Jim Sleeper: How Dysfunctional is Israel?

Roundup: Historians' Take

One night in the 1960s, drunken teenagers in Palmer, Massachusetts decided to spook kids at a Jewish, Hebrew-speaking summer camp. They hurled bottles and catcalls, terrifying 12-year olds in their beds. Two Israeli camp counselors raced into the woods like raging bulls, intending to give the townies more than an escort to the local cops. They didn't catch them, but they set up martial patrols, scaring the campers as much as the rowdies, who never returned.

I am not telling this story to be comical or exculpatory at a time when the UN and the Red Cross have reinforced Darryl Li's claim, presented here on Jan. 4, that Israel has turned Gaza from a Bantustan into an internment camp and worse. I am telling it to offer a glimpse into a part of the Israeli psyche, a mindset that antedates the rockets of today and of 2006, the suicide bombings of 2002 and even the war around Israel's founding in 1948.

It's a mindset that often misjudges its circumstances and responds dysfunctionally: In 1995, the Israeli law student Yigal Amir said that he'd assassinated Yitzhak Rabin because Rabin would"give our country to the Arabs" and"we need to be cold-hearted." In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a Jew from Brooklyn, massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer, prompting me to take a stand that was also a confessional. (Called, "Massacre in Israel Forces a Hard Look Inward," it's the fourth and last item on the pdf.)

We all know where this mindset comes from. If we're honest, we also know that there's a dysfunctional mindset among Arabs that antedates Israel's outrages: (It wasn't Israel, for example, that blocked a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza from 1948 to 1967.)

Each side now thinks that it's a Warsaw Ghetto resisting the Nazis - Palestinians against a racist, expansionist horde of real-estate speculators and militarists, Israelis against a raging sea of 100 million Arabs whose demagogues act as if .01 percent of the Middle East can't be home to a people Immanuel Kant tellingly called"these Palestinians who are living among us," thereby tapping swift, dark undercurrents that would soon surface across Europe.

Each side is right enough about the history to be impervious to the other's moralizing and emoting, especially when the moralizers shrug or keep silent about 1948-1967, or about certain massacres, and suicide bombers or aerial bombings. M.J. Rosenberg reminds us of George Orwell's observation that"All nationalists [and their apologists, I would add] have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts.... Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage -- torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, ... assassination, the bombing of civilians -- which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side ... The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them."

Even some who acknowledge their own side's excesses consider them justified in the excruciating balance of history and necessity. So say apologists for the desperation behind the suicide bombings and rockets that have hit Israel. And so say apologists for Israel's responses, the walls and policies that have turned Gaza, especially, into an internment camp. But Orwell's comment reminds us that selective moralism can prove as dysfunctional and destructive as the atrocities it ignores or tries to excuse.

Pondering this ancient and awful habit, I can't help thinking of certain high-born WASP and Jewish writers of the 1930s and 1940s, so guilt-ridden or enraged about the American bourgeois duplicity in their own upbringings that they couldn't see through Stalin, even as millions writhed in his prisons and graves. The self-proclaimed enemy of their own despised pasts had become their friend. Orwell had to contend with such myopia in 1944, when his Animal Farm couldn't find a British publisher because the politically correct, parlour left couldn't tolerate even his thinly veiled send-up of the USSR.

Similarly, some new leftists of the 1960s -- bred in at least modest comfort, as the Port Huron Statement famously noted, and somewhat guilt-ridden about it -- considered the dysfunctional Black Panthers and some of the worst Third World demagogues to be noble because they gave good rhetoric and some social services. But it wasn't only the left: Many conservative Britons and Americans cottoned to Hitler and Mussolini before 1939; others later became apologists and enablers of Chile's Pinochet or the Argentine junta, or of Ahmed Chalabi and worse.

Years ago I examined such delusional apologists for oppression on both right and left, while reviewing Paul Hollander's neo-connish but smartly aimed Political Pilgrims. I commend this review to anyone whose fine-spun rage at their American and/or Jewish pasts has driven them to seek deliverance either in Jewish nationalism and hatred of Arabs in the blinding clarity of the Judaean desert, or in the loathsome submission for which Allah's enforcers Hassan Nasrallah, Khaled Mashaal, Ismail Haniyah, and Mahmoud Zahar are preparing both Shiites and Palestinians, all the more so if Israel disappears.

Let me explore, in this and the next few paragraphs, a few reasons why the leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas do get a rather generous pass from critics of Israel who have long found the Jews a remarkably attractive dumping ground for their displaced self-loathing. Then I'll get back to Israel's dysfunctions.

From New Zealand and Australia to South Africa and Canada and the U.S, not to mention London, excoriating the Jews seems an almost genetic compulsion in an annoyingly large proportion of English-speaking whites whose forebears seized other people's lands and slaughtered and enslaved the peoples themselves -- not because the Brits were seeking refuge from annihilation at home but because they were as rapacious then as they are hypocritical now.

I once stopped an Australian who was ranting on and on about the Israelis by telling him,"I agree with you completely that all whites should leave Australia" -- something he hadn't said --"for doing what you say the Israelis have done, except for the fact that some of you came to Australia in chains when the British first began appropriating it for a penal colony." In the recent movie"Australia," that country indulges in a grand, lachrymose reminiscence about its safely dead or subdued Aborigines, much as Americans waxed poetic about Indians a few decades after their final submission. Mightn't what Israel is doing remind them rather too closely for comfort of something they actually did far more brutally and completely and were never condemned or corrected for doing?

