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Israel at 60

This piece appeared in today's web version of The American Prospect.

I don’t often, or ever really, write about my own relationship to Israel or how I ended up there, but I’ll make an exception for the 60th anniversary.

It started at the time of the ‘good’ Iraq war.  You rememberthe one whose ambitions were limited to ensuring continued access to Kuwaiti oilnot the contemporary Iraq tri-fecta effort—to own the oil, change the regime, and transform the region.

So there I was in January of 1991, working in London as the political officer of the Union of Jewish Students, arguing Israel's case on campus (and attempting to do so from within as liberal a discourse as could be summoned for the occasion), while Tel Aviv came under scud missile attack from Iraq. I signed up for one of the Jewish community's solidarity missions and went off to Israel to receive my obligatory gas mask and, well, kill time in between the curfews and sirens.

The Tel Aviv that I came to love and that I now consider to be my home was displaying its customary irreverenceBaghdad Café on Ben Yehuda Street became the obvious tongue-in-cheek hang out for the short duration of the scud crisis.

The trip solidified my own decision to make Israel my home. By years end, I had upped sticks and made aliyah (emigrated to Israel, literally 'gone up'). I have been fortunate enough to have pursued my interest (well obsession really) of advancing Arab-Israeli peace both in and out of government in Israel and now in a brief sojourn in Washington D.C. (though not fortunate enough to have succeeded, yet).

For anyone steeped in the narrative of contemporary Jewish history, or any neutral observer for that matter, Israels achievements are rather remarkable. It is a new nation forged from the remnants of European Jewry and immigrants from across the Middle East, a biblical language dusted-off and modernized, and it possesses that most precious resource – gifted human capital. Israel today is at the cutting edge of contemporary creativity, not only in the high-tech fields that keep the economy buzzing along impressively, but also in the artswitness the latest batch of award-winning Israeli movies. Israel's premier basketball team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, is a permanent fixture in Europe's Final Four. Tel Aviv itself is a gloriously hip and hedonist bubble of escapism.

And yet that same escapism is also frustrating, even infuriating. Not twenty kilometers from liberal Tel Aviv is a reality that is unforgiveably ignored. In the West Bank, Israel imposes one of the longest, last remaining and most de-humanizing of occupations in the world on Palestinian population.  Worse, the Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel are not part of this nation-building exercise, subjected to ongoing and structurally-embedded discrimination.

To try to understand that co-existence of modern cosmopolitan Israel with the Israel of permanent violent occupation, it's worth going back to that rather silly 1991 solidarity visit and those scud misiles. Ah, of course, Israel is under permanent threat from an relentless foe, or set of foes, unswervingly committed to its destruction, to a second holocaust—it has to be like that. The conversation normally ends there. If it continues, it's about why embattled Israel deserves empathy, maybe a prayer, along with the unconditional support of the U.S., and why it should certainly avoid making risky territorial concessions.

Thankfully though it doesn't end there. Israel does have enemies, bitter, even implacable ones. But Israel also has the most powerful military in the region and it's most sophisticated military-industrial complex and R+D capacity.  It is one of the world's largest arms exporters and has an economy that is the envy of its neighbors.

The disconnect, I would argue, is that Israel has locked itself into a box of fear that is not only substantially self-generated and all-embracing, but has also become a danger in itself, preventing Israel from taking urgently needed steps. Explaining that fear is easy—remember the Holocaust, look at how Israel is targetted—it does not though alter the fact that it has become utterly unhealthy and paralyzing, and ironically a reason to actually be concerned.

Post 9/11 America knows a thing or two about the dangers of a policy and popular discoursedriven by nurturing and abusing people's fears. Now imagine living in a country whose self-understanding is that it is 3am all the time and that bloody red phone never stops ringing. Welcome to Israelnot the reality of Israel but the sense of self that has been formed. Every enemy is a potential Hitler, every threat an existential one, there is a fatalism and almost a desire to retreat into a ghetto and build a big wall (in fact there is a wall, its called the separation barrier). 

This is how one of Israel's smartest political commentators (and occasional basketball reporter) Ofer Shelach, put it in yesterdays Ma'ariv newspaper:

Sixty years have gone by, and we still do not accept the very idea that it is certain that we will still be here twice as long…A very powerful propaganda machine, some of it deliberate and most of it self-inflicted, works against this simple and normal premise…Anyone who sees themselves as constantly on the defensive against a Holocaust, whose politicians, when they court votes, instead of promising hope and change, purport to be defending against destruction, such politics recognizes no limits, because when you are defending yourself against a Holocaust, there is no limit to the degree of force, and it has no purpose except that of survival.

The point is, of course, that this is not 1938. It has not been 1938 since 1948, so to speak, since Israel’s creation. Sixty years later Israel is in an extremely favorable position to establish permanent, recognizable and defensible borders and be accepted in the region. Many states live with a degree of insecurity, face certain manageable threats, as Israel will likely have to.  But they avoid hysteria and calibrate their national security postures, their deployments and responses, accordingly. Belatedly, so too must Israel.

The entire Arab League, via the Arab Initiative, has expressed its willingness to accept, recognize and live in security with an Israel that ends the occupation of 1967 (not 1948). The Palestinian PA-Fatah leadership in Ramallah has the same position, while Hamas has stated their acceptance of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.  Even Iran has said it would respect a deal authorized by a legitimate Palestinian leadership. So Israel has a choice, has an alternative to oy vey every day, and there are plenty of other fissures in Israeli society that require some well-overdue attention.

