My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
XIII Israeli Arabs, Hezbollah and the Jewish Youth Occupy Movement
Chapter fourteen entitled, “Reality Shock, 2006,” suggests a rude awakening. Ari argues that Israel experienced seven different revolts within thirty years, presumably between 1976 and 2006: the settler’s revolt, the peace revolt, the liberal-judicial revolt, the Oriental revolt, the ultra-Orthodox revolt, the hedonistic-individualistic revolt, and the Palestinian-Israeli revolt.” (327) I had trouble aligning this list with his chapters. To call the settler movement of the seventies a revolt is a little puzzling. To call the peace movement – Peace Now – a revolt also seems an exaggeration. What was the liberal-judicial revolt? Was Ari referring to the 1989 Supreme Court ruling that 16 miles of the separation fence had to be re-routed because its path caused undue and unnecessary hardship to Palestinians when an alternate route providing for security was available while, at the same time, determining that the green line was not a political border? As I read on, it was clear he was really referring to the liberal-economic rather than liberal-judicial revolt against the nanny state rather than against the military state. But there is no specific chapter to provide guidance; his confused language does not help. And wasn’t the Oriental and the ultra-Orthodox revolt the same as he told the story of Deri? And why call the explosion of the club scene by hedonist-individualists (and ordinary young Israelis) a revolt?
In any case, at least the last revolt, the uprising in the Galilee in 2003 when 12 Arab-Israeli citizens were killed, is clear for Ari deals with that in Chapter thirteen as he features Mohammed Dahla, an Arab-Israeli lawyer, who insists that Jewish Israelis fail to recognize that they need Arab-Israelis as their partners in the turmoil of the Middle East and set aside their distrust which can be rooted in the effort to define Israel as a Jewish state instead of a state for all Israelis. Mohammed hates the imported architecture imposed on the landscape. The only natural architecture suited to the terrain is traditional and Arabic. Mohammed objects to the absence of Arabic on most highway signs. But most of all, he objects to the exclusion of the Arabic history and identity from Israeli history. This is a charge hard to refute since the state was created in dealing with the insistence that this competing national identity and history be the ruling one. Further, the Israeli-Arabs cannot get over the fact that the guests who were a minority have become the masters. So Mohammed resurrects the vision whereby the Arabs will realize their “natural” role by surrendering the two-state solution in favour of one state, the very reason Jewish Israelis will never agree and remain suspicious of their own citizens of Arab background.
The exclusion and discrimination of Arab-Israelis is appalling. But the Israeli Arabs tell the same stories as the enemies of Israel – the Jews have no rights to the TempleMount and the story of the Jewish temple is a fiction. Further, if a single state is not forthcoming, Arab-Israelis want an autonomous Galilee in an echo of ethnic conflicts everywhere. And Mohammed envisions and hopes for the return of the Palestinian refugees by the hundreds of thousands. “We will be masters and you will be our servants.” (323) That Mohammed Dahla would openly say this to Ari is a credit to Ari’s interviewing skills. As long as Azmi Bishara remains a hero of the Israeli-Palestinians, Jewish Israelis will continue to distrust Arab-Israeli citizens. Of course, there are far more moderates as the Palestinian directed Israeli film, The Attack, made clear. But the dilemma remains – how to be a democratic state respecting the equality and rights of every single citizen regardless of ethnic origin or religion while also being a Jewish state that has a minority that dreams of once again being a majority and, therefore, still not accepting the UN partition resolution to divide the land between an Arab and a Jewish state. How do you defend the equal rights of Mohammed Dahla who is one of the foremost defenders among Israeli-Arabs of human rights when Dahla himself at a deeper level believes in overturning the system and establishing Arab culture as the dominant and superior one?
In any case, Ari claims that these seven revolts all contributed to “the disintegration of the Israeli republic.” (328) Until I read this I had no idea Israel had become a failed state. But that is not what Ari means. He says that instead of a mature and stable state, Israel had become a bazaar. Has Ari not paid any attention to what has happened to other states around the world and the difficulties of governance in our time in history?
“The settlers rose against political discipline and restraint. The peaceniks rose against historical and geostrategic reality. The liberals rose against the all-too-powerful state. The Orientals rose against the Occidental domination. The ultra-orthodox rose against secularism. The hedonists rose against the suffocating conformism of Zionist collectivism. The Palestinian-Israelis rose against Jewish nationalism.” (328) The previous seven revolts resulted in a “lack of leadership and lack of direction and lack of governability.” (328) The key turning point had been the Yom Kippur War which “promulgated a deep distrust of the state, its government, and its leadership.” (329) Moral authority and hierarchy broke down. The 2006 crisis was the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon that lasted only 33 days. According to Ari, it delivered a shock from which Israel has not yet recovered. The one institution in which all Israelis still had faith, had failed them. The IDF was not able to defeat a militia with only 8,000 militants.