I once confronted a genteel New England WASP who called Palestinian suicide bombers"incredibly brave martyrs" -- and who owns a colonial home on the banks of Connecticut River, which his forebears swindled from the Pequots before slaughtering them. I assured him that I will give his address and his child's Manhattan address to incredibly brave American Indian suicide bombers, should any arise to redress the outrages he still profits from. He told me that I had been hurtful, but I had thought it hurtful of him to admire the blowing up of parents and children who were no different from him and his kids, except that possibly they were more innocent.

I am not claiming that one imperialism justifies another. I am doubting that Israelis are the imperialists it pleases their European and American critics to think they are when really the critics are writhing in their own pasts. The Jews certainly didn't come to Palestine as the British did to colonies all over the world. The British colonizers weren't fleeing mass slaughter or expulsion, as the Jews were. The British had no historical ties or religious claims to South Africa, Australia, Canada, New England, or the other places they seized and now call home. Shouldn't they leave?

Jews in Palestine are different enough to remind us of one more historical irony their critics assiduously ignore: The Jewish nation-state was modeled somewhat along the lines of the ethno-racial nation-states that had pushed Jews out in the 1920s and '30s while reconstituting themselves from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and German empires. These new European entities' celebrations of"blood and soil" nationalism made their centuries-old Jewish communities feel the ground shifting under their feet and convinced them they could be free only in a nation-state of their own.

Hello? Is this really so hard for anti-Israel demonstrators in the streets of Berlin, Paris, and London to understand? Apparently, it is. Europeans, having learned the folly of"blood and soil" solidarities during the Gotterdammerung of World War II, and justly proud of the European Union, now instruct Jews whom they displaced beforehand that their nation-state is out of fashion, an anachronism in a trans-national, global-capitalist world. Yet Jews are now surrounded by peoples touting an Arabist"blood and soil" solidarity that again renders them outsiders, even in their own ancestral land.

So the Jews are an anomaly, and, given the history I've just cited, it's tempting to tell their European and American critics,"Get used to it, and if you're wondering why this anomaly exists, look into yourselves, and give the Israelis a little lag time."

But while it's tempting to say this, I can't insist on it. Israel is becoming an anachronism, for reasons that must be faced by those of us who aren't as hypocritical as its moralizing critics. It is an anachronism partly because of the psyche or mindset I first encountered in Palmer, Massachusetts -- that understandable but dysfunctional defensiveness toward a world that has liberalized in some ways but that also excuses or even encourages some Arabs for going in the opposite direction.

Israel has come closer than any state in the Middle East, even Turkey, to being a European-style social democracy -- even, at least partially, for those of its Palestinians who vote and receive social services that are the envy of Arabs elsewhere. But, caught almost alone regionally in the riptides of global capitalism and in its own Spartan defensiveness against the demagogic rage rising around it, Israel may wind up abandoning its"social democracy" for a Singapore-like market economy, and it has already returned hatred for hatred in ways that only deepen hatred and that erode democracy at home.

As long as Israel occupies lands it conquered almost defensively in 1967 but now claims historically and entrepreneurially, it further erodes its democracy, and, for demographic reasons alone, it can remain a Jewish state only by abandoning any pretense of democracy at all.

Can Israel back out of this tightening vise of embattlement, abandonment, and demography? It can't do so alone. But read some of the columns in the daily newspaper Haaretz to see what many Israelis think, and pay heed to the best of the country's public intellectuals and veteran policymakers, from Abraham Burg to Shlomo Ben-Ami to Aharon Barak, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court. (One of Israel's best resources is the credibility of its dissidents, who are anything but parlour leftists, having done their army service and been part of public life in many ways.)

It's impossible to imagine a significant shift in Israel's policies absent something like a civil-war with its own West Bank settlers, especially the budding Yigal Amirs and Baruch Goldsteins. Until this question has been settled, Israel's policies will be incoherent because it will not have decided what kind of country it is going to be. But even the tens of thousands of Israelis who understand what is needed will never carry a traumatized and demagogued public without some shift in the equally dysfunctional mindset that rules Gaza and that has only been reinforced by its Israeli counterpart.

Israel needs a lot of disguised help from the very Arabs toward whom it has behaved too often as those Israeli camp staffers in Massachusetts did toward the community around them. Some help has been offered anyway in the Arab peace plan (which may reflect Arab states' fears of Hamas and Hezbollah more than it does any great hope for lasting peace with Israel). And help might come from Palestinian leaders like Marwan Baghrouti, who no more deserves to be the political prisoner he is now than did King or Mandela, and from Palestianian lawyers like Hassan Jabarin.

Finally, though, and decisively, Israel will need a lot of tough love from the United States, far more than from"the international community," much of which is marinated in hypocrisies like those mentioned above. Only the United States has enough credibility and clout with Israelis to make them face their own fanatical settlers and the darkest parts of their psyche and to test the more promising of Arab initiatives and leaders.

As of January 20, the U.S. will have in Barack Obama the necessary wisdom to push Israel in this direction. But will he, and we, have the will? Or will we let both Israel's neo-con apologists and Hamas' American counterparts make us, too, dysfunctional?

Related Links

  • Jim Sleeper: It's Time For an Orwell in Gaza
  • Read entire article at TPM (Liberal blog)

    comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Arnold Shcherban - 1/12/2009

    but the main problem is that this status has never been acknowledged by
    the governments of the countries which had/have greatest immediate influence on Israeli policymakers and on formulation of the UN resolutions: USA, and EU.
    On the contrary those countries perpertually used/use another Orwellian principles and language -
    vicious double standards.
    Strict adherence of the West to the latter Orwellian principles has been the main obstacle to sustained peaceful resolution of Palestinian-Israeli conflict.