Israel’s crisis

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Just back from Israel/Palestine, the overwhelming sense I carry away is that the present state cannot last. Just how it goes down I have no idea. But conditions are so obviously discriminatory, and the knowledge of these conditions now so widespread– among the Christian pilgrims in my Jerusalem guesthouse, among European leaders, and now too among the Israeli elite and American left–that the situation is reminiscent of the delegitimizing of communism in the 70s and 80s. The period of apartheid struggle that Ehud Olmert warned of two years ago is upon us. So too his warning of possible “national suicide." 

The surprise for me is that the indifference of American Jews to this injustice is more than matched by that of the mass of Israelis: They live inside the bubble of their opinion that Israeli society is fair. So this trip has left me pretty depressed, even as it has renewed my sense of ethnocentric purpose: I will do what I can to bring the American Jewish community into the world conversation about the reality of Israel/Palestine.
This will happen. A few weeks back Israeli activist Micha Kurz said that a war had begun between one part of Israeli society and another; and I come home knowing that that war is about to erupt inside American Jewish life. You might say that it has already erupted: J Street’s emergence and all the liberal Zionists in the New York Review of Books attacking the occupation are signs. But we ain’t seen nothing yet. We are on the verge of a Jewish intifada, and about time too.

Now why do I say that the current situation cannot last?

I use the words apartheid and Jim Crow on this site all the time, but it is something else to see these policies before your eyes and be overborne by the feeling (and over days to come, I will offer observations of such moments). And today there is no secret about these conditions. They are being discussed openly not just in the Palestinian community—and believe me, every Palestinian I met expressed hatred for this system–but in Israel and Europe, and even at the fringes of the American Jewish community. A week ago I got out of a taxi in the occupied West Bank at the Ofer prison for a demonstration against the arbitrary detainment of Palestinian human rights worker Jamal Juma’, and there were Mustafa Barghouti and Omar Barghouti leading the protest–and a dozen American Jews from the visiting group American Jews for a Just Peace, also several news teams from the Arab world and Europe. What all these people recognize, and what Mustafa Barghouti woke up to three years ago, is that the peace process has been meaningless. Israel is today “the worst country in the world” because of the system it has set up, Barghouti told me: he would be arrested if he used that road right there, he said, pointing at settlers road 443; and the Jews in the West Bank use 26 times the amount of water as the Palestinians and Palestinians pay twice the price that Jews do for water and electricity. And when Barghouti says that Israel is now the worst country in the world he means that there is at last international outrage over the fact that a country claiming to be a democracy in the 21st century is creating these conditions.

A couple of dozen Israelis I met echo the understanding that their society faces an existential crisis, in one year or ten years. Even Ynet has columnists who say it is apartheid, and even Zionists I met are filled with despair. They know that it is like South Africa, they know the world is paying attention, they know that the Palestinians hate the system. And meanwhile the country’s leadership is committing national suicide by expanding the realm of apartheid conditions even as Al Jazeera and Reuters train their cameras on the scene.

This is the war that Micha Kurz told me about. Zionism is today divided between those who want the Land of Israel and the more pragmatic Zionists who think that the landgrab is destroying the state; and the second group is joined by non-Zionists and anti’s. This division did not exist for most of the occupation; previously, Labor Zionists went along with the religious crazies and Revisionist fanatics who wanted to populate Eretz Israel. But today liberal Zionist Tom Segev writes in the New York Review of Books that Zionism was never about having the land, it was about maintaining a Jewish majority. And Yoel Marcus writes in Haaretz that Israel must do everything to stave off the “demographic dominance” of non-Jews. 

The same war is visible in American Jewish life, between mainstream Jewish organizations like AIPAC that have pushed the messianic occupation and J Street which has opposed it, so far mildly. But in Israel the battle is raging openly, and of course the expansionists are winning, as they always have. Netanyahu’s settlement freeze means nothing when you consider that there are thousands of freshly-poured foundations across the West Bank and the settlers will now undertake to build houses on them during the freeze, and East Jerusalem continues to be ethnically cleansed.

What are they thinking? How does the right wing imagine that it can secure Israel’s future when it is consolidating a system in which 5 million Jews will govern a non-Jewish majority in the so-called Jewish homeland? The answer I got from Assaf Sharon and other activist Israelis is that the leadership is counting on miracles: that God will take care of the Jews so long as they are in Eretz Israel, or that somehow American Jews will be granted voting citizenship in the land and so Jews will continue to outnumber the Palestinians (p.s. dual loyalty is an antisemitic canard), or that the Palestinians will undertake voluntary transfer and clear out of the land on their own. The last would seem to be government policy, of making the Palestinians feel very, very unwelcome.

