April 12, 2001
Draining the Swamps
Passover in Jerusalem, the holiday of freedom. Wildflowers decorate the hillsides, allergic sneezers fill the sidewalk cafes, schoolchildren on vacation munch matzah at the zoo, and Israel's month-old national unity government, top-heavy with the biggest number of ministers in our little country's history, faces a dizzying array of Herculean challenges.
It is a truth nearly universally acknowledged in Israel and the United States that we offered the Palestinians peace, and they chose bloodshed. More Jews and Arabs are killed almost daily. Clearly this situation is untenable. How to end it?
Sharon's position is that negotiations with the Palestinians cannot continue unless the violence is brought to an end. What makes this challenge mightier is that from the Palestinian point of view, Israel's enforced occupation in Gaza and the West Bank is itself a manifestation of perpetual violence. Will greater Israeli force solve anything? Is ending the occupation the only way to end the violence? Which is the cart, and which the horse?
According to a recent poll in Yediot Aharonot, 70 percent of Israelis believe that the way to go at this point is "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians. In other words, simply pack up and leave the Palestinians with some variation of the deal that Barak offered Arafat at Camp David and that Arafat turned down. Interestingly but not surprisingly, only half the Israelis who supported this idea also told the pollsters that they believed it could be implemented. Indeed, only 38 percent of the public, after half a year of the renewed intifada, think that peace can be achieved with the Palestinians.
So what now? We could all sink into depression, since it would appear that the best the Sharon government can hope for on the Palestinian front is to minimize bloodshed and avert an all-out conflict. On the other hand, this new administration, which is after all a unity government including ministers from many sides of the political aisles, could make a virtue of necessity and set about the long-neglected challenge of seriously addressing the myriad social, cultural, educational, environmental and economic problems plaguing the country.
In fact, the new education minister, Limor Livnat, has announced her intention to do just that. She has declared war on the so-called phenomenon of "post-Zionism," which like its semantic cousin "postmodernism" is a concept so vague and variegated as to serve brilliantly the needs of both its proponents and its detractors. If I am reading her right, what Livnat has most in mind is the alleged assault on Zionist values by historians (and by school textbooks written under their influence) who have sought to demythologize Israeli history and draw attention to the injustices wrought upon the Palestinians in the name of Jewish nationalism. "The new Israeli schoolbooks," she opined in the Jerusalem Post, "silence the sufferings of the Jewish people and its connection to the Land of Israel." The chief bugbear of Livnat and others in her camp is a ninth-grade textbook titled "A World of Changes," which turned out to be full of sloppy errors of omission and commission, and which a professional committee has ordered back onto the drawing board.
But are textbooks really the point? The larger question is this: Is the traditional ideology without which the State of Israel could never have come into being and have drawn the support of the community of nations -- that Jews are forever besieged and beleaguered, that we automatically command the moral high ground, that we are David fighting off an Arab Goliath -- accurate or germane in today's world? And if it needs updating, does that somehow invalidate or undermine the security and well-being of Israel?
I'm one of those Israelis who believes that reworking our familiar worldview doesn't weaken the Zionist enterprise but rather invigorates it. Sure, it's true that many young Israelis are turned off to Judaism and to traditional Zionist ideology, but the way to win them back is not through indoctrination. The original Zionist idea may have been the creation of a country in which everyone was Jewish, but it hasn't turned out that way; nearly one-fifth of the country is Arab, and discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel -- economic, educational, infrastructural -- is deep-seated and legion. Some Israelis interpreted the rioting last fall of Israeli Arabs, alongside the outbreak of the intifada, as confirmation of their disloyalty to Israel. A much fairer and more productive assessment is that the riots were an expression of legitimate, long-standing grievances. Thirteen Arab demonstrators were shot dead by Israeli police; would this have occurred if these citizens were Jews? Indeed, the latest round of demonstrations by Israeli Arab citizens -- on "Land Day" at the end of March, an annual protest against the confiscation of land by the Israeli government -- was strikingly nonviolent, following an accord reached between police and local Arab officials.
Now listen to Ron Pundak, a respected Israeli academic instrumental in originating the Oslo peace process, who lately called in Ha'aretz for a "Zionism of renewal, a Zionism of the 21st century, a Turbo Zionism": "What we need is a state that not only serves the Zionist idea but is capable of adjusting its center of gravity; a state that can start, first and foremost, to serve its citizens and residents, while upholding ... 'the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; [and] will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture' as stated in Israel's Declaration of Independence."
Not since the early settlers drained the malarial swamps has Israel faced such a bracing challenge: to be a Jewish and democratic state at the same time, in the fullest sense. Can Israeli society, at long last, treat non-Jews as equal citizens, as its founders pledged? Can a way be found to ensure that all Israelis -- religious and secular, Arab and Jew -- fairly shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship? There is every reason to hope that the members of a new generation, their eyes wide open to the compromises and paradoxes of Israeli life, will prove no less ingenious and dedicated than their pioneering grandparents.