The Israel Essay
"Two Jews, three opinions"
My village is located where the mountain slope makes its final drop to the flat plain below it, before it rises up across the valley on another mountain. About one and half kilometres behind my house up the mountain and to west is a minefield that is now almost completely mine-free, thanks to the efforts of the brave technicians who have been working there every summer since the end of the war in 1995. Every once in a while, a mine will explode because an animal will step on it. They can’t read the signs nor understand why some parcels of land are taped-off.
Writing about Israel is like being a deer or a bear that wanders onto one of these minefields: the reward (food) is greatly outweighed by the risk (getting blown up). Best policy for people like me who have no skin in the game is to simply avoid it. At the same time, we humans are a curious sort, prone to exploration and to inviting danger. I’ll take the risk of stepping on a mine as I think now is a good time to discuss what has been happening lately in Israel and to it because it is important not just regionally, but globally as well, for reasons that I will outline in this essay.
I cannot think of an international subject more divisive than Israel. To write about invites immediate condemnation from one side or another, sometimes two or more sides. Trying to strike an objective balance will result in the writer being accused of partisanship, downplaying certain behaviours from one side or the other, being in the pay of someone, some group, or some country, or having your views completely misconstrued in the most irrational of manners. To trot out a very-tired adjective, the subject is incredibly toxic. This is why so many people choose to ignore it; you cannot win and will certainly alienate people by engaging with it. With that in mind, I am going to be stupid and walk through the minefield to see if I can get to the other side in one whole piece. I will tempt fate.
The first place where I usually get into trouble is when I tell people that I support Jews having a state of their own (and the Palestinians should have their own as well). Being an ethno-nationalist who believes that the nation-state is the best form of societal organization in our modern world, I extend this to all other ethnic groups on principle, provided that they can demonstrate the ability to govern themselves accordingly (among other caveats). For example, I wish the Kurds would have their own state too, but principle often runs head first in the wall of reality, with only one remaining standing at the end.
“They should have given them a state in Germany or Poland or the USSR”, is a somewhat common refrain I hear from people who sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians. They have a point, but what’s done is done. Take it up with the Brits.
It is impossible to talk about Israel without someone bringing up their continued occupation of the West Bank, occupation-turned-annexation of the Golan Heights, expansion of Jerusalem’s borders, and the hermetic-sealing off of the Gaza Strip. This has been a constant throughout my life, an issue that appears to all of us as intractable. This perceived permanence discourages many to engage with the subject, and not just for the reasons I outlined earlier in this essay. Palestinians in the West Bank have been walled off and ghettoized……my Jewish friend Ophir lamenting to me the horrible state of affairs that they live under. On the other hand, my friend Shlomo tells me how his parents moved to the suburbs of East Jerusalem, because real estate there is so much cheaper than in comparison to the West. I will ask that we park the bulk of the discussion around the occupation for now, and possibly re-visit it another time.
A fair description of today’s Israel would be that it is a quasi-Spartan highly-mobilized ultra-nationalist state with a strong tech sector (especially in cyber security) and a very dynamic population. This only scratches the surface, and doesn’t tell the whole story.
In the early days of the modern State of Israel, socialist/pro-labour politics dominated the nascent country, one coloured by the presence of many kibbutzes that shared leftist views.1 It wasn’t a coincidence that Israel was initially backed by Stalin’s USSR, and that it was armed by communist Czechoslovakia in 1948 as it fought Arabs both local and from the surrounding neighbourhood.2 Socialist Zionism was the guiding philosophy during those first decades of independence. Even though many went on to claim that they supported a bi-national state, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians did occur from the get-go. "It's either us or them", the argument went, as the Palestinians and their fellow Arabs viewed this new state as a forceful imposition of the West, meaning that Israelis knew that if given the chance, their state would be destroyed by those displaced by it.