In 1916, two unassuming diplomats from Britain and France surreptitiously colluded to colonize the Middle East. WWI raged on as they decided how to partition Ottoman territories, given the eventuality of their joint victory against the Central Powers. The ridiculously absurd, arbitrary assignment of formal international borders, thrust upon a region that had for millennia existed as a single entity, forever changed the politics of the region, and their obnoxious, myopic, corrupt attempt at dividing the Ottoman territory of Greater-Syria (or “Sham”), continues to wreak havoc for all its inhabitants. The French and British diplomats did not have the inhabitants’ interest in mind when they haphazardly drew their coarse, uninspired, political boundaries, and, much like what occurred in other colonized regions of Africa, India and Asia, their artificially constructed new national entities caused much suffering for many millions of souls. The world would have been a much better place were it not for Sykes and Picot.
As a natural phenomenon, the historical Land of Israel/Phoenicia can be defined by the populous, fruitful, inhabited land straddling the coast of the Mediterranean coast, from Gaza to Antioch, and inland to the cities of Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, Irbid and Amman. Beyond these border cities, however, the population thins into the interminable deserts of Iraq, Arabia, Sinai and Syria. The modern State of Israel inhabits the central portion of this large region of arable land of copious population centers. Hebron, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Acre and, more recently, metropolitan Tel-Aviv, combine to form an uninterrupted network of human development and settlement, stretching hundreds of kilometers over physical and political obstacles. A wide diversity of wildlife, ethnicities and cultures all call Israel, and the Greater-Syrian region home, and, for the majority of human history, the importance of arbitrary land-borders did not interest many of the local inhabitants. Today, however, these artificial borders have grown in number and significance, rendering any kind of normative political discourse surrounding democracy futile and hypocritical.
Throughout modern history, especially in Europe, the definition of borders follows the simple rules of self-determination. The French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Polish, Hungarians etc., all have clear ethnic and cultural qualifications for their insularity. A Frenchman who decides to visit Germany must either learn German or suffer alienation from a society that does not possess intimate knowledge of the French language. His historical narrative, as well as cultural mores, cuisine, employment practices, artistic canon and overall identity will stand out among locals. As an American Oleh, I know the feeling of not fitting in. The cultural divide between Israeli and American Jewry, much like our differing political opinions, makes for a difficult period of acculturalization upon arrival. Physical distance also plays a part in the development of a shared identity. In Europe, vast distances dilute cultural differences over many hundreds or thousands of kilometers. The large geographical autonomy that European nations possess allows them to differentiate themselves not only culturally, but also physically, through [albeit usually-open] borders, independent armies and unique geographical regions.
Israel, however, lacks both cultural and geographic autonomy. The Jews in Israel speak mostly Hebrew, but the Arab citizens of Israel speak Arabic. Not only that, but the Arabic spoken by Israeli and Palestinian Arabs differs only very slightly from the Arabic spoken by Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians. While Israel may exhibit some cultural autonomy in respect to its neighbors, it would remain quite difficult to separate Palestinians and Lebanese into two separate cultural categories. In reality, all of these Levantine peoples share a common spoken dialect (unlike Iraqi and Egyptian Arabs who speak different dialects), a common cultural heritage, and a shared political narrative. The Syrians and Lebanese didn’t choose to see themselves as different nations. The British and French decided for them, forcibly severing them from their true brethren.
Indeed, The State of Israel complicates matters for the contiguity of such a large cultural identity. Representing but a small ethnic minority among the masses of cultural Arabs in the region, the Jews of Israel justifiably fear their integration, assimilation, or annihilation. Their identity threatened, Israelis have a vested interest in safeguarding their ethnic majority in their elective borders. However, as we now understand it, these borders (even those from 1948) too, reveal themselves as arbitrary, insignificant designations made in the confusion of ethnic conflict. Israel’s true borders, historically, biblically and culturally, remain outside those of the modern state of Israel, and even outside those of mandatory Palestine. For true democracy to exist, Israel would need to incorporate all inhabiting its natural geographical and cultural domain, including a vast number of non-Jewish Arabs. In short, in order for Israel to be considered democratic, it must initially become a representative of all people under its jurisdiction (including the West Bank), and eventually, throughout its larger historical borders.
During its years of Apartheid, South Africa created hundreds of isolated Bantustans in order to concentrate the local population and rid itself of its responsibility for their physical and economic security. The white-led government gerrymandered the borders to these territories according to its racial interests and in order to preserve the independent cultural hegemony of the British and Dutch settlers. These artificial borders smothered the rights of the indigenous population and were eventually abolished with the dissolution of the apartheid regime. The racist insistence on arbitrary designations of borders, bereft of most natural resources etc., evokes the Israeli political mainstream that similarly insists upon the arbitrary borders of a chaotic ceasefire, elevating them to an idealistic notion of national redemption. The situation differs here as current political tensions will most likely thwart any sort of democratic resolution to the conflict, however the hypocrisy of the calls for democracy must stand trial.
I do not contend to offer a strategic plan for effective political action in the region, and I’m not here to name-call, accuse or blame, but, as a start, we should come to terms with our uninspired reality. Israel may purport to represent a progressive, democratic society in the wilderness of totalitarian chaos, but Israeli-democracy is surely an oxymoron.
And it has nothing to do with Bibi.
The geographical extent of the Levantine region, as per its light-pollution footprint. www.darksitefinder.com