August 20, 1998
By Gregory Rodriguez
Israel's refusal to give up land stems from years of persecution, but that might prove to be its downfall
Slouching Toward Destruction
By Gregory Rodriguez
Once you've leaned over the edge of the Golan Heights, peered into Syria and imagined Damascus lying less than an hour away, you easily understand why many Israelis have no desire to relinquish the disputed territory. Advances in satellite intelligence and missile technology notwithstanding, elementary military logic would have you believe in the value of maintaining the high ground in the desert. But, on my recent--and first-- trip to Israel, I heard several other reasons why the country shouldn't negotiate the return of territory it seized in the Six Day War: The Syrians weren't nearly as productive with the land as are the Israelis. Nor did they ever bother to seriously populate the area. And recently, archeologists found the ruins of ancient synagogues that prove the Jews have held the rights to the Golan all along. Settlers, both in the Golan and the West Bank, have their own prophetic logic. "We consider it our birthright to be here," one fervent West Bank settler told me. "This is where the Jewish people began."
To an American whose nation was built on Native American land, such rationale is specious, to say the least. Yet the settlers' logic seems only an extension of the justification many Israelis -- from a variety of political persuasions -- make for the creation of Israel and the consequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs.
Only one argument for Israel really survives secular critique: that Jews required a safe haven after the Holocaust. In 1947 at the United Nations, David Ben-Gurion argued that the Holocaust was "merely a climax" to the "uninterrupted persecution" that Jews faced throughout the Diaspora, and that Jews needed to be masters of their own fate in order to assure their survival. "The homelessness and minority position make Jews always dependent on the mercy of others," he said.
As such, the Holocaust is part of Israel's raison d'être. At Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial, I saw the founding of the State of Israel presented as if it were the redemption for Hitler's mass slaughter. Israel appears condemned to define itself by the horrible event that made it necessary.
"Israel is an affirmative-action state," a Jewish-American colleague told me. "But past victimization doesn't do much to explain its contemporary status." In fact, Israel is a powerful country. It is the only nuclear power in the region. Its economy on a per capita basis is comparable to that of Britain. Nonetheless, the national identity appears steeped in victimhood. Indeed, I was continually astonished how quickly Israeli bravado can degenerate into the rhetoric of the downtrodden. Such posturing falls flat on the ears of the uninitiated non-Jew, particularly in the context of the Palestinian conflict. Despite the constant fear of terrorism, it is impossible to survey the military and monetary disparity between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and countenance talk of Israel's underdog status.
"The next time, we're taking the world down with us," our tour guide told us when referring to the possibility of another Holocaust. His statement's mixture of arrogance and impotence recalled a line from Thomas Friedman's "From Beirut to Jerusalem": "Israel today is becoming Yad Vashem with an air force."
But more disturbing to me, a believer in American-style pluralism, is how historical Jewish persecution is used to justify contemporary Jewish exclusivism. While speaking of the need for tolerance among Jews and acknowledging that Palestinian Israeli citizens are treated as second-class citizens, Joseph Alpher, the director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel office, still justifies the need to limit the growth of Israel's Arab population. "We have a fear that they [the Palestinians] will try to use demography to overwhelm us," he said.
Still others, like Bar-Ilan sociologist Gerald Steinberg, justified Israeli-Jewish exclusivism on the grounds of historical Jewish alienation. "It's not discrimination in the classic sense," he said. "Because Jews need to have a place to call their own." The professor added that the "level of exclusivity in the Middle East" is much greater than in the West, and that it must be judged accordingly. But it is difficult to see how American Jews who have fought so hard against religious and ethnic discrimination in the United States could not struggle intellectually with the very notion of an ethnically biased state.
"We annihilate ourselves (and shall soon wipe out the entire species) precisely because of 'our higher longings,' because of the theological disease," said a dying character in Israeli novelist Amoz Oz's "Black Box." Nations will always fight for disputed lands they feel are rightfully theirs. And they will always justify their military operations and their treatment of the strangers within their midst with exalted rationale.
But every nation must reexamine its ethical raison d'être over time. Israel's challenge is to reconcile its essential "Jewishness" with democratic pluralism and tolerance for others. A shift in national self image from weakness to strength could only help Israel face up to the difficult and dangerous demands of real democracy and real pluralism.
Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor of Pacific News Service, is a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy. He wrote this piece for The Journal after returning from the Ethnic Media Seminar in Israel, sponsored by Project Interchange of the American Jewish Committee.