The Roots of the Conflict – The Hope and Despair of Israel

The establishment of the state of Israel was, in some respects, a very mundane event. The achievement of Jewish sovereignty was a matter of building sewage systems, post offices and town halls. This version of Zionism, as a mundane process of state-building, is reflected in the Hebrew poet Bialik’s famous quote that ‘We will be a normal state when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief and the first Hebrew policeman.’ But, of course, Zionism has always had another strain which is much more idealistic and is encapsulated in this paragraph in the declaration of independence:

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

This idealism is also evident in the common use of the term aliyah (ascent) for Jewish immigration to Israel and in the use of terms such as ‘redemption of the land’ to describe Jewish settlement. For religious Zionists, this idealism takes on a mystical dimension, as the Jewish return to Israel, the in-gathering of exiles (Kibbutz Galuyot), is frequently seen as a precursor to the messianic age.

The hopes placed in Zionism and Israel are profound. They touch on Jews’ deepest desires, identities, traumas and fears. Scholars have shown how, particularly in the pre-state period, the condition of Diaspora was associated with physical and metaphysical weakness, in a largely unconscious internalisation of anti-Semitic accusations that Jewish men were somehow feminised and somehow not fully human. The proud, strong, suntanned sabra, a soldier, farmer and man of action, presented an irresistible image of strength to a Jewish people recovering from the disaster of the Shoah. Even if Diaspora Jews did not plan to move to Israel, they could still take pride and hope from the development of Israel and the new Zionist man. The huge popularity in the Diaspora of Leon Uris’s 1958 book Exodus and the subsequent film version, together with other fictional images of resilient Zionists, exemplified the dreams and fantasies invested in Israel. Daring Israeli actions, such as the abduction of Adolf Eichmann and the raid on Entebbe, thrilled much of the Diaspora.

Pride in Israeli strength has often gone hand in hand with fears over Israel’s weakness. Its small size and location in what is sometimes described as a ‘bad neighbourhood’ make Israel seem vulnerable. Its military victories, particularly the Six Day War, have sometimes been understood as ‘miracles’, rather than as the result of the superiority of its armed forces.

The centrality of Israel in Jewish emotional life has been reflected in the organisation of Jewish communal life. Post-1948 and, particularly, post-1967, support for Israel became a consensual rallying point for Jewish communities which were ever more divided religiously. Diaspora communities invested in Israel emotionally, financially and institutionally, through fundraising, education and, particularly, through tours of the country. Israel is a place of ‘peak experiences’, of intense teenage and young adult tours, in which growth and sexual exploration take place in an emotionally heightened atmosphere.

The possibility of greater numbers of Jews turning against Israel, therefore, stimulates concerns, not just that this development may weaken Israel, but also that it may weaken Jewish communal infrastructure. The erosion of consensus on Israel can feel like the erosion of Jewish community itself. The centrality of Israel in the Jewish community has, to some extent, left it hostage to fortune. At times, the intense investment in Israel can backfire. Some of those who were most passionately Zionist in their youth and attended organised Israel programmes become disillusioned when they find that the reality of Israel cannot match their expectations. The corollary of pro-Israel hope can be anti-Israel disappointment – both involve the same level of emotional investment, with polar opposite results.

As the Oslo process began to come apart in the 2000s, so supporters of Israel had to adjust to a return to a situation in which Israel faced con­tinual conflict. This process was traumatic for many, particularly those who had invested heavily in the idea of the two-state solution. Althou­gh for much of the country’s history, support for Israel meant living with constant warfare, in the pre-Oslo days there was a certain phlegmatic acceptance of hostility to Israel. Post-Oslo, it has been difficult to accept a return to that hostility. Those who blame Palestinian intransigence or Israeli naïveté for the failure of Oslo are frequently more bitter and angry at their opponents than they would have been pre-Oslo.

For most of Israel’s history and pre-history, support for Israel meant accepting that significant sections of the world (mostly in the Middle East, Africa and the Soviet bloc) were strongly opposed to either the actions or the very existence of the Jewish state. Post-2000, the perceived return to this pariah status is hard for many to accept. The situation is compounded by the perception that countries previously supportive of Israel, such as the UK, are becoming increasingly critical. Again, there can be no return to earlier generations’ acceptance of Israel’s lonely status in the world. ‘Delegitimization’ is thus felt as an unprecedented threat, even if that is not the case historically speaking. The fact that Israel was formed in much less supportive circumstances than those prevailing today provides no comfort.

If Israel faced opposition from other nation states for much of its history, in recent years, Israel and Zionism face criticism from a much more broad-based movement than ever before. Israel now faces a global movement that is similar to, though perhaps not yet as big as, the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. The Palestinians, largely invisible and ignored pre-1967, now have passionate supporters around the globe. Israel also faces intensive scrutiny from globalised media outlets and internet-based campaigners. Leaving aside the question of whether Israel’s actions in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009 were proportional or justified, it is certainly true that Israel has conducted similar operations at other points in its history with much less comment.

In his book, Israel Versus Utopia, author Joel Schalit argues that ‘the Middle East has become a metaphor for the world.’50 Middle Eastern politics is so thoroughly enmeshed in the politics of the US, the UK and many other countries that the region has become a kind of cypher for peoples’ hopes and fears. The complaint is sometimes made that those who criticise Israel, particularly those who advocate boycotts, divestment and sanctions, are singling out Israel in ways that are disproportionate, particularly when compared to the lack of attention they may pay to states guilty of far worse crimes. While this complaint may sometimes be accurate, it is once again the corollary of the kind of support for Israel that treats the defence of the country as of paramount importance. In this respect, all sides in the conflict have much in common.

image (2)Dr. Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and writer. He is co-author of ‘Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today’, the author of ‘Judaism: All That Matters’. He has edited the Jewish Journal of Sociology and the Jewish Quarterly. He is a regular contributor of articles and reviews to many publications including The Guardian. The Independent, New Statesman and Society, Times Literary Supplement and the Jewish Chronicle. 

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