Notes to My Cousin (second and final part)
Zionist and Traitor
The atmosphere was ugly. Many Israelis (millions!) were branded as not merely “leftists”. Were we secular or progressive Jews then we were “failed Jews” or not “Jews” at all; we were non- or anti-Zionists; had we academic degrees and good paying jobs, we were ‘elitists’; were we ethnically ‘European’ (Ashkenazic), we were accused of deep prejudice against North African and Asian Jews (Sephardic or Mizrahi). At the same time we were despised in turn, because of historic, slow-boiling resentments of Mizrahim, from their early experiences in Israel. Those who opposed government policies and demonstrated weekly, as we did, were anarchists; if we cared for the rights of the Arab minority or supported the principle and application of judicial review by the high court or agreed that reserve soldiers had the right to not volunteer (as is permitted after the period of national compulsory service), we became traitors. Most of the values that brought me here, that maintained us, with which we nurtured our kids (successfully!), were trashed by our government.
You surely saw and read about the weekly demonstrations against the government that took place here. Beginning in January, they only slowed down in September during the holiday period and only stopped with the outbreak of the War. (They’ve started up again!) Demonstrations were nationwide. The largest was in Tel Aviv (although a handful of times they were at the Knesset in Jerusalem) and while these brought out over 100,000 people consistently, there were demonstrations in smaller cities as well, including in Modi’in, and these brought out anywhere between eight thousand people to tens of thousands (sic!). This was a major non-violent struggle by citizens to protect Israel from becoming another authoritarian state; it was a major non-violent struggle by citizens to protect Israel from becoming a religious fundamentalist state; it was a major non-violent struggle by citizens to protect Israel from becoming a ‘certified’ racist, apartheid state.
The country was torn, and one felt the social tension all the time. You got into arguments with neighbors and with people waiting in check-out lines at the supermarket. And Modiin, where we live, happens to be quite a homogeneous and civilized city, with a healthy mix of secular, “traditional” and ritual-observant; right, middle-of-the-road, left.
A Failed Leader with no Accountability
Snaking through all of this was and is Netanyahu. He’s been indicted (not convicted) of several crimes, most seriously of bribery, and of other corruption. The cases against him have been moving through the courts for four years, after his being investigated for three years. To my mind, his real crime though is that he’s been the major stimulus splitting the constituent groups in the country, politicizing whatever he can, and manipulating his base to his advantage, all against the united fiber of our country. Like any accomplished populist, Netanyahu has stoked the resentments of many, invariably against the ‘elites’, leftists, etc. Against us.
Furthermore, it was clear that his active support for weakening the legal system, that began in January with his return to power, was directly related to his personal legal issues. In any other political position, he would have had to resign. But because of his perch as Prime Minister he, like Trump as U.S. President, can stay in power. Such is Israeli law. In the last election, he put together a government of many of the most extreme elements in Israeli society: those elements sought political power and were prepared to provide him with the shield that he needs to remain PM. He was not able to build a government of moderates. The moderate parties would simply not commit to his being PM. Thus, the government was now top heavy with enablers, with hangers-on in unnecessary and expensive positions, and with people who were simply incompetent. But they supported Netanyahu and his bid to not be found guilty in our courts. He has diminished the country by making it far more divided and weaker than it should be. He’s been doing this for years.
The crisis, the attack by Hamas whose fighters slaughtered 1,200 mostly civilian Israelis, and kidnapped of 240 more, was certainly an act of war. It was surely a failure of military intelligence and of the army. But it also felt as if it came as a natural result of the chaos in the government and the country, that crystallized over the past year. And in the past month, since the attack and the outbreak of war, there has been a stunning collapse of political leadership. Leadership is now demonstrated by hundreds of thousands of volunteers of all ages for all conceivable kinds of needed activities, many of which would otherwise be organized and paid for by the government, with our tax money. That is, were it functioning! This lack of political leadership would be quite dangerous were it not so profoundly pathetic. I’ve just asked my eight-year-old grandson to prepare a sign for me to carry at future demonstrations saying: Netanyahu, Please Leave Us Alone!
Where do we go from here?
We’re at an inflection point with enormous stresses and opportunity. Here’s what I’d like to see:
Hamas needs to be destroyed. Its leaders and those “militants” (truly terrorists) who attacked on 7 October need to be killed. To whatever extent possible the numbers of their “foot soldiers” needs to be significantly diminished. At the same time, whatever can be done to reduce the number of deaths of civilians in Gaza, must be done. I know we’re doing a great deal, and this has nothing to do with American pressure or the publicity of Human Rights organizations. The alleged leftist Israeli media, the outlets we pay attention to, maintains and publicizes similar positions.
How do “I know” this? Because of my experience as a soldier, Irith’s experience, our kids’ experience, and the experiences that I hear from friends and colleagues, all confirm that our defense forces fight against enemy fighters not against civilians. Ultimately, we’re trained to protect, not to murder. We’re trained to win battles, not to terrorize. We’re the Israel Defense Forces. It’s what we’re called in Hebrew as well: צבא הגנה לישראל. Note also that the IDF is after all, a people’s army. We come from civilian society and go back into it. None of us were trained to hate the enemy; our schools do not educate to hate the Arabs.
The bombing that makes for such riveting visuals is not the carpet bombing of the Americans and the Brits toward the end of World War II nor mere random bombing of buildings in urban Gaza. Precision bombing saves the lives of hundreds of our loved ones who are now doing the actual fighting. It prevents the surprises of booby traps and enemy fighters behind walls. We put great effort into informing Gazans of our intentions to bomb and thankfully hundreds of thousands have left their homes. But not all have.
