Israel Is In Crisis. Or, How Violence Shapes Identity in the Middle East

Last night in a conference room at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, 20 students gathered to hear a young Palestinian woman and a former Israeli soldier, sitting side by side under the auspices of the peace organization One Voice, tell of the situation in Israel/Palestine. At the end, the two, who had politely disagreed about a number of issues, were asked for a final statement about their hopes. The Palestinian, who had long dark hair and a downward gaze, said, “It’s not necessarily about hope. It’s about not wanting another best friend to die. It makes me tremble just to think about that. And I decide that I cannot shape a Palestinian identity around violence. So it’s really about compromise. It’s not about hope.”

The former Israeli soldier, blue-eyed, his shirt sleeves pushed up around his biceps, said, “In Hebrew we have a word, Amal. It means, I have nothing to add. I agree with her completely.”

(I am sorry not to have these young people’s names; I got there late; I will supply them later.)

The news from Israel/Palestine these days is desperate. For the second time in a few months an “errant” Israeli mortar shell has destroyed an innocent Palestinian family in Gaza—

and this time caused tremendous pain in Israel too. Haaretz has castigated the country’s military leaders, saying that “more and more pointless military operations… will not lead to anything except to kindling more hatred, we must try a completely different path.” At a memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin, murdered 11 years ago by an Israeli extremist, novelist David Grossman, whose son Uri, a tank commander, was killed in the last days of the absurd Lebanon war, offered a similar message. The military has long been the most revered institution in Israel, but that culture would seem to be eroding. Last summer a friend said to me that Israelis had to live with the fact that there would be war after war after war. Many Israelis seem now to need to reject this endless cycle of violence.

As a post-Iraq American Jew, I’m attuned to the Jewish/Israeli part in this madness, and so I want to go to something that blue-eyed former soldier said last night: he spoke about the pressure on Israelis from the diaspora Jewish community to maintain militant policies. A Parisian Jew tells him that Israel must never give up Gaza, as he pours another espresso. “Well I am the one who must defend and die for your cause while you are having your baguette,” the former soldier said, in a surly tone. “This is something that really gets me going. You know what, it doesn’t make me feel good.”

He and I later talked about the American pressure. He said that the lobby in the U.S. produces pro-Israel legislation in Congress that is to the right of anything the Knesset could produce. And he noted of the extremist religious settlers who cause such havoc in Palestine—many of them are U.S. exports, called to the holy land by the voice of god and god knows how many other voices. The Palestinian woman had also complained about the American role. “We’re not really a happy camper in terms of what America is doing right now…”

Today when Israel is in crisis, and when Israelis and Palestinians are at far greater risk than we are, Americans should examine their part in the craziness. Last summer, we supplied the cluster bombs, despite Human Rights Watch‘s many objections to the savage devices, cluster bombs that are still doing so much to turn Muslim hearts and minds against us. The Israel lobby made sure that the U.S. would do nothing to restrain Israel. Jerrold Nadler, Upper West Side liberal congressman, said the snatching of the Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah represented an “existential” threat to Israel. That’s nuts. Yet it is repeated time and again here, to justify anything Israel wants to do. There are many exceptions to this attitude, including the great blogger Richard Silverstein. But these voices tend to be drowned out by pro-Israel groups that seek to remove the expression “cycle of violence” from our discourse, and replace it with cant: another blow against Islamofascism.

Diaspora Jews have long enabled the violence. This goes back to ’48, when (according to The Pledge, Leonard Slater’s book) Jews in New York were assembling bazookas and other munitions (in violation of American laws aganst supplying the yishuv with arms) so as to further the “War of Independence.” Palestinians and Arab states of course played their bloody part in those hostilities, which they refer to as “the Nakba,” or catastrophe, as it resulted in the expulsion of 700,000 Arabs from Palestine.

Last night the former soldier noted that Jews too can perform acts of terrorism. In 1994, a year before Rabin was murdered by a nutbag settler, another nutbag settler, Baruch Goldstein, walked into the mosque beside the tomb of Abraham in Hebron and killed 29 Arabs, before he was beaten to death. For those keeping score, Goldstein was merely performing payback for the Arab murders of Jews in 1929. So Goldstein is now a martyr for the settlers, his grave a shrine.

In the wake of the Goldstein atrocity, Rabin had an opportunity; he could have used it as a pretext to remove the extremist settlers from Hebron, settlers who had imposed an apartheid system on the second-largest city in the West Bank. In his book, The Missing Peace, former Clinton aide Dennis Ross writes that Rabin chose not to. Rabin chose not to. As if it were only his choice. As if the U.S. was not also making a choice, a passive one; as if the American government could not then have demanded the only fair thing, the settlers’ removal. For we also were implicated: Baruch Goldstein and his ill wind had arrived in Israel from New York. He had been a doctor here.

You can understand why the Arab world blames us for our part in the cycle of violence, just as we blame extremist culture in Saudi Arabia and Egypt for the ill wind that blew this way on 9/11.

In his book, Dennis Ross (who is associated with One Voice) offers an explanation of how Israeli identity came to be shaped around violence; the Holocaust had taught Jews the lesson that “weakness begets tragedy.” In his book, Jewish Identity on the Suburban Frontier, the sociologist Marshall Sklare described the symbolic impact of Israeli militarism on American Jewish identity. “I think in the non-Jewish community people became aware that Jews have guts and stand up and fight—that the Jew is a man, not just a merchant,” an accountant told him.

The two young people who were at Columbia last night will be our country’s guests for another week or so, doing several more events, including one at Random House today. I hope they get a wide hearing. Neither of them is a symbol.

[Later: The Israeli: Seffi Kedmi, a former pilot. The Palestinian: Aya Hijazi. AMAL: slang for “Ain Mash-hoo Acher L’Geed” ]