26 June 2007 - The source of despair
I was sitting in a café in central Jerusalem a couple of nights ago when I overheard a conversation between a young Israeli man and a tall blond woman who seemed to be European. The discussion was mostly one-way, with the man talking and gesticulating while the woman took notes, and I assumed she was a journalist or possibly a student doing research. I would not have noticed had he not been so loud.
He was going on and on about all the problems in Israel—primarily the occupation, but also what he saw as the corrupt nature of Israeli identity, the abuse of Europe’s Holocaust guilt to fend off criticism, the dominance of religious groups in national life, et cetera—the usual tedious refrain. What really bothered me, though, was that he made himself out to be a victim, as if he were being persecuted for his views.
I was waiting for a friend, and when she arrived, I stood up and greeted her loudly: “Isn’t this a lovely evening, and such a great country, where you can sit in a café and talk the biggest load of bullshit about the place.” The journalist burst out laughing, which really made my evening. Even she could see that much of her subject’s story was contrived, and my outburst allowed her to express some relief.
But there was something real in what the young Israeli had been saying—not in the substance of his words, but in the feelings he was expressing. There really is a sense of despair and confusion among some Israelis. I have seen it among some of my co-workers, too. They are patriotic Israelis, even (especially?) when deeply critical of Israeli policies and certain Zionist ideas. Yet some of them feel they have lost hope.
The collapse of the Oslo peace process, the second intifada, and the Lebanon War all damaged Israeli self-confidence. The disengagement gave Israelis a sense of hope, a feeling that they were still masters of their own destiny, but the ascendancy of Hamas has undermined that feeling. In Gaza, there is no partner for peace; in the West Bank, there is a potential partner who has never been able to deliver.
By “partner” I am referring to the Palestinian leadership—for there are still millions of Palestinians who want peace with Israel. My friend and I met an Arab family walking with their children last night on the promenade above East Jerusalem last night. The kids greeted us in Hebrew and the parents spoke to us in English, telling us how badly they wanted peace and how much they believed in it.
I had similar conversations when I walked the promenade in 1999, when Ehud Barak had just come to power promising peace with the Palestinians and a withdrawal from Lebanon. In those heady days, everyone seemed to believe that peace was just around the corner. Now, almost no one seems to believe that, though most people seem to want it even more urgently than they did before.
I often think the source of despair is the failure of the Palestinians to build successful institutions that can uphold the rule of law, stop terror and prepare the way for sustainable statehood. I think many people on the Israeli left have trouble accepting this (though some, like Benny Morris, have aimed their frustration to its source), and so they turn their anger inward, against Israel, and themselves.
Yesterday the woman in the office next door spent the afternoon in tears. She is responsible for Bedouin affairs, and she was distraught at the destruction of the Bedouin village in the Negev. Normally, she told me, when the officials remove an illegal settlement, they do it on a Wednesday. This time, they did it on Monday, with an unusually large police force, in order to avoid encountering resistance.
This sort of thing really shocks and disturbs me, because this kind of action can’t be explained in terms of conflict with an external enemy. It is simply wrong. I’m not sure how I feel about the concept of the rights of “indigenous peoples,” because I believe that most of those group rights can be incorporated into existing concepts of individual rights. Regardless, the whole affair is rotten, and disturbing.
I asked one of my colleagues about it, and she said that Israel doesn’t really recognize the indigenous rights of the Bedouin. I asked her why, and she says she believes that Israel is racist, and that yesterday’s evictions were dictated by a desire to limit Arab land ownership and by an old Zionist dream of colonizing the Negev. Israel has granted Bedouins some self-government, she said, but still controls them.
I wasn’t sure what to say. We got onto a discussion of the Israel-apartheid analogy, which she said she believed in. I said that whatever the relevance of the analogy in creating public alarm about human rights abuses in the occupied territories, most people who used it didn’t want Israel to exist at all. She then said that she, too, thinks it would be better to have a single state, or at least not a “Jewish” state.
Talking to her further, however, I discovered that she believes that Jews have a right and a claim to the land of Israel; that she believes Jews are still victims of antisemitism; and so on. She shares many of the same views as me, but has come to different political conclusions—and this, I suspect, is because she sees things in terms of power imbalances, with the weaker side having claims over the stronger.
She admitted to me that this was a Marxist sort of view—and therein, perhaps, lies the problem. Israelis of both the left and the right seem to believe in a strong central government; few are genuine liberals of the Sharansky kind. All solutions are looked for in the state; all problems are blamed on the state; and if policies fail, then the state itself is in danger of failure. This muddles political thought.
Robert Nozick wrote about two ways of thinking about statehood: the invisible hand, of the Adam Smith variety, which sees political institutions as arising from the independent actions of individuals; and the hidden hand, which sees them as being created and manipulated by a powerful force behind the scenes. People here seem to think and behave according to the latter, across the political spectrum.
Today’s left and right are also obsessed with authenticity. And perhaps that is the source of despair, because none of the myths of the Middle East ever seem to come to fruition for anyone. But that was Arendt’s point, so long ago: the Zionist project gains its legitimacy not from the fact that Jews belong in Israel, but that they have achieved so much there. It is a success because of, not in spite of, its artificiality.
Despair comes from not being able to think, speak or articulate beyond notions of what is real or natural, beyond ideas of authorship and originality and sovereignty and right and statehood. In place of a humanistic way of thinking, which would be both more flexible and more concrete, and also more hopeful, I think Israelis have talked themselves into a corner. Perhaps the whole project needs re-framing.