Israel: Triumph and Tragedy, Past and Future

Unknown-1A recent Thomas Friedman column discusses a book by Israeli newspaper columnist Ari Shavit – My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Friedman deems it an antidote to both the “do no wrong” Israel of its slavish defenders and the “do no right” Israel of its harshest critics. Here’s my take on Friedman’s take on Shavit’s take.

Zionism did succeed in a miracle of sorts, transplanting a people from one continent to another; resurrecting and reinventing their culture; and “making the desert bloom” was no myth. images-1But there was a problem: the land was already inhabited. Woe to those in the way of someone else’s dream.

Shavit has a chapter titled “Lydda 1948.” Lydda was a Palestinian Arab town in Israel, ethnically cleansed during the independence war.  Thousands of its inhabitants were expelled on July 13 by Jewish forces. This was not the only such crime. While it doesn’t make the whole Zionist enterprise criminal, and it’s far too late to rectify, Shavit deems it a moral duty for Israelis to own up to the truth, to empathize with the Palestinans, and help them overcome it.

But the Palestinians, for their part, have not overcome the trauma, and remain frozen in victimhood. Too many are imbued with the fantasy of undoing 1948; undoing Israel itself. This leads to the tragic intransigence that rejected, in 2000, the best chance ever for a two state solution; a perfect case of the perfect as the enemy of the good. Since then one could only weep as Palestinians remain intransigent while expanding Israeli West Bank settlements inexorably make a Palestinian state ever more untenable.

But, Shavit argues, Israel cannot wait for the Palestinians to come to their senses. It must find a way to separate from the West Bank (as it did from Gaza), or (Friedman’s words) “the spreading Jewish settlements there will be the virus that kills the original Israel.”

imagesI would put it a bit differently: the underlying virus is religion. Perhaps odd to say about a country whose fundamental identity is uniquely religious. The idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland is okay; but unfortunately it attracts extremists. These are the “Haredim,” the ultra-orthodox, whose men believe they should not work but instead study the Torah* while their wives stay home and raise their children – at public expense. Tolerable perhaps if indulging a small minority, but when it comes to those children the Haredim are highly prolific – I guess the men don’t spend all their time immured in scripture. So they are growing much faster than the rest of Israel’s population, making their privileged status a toxic public issue. UnknownObviously, you can’t have a country full of men doing nothing but moon over scrolls and procreating.

Such religious zealotry also plays a big role in the settler movement. They believe they’re on a mission from God to populate territories he gave them. As these West Bank settlers become thicker on the ground, cheered on by the growing Haredi population back home, their increasing political clout makes it ever harder to rein them in.

And this, again, undermines prospects for a Palestinian state within the same West Bank. It will effectively become part of a Greater Israel, wherein religious zealots have greater say, and Palestinians (outside Israel proper) have none at all. But they’re not going away; in fact, their population growth rates are also high. The only laggards in this population race are unfortunately the moderate secular Jews, who understand that the idea of an apartheid Israel keeping the Palestinians down forever is insane.

Nor could Israel fully assimilate all the Palestinians as citizens without giving up its character as a Jewish state. The zealots seem oblivious to this fundamental dilemma, and are driving headlong toward catastrophe. But that’s zealotry for you.

Where is the Israeli – or Palestinian – Mandela?

* The first five books of the Bible, and related matter.

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