Usually when I go to Israel and Palestine I spend all my time in Palestine to observe conditions there. Last month I did it the other way around: I spent all my time in Israel. I wanted to see what extreme nationalism was doing to people’s attitudes, 50 years after the 1967 War. And I wanted to think what I would do were I in their shoes. So I stayed in four Israeli Jewish homes (Airbnb) and talked with lots of Israeli Jews on the street.
The general political condition of Israelis can be seen in two pictures I took. The first is of a civilian on the light rail line in Jerusalem with his semiautomatic rifle sticking out amid a bunch of passengers.
The next is of a sign in a bus terminal in occupied East Jerusalem. Notice the destination.
These pictures summarize the inescapable facts of Israel’s existence: half the population under its sovereign authority live without rights or with second class citizenship, they’re angry about that, sometimes they resist; and therefore Israelis are armed to the teeth and live in fear. And, it’s permanent: Israelis have no clue how to change the situation. Guns are everywhere in Jerusalem, and people are nervous. It’s no surprise there have been so many extrajudicial executions by Israeli soldiers and border police. They’re on a hair trigger. My instinct when I saw the guns was always to get out of the way, and soon. I don’t have kids, but I can’t imagine raising kids in that environment.
Fear of Palestinians is what drives Israeli attitudes about the conflict; fear is what has produced 11 years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiereship, with his endless calls for more security; fear is what has destroyed the political left, from within. “We don’t want another people here. We want a Jewish state,” said Doron, a middle of the roader. Dahlia, a leftleaning woman, said, “We are wrong. But I don’t want them in my state. I am afraid of them.”
I found a love for Donald Trump almost everywhere I went. Even from a woman whose apartment I stayed in who is a member of the Zionist leftwing organization Hashomer Hatzair. “I don’t like his comments about women,” Anat* said. “But I like him, he is much better than Obama.” She pointed to journalist Amit Segal’s Facebook post summing up the difference between Trump and Obama: Obama came out and lectured Netanyahu about settlements and Jerusalem; but Trump came out and lectured Mahmoud Abbas about terror and incitement.
Anat recognized that she is growing callous. “Israel is becoming more racist and I feel it in myself.” She is afraid to go into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City because she looks Israeli, and she could be stabbed. “I used to care when I heard that Arabs were killed. Now not so much.”
She also said she was pleased that Trump had gone to the western wall. Virtually every Jewish Israeli I met– before I went to the May 27 Peace Now rally, anyway– said they believe Jerusalem should never be divided. The idea has been deeply indoctrinated, with religious and historical trappings. Michael Oren says that the 1967 victory made Israel a more Jewish state: a socialist secular political culture gave way to one built on biblical claims in the West Bank. The idea of annexing Jerusalem was put forward during the 1967 War by two cabinet ministers, one from Labor, the other Menachem Begin (Uzi Benzamin reported in Haaretz). Even Uri Avnery, then a member of Knesset, voted to annex Jerusalem.
One of my hosts, David, worked for Labor as a political consultant. When I asked him where the Palestinians should have their capital, he said, “Why not Ramallah?”
This political culture can be frightening. On Jerusalem Day I was in the crowd of Jews entering the Damascus Gate into the Old City and though I saw religious joy, I also saw intolerance and ethnocentrism at every hand. A group of religious men chanted in defiance of the Palestinians surrounding them, “The people of eternity are not afraid of a long path.” An Australian man swigging tequila told me, “Jerusalem is the soul of the Jewish people and it is our capital forever.”
Really, what does Jerusalem have to do with his life down under? Put another way, what kind of lout would brandish a liquor bottle in a militarily occupied Muslim Quarter of a country not his own? And look at the illegal Jewish settlers there. They’ve made a home in the Muslim quarter, and are passing out water.
American Jews used to say that Israelis were tough. That was a compliment; we meant that they knew how to live in the real, global world and we didn’t, because we were soft. Most of the Israelis I met were not tough but hardened. They have contempt for the non-Jews in their midst.
In a bachelors’ apartment in a highrise in Ramat Gan, I watched 13 Hours, a thriller based on the Benghazi killings of US diplomatic personnel, with a couple of the roommates. When the mob of faceless savage Arabs swarmed the consulate, I said, “In America we are always asking, Why do they hate us?”
Itamar laughed. “That’s because you’re liberals. Here we don’t ask that. We hate each other.”
He and his roommates were amused that I was going to the Peace Now rally after sundown. They regarded it as extremism, and naïvete. There is no occupation, Itamar said. “Because god gave you the land?” I filled in. No. He had left orthodox life ten years before. He was a lawyer, and he said there was ample legal basis for Israel’s right to the land. You should read the international documents carefully, he said.
