Why I Sympathise with Israelis
About the shadow hanging over IsraelJune 2006
People often think I'm pro-Palestinian. But I'm pro-people. It's just that, of the people of the Holy Land, those I can be most of service to at present are Palestinians.
I sympathise greatly with Israelis. I'm speaking from an historian's longterm perspective. The momentum is running out of Israel's development, as it has been to date, and I think a difficult time of truth is coming for Israelis. This arises from certain very factual issues which cannot now be ignored or avoided. The Israeli tendency is to stave things off long enough to make them go away, but I don't think these will go away.
It's a collection of issues.
First, aliyah, the return or immigration of Jews to Israel, has ground to a virtual halt. This is partially because Israel has not turned out as safe as Jews initially sought, way back in the shadow of WW2. Also, Jews in other countries seem to feel happy enough where they are, and significant numbers no longer need to come - all those who felt the need have moved to Israel. This means that the expansion of Israel is stopping, and in fact it might have overextended itself - as evidenced by the need to build a wall around itself to protect itself. Not just this, but people are leaving - often to get jobs or just 'get a life', or after doing military service. They're not decisively emigrating, but they're going until things get decidedly better. This means loss of people.
Second, Israelis are a disparate and argumentative lot, and it's difficult for many foreigners to figure out how these people stick together as a nation. Israelis are very nationalistic but, beyond that, for every two Israelis there are three fervent opinions, and national unity is a troublesome factor. This question tends to be suppressed by having the threat of the Palestinians on the doorstep and in Israelis' midst. It unites the people and creates a state of ongoing truce and solidarity between Israelis - and with international Jews. But this is a parlous situation: what happens if there is to be peace? It is even arguable that powerful elements in Israeli society want to keep conflict going for this reason - though it is true that the majority of Israelis are conflict-weary and seek some sort of peace and security. And peace is inevitable sometime - conflict cannot be kept going forever.
Third, Israelis pay an enormous price for conflict and insecurity. This is psychological, becoming multi-generational, and it is factual too - in terms of the social effects of militarisation, the claustrophobic nature of many settlements, rising domestic and civil violence across society, harm to the economy (such as the collapse of tourism, loss of international popularity, taxation and poverty) and many other factors. This price cannot be borne indefinitely.
Fourth, USA is now Israel's only supporter and, during the second intifada (1999-2004), Israel lost much favour. USA's capacity and willingness to continue supporting Israel politically, militarily and financially is not indefinite and everlasting, and Israel depends on it highly unless something is to change. What lies behind this is a need for Israel to fully acknowledge its position in the Middle East. This means making friends with its neighbours - not only for security, but for economic, environmental and social-cultural reasons. This is inevitable, not only because Israel's neighbours constitute a majority. It's because time moves on, and new and different things need to happen.
Fifth, it's those Palestinians. Despite losing their conflict with the Israelis, the Palestinians have two quite factual advantages over Israelis. One is their high birth rate, which means that, whatever their status, they are becoming a majority of the joint population of the Holy Land (Israel and the Occupied or Palestinian Territories). Democracy or not, a majority still counts in the fullness of time. The second is that, despite their misery, their society is in a funny way healthier than Israeli society. It is as if they have been so thoroughly beaten for so long that something has changed in them - they experience what British people call 'World War Two Spirit'. This is a mixed blessing, a tragic happiness, but it represents a social and community wealth which many richer and more favoured countries, Israel amongst them, do not have. In other words, despite the proclivity of the young men in Gaza to squabble and fight when worked up, there is more togetherness and humanness in Palestinian society than you'd expect. They're dirt poor in one sense and rich in another - while developed countries are rich materially and poor socially. Israelis know little of this, because they are walled off from it by a physical and psychological apartheid and many of them don't even meet Palestinians or see their living areas.
There are more issues too. One is environmental: Israel is a toxic mess, and Palestine too - and Palestine's shortages render it into a health and pollution risk for Israel, since Palestinians are not in a position to attend to environmental and public health issues. There is a massive water resource problem for both countries.
