London Review of Books - 20 Feb 2003
Who shall we blame it on?
Yitzhak Laor reports from Tel Aviv
Two days before the general election at the end of January, Israel again imposed a full closure on the Occupied Territories. It was done in the name of normality, which in itself has become a national value ('terror shall not prevail'), and in the name of democracy ('we are an integral part of the West'). Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were sealed off in their villages and towns, so that their masters - that is us, the Israelis - would enjoy the freedom to choose.
One day we'll think about how many noisy soldiers it took to secure one quiet ballot station. How many arrests, grabs, shoves, slaps, humiliations, curfews, closed schools, blocked streets, emptied clinics, ruined children's playgrounds gave us the satisfaction and pride that 'terror has not prevailed'? How much darkness is needed over there to light our shopping malls (and our cafés, theatres, cinemas, concert halls, wedding halls)? How stringent a military dictatorship does our democracy have to impose on the Palestinians in order to give us the freedom to decide on their fate, while all the time boasting that we are the only democracy in this part of world?
This wish for normality is the other side of indifference. Is it possible to vote for parties that offer only military solutions? No, the average reader would reply, yet here normality means indifference and indifference is a shield through which information does not penetrate. Thousands of Israelis have participated in the Occupation, thousands have done their bit to implement the Oslo Accords, have measured out their checkpoint geography. Thousands of Israelis were acquainted with one or two at least of the Palestinians who used to work here as cheap labourers and who have now disappeared into the oblivion of the sealed territories. Yet during the election campaign not one Jewish party dared to speak about Palestinian suffering.
Ten settlers were elected to serve in the new Knesset. The Palestinian Authority no longer exists, except as an easy target for all kinds of accusation and sanction. The Occupation seems far away: the settlements seem very near. When the radio reports that 'Israeli citizens were killed near Qiryat Arba' (a big settlement near Hebron), it is reporting on terrorism inside our country, but when the IDF operates within a Palestinian town, it is out there, far away, as if in a distant land across the sea. Or at least that is how the Right has been speaking of it for some time - but so too has the Zionist Left, which for more than two years now has accepted this redesignation of the imaginary borders.
The IDF is of course above suspicion. Not only do former generals play a major role on both sides of the political map, but all Jewish parties, including Meretz, the party of the intellectual Left, and the Labour Party, condemn the Refuseniks. Courage to Refuse, the movement of combat soldiers who have declared 'war on the war' and refuse to continue serving in the Occupied Territories, was shocked to discover that Meretz wanted nothing to do with it. Israel is in a state of ideological stasis; the Left has capitulated and the last coalition government was the institutional expression of that fact. Even when the hands were the hands of Esau, i.e. the IDF, the voice was Jacob's voice, i.e. the voice of the Likud. The Zionist Left - Meretz, Labour, Peace Now - should no longer be part of this game, but, alas, nothing will persuade it to distance itself from the military, even when this proximity sends the electorate straight into the arms of the Likud. After all, why should the voters settle for a fake when they can get the real thing?
Labour was an active member of Sharon's previous Government. But Meretz, too, accepted the basic narrative according to which 'former Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians everything at Camp David, but they wanted even more.' So where did the handful of members of the radical Left go? They voted for the Democratic Front (the Communist Party and others), or for Balad, Dr Azmi Bishara's Arab nationalist party. Most remained secluded inside the universities, waiting for future historians to unravel the mysteries of Barak's one success: dismantling the Peace Movement.
Lots of accusations were made during the campaign, as in every election campaign. The Right blamed the Left for the 'Oslo Victims', i.e. the Jews killed in guerrilla and terrorist attacks since the festival of Purim in February 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, a settler from Qiryat Arba, massacred innocent Muslims praying in Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs. That this was the beginning of the suicide bombings is now forgotten; maybe it's not that important. Why did the Israelis forget Goldstein's crime? Why every year at Purim do they worry about retaliation without giving the massacre any thought? And more important: why did Labour forget the role Sharon played in Lebanon? Because they sat with him in his Government for 20 months, as if the Lebanon War had never taken place. How could they start talking about Sabra and Shatila in the old way when Sabra and Shatila are only ever perceived as instruments of anti-Israeli propaganda?
Labour blamed Sharon for the suicide bombings inside Israel, but, apart from his alleged corruption, that was all they blamed him for - and the reason they blamed him at all was that he was reluctant to build a 'separation fence' along the old border between Israel and Palestine. The Right's reluctance to build the fence is due to its reluctance to mark a border there. The Left supports the idea of demarcation, but wants to include many of the settlements on our side of the fence. In fact the fence is actually being built and is swallowing up yet more chunks of a shrinking Palestine. Markets are being ruined, villages are sliced in two, peasants lose access to their olive orchards, impoverished day labourers lose their vague hope of finding work inside Israel.
To be a moderate in Israel, to be on the 'sane Left' (as the Zionist Left calls itself, " to distinguish itself from the radical Left which identifies with the Palestinian struggle), means to be in favour of the separation fence. But if one travels to see those parts of Palestine already 'separated' by the fence (the town of Qalqilya), one can see how it separates Palestinian towns and villages not only from Israel but from the rest of Palestine as well. And of course the separation is one-sided. Israelis have the right to enter the Palestinian side, but Palestinians cannot enter our country. The same logic works everywhere here. The 'separation roads' have always meant separation not between Israel and Palestine but between Palestinian and Israeli destinations. And now, as the process of apartheid becomes more entrenched, Palestinians cannot drive on those roads or indeed on many other roads in the West Bank. It is crucial to understand the non-existence of the Palestinians in the Israeli consciousness. They are a danger. Thus, they have to be excluded from our territory. I am not talking of Foucauldian heteronomies. The 'separation roads' create a real continuity between Jewish settlements, while simultaneously destroying any form of Palestinian territorial continuity. The checkpoints are only an accessory to that process.