I could feel a lecture coming on about the San Remo agreement and the League of Nations, and I got up to go to the rally.
There I talked to Galia Golan, a founder of Peace Now and a political scientist, about the majoritarian attitudes. “The Jerusalem Day crowds are historical in nature,” she said. “It is what you saw in Germany in the 1930s.”
Golan said she dismissed the word fascism, till 2009, when Netanyahu came back as premier in the wake of the Gaza war, and the country shifted. At Peace Now’s demonstration against the 2014 Gaza War in Tel Aviv, police had to hold back the crowds shouting, Death to the Arabs.
Israeli authorities now surveil social media posts of Palestinians to the point that they contend they can accurately predict who will commit violence, and bring that “evidence” to a judge who will issue an order of administrative detention. “Do you understand the level of control of the population that this means?” says Yossi Gurvitz, the writer. “This is 1984. And you can expect it to come to your back yard in a few years.”
I had asked my most thoughtful host about these attitudes. Allon is an ultra-orthodox intellectual living in an Art Deco apartment in Jerusalem. “I understand that the Talmud says that there is nothing worse than causing embarrassment or shame to another person,” I said. “How do the religious justify the terrible treatment of Palestinians?”
Allon spoke carefully.
“That is true about the Talmud. That is how an American should be treated, a Jordanian, a Turk. But a religious person would say that God gave us this land, so what are you doing here? And therefore the relationship would be different. The Talmud says there are situations when you do shame others: for instance a child should be shamed when he does wrong. I think that is what they would say of the Palestinians.”
It was moving that Allon needed to distance himself from the attitude; and yet the attitude was everywhere; and he and I met in a café because his parents had come out to stay in the apartment that day and he was afraid of exposing his parents to a liberal American.
The storyteller in me glimpsed signs of doom in Israel. In preparation for Allon’s parents’ arrival, a cleaning lady was turning the place upside down. She was from South Africa and was doing a religious conversion to stay here. She likes it here. Anat told me of a friend who lists his place on a couch-surfing site and limits his guests to German girls. It’s how he gets girlfriends. South Africa and Germany and Israel, historical doppelgangers.
I want to believe that this situation is unsustainable, as John Kerry and Condoleezza Rice used to say. You cannot maintain an occupation forever. And yet most of the Israelis I met didn’t like this contingency talk and argued that there was no reason it could not go on for a very long time. They want to move on from the idea that the land must be partitioned, and therefore that the Palestinian portion is occupied. They seem to want the Palestinians to assume the position of the American Indians, and just accept the fact of a Jewish state and get on with it.
“There may not be a peace,” David, the Laborite consultant, shrugged. “I don’t see what they’re fighting for; they have a good life with us,” said Oded, 32.
The Peace Now demonstration was big—my estimate was 8,000—but as I walked away, a mother going back to her kids at home expressed disappointment: the crowd was not big enough to have any political effect. I did not see one yarmulke at the Peace Now demonstration. Many of the demonstrators seemed to be academics. Allon, my ultra-Orthodox host, told me the secular left is shattered because it is western and European, and Israel is following its destiny, to be an eastern undemocratic society. Ayelet Shaked the Justice Minister is actually closer to Muslims than Labor because she is religious, he said.
Even Anat, the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist, seemed accepting of the political culture. Her work took her to Bethlehem the day we talked; and it angered her that Palestinians had written the word “ghetto” on the separation wall. That demeans the history of the Jewish people and the Holocaust, when you throw around words like ghetto and apartheid, she said. “They have big houses, and plenty to eat. Their lives are not perfect, but they are doing alright.”
Her views were no different from the several Israelis who told me Palestinians must accept their status and have “commercial” peace, except that she has a poster of Martin Luther King Jr over her bed, and I don’t imagine they do.
All these people are living in denial, says Yossi Gurvitz. This is apartheid. David Ben Gurion warned about apartheid 50 years ago and it has come to pass. “I tell anyone under 25 who is here: Flee,” says Gurvitz.
During the Jerusalem Day Parade, there were demonstrations at the Damascus gate. Scott Roth, the publisher of this site, was on the other side of the entryway and watched an Israeli woman police officer lose control with Palestinian women. Evidently this officer was tasked to handle Palestinian women. One woman she slapped when she did not immediately obey an order, two others she also abused. If there was anything like a professional occupying army her commanding officer would have told her to take a break and get out of there, Roth said. But no; that behavior is condoned. All Israel supports it, more or less consciously. And of course, there is a legal double standard: the cops do nothing to stop the Jewish settlers saying Death to Arabs.