Do I hear echoes of William Yeats’ The Second Coming?
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
So we have been presented chapter after chapter with the image of a falcon flying in wider and wider circles so that the centripetal and the centrifugal forces lose all sense of balance and everything spins out of control and the falcon loses its bearings which provide its basis for safety and security. But unlike Yeats who ascribes the passionate intensity to the worst, Ari celebrates the passionate intensity expressed by the rebels of different stripes. But the dominant image is the same – a society headed towards self-destruction and chaos. Like Yeats, Ari undertakes this book as an effort to kick start radical change, but since Ari is a Jew and not a Christian, he cannot exactly call it a “second coming”, but he can help us recall Yeats’ image of the lion with the head of a man. This is Ari’s image – a cool and deliberate head attached to a fearsome body which radiates predatory power as well as royal strength and authority. So the human face on the lion has a blank glaze as pitiless as the sun. But the common core of values had disintegrated. The melting pot itself melted. “They were not willing to take orders from anyone. They trusted no one. They became unknowing anarchists.”
So much for a prose version of a poet’s lament posing as a political analysis with not one whit of evidence to back it up and the economic, technological, pharmaceutical, gastronomical transformations yet to be described all belying the depiction. But none of these yet belong to Ari’s promised land. Instead, anarchic Israel keeps crashing into reality checks — in 2006, the Lebanon War in which Israel for the first time “was not able to defeat an enemy.” (331)
But this is what all wars are like that pit standing armies against revolts embedded in civil society rather than the state. That is why Israel can put down the intifada and win a series of battles but cannot win the war. Just as America was helpless and humiliated in the face of the Sunni revolt in Iraq, just as America was virtually helpless and humiliated by the Taliban revolt in Afghanistan, and just as America hesitated to repeat such a lesson in Syria, Israel cannot and should not be expected to win a war against Hezbollah. The goal is only to beat it into a recognition of a superior enemy and create an unwillingness to wrestle with the mighty anytime soon.
Only two chapters ago Ari was celebrating the freedom and joy of casual sex and drugs. Now he is distressed that these hedonists do not recognize the need to maintain Israel’s might. Zionism, the nation, the army all had to be celebrated not denigrated. The hedonistic individualists regarded Jewish nationalism with contempt. As Netanyahu has said repeatedly, and Ari here echoes, Israel lives in a very tough neighbourhood. “Israel is a Jewish state in an Arab world” (332) and an Arab world that is in turmoil. In the face of the contradiction of being “a democracy surrounded by tyrannies, a Jewish state in an Arab world and a Western state in an Islamic world. Israel must re-invent itself as a unique, positive anomaly.” (332) Because this contradiction is not just the current condition; it is “perpetual”. This, of course, ignores, the zig-zag moves of Arab states towards democratic regimes that have only been more or less reasonably successful in Tunisia.
Everyone is to blame but Ari. “The constant attacks on nationalism, the military, and the Zionist narrative consumed Israel’s existence from within. Business inculcated ad absurdam the illusion of normalcy by initiating sweeping privatization and establishing an aggressive capitalist regime that didn’t suit the needs of a nation in conflict. (my italics) Academia inculcated ad absurdum a rigid political correctness by turning the constructive means of self-criticism into an obsessive deconstructive end of its own. The media promoted a false consciousness that combined wild consumerism with hypocritical righteousness. Instead of purpose and promise, the Israeli elite embraced self-doubt and cynicism.” (333) But if the privatization was an essential step for creating Israel as a start-up nation, how can one support clinging to the patriarchal nanny state in the name of a solid sense of the collective?
In any case, one might write that as well about Canada and the USA, but the difference was that Israel lived in a world in which it was always in existential danger. Israel could not afford such self-indulgent luxuries. Israel needed inspiring tales and solid norms. Israel needed equality and solidarity. Otherwise why would youth be willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation? For Ari, the immediate challenge is not the occupation but “the challenge of regaining national potency”. But perhaps the challenge is really facing the fact, that other than the temporary aberration of Iran (tomorrow), in reality Israel is no longer under an existential threat for the time being.