I continue to believe that it is to our (Israel’s) great benefit to work toward what’s broadly called a “two-state solution”. I will be satisfied to live in a country that roughly resembles the Israel of the post- independence Armistice Agreements (1949-50), with modifications because of our security concerns and because of the large Jewish settlements that now exist in Judea and Samaria. During the remainder of my lifetime, I want the Palestinians to have maximal political/legal/cultural rights over themselves, with the brute power of their own security forces, sufficient only for the maintenance of social order. Maximal autonomy. Minimal Israeli presence.
Having Said That …
The above is seriously incomplete. It must also sound quite banal, hardly original. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, it also forces me to reveal a deep bitterness against “the” Palestinians that has eaten away at me for decades.
I’m now reading a history of the Yalta Conference of February 1945. I’m reminded of some of the population – ethnic – transfers that took place after World War II, vast events in themselves. Together they provide an important historical context for cementing the legitimacy of the State of Israel and for re-viewing of the Palestinian refugee “issue”. Some bullet points as reference to some of those transfers: Poland – Soviet Ukraine; Germany – Poland, Soviet-Union, Czechoslovakia, Hungary; India – Pakistan; Turkey – Bulgaria; Jews (stateless) – Palestine. One could argue that ‘the Palestinians’ had experienced one of the least severe dislocations of the period. Most refugees were forced from one part of post-1922 Palestine to another part of it (many to the Kingdom of Jordan, which itself was part of pre-1922 Palestine and others to Lebanon) while stateless Jews moved from many displaced persons camps on one continent (Europe) to a new country on another continent (Asia)! (also recall that in the years after the State of Israel was created, hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands were also removed by force from their homes and re-settled in Israel). It’s fair to say that the Jewish people, having just lost 6,000,000 of its people had the utmost need for a country of refuge, even at thousands of miles away and even at the expense of the difficult dislocation of many Arabs.
Ultimately, I believe that the failure of the Palestinian people to have its own independent state is its own failure. They never negotiated the circumstances history presented them to create a state. They never produced the appropriate leaders. Indeed, they have invariably followed false, destructive leaders. They never took advantage of historical moments. They are far from being the only or even the worst suffering people in modern history. They might have built upon quite a few historical opportunities to fulfill a legitimate goal of statehood for themselves. It just seems that, as a people, they maintain and deepen a profound sense of resentment against the unfairness, the ruthlessness, the cynicism, the absurdity of history (in the sense of Camus: lacking ultimate meaning). This apparent character fault, resentment that feeds passivity among most and suicidal and murderous violence among some, has left me to wonder whether Palestinians are a people worthy of statehood. I might give several examples of leaders and of historical circumstances. Suffice it to list these as mere bullet points: Amin al-Husseini; U.N. Partition vote, 2 November 1947; the period immediately after the Six-Day War; Yasser Arafat; Camp David, 2000; Sharon disengagement from Gaza 2003-2005; Mahmoud Abbas; Olmert peace offer, 2008. I’m not the one to decide – nor is Israel – whether the Palestinian people are “worthy” of statehood. But they certainly don’t reveal that quality! And, frankly, I refuse to accept – because it’s deeply incorrect! – sole responsibility for that failure.
The current war, still ongoing and I fear yet in its earlier stages, probably provides another opportunity (final?). I hope that we and the US with moderate Arab countries and the international community, can think big, can be visionary, about this opportunity. With Hamas destroyed (hopefully), and the Palestinian Authority weak and lacking strong popular legitimacy (and its President Mahmoud Abbas turning 88 next week!), it may be appropriate to mandate an international body as a provisional administrator for the Palestinians.
I would also hope that after the war – perhaps even during the war – we Israelis will manage to remove Netanyahu and his extremist and incompetent government. This too will be an opportunity for us to renegotiate a final status to our regional condition. And perhaps to also renegotiate many internal issues that have been eating away at our national health for decades.
Just Before I Finish …
A final thought for now. Ever since Arafat walked away from the Clinton Camp David negotiations in 2000, the Israeli so-called “Left” has declined and basically disappeared as a political force. What’s happened since is a mix: Israel has become far wealthier, more a part of the institutions and culture of the West, but also more fragmented internally. The political right, religious extremism and national-religious extremism have achieved a near dominant position in our internal politics.
I often feel that one of the cardinal failures of diaspora liberal and progressive Jews, is that they’ve left the gradually diminishing secular and progressive population in Israel on our own, to uphold the humanistic Jewish-Zionist ethos. At the same time, most Anglos for example who have arrived over the past decades are religious/haredi and very many of them are legitimately (in their terms) pulled to messianic and/or halachic visions of Jewish society. The Aliyah of the former Soviet Union and the Ethiopian Aliyah, while rich in talent and culture were hardly well versed in the intricacies and fragile balances of liberal democracy, nor of the struggle of modern and contemporary Jews to be both “Jewish” and contemporary.
Simply put, Israeli society needs an infusion of what I called the humanistic Jewish- Zionist ethos. Would this be satisfied by an Aliyah rate from North and South America and Europe of 20,000 a year for five years? That would be a good beginning. We are so needing of motivated, educated, liberal (even serious conservative), democratic, modern Jews. I would assert that our true Zionist need today is not agriculture nor start-up (although both are very important) but our society itself. New Western members of society, perhaps graduates of the battles against Trump and Brexit, who know the dangers of autocracy and want to help re-mold the Jewish State that many of us have dreamt of and continue to fight for.
09 November 2023
 Plokhy, S.M., Yalta: The Price of Peace. (London. 2010)