Another is the wider world, where things are moving on from the past, and the world is accelerating into a globalised, regionalised situation, to an extent leaving Israel behind - since its preoccupation with its own situation makes Israel a strangely insular country. USA is large enough to kid itself it can be isolationist, but Israel is small, with restricted travel outside. Dutch can go to Germany for a party or football match, but Israelis cannot drop in on Damascus for shopping and restaurants.
So, all in all, the outlook doesn't look rosy. The course the nation of Israel has followed since its founding nearly sixty years ago is changing. Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky spoke for their day. This 'whither next?' threshold is deeply threatening to some, and welcome to others. Israel was a land of hope and promise, and things have gone strangely sour. As an immigrant land, the nation must have a clear sense of purpose to survive, and it is faced with finding a new one - and currently reluctant to do so. This change will happen, but it's a matter of how easy or painful it is to be.
This is scary. In a way, it is more scary than the threat of Palestinians or Arabs. It involves building a new consensus amongst Jews based not on the Holocaust but on the future. Historically, Jews have had a legitimate fear of persecution and annihilation, but in the 21st Century they are in a position to make peace with the world and end this cycle. Because, in our day, longterm prejudices toward Jews are outweighed by feelings deriving from Israel's current and recent behaviour. If this changed, and if Israel became a more compliant and cooperative nation in the world order, much of what Jews experience as anti-Semitism would dwindle, and in a generation or two it would be mostly forgotten. Because too much else is going on in the world, and arguments of the past are becoming irrelevant. Given time to cool down, Arabs and Palestinians are willing to accept Israel: they just need certain crucial things to be worked out with it. In the Middle East, different peoples have lived together for many millennia - it's the region's natural condition.
This faces Israelis with themselves. The Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, the seculars and religious, the settlers and 'Israel proper', the different nationalities, the many different tribes and interest groups who jostle together in that small space called Israel. They need to clarify whether they wish to live in a state reserved for Jews, or a multinational state with a significant Palestinian, Bedouin, Druze and foreign population. They need to build an incremental peace with their neighbours. And this is difficult for them right now.
Palestinians have another advantage over Israelis. They have already seen the worst and adjusted to it. Israelis haven't - and this makes things more difficult for them internally. Palestinians sure do have a lot to work out too, but it's not really as fundamental as the questions Israelis are yet to face. (I'll write on this another time).
In the last election, the Israeli vote divided to create a very undecided situation. The current government is running on a post-Sharon momentum, which is a new version of an old approach. But this is not about a national sense of purpose, or a regeneration of Israel. So the question of Israeli identity, purpose and true priorities is left pending for another day.
There is a truth-process approaching for the wider world. Its impact on the developed world and the West is bigger than most would care to think. It concerns wealth and power in the world. And Israel, being a developed country, is part of that question. The West is losing its dominance in world affairs - its time is passing. Something different is happening.
The agenda for Palestinians is relatively simple: they just want a better life. This is a relatively unified goal - how to get there is what divides them. For Israelis, there is much more soul-searching and reorientation ahead - over coming years and decades. For they have a bitter-sweet life, and mixed feelings around it. Israel and its people will ultimately gain a lot from soul-searching - and some Israelis already know the shape it needs to take. It is simply the building of a safe, fertile, peaceful, happy land of Israel. One which is not surrounded by walls and fences, but which openly plays its unique and focal part in a wider Middle East and world. For Israel is a special little country, with a unique offering. And it cannot do without its neighbours and surrounding environment.
And the rest of the world has its own soul-searching to do too.
Bizarrely, to outsiders, Arabs and Israelis complement each other down to details. They are, according to their own beliefs, both children of Abraham - they're family. If they weren't, perhaps the argument would have been resolved by now. Imagine a time when Jews are a distinct grouping within a larger Middle East, in which the different peoples of the region define themselves as before, for millennia, not so much by territory but by social niche and role. Remember, through much of history, one of the greatest centres for Jews was Sumer, Babylon and then Baghdad, and Jews have played a prominent contributory role in many parts of the Middle East - in Damascus and Cairo and from Spain to Central Asia. As well as, today, in Europe, America and elsewhere. The future has a place for Jews. And everybody. By necessity.
But it requires an act of trust, and a getting-real. And this is easier when it's behind you than in front of you.