However, for Ari, this is the perpetually perilous world Israel lives in: “Iran on the rise, Hezbollah building up in the south. Peace has failed. Occupation has failed. Unilateralism has failed….Faced with renewed existential danger, Israel has no relevant national strategy. It is confused and paralyzed.” (334) And Israel is schizophrenically divided between the soldiers who fight in the north and the clubbers in Tel Aviv indifferent to the war and in pursuit of sex, drugs and self-satisfaction.
In the next chapter, fifteen entitled “Occupy Rothschild, 2011” Ari tells the story of the immigration of the Strauss family from Nazi Germany in the thirties and the growth, largely due to the matriarch and her son, Michael, of a cheese and dairy multinational. The chapter is a paean to the industriousness, creativity, boldness and initiatives of the Israeli people themselves. The next example is Kobi Richter, an air pilot in the Six Day War who attacked the Egyptian airfields and aircraft at El-Arish and by 1989 controlled 60% of the worldwide AOI market with annual revenues of over $400 million and then went on to found Medinol which made the most flexible but rigid stents used in medical surgery.
Ari echoes many of the results of research that point out the cluster of factors that turned Israel into the greatest start-up nation in the modern world. Military investment and the infrastructure and close camaraderie and trust developed in the army along with the radical individualism and self-reliance encouraged and developed in Israeli society, the Russian immigration, the cross fertilization of various fields of expertise. are among the many factors that made Israeli society unique.
Stanley Fischer, the immediate past brilliant Governor of the Bank of Israel credits four other factors for its success and four dangers. One reason for success was the reduction of government spending from 51% of GDP to 42%, the huge reduction in the national debt from 100% to 7% of GDP, maintaining a conservative and responsible financial system and fostering the conditions that will encourage high-tech to flourish. The four worrisome problems are a deteriorating educational system, the low employment rate among the ultra-Orthodox (45%), the low employment rate in the Arab-Israeli sector because most Arab women do not work and the concentration of ownership in a few firms thus reducing competition. The perils the country faces all boil down to economics!!! Ari just takes it all in and regurgitates it back. What about the discovery of natural resources, the gas finds off the coast, as a serendipitous cause of success? What about the peril of religious fanaticism?
Dan Ben David, an economics professor at Hebrew U has his own perils – the fivefold growth in welfare payments over thirty years because money is being transferred to the ultra-Orthodox and Arab minorities instead of being invested in infrastructure, the slower rate of annual growth while social cohesion and social justice have been eroded, the inadequate investment in human capital, the demographic revolution whereby the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab population, the least productive sectors, are growing at an astounding rate thereby dooming Israel to becoming a backward nation, The few work harder and harder to support the many who proliferate more and more.
Itzik Shmuli, a Jewish kid from a Kurdish Jewish family from northern Iraq who went on to become a leader of the protest movement against high rents that eventually led 450,000 Israelis, 6% of Israel’s population, to take to the streets, is Ari’s next narrator. For Ari, the 2011 revolt is the most impressive. Why? Because it was moderate and nonviolent and won 80% of Israeli support. Or was it really because it seemed to die leaving hardly a trace and seemed to have no influence in producing more rental units or more affordable ones thereby echoing parallel protests in New York and Toronto? The absence of any comparative perspective, the inflation of Israeli problems as if they are exclusive to Israel, begins to pall.
It stands to reason that if you cut public expenditures to boost the private sector, investment in education will suffer. Since this was happening around the world in no relationship to the Yom Kippur War, why is the War the source of the change? As the health, education and infrastructure are starved for funds, they all deteriorate. As the rich grow richer and the spread between the super-rich and the poor expand greatly, and greater in Israel than almost anywhere else because Israel was more egalitarian than anywhere except Tanzania and is now more inegalitarian than anywhere but the USA, it is far more noticeable there.
Ari is a great story teller but a terrible analyst covered up in good part by giving many of those analysts their own platform. Look at this account as he boils all the stories he has heard down to lessons learned. “The secret of Israeli high tech is bucking authority, ignoring conventional wisdom, and flouting the rules of the game. The weakness of the Israeli state is bucking authority, ignoring conventional wisdom, and flouting the rules of the game.” (361) Clever, but they are all just one reason -an innovative spirit. Ari has boiled everything down to a tautology. The reason for innovation is innovation and it results in both success and failure. Other than ending up with an empty conclusion, Ari totally fails to distil what he heard. Further, how did the supposed suffocating conformism of Zionism yield such innovative individuality
What happened in the streets of Tel Aviv is for Ari a wake up call. “out of disintegration and despair we must rise to the challenge of the most ambitious project of all: nation building. The resurrection of the Israeli republic.” (362)
Am I blind? Am I stupid? Why all the enthusiasm for this false prospector of doom and false prophet of the need for resurrection?