Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

The Failures of My Generation

The folly of the tit-for-tat approach in the Israeli-Palestinian endless war is perfectly illustrated by the recent conflict in Jenin. After the end of the one of the largest incursions in many years by the IDF into the West Bank, during which at least 12 Palestinians were killed, along with one Israeli soldier dead (possibly from friendly fire) and thousands fleeing from their homes over the past two days, the other side hit back. An Israeli police vehicle was attacked and a Palestinian man drove a pickup truck into Israeli civilians at a bus stop in Tel Aviv, injuring at least eight, some gravely, before trying to stab some of them and being fatally shot by a passer-by.

And as I write this, news reports are coming in that another Israeli was slain in a Palestinian shooting attack near Kedumim in the northern West Bank, with the shooter also later killed. Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades declared responsibility for the most recent attack, saying that it was conducted as a response to the recent Israeli operation in Jenin What has all this killing on both sides accomplished? Nothing of lasting significance, nothing at all that can give either side hope. Nothing that will end the killing.

If anything, we have seen that for all the years that a Netanyahu-led government has been in power, the situation of this conflict has not improved for either side. While a strong argument can be made that the most recent decisions – both political and military – are primarily motivated by the Prime Minister’s desire to deflect attention from his many failures and his trial for alleged criminal activity, the fact is that even earlier in his career as PM, when he was at what may have been ‘the top of his game’, Netanyahu never moved the needle away from zero, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace today seems further away than ever.

The wheels have been spinning all along, and neither side has brought us any closer to a resolution. Many would agree that the two-state solution is an idea that has evaporated, as Netanyahu and his allies probably wished all along.

The easy answer as to why this is the case is simply to note that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have leaders who have no real vision of peace. Alas, we see that the only interest both sides share is maintaining their own grip on power. The Palestinians have no elections, no consensus for peace, and an over-abundance of cronyism. The Netanyahu gang likewise aims to hobble if not end democracy, to replace peace with endless settlers, and the same plethora of cronyism. Both sides are racing toward or already have a regime of corruption led by criminals.

It is simple to call for change, but much harder to actually bring it about. The spontaneous outpouring of protest over the anti-democratic moves by the current Netanyahu government are encouraging, but new leadership with an alternative vision for the future has been slow to emerge from these protests, and it is easier to protest than to offer new directions and new ideas. We know what we are against, but what are we for? On the Palestinian side, protest against the leadership takes the form of a war among brothers, most recently focusing on the Palestinian Authority under Mohammad Abbas endless administration but also in the tensions between Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as smaller militias, each of which wants to dictate its way to control by outdoing the other in violence. No leadership that can offer Palestinians anything but false hope and more suffering and violence can be found. It’s every person for himself.

The so-called “great powers,” whom we have always looked for to impose some sort of peace plan have little to offer, busy as they are with their own internal rivalries and the decline of democratic ideals among all – including the USA. We have entered an era where lies are stronger than truth, where people resort to violence more often than negotiation, and true leadership is hard to find. For a baby boomer like me who went through the 1960s hoping for better, it’s hard to watch the 2020s so hopelessly lost. I remember feeling so hopeful in 1967 that Israel was at last going to learn to live with the Palestinians and that perhaps the world whose attention was briefly riveted on this little space was going to help that happen. Now more than a half-century later the dream has turned into a nightmare. The events of 1967 turned out to complicate life even more in this region. Like the generation of the Exodus from Egypt, I look now to the generation of my children to finally stand up and bring us to the Promised Land and to an end of the conflict that we only made worse.
There are new ideas floating around. A plan for cantonization that would try to turn the two states into different cantons with each group of citizens managing their own cantons and sharing responsibility for national defense, freedom of movement, an economy, and immigration. Others talk about different solutions including the separation of religion and state or federalism. But ideas need leaders who can run with them and create followers. Netanyahu and his cronies will have to go – that is clear. But we need some people, not straw men, with whom to replace them, people with open minds and the best interests of all of us who live here in their hearts.

We need a leader, not a straw man
About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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