The news from Israel these days makes for disheartening reading. Each day brings reports of fresh attacks and counterattacks by Jews and Arabs on each other, ranging from apparently unprovoked murderous assaults to state-sanctioned attacks justified as retaliation. There is a general atmosphere of tension and hatred. The leadership on both sides appear to have abandoned any attempt at compromise and there seems to be no willingness to understand the reasoning of the other side. Blame and recrimination abound, both within and between communities.
This state of affairs has a long history but it would be foolish to assume, as some Jews do, both in Israel and abroad, that nothing will ever change, that peaceful resolution of the conflict is a pipe-dream and that the best one can hope for is a stalemate. This outlook is accompanied by a mood of resignation, fuelled by the determination to concede nothing while maintaining a perpetual state of armed vigilance. What a climate in which to raise children and lead one’s life!
However, in life, there is no such thing as ‘no change’. Change overtakes us all, and not always in ways that we desire. I was brought up in South Africa during the heyday of apartheid, when a similar argument was voiced, that the status quo of racial segregation would have to be maintained for as long as possible, with the ruling Whites eternally braced in a position of superior strength in order to ward off a bloodbath. A combination of statesmanlike pragmatism and goodwill ultimately breached this defence, allowing for a peaceful transition to an integrated society.
I was brought up to believe that Zionism and liberal democracy were compatible. More than that, that their fusion was essential for the spiritual wellbeing of the Jewish people. One of the most depressing aspects of the Israeli scene today is the renunciation of that philosophy by the current leadership. We are having to suffer the ignorant belief of Mr Netanyahu and his supporters that those identified as the enemy can only understand the language of violence and that the one who hits hardest must ultimately prevail.
The roots of this outlook can be traced back to the early years of the struggle for survival of the Jewish state. Those were years of bitterness and trauma, during which Menachem Begin, with his philosophy of terror, intransigence, revenge and retaliation provided inspiration for many traumatised Jews. Begin and his bigoted successors moved from the margins to the centre of Israeli politics, illustrating the seductive appeal of the ‘kill or be killed’ mentality, devoid of humanitarian considerations.
Worse still, the ultra-Orthodox element of religious Jewry has steadily ascended the pyramid of power in Israel and now occupies the driving seat of government. Pumped up by a self-righteous and intolerant attitude towards those, Jews and non-Jews alike, who strive for compromise, they are prepared to dispense with democratic values as no longer having any meaning.
Mr Netanyahu and his allies may be convinced that they know how to deal with the opponents of their policies, but they are wrong, and they still have a lot to learn about human nature. Every act of bullying, humiliation and curtailment of human rights sets up its legacy of hatred among those so treated. To take one glaring example: I have long marvelled at the insane policy of destroying the family homes of those charged with crimes against the state. The disregard for the cruelty and injustice implicit in these acts beggars belief, even as it illustrates an age-old barbaric tendency to reduce enemies to sub-human status. I used to believe that Jewishness provided immunity against such brutish traits but it appears that the lust for power has overridden the ethical values preached by our ancestors – and it has overridden common sense too.
There is a certain irony in Mr Begin’s cry: “Never again!” Unfortunately, history does repeat itself, though not always in predictable ways. We are now seeing the spectre of an authoritarian state in Israel, threatening to engulf, not just the enemies of the Jews, but the Jews themselves – a monster devouring its own children.