My Trip to Israel/Palestine: Pride, Militarism, Xenophobia, Pessimism

I’m freshly returned from Israel and want to get down my impressions. Mine was a political trip but it was also personal. I’ll begin with the personal.

The best thing about my trip was the feeling of making a full circle on my life as a young Jew, a life I began to move away from, say 20 years ago. I’ve never fully resolved that movement personally; and this trip was an encounter with the more-Jewish person I might have been, that maybe my community intended for me to be, but I’m not. There was some grief in that—I learned to read Hebrew as a boy, and now I was seeing Hebrew everywhere, and not knowing what to make of it—but there was also a feeling of reconciliation. Frankly, I liked wearing a yarmulke as I walked around Jerusalem, after visiting friends on Sabbath, but I saw that I don’t want to be a Jew in the nationalistic way that Israeli society extols.

That said, I found I had some pride in Israel’s achievement. It is amazing that this country leaped up from a fairly rural society to a modern one in 60 years. That’s my people’s achievement. They were focused and determined to make something to show the world, and did. I don’t think much of Israeli architecture (and I despise the destruction and modernization in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, but the roads, the journalism, the cultural life are impressive. And there are the institutions of a modern state. An Arab intellectual I spent some time with in Jerusalem expressed rage toward Israel for the way it’s treated his people, but he also expressed awe for its institutions, and he’s hoping that democracy will rub off on the Arab world—the free speech, the rule of law, democratic institutions.

On to politics. I went to Israel because I’ve said again and again in the last few months that the United States should not be joined at the hip to Israel. I come back feeling more strongly about that position than I did when I left. Allies, yes. Joined at the hip, no way.

Israel is of course a Jewish state, but that constitutional principle puts it at odds with progressive trends in the western world: immigration, multiculturalism. The need to maintain its Jewishness means that Israel treats the West Bank as a place to be selectively colonized—i.e., cherrypicked—but not annexed, because of course Israel doesn’t want more Arab citizens. Being a Jewish state also means that I can move there tomorrow, but the agricultural and construction workers who are brought in as guest workers for a limited period have to hit the road before long. Like guest workers in Saudi Arabia. Funny, but I think people who help build a country should have a stake in that country.

Israel knows its ethnocentrism isn’t very hip. In the state’s foreign press office, I saw a flyer showing three different kids, black, brown, Asian, with a headline saying something like, This Is Israel. Well actually it’s not Israel. Notwithstanding the many Ethiopian Jews, Israel is remarkably homogeneous. They’re my people, I should know; I recognize a Jewish punim. I’m not saying that what Israel is doing is wrong; hey, it’s their country. I just don’t see it as admirable or democratic.

I began to find the homogeneity a little suffocating. The good things I associate with Jewish culture, a sense of intellectual supremacy, analytical brilliance, are everywhere at hand, they’re what built this state. The downside is that the sense of Jewish superiority that I grew up with in my scientific family is all around you here—Jews are smarter because they made the desert bloom in one generation; Jews are smarter because as Thomas Friedman wrote the other day, Warren Buffett just bought an Israeli company for $4 billion—and this self-regarding, materialist values system goes unchecked by an alternative set of values, say humility and tolerance—qualities I think of as Christian. I wonder if the homogeneity doesn’t also explain the famous Israeli rudeness. Of course I was there during war time, but no one’s especially friendly, there aren’t smiles or curiosity for a stranger. People pushed past me in lines. A seatmate on my flight to Tel Aviv treated me as vermin, and meanwhile barked angry commands to his employees into his cellphone.

I think the lack of diversity and celebration of achievement help explain Israel’s difficulties with its Arab neighbors. As I’ve written in the Observer, Israelis don’t seem to want to think of themselves as Middle Eastern but as Western. They don’t like their neighborhood, or they’re in denial about their neighborhood. Racism toward Arabs is a common strand in conversation, and of course the Israelis are now doing everything to separate themselves from Palestinians with that horrifying wall.

Not that they don’t have reason. In my conversations with Palestinians, I often encountered anti-Semitism and hatred, and a thinly-veiled desire to push Israelis into the sea. “This is our land,” one man said to me. “We can’t live with them. We can never have peace with these people…. What Nasrallah is doing now, it makes every Palestinian feel as good as though he has been given 1 million dollars.” I must say that this was one of the great revelations of my trip: while I am more sympathetic to the Palestinians than Israelis, politically—they were here before the Zionists, with every violent turn in the road, they’ve ended up with less land, they’re oppressed in East Jerusalem and the West Bank—I’m not going to idealize Palestinians, as I think some on the left do. Their extremism’s scary. The problem is that their extremism has found a perfect counterpart in Israeli extremism, and that extremism is backed to the hilt by the U.S.