Michael Chabon's wonderful novel The Yiddish Policeman's Union is set against the backdrop of Israel having lost the 1948 War of Independence, with the Jews having been given a long-term lease in part of AlaskaThe Federal District of Sitka. If I am wrong, and Israel is constantly on the verge of destruction, violently rejected by its neighbors even within the 1967 lines, and condemned to live by the sword in perpetuity, then bring out the thermals, Sitka here we come. Such an Israel would represent a danger to, rather than a cornerstone of, Jewish continuity.

But Chabon's work is fiction. Israel won that 1948 war. Sixty years later an Arab and Muslim offer is on the tablewe accept '48 if you undo '67.

If Israel can overcome its own fears and embrace the hope and the courage on which it was founded, then forget Alaska, we can continue to sun our buns on the warm shores of the Mediterranean, ad meyer ve'esrim as we say, til one-hundred and twenty, and thensome.


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Comments (1)

De-politicize the Bible and the Quran

For a long-term durable solution to the Arab Israeli conflict, a single democratic and secular state for Jews and Palestinians needs to evolve. Other solutions are like band-aid treatment to cancer. The dream of an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine is unsustainable, unless the Palestinians vanish.
Muslim and Jew can live together in peace. History is the proof. Hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in Arab countries peaceably for centuries. In his Coningsby, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1868 and 1874-1880), the first and thus far the only person of Jewish parentage to reach the premiership, described the “halcyon centuries” in Muslim Spain where the “children of Ishmael rewarded the children of Israel with equal rights and privileges with themselves.” Sultan Bayezid-II (1481-1512) encouraged thousands of Jews to settle in the Muslim Ottoman Empire following their expulsion from Spain. That the migration of 850,000 Jews from Arab lands around 1948 was due to Arab maltreatment of Jews is an unfair charge. The migration happened when more than 500 Palestinian villages were de-populated and about 800,000 made refugees.
Islam venerates Judaism. The Quran made Abraham as the first Muslim. Islam is the Religion of Abraham. Quran’s Chapter 14 is named after Abraham and, to Joseph Chapter 12 is named. Today, Jewish derived Arabic proper names are common.
Feeling powerless, the Arab masses invoked hostile Quranic Verses, recounted stories of the Prophet’s troubles with the Jewish tribes in Medina, drew lessons from substituting Friday for the Sabbath and the prayer’s direction from Jerusalem to Mecca. For thirteen centuries, however, these were non-issues.
Politicizing the Bible’s Genesis 15:18: “The Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, unto thy seed have I given this land from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” politicized the Quran. Politicizing the Bible pushed frustrated moderate Arabs into orthodoxy and the orthodox into Jihadism. The Arab Israeli conflict has degenerated to a religious war that could last for a thousand years. In provoking the enmity of their age-old Muslim friends, Zionism has radicalized Arab Muslims into Islamist extremism. In doing so, it disserved the long-term interests of the Jewish people.
Had Zionism adhered to the stipulation in the 1917 Balfour declaration: “Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” this conflict would not have developed.
The Bible and the Quran must be de-politicized.
The two-state solution is capricious:
First, demographically, a purely Jewish state is impossible to attain. The Zionist dream of creating an exclusive state for the Jewish people in Palestine is unsustainable in the long-term. Presently, about 1.4 million Palestinians are citizens of Israel, or 25 percent of Israel’s 5.5 million Jews. Due to their high population’s growth rate the Palestinian-Israelis will eventually become the majority. The number of Palestinians in Israel in 1948 was about 150,000. The Palestinian-Israelis are in addition to the 4.2 million Palestinians who live under Israel’s occupation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Outside Palestine, 2.6 millions are registered in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, plus 1.5 million scattered worldwide.
Secondly, Jerusalem, borders, security, water, settlements, and the refugees’ right-of-return are intractable. When Clinton, Barak, and Arafat attempted in July 2000 to tackle these issues at Camp David, the negotiations collapsed, leading to the second intifada.
Thirdly, even if a miracle patches up a two-state agreement, the extremists on both sides would undermine it.
Fourthly, the Arab masses will shun a Zionist state. Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) have failed to develop beyond small diplomatic missions.
Western secular democratic ideals should inspire a single secular democratic state:
First, the intractable obstacles would disappear.
Secondly, a single state will commingle Palestinians and Jews into an inseparable mix. Arabs would no longer have an excuse to boycott their Jewish “cousins.” Economic, cultural, educational, and social interaction would follow.
Thirdly, a single state would allow Arabs and Jews access to all Palestine.
The Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are instruments of integration between Palestinians and Jews, not segregation, a mixture as difficult to unscramble today as removing the Palestinian Israelis from Israel.
The secular democratic one-state solution has been gathering pace. A conference at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was held on November 17-18, 2007 to address the various aspects of this concept.
Durable peace requires the genuine welcome of the Arab masses of the Jewish people. The Jews who had lived among Arabs could be helpful. They share customs, habits, values, food, music, dance, and, for the older generation, the Arabic language.

Elie Elhadj; author: The Islamic Shield
Blog: http://journals.aol.com/eeh100/daring-opinion/

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 8, 2008 11:45 AM.

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