Every time I go to Israel I like to report on my response to the conflict, and after visiting in September my feelings are bleaker than they’ve ever been. That’s been the trend, the last couple of visits; but this one was particularly bad. The degree of oppression and persecution, of the indifference to it inside Israel, indeed the self-righteousness, the belief that this can all just be managed, and of the hatred it is breeding inside Palestine—all these attitudes just get more pronounced.
I spent most of my time in Palestine, but I don’t like observing those feelings either. I’m sure I’d be worse under those conditions. But the demonization is unsettling, and it seems functional: You have to demonize people in order to excuse violence. There is bound to be some awful conflict ahead. And when I leave I feel thankful I’m getting away.
On my first trip seven years ago my chief impression was of how separated the people were, and this was my impression this time as well. The Israelis and the Palestinians by and large have nothing to do with one another. You are either in one community or another, and the apparatus of separation is grisly and dispiriting. Palestinians never escape it. When you visit them, you are constantly going through checkpoints or facing soldiers or driving extra hours to bypass settlements or looking across barbed wire at better roads the Israelis get to ride on.
The signs rub it in your face.
“Please maintain order and cleanliness,” in English, Arabic, and Hebrew, outside cattle gates.
“Driver please drop passengers off here before screening point.”
And the big red signs saying Area A is dangerous for Israelis to enter.
Apartheid works. It keeps people apart. Each side has its own belief system and manners and culture and society; and one is modern and the other is an occupied war zone.
In the modern one they have no idea what is going on in Palestine, and in Palestine they can only dream of going to Jerusalem or to the sea. Though they can see the dome of Al Aqsa mosque, and see the Mediterranean too.
The occupation is so dispiriting that I always imagine I can escape it by meeting well-adjusted Palestinians. Like when I met a tall striking young man with perfect English from Al-Quds university, the son of the super at my hostel. Or when I met an older prosperous gentleman sharing my cab. The shock is that as soon as you start to talk they start raging against the occupation and what it does to everyone’s life. It is impossible to adjust well to it. If I were privileged in that society I imagine I would flee, and suffer the abuse for betrayal, and not care.
Crossing through the other side is like falling into California. The worst thing about it is the self-righteousness. When you get in conversations you don’t hear the end of certain claims: that the Israelis gave back Gaza and got rockets and so they will never make that mistake again; that if the Palestinians put down their guns, there would be peace, but if the Israelis put down their guns they’d get an attack. On the assumption that something that everyone tells you must have some truth in it, I think it’s true that if the Israelis put down their guns they’d be overwhelmed. But the Israelis (and their American friends) are in Nakba denial. They ethnically cleansed a land, and the refugees are camped over the border, and the Israelis have never acknowledged the crime nor sought to redress it. Why wouldn’t generation after generation of Palestinians be fixated on returning? It’s only natural. That’s how Israel makes perfect sense: so long as you deny the Nakba. It just wants to get along like any other country, why can’t it be accepted like any other country? (As Ari Shavit lectured Palestinians on Charlie Rose the other day, You have to get over it. Other people have gotten over it. Tough.)
The false element in the Israeli assertions is the idea that Palestinians would serve Israelis with violence if they could. They don’t now. I think of this every time I’m in the Jerusalem bus station or riding through a checkpoint, or touring a settlement. There is no terrorism, there could be at any second. The Palestinians have shown incredible restraint, all things considered. They could be driving bombs into Jerusalem, they could be wearing suicide vests, etc. They don’t. A collective decision has been made not to undertake this activity. Despite the international image. Then you reflect that in South Africa and Algeria, freedom fighters used terrorism, and achieved their freedom through terrorism, and you wonder when that is going to come here.
