I’ve Seen Israel From Both Sides Now …

by Jonah Shepp

At one point or another in my short life so far, I think I have held every position on Israel that it is possible to hold, from militant support to equally militant opposition. But this summer, I briefly reverted to the right-wing Zionism of my teenage years, at least for the purposes of Facebook. Amid the Gaza war, my feed was suddenly inundated with denunciations of the racist, fascist, Zionazi terrorist state. There wasn’t much to love in the rants about the ZOG or conspiratorial nonsense about ISIS being an Israeli-American plot, but what really got my goat were comments like this one:

Settlers can go back to anti-semitic Europe where they came from! … Every last zionist shall be kicked out and notice the emphasis on the word zionist. Jews however are welcome to stay and woreship like they have among us for the past 1500 years. (sic)

This oft-expressed distinction between Zionists and Jews betrays a total misunderstanding of what Zionism is and what Israel means to most Jews. Palestinians who say that “the Zionists” must go but “the Jews” can stay need to come to grips with the fact that Zionism, at its core, is about creating a space where Jews do not need someone else’s permission to live. Diaspora Jews of my generation may be much less attached to Israel than our parents and grandparents, but when push comes to shove, we’d rather it exist than not, because we know that our permission to live freely and safely in any other country can be withdrawn at any moment. In our history as a people, we have seen it happen time and time again with devastating consequences. With a well-armed territorial state to our name, we no longer have to fear those consequences.

There is no question that anti-Semitism is alive and well in the world, and not only in its traditional strongholds in Europe, but is world Jewry really in such great danger as to match our insecurities? More importantly, given the imbalance of power between Israel and its enemies, can we really fear that it will cease to exist? Noah Millman took up that question the other day:

I have, myself, plenty of fears for Israel, a country with which I am deeply concerned, but essentially no fear at all that Israel will “cease to exist.” I don’t even know what that phrase means – that Israel will cease to define itself affirmatively as a “Jewish state”? That Israel will merge into a larger entity, or subdivide into smaller entities? Those would be big changes, yes, but “cease to exist” is a funny phrase to use for something could happen to the UK, or Belgium, or Canada. When I listen to both of them, what I think they mean is: that the Israeli Jewish population will cease to reside there; that Jews will move, en masse, to some other place or places, or will be physically annihilated. Does anyone really believe that kind of outcome is likely?

“Israel is not, in any meaningful sense, a provisional experiment,” he concludes, and both its supporters and its detractors ought to stop speaking of it as such. This, as I see it, really gets to the heart of the matter. Israel is a fait accompli; it is not going anywhere, no matter what Hamas feels the need to tell its constituents. We really ought to stop catastrophizing.

But Palestinian nationalism isn’t a provisional experiment, either, much though right-wing Zionists wish it to be. Netanyahu claims that there can’t be peace with the Palestinians until they get used to the idea that Israel is there to stay and stop espousing delusions of getting rid of it. But by persistently denigrating and stepping on Palestinian aspirations for fundamental rights and self-determination, his policies encourage a Palestinian discourse of resentment, fear, and hostility toward Zionism, Israel, and ultimately Jews. You can’t claim to wish for the day when Palestinians become OK with Israel while actively working to undermine that possibility. And it’s just nuts to pretend that Palestinians have no legitimate reason to feel angry and even hateful toward Israel. Until Israel grapples with the fact that its creation was indeed a nakba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians, and finds some way to make amends for that, the conflict will surely never end.

It would also behoove the Israeli right to acknowledge that Zionism has won, and how. Anti-Semitism may be rooted in the resentment of Jewish power, but the power Israel wields today is such that it really doesn’t matter what other countries think of it: nobody is going to wipe a wealthy, well-armed, nuclear power off the map. Israel’s choice isn’t between defending itself or being dismantled; it’s between continuing to exist with the support of other countries and world Jewry, or as a pariah state.

What disheartens me is that it seems to be on the latter path, as the center shifts farther to the right and the “Arab problem” takes up a shrinking segment of its public consciousness. When Tzipi Livni heads the dovish camp in the security cabinet and Netanyahu holds the center against a militantly anti-Arab right flank, it’s hard to see how this ends well. To some extent, this was inevitable: the influx of immigrants from post-Soviet countries after the fall of Communism brought a new demographic to Israel that despises the left on principle and has actually experienced persecution, so paranoid politics resonate especially strongly. The growing ultra-Orthodox population also contributes to the shift.

But Israel also made choices. Its leaders might have forced a two-state settlement at Camp David if they had taken the refugee problem seriously and proposed a bold solution to it. The Arab Peace Initiative has been on the table since 2002 and still stands, but who knows for how long? The Israeli right remains convinced that the Palestinians must learn to accept Israel before the occupation can end. That is about as convincing as someone claiming in 1960s America that the end of segregation would have to wait until black people stopped resenting white people. Peace is nearly always made between leaders before it is made between peoples. Israel is no exception to this rule; claiming otherwise just avoids the issue. And Israel must take the lead on this, precisely because the balance of power is so lopsided.

A permanent solution isn’t even necessary in the short term. Whether the parties finally opt for one state, two states, twelve states or no state, as Noam Sheizaf argues, what matters now is ending the occupation and the deep inequities it entails:

[O]nce Israeli society decides to end the occupation irrespective of the political circumstances, the power relations and various interests will determine the nature of the arrangements on the ground. That is the moment in time where we, Israelis, will need to conduct an honest conversation about the kind of arrangement we would rather negotiate (Palestinians would do the same probably). Such a debate cannot exist now because the one thing we can all agree on is prolonging the status quo.