In late 1949 I worked on a boat taking Jews from Marseilles to Haifa, Israel. Jews from Arab nations were in the front of the boat, Europeans in the rear. I was regarded by many of the Europeans as some sort of freak because I had a United States passport and so could stay in the land of milk and honey. One man wanted me to marry his daughter – which meant he too could live in the land of milk and honey. My Hebrew became quite respectable but the experience was radicalizing or, I should say, kept me radical, and I have stayed that way.
Later I learned from someone who ran a displaced persons camp in Germany that the large majority of Jews wanted to go anywhere but Palestine. They were compelled to state Palestine or else risk receiving no aid. I understood very early that there was much amiss in the countless Arab villages and homes I saw destroyed, and that the entire Zionist project – regardless of the often venal nature of the Arab opposition to it – was a dangerous sham.
The result of the creation of a state called Israel was abysmal. Jews from Poland have nothing in common with Germans and neither has anything to do with those from the Arab world. It is nationality, not religion, that counts most. Jews in Israel, especially the Germans, largely ghettoized themselves by their place of origin during the first generation, when a militarized culture produced the mixed new breed called sabras – an essentially anti-intellectual personality far different from the one the early Zionists, who were mostly socialists who preached the nobility of labor, expected to emerge. The large majority of Israelis are not in the least Jewish in the cultural sense, are scarcely socialist in any sense, and daily life and the way people live is no different in Israel than it is in Chicago or Amsterdam. There is simply no rational reason that justifies the state’s creation.
The outcome is a small state with a military ethos that pervades all aspects of Israel’s culture, its politics and, above all, its response to the existence of Arabs in its midst and at its borders. From its inception, the ideology of the early Zionists – of Labor Zionism as well as the rightist Revisionism that Vladimir Jabotinsky produced – embodied a commitment to violence, erroneously called self-defense, and a virtual hysteria. As a transcendent idea, Zionism has no validity because the national differences between Jews are overwhelming.
What Zionism confirmed, if any confirmation were needed, is that accidents are more important in shaping history than is all too often allowed. Here was the intellectual café, which existed in key cities – Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century or the Lower East Side of New York before World War I – filled with immensely creative people full of ideas and longing for a golden era to come. Ideas – good, bad, and indifferent – flourished. In this heady atmosphere, Zionism was born.
But Zionism has produced a Sparta that traumatized an already artificially divided region partitioned after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I led to the Versailles Treaty and the creation of the modern Middle East. The state of Israel has always relied on military solutions to political and sociological problems with the Arabs. The result is constant mobilization.
Even more troublesome for peace and stability in the vast Middle East, Zionism has always been symbiotic on some great power for the security of its national project, realized in a state called Israel. Before 1939 it was the British; during the 1950s it was France. Israel has survived since the late 1960s on the influx of US arms and money, and this has allowed it to encourage its fears of annihilation – a fate its possession of nuclear weapons makes most unlikely. But Israel also has an importance far beyond the fantasies of a few confused literati. Today its significance for American foreign policy is far greater because the Soviet Union no longer exists and the Middle East provokes the fear so essential to mobilizing Congress and the US public. “The best hopes and the worst fears of the planet are invested in that relatively small patch of earth” – as George Tenet, the former head of the CIA, put it in his memoir – and so understanding how and why that patch came into being, and the grave limits of the martial course it is following, has a very great, even transcendent value.
In July 2003 Foreign Minister Shalom predicted that Iran would have nuclear bomb capability by 2006. It did not have nuclear weapons in 2006, though in fact a successful strike by conventional missiles on Dimona, Israel’s nuclear facility, would radioactivate a good part of Israel – and both Iran and Syria have such missiles. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, during Vice-President Dick Cheney’s visit in late March 2008, stated that “Iran’s weapons program threatens not only the stability of the region, but of the whole world,” and he did not rule out a war with it. By spring 2008 Israel was also very concerned about the growing ascendancy of Hizbollah in Lebanon and its greatly increased firepower – mainly in the form of rockets capable of striking much of Israel. It regards Hizbollah as a tool of Iran, and its focus on Iran concerns its control over Hizbollah as well as its ability to challenge Israel’s nuclear monopoly. But there can be no doubt that Hizbollah’s strength has only grown since Israel attacked it in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Israel now has an enemy that can inflict immense damage on it, probably resulting in highly skilled Jews migrating far faster than they already are at present – even now, more Jews are leaving Israel than migrating to it.
The existence of Israel is scarcely the only reason American policy in the region is as bad as it is. After all, it did not take Zionism to encourage Washington to seek the elimination of British influence in the region, and today no one can tell how long the US will remain mired in the affairs of the Middle East. But Israel is now a vital factor. While the extent of its role can be debated, without it the politics of the entire Middle East would be different – troubled but very different.
At least equally nefarious in the long run, Israel’s existence has radicalized – but in a negative sense – the Arab world, distracting it from natural class differences that often overcome religious and tribal ties. It has fanned Arab nationalism abysmally and given it a transcendent negative identity.
I am very realistic – and pessimistic – about an eventual negotiated solution to the crisis that has surrounded Palestine and Israel. Given the magnitude of the changes needed, the present situation justifies the most dismal conclusions. After all, the Arabs that live under Israeli control will quite soon outnumber the Jewish population, leaving a de facto Jewish state in which Jews are a minority! This fact is becoming deeply troublesome within Israeli politics today, causing former expansionists to reverse their position and leading to more and more internal controversy. Nor will there ever be an administration in Washington ready to do diplomatically what none has ever dared do since 1947, namely compel Israel to make an equitable peace with the Arabs.
Neither a one- nor two-state solution will come to pass. But the Jewish population is very likely to decline, and if it falls sufficiently then demography may prove to be a crucial factor. The ratio of Jews to Arabs would then become highly significant. The Jews in Israel are highly skilled and many have gotten out, migrating abroad. The Israeli military is the most powerful in the region because it has been deluged with American equipment, which it has learned to service. But US forces need repairmen to service the very same equipment, more than ever because recruitment into the American military is now lower than it has been in a quarter-century (not to mention its astronomical suicide rate), and skilled Israelis can take jobs with America’s armed forces that they are eminently qualified to fill. Moreover, Iran and the other Arab states will eventually develop or acquire nuclear weapons, making Israel incredibly insecure for its highly mobile Jewish population – one exhausted by regular service in compulsory reserves. And as already suggested, destroying Dimona with conventional missiles or mortars would be a cheap way to radioactivate a good part of Israel. Even worse, Osama bin Laden, or someone like him, may acquire a nuclear device, and one nuclear bomb detonated in or near Israel will effectively destroy what is a tiny area. Whoever destroys Israel will be proclaimed a hero in the Arab world. To those with skills, the answer is clear: get out. And getting out they are.
There are also Orthodox Jews in Israel but Israeli mass culture is now virtually indistinguishable from consumerism anywhere – in many crucial respects, there is more Judaism in parts of Brooklyn or Toronto than in most of Israel. The Orthodox too may be ready to leave behind the insecurity and troubles confronting those who live in a nation that is, after all, a part of a highly unstable region.
Sober and quite rational Israelis exist, of course, and I cite them often enough, but American policy will be determined by factors having nothing to do with them. Unfortunately, rational Israelis are an all too small minority.
GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, Another Century of War? and The Age of War: the US Confronts the World and After Socialism. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book is World in Crisis, from which this essay has been excerpted.