Even reasonable Israelis are claimed by the extremists; they know settlers, they fight alongside them. “I do not think that we have anything to apologize for, as Israelis,” a thoughtful soldier said to me one day. “What about the settlements?” I said, i.e., what about all the colonialist/religious nutbags in the West Bank who have crushed Palestinian hopes and antagonized the entire Arab world. “That is a complex issue,” he allowed. “I don’t know that my generation will be able to resolve this.”

That’s a confession that Israelis have fallen down a moral rabbit hole, and can’t think about what the settlements have done, can’t find their way out. Well, just because Israel has gotten itself into that mess doesn’t mean we should follow them. The U.S. needs to look at the apartheid policies in the West Bank through our own value system, and speak out about this horror.

Then there’s the militarism of Israel. Yes, I was there during a war, but the glorification of the military came as a shock to me, it was so overwhelming. I wrote about that culture in this week’s Observer. The people are hardened to the idea of war, war, and more war, and as I understand it, Israeli leadership has grown less and less moderate over the country’s history. The first few prime ministers were none of them generals. But of the last six prime ministers, three were former generals, while Olmert is derided for his lack of military experience. Israelis worship force. Syria has wanted to sign a peace deal with Israel for years, but the Israelis have concluded, They’re a weak state, why make a deal with them, we have what we want, we have nothing to gain. This came from David Kimche, a former government official writing in the Jerusalem Post.

“Why should we negotiate with the Syrians and give up territory when they are too weak to threaten us?” was the understandable reasoning behind our refusal to answer Bashar [al-Assad]’s repeated offers to sit down with us and negotiate peace.

Well I don’t think that’s understandable. You have an enemy camped on your northern border, with many alliances in the region, and they make repeated offers to negotiate peace? Dammit—you play ball, and in an unstable region, you try and help your new friend grow stronger. Kimche’s statement captures the worst aspect of Israel’s relationships with its neighbors. It does nothing to shore up moderates (Bashar al-Assad, former London ophthalmologist, is a secular leader with weak authority; so is Siniora in Lebanon) and while Israel regularly says that the Arab world only respects force, the rhetoric is Orwellian: force is Israel’s only answer. Again, I think militarism is a political/moral rabbithole the Israelis have fallen down in, and can’t get out of. (And because of the influence of the neoconservatives, who are devoted to Israel’s security above all other things, the United States has emulated the Israeli style in Iraq.)

The Israelis extol force because they regard any threat as a threat to liquidate them. This gets to the overarching impression I have of Israeli life: the Holocaust is still on the front page. As if the Holocaust contains all the lessons Jews will ever need to know about the outside world. Visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, and you come away from its exhibits with three large ideas: assimilation in a gentile society didn’t save anyone; gentiles abandoned the Jews; Jews went docilely to their deaths in the Holocaust. Never again. Never again on assimilation, trusting gentiles, and being passive.

I think those principles are distorted. If militarism is always the answer to the question, then you will always have enemies and wars. Gentiles didn’t completely abandon the Jews in the Holocaust. (Michael Desch demonstrates that in his recent paper, as does Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem.) And as for assimilation, what about the assimilation of American Jews into the power structure here? The U.S. has been able to handle it without putting Jews in camps, and meanwhile Israelis depend upon this assimilation. Whenever there’s trouble, they call on the American Jewish community to put pressure on U.S. policymakers.

The dependence on American power is the greatest problem in Israeli statecraft. The United States has given Israel a blank check to do whatever it wants with its neighbors, including the illegal landgrabs in the West Bank, and has indulged Israel’s belief that it’s not a Middle Eastern country. Here is Amira Hass on the same theme, in Haaretz this week:

Israel’s insistence to unilaterally lay down the rules in the region perpetuates and deepens its character as an alien element within it. Israel’s future generations will continue to pay for this obstinacy.

If we separated ourselves from Israel, Israel would be forced to rely more on its neighbors. It would stop putting all its foreign policy energies into Washington and forge stronger alliances with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, even Syria and Saudi Arabia, and that would be good for the region.

Do I think this will happen? Not any time soon. American politicians refuse to address the issue head on; Chuck Hagel’s brave speech on the “madness” in Lebanon eschewed all criticism of our relationship with Israel, and Ned Lamont isn’t going to say a word against that policy as he tries to build a warchest. Without any shift on the part of the superpower, the two sides I saw in Israel and Palestine will continue to do what they have been doing very well for 85years, hate and mistrust one another, do all they can not to learn from one another. Leaving Israel, my chief feeling was despair.