Israel’s existential crisis comes to New York

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Often these days I hear people talk about how much progress the left has made in breaking open the Israel/Palestine issue in the U.S., and yes I make this claim myself, but last night offered clear evidence that we are doing so. At the behest of 20-odd peace groups, several hundred people marched around the Waldorf Astoria silently as the Israeli military held a million-dollar fundraiser inside. Now and then donors in black tie got out of cabs, but here we were in single file, most of us wearing black, stretching all the way round the hotel and holding signs naming 5-year-olds who were slaughtered in Gaza.

My guess is there were 700 of us. "We are marching single file in a silent, dignified, slow procession," our organizers had written on the slips of paper they handed out, and though they couldn’t stop us talking, we did as they planned for two hours as night fell. Slide show here.

The night was memorable for two things: the looniness of the counterdemonstators and a conversation I had about the possible end of Israel with a soulful Jewish friend.

The counterdemonstrators were unhinged angry. One of them followed people up and down the line talking about the training of three-year-old suicide bombers. Another screamed about the Arab countries being all dictatorships. Another said, "you don’t care what happens in Sudan, you don’t care when Assad senior kills 3000 people in Syria. [30 years ago!] No you only care when Israel was trying to defend itself." "You’re not liberals," an older guy in a suit kept shouting. A woman carried a sign with a Muslim crescent = a Swastika. Wow, creepy. A woman wrapped herself in an Israeli flag big as a bedsheet and tagged along with us for a while. The official sign of the counters was Hamas Is Destroying the Palestinian Future. A crazy statement, at many levels, beginning with the idea that Israel has no agency.

A friend said that the counterdemonstrators were getting aneurysms from the fact that we were so silent and in such abundance with our black signs saying "Israeli soldiers shot handcuffed civilians," "Israeli forces destroyed the Gaza water plant."

Their biggest signs asserted, "Israel has a right to exist and be secure." Or, "Israel has a right to exist and it is here to stay." So that is the ground they are choosing to fight on: the delegitimization issue.

That brings me to my conversation with my soulful Jewish friend. A couple years ago he told me he is a post-Zionist out of politeness, because he doesn’t want to take away the feeling of achievement that Jews in Israel have about what they created, and he understands the urgency that Israel came out of a generation ago. But tonight he told me he has very bleak feelings about the future. Israel is in crisis, and two states is over; and on the one hand he believes Israel will undertake a total ethnic cleansing operation, on the other that the South Africa declension is begun, and it won’t happen peacefully.

I said What if they have a handshake on the White House lawn, will you get behind that? He looked at me like I was crazy, then got a delighted smile. When that happens, I’ll give you an opinion, he said. Then: What could it be? I said, well, landswaps, warmed-over Geneva; that’s what Obama will announce.

Oh, he said, a deal with a bankrupt leadership for three Bantustans in the West Bank and Gaza? That will last another generation, and there will be no peace.

I said, how do you imagine the binational state comes about? He laughed and said he hadn’t really thought about it. But at best it is like South Africa and an Israeli leader understands that they have no choice. There is an internal crisis of national identity, there is no way forward, and they give in and say, let us give these people equal rights.

Sort of consociational, I thought, two federated entities? He shrugged. As more and more Jews leave and move to the west it becomes a mixed state, he said.

My friend was talking just like Henning Mankell, who sees the insurrection beginning from within, and also like a lot of Israelis who are trying to be creative now about civil outcomes.

I reflect that Noam Chomsky, who is for the two state solution, used to say that Israel has a right to exist but not on the land of its neighbors. It was a legitimate position for a long time, but you can’t promise people something forever, and Israel won’t disgorge that land and the Palestinians have balked at a piecemeal Jerusalem, and the world moves forward. I give the two state solution air time on this site, because I’m openminded and because I like status and power politics, but in spite of Chris Matthews and Ethan Bronner indulging happy-talk about the solution, it sure looks like the 25 years of the two state solution are over, the Palestinians helped kill it and so did the Israelis.

A lot of folks I know believe in Israel’s right to exist as much as China’s right to exist or Pakistan’s or John Gotti’s. I do myself. The problem is that the continued failure to base that existence on policies other than permanent war and ethnic cleansing means that American political support must be at stake, and as anyone who has set foot in West Jerusalem can tell you, American opinion is the ballgame. Some said there were 1000 of us last night, and what we stand for is pretty obvious: No more slaughter, no more Jim Crow, no more In-our-name (the lobby)

The Jewish state has not figured out a way to be without Jim Crow and the lobby to grant it immunity, and so it is slowly destroying its raison-d’etre in the liberal discourse. That is what last night was about: 1, a wide consensus among progressives, many of them the Israel base (Jews) that we will condemn this behavior—-and 2, the resultant fear on the part of Israel’s supporters that our views are catching on, and that this grassroots process is undermining Israel’s legitimacy.

So the existential crisis has come here. Through its own actions, Israel is destroying the ground it stands on. The answer to the big sign is, Israel is not secure, it is casting away its own means of existence, it is not here to stay. Sorry but that is the news. The ultimate business of this site and the Jewish left too is to help those who were committed to Zionism out of a belief in the endurance of anti-semitism and the need for Jewish nationalism amid other nationalisms to understand that the moment is over, and that they should support other outcomes in the name of liberal democracy. The presence of Jews Say No and 20-odd other groups outside the Waldorf, as warmongers dined, suggests that there will be a lot of creative thinking towards those ends.

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