Israelis know of the injustices at some level, which is why they are more defensive than ever. Have we ever heard leaders of a country speak so incessantly about their right to exist? Because they know that so many in the world regard these arrangements as illegitimate. Two years ago, the journalist Matti Friedman got angry at American critics of Israel, and said, we are like a village on the slopes of a volcano. He is surely right in a spiritual sense. Israelis know that they are not wanted here. That is why they have so many guns, and why so many retreat to the bubble of Tel Aviv to escape the Muslims surroundings, and why many of them describe this as a hundred-year war: Ireland, not South Africa (as Gurvitz says).
The absence of any uplifting political vision and the long horizon of conflict lend Israeli existence a bleak, primal texture. The politics are all about terror victims and stopping the next attack. Sarah, an Israeli American at an anti-Trump rally I attended, said her Israel-loving family and friends would be angry at her for attending the rally. The difference between me and them, she said, is that while all of us put the security of Israel at the center of their politics, she can also stand up for other things, like women’s rights.
“I believe there will be peace in 300 years and they believe there will never be peace,” she said.
Even Labor does not talk about a Palestinian state or pulling out the settlements. Allon said Labor may soon be eclipsed by the Israeli version of Emmanuel Macron, Yair Lapid, who never worries about the occupation. And as for the Israeli Martin Luther King—Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List– my Laborite host David was dismissive. “Odeh is a failure!”
Why? “Because he refuses to condemn terror; and he did not attend Shimon Peres’s funeral.”
None of my hosts even acknowledged a heroic action of Palestinian resistance during my visit, the prisoners’ hunger strike for better conditions. There is a complete blocking out of the real conditions of countless subjects of their government.
Of course there are exceptions, Israeli dissidents. At Damascus Gate as Israeli officers dragged away a demonstration of American Jews locking arms – breaking one woman’s arm—there was a burly bearded man shouting familiarly at the soldiers, urging them to show restraint. This was Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence. Gideon Levy has needed body guards, but he doesn’t shut up about what Israel is doing to Palestinians. Yossi Gurvitz lost family and friends when he became a dissident.
I experienced some of this pain and isolation just in a week of being around the Israelis. At the anti-Trump rally I asked a woman who held a poster calling Trump a Schmuck what her name was and she asked me my politics. Progressive. Jewish Anti-Zionist. “Anti-Zionist!” She turned away angrily.
A potential Airbnb host in Tel Aviv, a self-identified hippie, backed out of a booking after I told her I was from Mondoweiss. It turned out she needed the flat after all. “Maybe some other time….I’m familiar with [your website]. I hope you find peace within and in your self identity, that’s the only way to manifest peace in the world.”
I felt that I was a very bad person, that I was putting people at risk in this embattled unsafe place by saying foolish things. I called my wife for support.
If I lived in that society, I don’t know how I would spiritually maintain my path. In the U.S. I have lost jobs and been called vile by my own mother for my positions, but if the pro-Israel bloc in the U.S. is monolithic, it is not oceanic: there have always been people from whom I could derive support. In Israel it is oceanic: there is a sense of a huge unified flattened mass that regards you as a traitor, enabling terrorism.
What if my parents had decided to follow their friends out here in ’68? Would I be righteous? Would I dissent? In the end yes; but I imagine it would have been a tortured path, well into my 40s or 50s to break. I most identified on my trip with the three bachelors in Ramat Gan. A little hip, a little serious, setting out on professional ambitions, Itamar the most serious, watching “Entourage” and trading Bitcoin on the sabbath (a long way from his ultra orthodox teens, when he snuck away in Jerusalem to look at the internet, and went OTD, “off the derech”). If I’d had an elite education in Israel, I’d have folded into this set, just as I folded into my Harvard set, and tried to make it on Israel’s terms.
Of course, the more important question is, what will American Jews do? I saw hundreds of Birthright kids on my travels, but I also saw a dozen or more young Jews demonstrating against occupation at the Damascus gate. Scott Roth, who is rarely optimistic, turned to me and nodded with admiration. “These are the good guys.”
“There aren’t so many of them,” I said.
“No. But last year they weren’t here. Next year there will be more of them.”
American Jews are all that can save Israel from the ideology that envelops it. That change won’t come from Israelis.
*I used pseudonyms for my four hosts, Anat, Allon, David, and Itamar, so as to protect their privacy.