Because I am against violent solutions, I find myself secretly hoping that partition will end the conflict. But the two-state solution was always based on the realpolitik premise that the Palestinians of the West Bank would sell out the Palestinian refugees and cut a deal for sovereignty of a fragmented state. In 2002 the Arab League committed itself to back such a compromise of refugees’ rights. Yet it has never happened. No doubt the Israelis failed to seize the opportunity, but I imagine Palestinians were also deeply divided about this compromise. The creation of refugees is the original sin of the Jewish state, and though Chas Freeman has said a just resolution must “cure revanchism,” I don’t see it being cured: And today the vanguard of my camp, the left, is invested in the idea that Israel is on the road to collapse, and that there will then be a full right of return.
For their part, the Zionists just keep creating more refugees. I used to resist the term settler colonialism, knowing there was more to Zionism than that. It was a dream of deliverance, born of persecution in Europe. Just as Marcus Garvey had wide support among blacks, there were good and valid reasons for Zionists to want to be Zionists. I might have been one myself 100 years ago. But when you spend a lot of time in the occupation seeing the expansion and ethnic cleansing, it looks like a straight-up western landgrab. Noam Sheizaf says it is all about real estate. That’s too reductive for me– I think it’s about religion too– but it definitely is about real estate, and the dispossession never ends.
The Israelis are so insensible of any injustice they’ve perpetrated that violence seems inevitable, the only thing that will reach them. I went to synagogue on Yom Kippur at an English speaking shul in central Jerusalem and the rabbi said that Jews had been dependent on God and the charity of gentiles, till we had returned to our land and become sovereign. And as a result, we don’t need God to bind our community with oaths as we had in days gone by. Presumably he meant that we now have guns. When I hear such self-serving religious nonsense I despair for the Jewish mind. Michael Walzer, a brilliant political theorist, has said similar things about tribal deliverance. Jews were self-governing and stateless for 2500 years and finally we have a state.
But do we completely leave out the dependence of Israel on the United States as benefactor, and the role of the Israel lobby in guarding the relationship? What kind of intellectual position is the whole Jewish community and Israel in when they deny what is happening to Palestinians, or pretend as the liberal Zionists do that it is temporary, that these conditions can be rolled away like scenery. It’s a delusion, born of the deep need many Jews have for a Jewish state, a belief that they will be unsafe without it, a terror born of the Holocaust, and one that Zionists cultivate (irresponsibly).
I spent a couple of days in Israel and Palestine hanging out with Max Blumenthal. His new book says that Israel is monstrous, and it’s an important book, it could shift the paradigm on Israel (and all the Shavit excitement reflects the effort to suppress Max’s message). I said to Max that some are going to try and dismiss his book as a bill of particulars, an indictment; he put all the bad things in one book. But when you are there and meeting people and riding the buses with them, or gazing out at a hilltop settlement from occupied Ramallah (the picture at the top)—I felt Max’s approach was the right one. I am sure there were good things about the Confederacy too; but Harriet Beecher Stowe left them out. Everywhere I go I see evidence of the bad faith of an ethno-religious state, and the ways it has curdled the Jewish view of the world. I met settlers in that hilltop settlement, Psagot, and others nearby it, Ofra and Ariel, who speak of the Arabs as an alien species from whom Jews must be separated. The young are indoctrinated in this understanding; their glib statements about not marrying Palestinians because girls get dragged off into “villages” are chilling. When I asked the activist Amiel Vardi if the racism that some teenagers had expressed to me was typical, he said that it was, and it was the result of occupation. Their fathers served in the occupation and now they are serving in the occupation. The occupation has cultivated racism inside Israelis. Vardi said he had never imagined that he would ever see such racist Jews. Here they are.
That toughness is frightening. A friend says that his girlfriend wants to leave. She can see, This is not going to end well. The Israelis cannot deal with the foundational issues, the walls are closing in. When I’m in the company of activists, people who are seeking to delegitimize the Jewish state, and succeeding with the active support of Netanyahu and his ministers, all I hear is contempt, and the world shares it.
As a privileged western journalist, it makes me want to get the hell out of the way. It is an unpleasant place to spend time, amid power politics and religion and belligerence. There are no visions left.