It is the weakness of the Israeli system, of course, that feverish people are now guiding government policy. Even Netanyahu must be afraid of them; and his recent efforts to try to break up centrist parties so as to capture some of their more conservative members for his coalition is seen by some as a pragmatic effort by the Prime Minister to provide himself a political base so as to take on the right wing.

The feverish have taken political cover from the Jewish-only bubble. I mean all the Jews, including Americans, who are swaddled in Holocaust consciousness of Jews as victims and have refused to develop any knowledge of a situation in which Jews exercise oppressive control. One of the most startling discoveries of my trip was learning from Mikhael Manekin, a leaders of the soldiers’ group Breaking the Silence, that the group had taken leading Israeli establishment figures, including government officials, on its tour of Hebron in recent months and they had come away disturbed and angry at the blatant apartheid conditions in the city, in which some Palestinians cannot walk on the street that they live on. The shock is that I took this tour nearly 4 years ago, but that even Israeli leaders have blinded themselves to a situation that has been an outrage for 40 years. Not to mention American Jewish leaders, here in the country where liberals attack you if you use the word apartheid.

This Jewish blindness will not last. There is too much stirring. Didi Remez is a Zionist, but he is using his Coteret blog to get facts to the American mainstream about the deadly occupation; and though he and I disagree about the necessity of the Jewish state, he doesn’t mind marching alongside me and BDS-supporting Jews in the fight against the occupation. I saw him at the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration Friday, against the ethnic cleansing of the East Jerusalem neighborhood so that Jerusalem will be Jewish Jewish Jewish; and who else should I see there but Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker– so maybe the New Yorker will write about this at last and tell its readers what virulent Zionists are doing to old Arab neighborhoods.

I know that many of these Israeli activists are committed to the idea of a Jewish state. Even among Jews who oppose the occupation and are butting heads with soldiers in villages in the West Bank, there are many who are trying to preserve Israel as a national refuge for the Jews. They are like Daniel Levy of J Street, who has called for a return to the ’67 borders to preserve the Jewish state. Or Bernard Avishai, also at the Sheikh Jarrah demo, who wishes to maintain a Hebrew republic, presumably in a form of partition.

Can they bring about a wider awareness of the crisis come soon enough to save the Jewish state? I don’t know. Yet somehow I doubt that a Jewish state—an ethnocracy somehow redeemed by institutionalized respect for the rights of a minority population– will survive the crisis. The proliferation of settlements on strategic hilltops in the West Bank and the signs for Israeli businesses like Ahava a mile from the Jordan River, let alone the Warsaw-treatment of Gaza, would seem to have destroyed the prospect for a viable Palestinian state on the leftovers of Palestine; and without a real state that permits the self-determination of Palestinians, and some real accommodation of refugees’ rights, Palestinians will continue to agitate, and the international solidarity movement will continue to advocate for them.

My despair springs from the fact that while I saw Arab media everywhere I went, the larger Israeli Jewish community and the American Jewish one are in denial. They have little knowledge of what is going on, and enfolded in nationalist ideals of 100 years ago, are ill-prepared for the impending crisis. And I’m afraid that this hardened, self-righteous resistance to the truth– let alone to 21st century liberal values– will result in greater violence and draw in the United States. 

The brightest hope I got on my trip came from young Jews. Standing on a hillside in the Palestinian village of Al-Walaje–which is being engulfed by the Israeli idea of greater Jerusalem embodied by the fortress-like presence of the settlement called Gilo that dominated the horizon a half mile away–I met two guys from my home town, Baltimore: Josh Levey and Michael Kaplan.


They are just teenagers; but brace yourself– they attended an all-Jewish high school and are now working in a refugee camp outside Bethlehem for three months. As a boy, Levey told me, he yelled abuse at the anti-Zionist Jewish group Neturei Karta at pro-Israel demonstrations; but more recently, he has countered the hasbara in his own high school with vigorous opposition. Three months in a Palestinian refugee camp! These boys from my home town have no mental reservations about speaking of the Palestinians as human beings. So we are seeing a Jewish intifada at last, a shaking off of Zionism now that the ideology has sputtered out in ethnic cleansing and political prisoners and white phosphorus.

As we talked, an older American-Israeli woman, a Meretz/liberal Zionist type, who was also nobly demonstrating againt the landgrab, interrupted us to say that it is a simple matter to buy the settlers out; why, Naomi Chazan has said that is the case. As she talked with the boys about miraculously undoing the white stucco walls and red tile roofs of the elite settlement above us, it became clear that she regards the Jewish state as a necessity for Jews, but that somehow these young men do not. And in a couple of months, Josh Levey and Michael Kaplan will be coming home.

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