Israel at 60: Where Did We Go Wrong?


Long seen as a nation under eternal siege, and a nation that managed to make the desert bloom in spite of this, Israel has instead come to reflect the darkest aspects of Western liberal democracy. "Israel is very democratic," the veteran peace activist Ram Rahat told me last week, "unless you’re not Jewish." All modern nations have wrestled with the desire to limit nationality to certain groups. It is arguable that Western societies have yet to resolve the tension between pluralism and the right, inherent in every nation State, to exclude some.

In Israel the right to exclude takes on an added dimension. It is unashamedly a Jewish State that happens to have an ever growing Arab minority that will eventually be in the majority. Some have citizenship but most – those who live under occupation – do not.

Rather than learn from the Jewish peoples’ long history of dispossession, Israel describes its dispossession of the Arab population as a matter of survival. To understand this mindset we must first recognise the long history of anti-Semitism and the marginalisation of Jewish communities throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa for most of these regions’ modern histories.

The Nazi Holocaust was not the only genocide committed against Jews in Europe, only the largest and most recent. While it is often noted that Jews were treated with great tolerance under Muslim rulers, they were usually second-class citizens confined to ghettos, such as the Jewish ahl al-dimma of the Ottoman Empire.

Israel is the first modern State created by Jews, for Jews, and of Jews. The urge to retain this unique characteristic is understandable and it must be acknowledged. Israel’s tragedy is that this notion has compelled it to make refugees out of the Palestinians, the people who were unfortunate enough to inhabit the lands Israel’s founders sought to colonise.

The creation of Israel in 1948 required the violent removal of most of the Palestinian population from its recognised borders. Since 1967, when Israel defeated its Arab neighbours in six days of war, the occupied West Bank has been so thoroughly colonised by Jewish settlements that it is impossible to see how a viable, contiguous Palestinian State may ever exist there.

The largest settlements are no longer far flung outposts but developed urban sprawls that are constantly expanding. Although there are no longer settlements in the Gaza Strip, Israel has blockaded it from the outside world so utterly that it has become the world’s largest ghetto. Locked into the mantra of preserving its Jewish character, Israel refuses to comprehend the extent to which it has forsaken the memory of the oppressed for the fruits of the oppressor.

There is no denying that Israel has achieved a great deal over the past six decades. Israel is a cosmopolitan society with an advanced economy and its Jewish citizens enjoy many freedoms. One of those freedoms is the ability of dissenting voices, although a minority, to challenge Israel’s motives in the Occupied Territories. It is among these dissenting voices that the world finds the finest coverage of the Jewish State.

But what confounds is the ease with which the freedoms within Israeli society sit alongside its harsh occupation. How else does one explain Israeli apathy towards Palestinian suffering? Israel’s Ambassador to the UN called former US President Jimmy Carter a bigot for meeting Hamas leaders in Syria and suggesting that Israel do the same. When I mentioned that the Israeli Defence Force refused to allow replacement sewerage pipes into Gaza an educated Israeli friend said, "[g]ood, let them suffer. That is what they [will]get until they stop firing rockets."

There are complex forces behind Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories. But what strikes an outside observer is the remarkable chutzpah with which Israel always describes its actions as self-defence. It argues that the occupation prevents it from being overwhelmed by terrorist attacks. The notion that these attacks may be a product of the occupation is rarely mooted. Indeed, many Israelis, secular and religious alike, do not even acknowledge that there is an occupation.

Israel also claimed its 2006 bombing of Lebanon was an act of self-defence against Hezbollah rockets. In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, Israel’s bombing campaign was indiscriminate. A UN investigation found that over 1000 Lebanese and 43 Israeli civilians were killed during the Hezbollah-Israel war. Israel lobbies for war with Iran and bombs suspected nuclear facilities in Syria without provocation for much the same reason.

Israel now represents a frightening vision of the future of the liberal Western State. Ever since 11 September 2001 there has been a growing chorus that Western society is threatened by an ambiguous, multi-faced terrorist threat in the guise of Islamic fundamentalism. Political answers have been replaced by this narrative with religious excuses. Western leaders may publicly claim that only a small minority of Muslims pose a threat. But underneath such rhetoric is the presumption, well understood by State security agencies and much of the public, that every Muslim has the potential to turn into a bloody-minded killer obliged to kill by his or her faith.

Commentators were quick to note that London’s 7 July 2005 bombers were relatively integrated British Muslims who had no previous record of involvement with any militant Islamic organisation. Largely forgotten in the commentary was whether Britain’s role in the occupation of Iraq influenced the attackers. Acknowledging this does not in anyway reduce the gravity of terrorism. The threat of terrorism is as frightening as it is real and Muslims have a responsibility to confront extremists within the Islamic tradition. But rather than treat terrorist attacks as we would any serious crime, some suggest that it hints towards an impending invasion from within.

Long before September 11, 2001 Israeli intellectuals were at the forefront of "terror studies". It was in Israel that terrorism somehow became reduced to "terror". It was from Israel that we learnt to avoid accepting that even the most moribund terrorist acts out of rational motivation. For if they did not act rationally it would become pointless to understand why these people seek to cause so much harm. Israel has exported its brand of terror studies to much of the Western world. Its experts claim to know the mind of the Muslim terrorist and hold Israel’s policies in the region as models to emulate. When the US occupied Iraq, it consulted Israel extensively. The US modeled its own separation walls in Baghdad’s Green Zone on the Israeli experience, thereby facilitating sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni. Israel has also had a significant hand in developing American military strategy against recalcitrant Arab populations, such as in Fallujah and Sadr City, on account of its murderous experience invading Palestinian refugee camps.

There is something wrong with our increasingly global society if the nation created by the children of the Holocaust, the greatest human catastrophe of the 20th century, is now best known for its ruthless military prowess. As Avraham Burg, the former Knesset member and speaker, famously noted in 2003, "[t]he Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs or anti-missile systems. We were supposed to be a light onto the nations. In this we have failed."

Mustafa Qadri will be reporting for from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian
over the next
two months. He will be documenting the human cost of the conflict for ordinary
Israelis and Palestinians.

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