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‘Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto,’ says Amos Oz

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In yesterday’s New York Times, on the front page of the review section, columnist Roger Cohen in Jerusalem offers a bleak prediction from novelist Amos Oz:

“There is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when they created the state of Israel.”

But Oz’s pessimism is soon dashed. Cohen reports that the liberal-center Zionist camp in Israel is surging. The piece is filled with maledictions against Netanyahu, and Isaac Herzog is the great democratic Jewish hope:

In the space of a few weeks something has shifted. The leader of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, has been ushered from unelectable nerd to plausible patriot. Polls show him neck and neck with the incumbent. Through an alliance forged this month with Tzipi Livni, the recently dismissed justice minister and longtime negotiator with the Palestinians, the Labor leader created a sense of possibility for the center left. A post-Bibi Israel no longer seems a fantasy.

The new coalition in the center is called The Zionist Camp. Cohen embraces it as a renewal of democratic principles that animated the country from the start, “an Israel true to its founding principles.” Herzog tells Cohen that “Netanyahu has been leading us to a dead end, to an abyss.”

Titled “What Will Israel Become?” the piece includes excellent reporting from Gaza on the desperation there, and the failure of the international community to bring any aid.

Everyone in Gaza seems to expect another war. “We are dying slowly, so why not die quickly?” is a common refrain. People seem dazed. There is, quite literally, no way out.

Cohen holds up an anonymous Gazan child who has seen three onslaughts as a warning:

The child may wonder what force it is that wrought such destruction, so repetitively, and why. It is safe to say that the adult this Palestinian child will one day become does not bode well for Israel. The child has no need for indoctrination in hatred.

But Cohen cannot explore his own question, why Israel would wield such destruction so repetitively. He gives us no body count from that war, does not explain that most Gazans are ’48 refugees or the descendants of the refugees of Israel’s creation. Hamas is singled out for stoking “annihilationist hatred,” but as for Israeli militants, they are only guilty of “virulent, Jews-first thinking.” (H/t Julie on twitter). 

Bringing the Debate to YouCohen, who is about to publish a memoir that finds idealism in Zionism, quotes Amos Oz warning that a one-state future means an “Arab state.” So the two sides must separate in order for there to be peace.

“There is no such thing as a happy compromise,” Amos Oz told me. “Israelis and Palestinians cannot become one happy family because they are not one, not happy and not family either. They are two unhappy families who must divide a small house into even smaller apartments.” The first step, he said, is to “sign peace with clenched teeth, and after signing the contract, start working slowly on a gradual emotional de-escalation on both sides.”

The piece is romantic. Cohen sees Israel as a “remarkable and vibrant democratic society that is facing an impasse” — it must choose Zionism and liberalism or nationalism and ethnocentrism. The problem with this analysis is that very few Palestinian thinkers would agree with it. You will never get Palestinian leaders to subscribe to Zionism. Younger Palestinians regard Zionism as a neocolonial movement whose chief tactic is ethnic cleansing and landgrabbing; and Palestinians must buy in to the solution because they are 20 percent of the Israeli population, and another 4 or 5 million live under Israeli governance in occupation. I am far bleaker than Cohen; Zionists have created a political structure that cannot separate religion and state, and it is not just an anachronism but a dangerous one: Israel and Palestine appear headed for violent decolonization. The alternative is a nonviolent equal rights struggle that might deliver the tyranny that is Israeli occupation into a democratic future (even one with separate political communities). The piece does not mention the equal-rights/BDS movement that so many Palestinians living in this reality support, and that a strident American Zionist warns Israelis “may become a political movement in the U.S.”

Donald Johnson adds to my criticism and says that the New York Times stacked the deck on its selections of the 427 comments to Cohen’s piece:

Cohen has not a word of criticism for liberal Zionism.  It seems that liberal Zionism held sway in some wonderful past, when Gazans could work inside Israel and this meant everything was great, just the way that blacks working in the US and having friendly words with whites meant that race relations were perfect in the US back in the 1950’s.
But what’s really funny are the letters the NYT chose as its best 9.  The readers picked out some really good ones–the pro-Zionist ones are well down on their list.  Go over there and compare what the Times picked with what the readers picked.  The readers picked some detailed, intelligent, and harsh pieces critical of Israel.  The NYT picked some stupid and dishonest defenses, including one person who says she is a Christian who didn’t immediately jump to the hardline pro-Israel position, and then jumped to it for reasons that made no sense,  and then there are some well-meaning folks who wrote some mildly critical letters without showing that they know too much about the subject.
Sometimes the NYT tries to pick a range of views, or anyway that’s what I think they’d claim, but it’s obvious the person or persons responsible for this choice of 9 letters left out the most intelligent and knowledgeable critics of Israel. You have to be either stupid or cynical to do this.

Thanks to Dan Sisken.

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‘You have to be either stupid or cynical to do this.’ Or be part of the Israel Lobby that has been working inside the NY Times for so long. In that case the editor probably believes he/she is very clever. What is needed now is that his/her boss comes in… Read more »

Good piece Phil. I just started reading this Cohen piece from the Times a few minutes ago. I got to the part that reads, “The last Gaza eruption, with its heavy toll and messy outcome, changed nothing. Hamas, its annihilationist hatred newly stoked, is still there parading its weaons.” At… Read more »

I don’t know how Cohen does it but each column of his seems more stupider than the last. “an Israel true to its founding principles.” Remaining true to its founding principles is what fuels this whole mess. “…working slowly on a gradual emotional de-escalation on both sides.” An EMOTIONAL de-escalation… Read more »

One regular commenter on NYT I/P columns, Mark Thomason of Clawson MI, can be counted on to provide more insight than the op-ed itself. He has the #2 readers pick on Cohen’s piece. On Tom Friedman’s op-ed last week he had the #1 pick. If only the Times would hire… Read more »

Yesterday, when I read cohen’s piece “What Will Israel Become?”, it got me thinking on what is, what will, and what could. WHAT IS? 1- it’s a zionist entity. An ENTITY not a state for it has no borders and no constitution. 2- it’s a colonialist power that is murdering,… Read more »