Israel at 50

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1998

 

Israel is fifty years old. But the birth day ‘party’ is not as festive as many Israelis and Jews would want it to be. The American government is not very happy.

After fifty years of independence and one hundred years of Zionism the state of Israel can boast some extraordinary achievements. It has molded a new Jewish ethnicity, a blending of European and Oriental Jews. It has transformed ancient Hebrew into the unique language of the Jewish State. It has developed a viable economy of farming and manufacturing which has brought Israel into the ‘first world’. It has fashioned democratic political institutions, which are imperfect, but which allow for a high level of personal freedom. It has created a stunning military, which wields a power out of proportion to its numbers. It has even forged a long-lasting alliance with America, the leading military and economic power in the world.

It has also experienced some significant failures. The losses of the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon War embarrassed the Israeli army. The dichotomy between the living standards of European and Oriental Jews breeds resentment. The unique farm experiment of the kibbutzim is collapsing into socialist failure. The laws of the Jewish State ironically deny full religious freedom to Jewish alternatives to Orthodoxy and compound the inequity with large subsidies to orthodox institutions. The secular character of the early Israeli State has been replaced by the growing presence of aggressive religious fundamentalists. The enthusiastic support of American Jews, the largest and, most powerful Jewish community in the world, has been compromised by the refusal of the Israeli government to resist the demands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who despise the liberal Judaism of the United States. The economic and political status of Israeli Arabs remains inferior to that of Israeli Jews; Above all, the acquisition of new land in the Six-Day War triggered Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian rebellion.

Even the alliance with America has become a troubled connection. The fall of Communism removed the attractiveness of the Israeli military as a bulwark against Soviet expansion and the Arab allies of the Soviet Union. America now wanted to woo the Arab world as a counter-force against the new danger of Muslim fundamentalism pouring out of Iran. The vested interests of the United States began to clash with the vested interests of the Jewish State. Certainly the Gulf War demonstrated the necessity of winning the support of moderate Arab regimes.

Most of the old Israeli establishment, the leaders of the Labor party, read the ‘handwriting on the wall’ and were willing to yield to American pressure, and to make an accommodation with the Palestinians and the moderate Arab world. Their decision was reinforced by the continuing problem of Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories, the war exhaustion of the Israeli public, the vision of an economic opening to the Arab world and the anxious desire to preserve the Jewishness of the Jewish State by excluding the Arab presence. It was also clear that no peace could exist with the Arab world so long as the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs continued. The popular leader of this ‘peace’ faction was Yitzhak Rabin. The assassination of Rabin effectively undermined the power of the accommodationists.

Today the extremists, who are determined to resist all American pressure, are in charge. They are an odd coalition, united by their hatred of the old Labor establishment. They include conservative military officers, secular chauvinists, Orthodox Jews, Oriental Jews from the Muslim world, and recent Russian immigrants. Their leader is Benjamin Netanyahu, the present Prime Minister of Israel. They view any surrender of territory to the Palestinians or to other Arabs as subversive of Israeli survival.

Their power is reinforced by periodic Arab terrorism and the ambivalence of many Israelis about the risks of territorial concessions. Despite scandals and defections, the coalition is holding its own.

The real power of this new coalition lies in the changing demographics of Israel. In 1998 Israel is no longer what it was in 1948, a secular European state. Over the past fifty years Oriental Jews and Jewish religious fundamentalists have entered the Israeli scene in large numbers and transformed it. They do not wish to make any meaningful concessions to the Arab world. They want peace; but they do not want to pay the price for peace.

The Israeli people have two choices. They can continue to support the present government, subvert the peace process and alienate the American establishment. Or they can repudiate the Netanyahu regime, continue meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians and other Arab nations, and cooperate with Egypt and Jordan in their resistance to religious fundamentalism.

The vested interests of the United States in the Middle East demand that the peace process continue. The collapse of the peace process will promote support for radical Arab regimes like Iraq, and religious extremism. Neither consequence serves the long run interests of America or the maintenance of law and order in the global economy.

The future is up to the Israeli people. They have to make the fateful decision. Arafat may not be the most attractive or reliable ‘ally’ for the Israeli public. But he is preferable to the storm of fanatics who will follow his downfall.