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 remember—the one whose ambitions were limited to ensuring continued access to Kuwaiti oil—not 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 irreverence—Baghdad 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 year’s 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, Israel’s 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 arts—witness 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 discourse—driven 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 Israel—not 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 yesterday’s 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 Alaska—The 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 table—we 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.