’ and ‘daydreaming’. On the extreme Right, they are denounced as treason. Wanting to live a normal life is “leftist weakness”.

Like all Western societies, so is the Israeli strictly divided into two publics: the opinion makers and the spectators. The first includes the politicians, army men, academics, journalists and “analysts”. The second is suffering from a deep economic crisis. The young, those who are able, are emigrating in large numbers to where they can find a job, keep their human face and maybe get a life.

In recent weeks, the opinion makers were obsessively discussing what is called in Israel “the demographic problem”. That is, the number of Palestinians in the country. This discussion is not reflected in foreign media, so I will explain it in a nutshell. The presupposition is that Israel, the Jewish state, can tolerate a small and obedient Palestinian minority. Obedience is called “loyalty to the state” in NewSpeak. In English it should be called “acceptance of their third class status”.

In the past, it was assumed that the Palestinian citizens of Israel (a fifth of the population) are a small and obedient minority that can be ignored, with few exceptions that the police and secret service quietly took care of. The Zionist Left, therefore, restricted its demographic ideology to the occupied territories: advocating a withdrawal in order to “get rid” of three million non-Jews. The marginalized non-Zionist Left demands the same, but for a different reason: because three million human beings are deprived of everything by the occupation. This has been the basis for a tactical alliance between the Zionist and non-Zionist opponents of the occupation.

The Zionist Right, which includes both Labor and Likud, is acting through the settlement program for 35 years to incorporate the occupied territories into Israel, bottling up the Palestinians there in smaller and smaller enclaves and waiting for them to understand that their only option is to evaporate in one way or another.

All of this does not detract from the opinion makers’ view of themselves as supporters of democracy. In an intellectually corrupt climate, it can be perceived as democratic to discuss how to change the population when it doesn’t fit the regime.

Today, the demographic discussion includes also Palestinian citizens of Israel. The demographers (headed by Haifa U Professor Arnon Sofer) are predicting that by 2020 the percentage of Jews in Israel proper (excluding the West Bank and Gaza) will drop to 64 percent. Faced with this reality, different “solutions” are suggested in newspaper opinion pieces: on the one hand, how to increase the number of Jews – from finding more Jews who will immigrate to Israel (e.g., in economic stricken Argentina), to converting Romanian guest workers to Judaism and granting them citizenship. On the other hand, how to reduce the number of Palestinians or make them invisible – with various ideas ranging from reservations to ethnic cleansing. The only real solution, of democracy in a de-Zionised state, is only rarely mentioned in the mainstream media and immediately dismissed.

The Zionist Left has been largely silent with regards to this intensified trend in public debate. It condemns the “solution” of ethnic cleansing under the cover of a regional war or a US attack on Iraq, which has become more and more prominently advocated by the Rightwing (including government ministers). But it has not discussed the issue further.

The taxi driver in Tel Aviv, who knew that it is possible to solve the problems of Israel/Palestine without wars, but did not know that he is allowed to say this, is listening to this discussion on the radio. I don’t know what he thinks should be done with regards to the “demographic problem”, but I am quite sure that he is not offered, as a legitimate view, the opinion that the current and future demographic composition of Israel is not a problem, but rather a fact; that if the population doesn’t fit the regime, the regime should change and not the population.

The reason that I am so sure is because I read the latest opinion piece by Uri Avnery (“A maddened cow”, July 6), who marks the extreme Left within the Zionist spectrum. In an attempt to explain apparently conflicting results of public opinion polls, he writes: “the one thing that unifies almost all Jewish Israelis is the wish to live in a state where there are only Jews. … Some call this ‘racist’. … But this attitude is rooted in the fact that for thousands of years Jews have lived as a religious-ethnic community dispersed throughout the world and often suffered cruel persecution (especially in the Christian world). They have developed a ghetto mentality. They want to live among themselves, separate from others, surrounded by a high fence. … For most Israelis, the ideal situation would be a state without a single non-Jewish citizen.” This does not prevent Avnery from concluding that “the majority is ready to pay the price of peace”.

Imagine the reaction if a Christian would write that Jews always wanted to live in a ghetto – that’s the way they like it.

Anyone who is familiar with Avnery’s writing will not be surprised that he assumes that the Israeli public is thinking in the same terms as the TV talk show hosts: that they are not worrying about their lost jobs, but rather about the demographic composition of the country. That they would rather starve in a Jewish ghetto than live a normal life in a democratic country. This is standard for Avnery, who usually believes the government when it tells us what we want. But it is incredible, in today’s context,

that Avnery accepts the presupposition that the attitude he attributes to most Israelis is legitimate, not racist, and not in any way contradictory to peace.

Avnery has invested a lot in the struggle for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. It is only in an extremely regressive political culture that a person like him can fail to see the difference between a (supposed) wish to live in a closed Jewish community and a wish to achieve an ethnically pure state “without a single non-Jewish citizen”. It is reflective of the nature of current mainstream Israeli discourse, that a person with his pro-peace credentials accepts that Palestinians are, for most Israelis and not only for the ideologues of the status quo, “a demographic problem”.

At a time in which blunt fascism is in power in Israel, the Zionist Left seems unequipped to give the most basic answers that are required. These are dangerous times in West Asia.

Irit Katriel can be reached at iritka@zahav.net.il.


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