All settlers vote in their settlements: they are citizens of Israel, and their settlements are part of the Israeli democratic state. They voted en masse for the Right, of course, mainly for the parties that solicit 'transfer', which is the term for the expulsion of the Palestinians. Meretz lost almost half its voters and became a small party with six seats in the Knesset. Labour remained the second largest party in the Knesset, but with only 19 seats (compared with the Likud's 38). Among voters under 30, among the million new immigrants from the former USSR, among the poor, the Labour Party has few supporters. What Sharon needed from Labour was legitimation in the international community. They gave it to him. Why? In Israeli jargon it is called 'a Volvo and a chauffeur', which means they love being in power. The truth is even sadder: they do not know how to resist the temptation of power.
Terror did prevail. In recent years it has erased more and more political differences in favour of a 'new Israeliness', that fragile subjectivity which feels itself strong only on days of national mourning. There is no other common denominator, not even language (most of the Jewish parties used Russian subtitles in their TV election broadcasts); sometimes there isn't even a common religion (some 20 per cent of the new Russian immigrants are not Jewish). Hatred of the Palestinians has played a major part in the new Israeliness (though it didn't originate with the current wave of terrorism). Israelis, in general, are deaf to Palestinian suffering - this isn't just a 'tactic' and a 'strategy', but a way of life. Mainstream Israeli literature was never militarist or chauvinist, but except for a few rare cases it never dealt with the Palestinian tragedy.
Hatred played a major role in the election campaign. That part of the Left which called for an end to the Occupation failed: compassion didn't seem to fit. If there was any compassion to be felt it was for Sharon. The people, the masses, the poor, were called on to defend him from 'leftist incitement'. Huge banners along the roads proclaimed in blue and white letters: 'The People Elect Sharon', and 'The People Elect Likud against the Incitement of the Left'. (Other banners offered the same Sharon to the same people for other reasons.)
At one point during the campaign it seemed that the Likud would suffer as a result of widespread allegations of corruption among its candidates in the Party's primary elections. All this is far from over, and even Sharon might end up under police interrogation, if not worse. However, the turning point of the campaign was the moment when his team managed to sell the fat, old, pork-eating, hedonist general - the richest premier Israel has ever had - to the public as a victim of the 'leftist media and judicial system'. His alleged corruption, his connection with a certain English millionaire, his claims that he 'didn't know' about a $1.5 million deposit given to him so that he could pay back illegal donations he had used in his former campaign, the alleged connections between his son Omri (now also a member of the Knesset) and criminals - all these became Sharon's 'strong points'. From the moment his press conference was silenced during a live broadcast on Israel's three TV channels by the head of the Central Election Committee, Justice Mishael Cheshin, for blatant violation of the Election Propaganda Law, Sharon's popularity just soared and soared.
Labour supporters in the Israeli press keep complaining that Sephardic Jews forget that Labour has not been running the country for many years now. That is true - though the Labour Party tends to forget it, too. Since 1967, Sharon, and before him Binyamin Netanyahu, and before him Menachem Begin, have been offering the 'new Israelis' a simple way of identifying with the state: by hating the Arabs. This requires a brief explanation. The East-West divide is deeply traumatic for us. There is no part of Israeli life where this tension does not threaten to erupt. Jews from Iraq, or Egypt, or Yemen, or Morocco, in order to be Israelis, must first become 'Eastern Jews' - that is, have a common 'Eastern' identity which did not exist prior to their being Israelis. Then they have to become 'Israelis' - i.e. having become 'Easterners', they immediately escape this definition. The hatred that the state - and even more so the Right - offers them has always been the hatred of one minority for another. Any intelligent reading of the novels of A.B. Yehoshua, the most famous Sephardic writer in Israel, can detect the desire to erase the East-West difference 'within us', and move it further away.
How is it, however, that the Sephardic Jews never succeeded in organising themselves for themselves instead of voting for right-wing Ashkenazi leaders? This is a subject of discussion inside and outside academia, but one thing is clear: political ethnicity used to be unacceptable. For years, any attempt to form a party on an ethnic platform met with harsh condemnation. However, during the 1980s Shas was formed. Led by ultra-orthodox Sephardic Jews, the party appealed to Jews of Middle Eastern descent with a double objective: to 'bring the Sephardic masses back into the world of the Torah' and to defend Sephardic Jews against discrimination. The Party's success was meteoric. In ten years it became the third largest party in the country. It supported Rabin's Government during the Oslo years, and thus was not a typical right-wing party. It represented a growing number of Sephardic Jews - in whose community the clear distinction between being religious and being secular is less rigid than among Ashkenazis - and used their participation in a variety of governments to enlarge its own education system, synagogues, social institutions. However, the last thing on earth it really wanted was to change the political or social system. In the last election it gained 11 seats.
What was frightening about Shas as far as the Ashkenazi parties were concerned was that it found a new route to political power for Sephardic Jews: all it cared about - so it seemed - was to enlarge its religious-ethnic infrastructure, and though that was OK when it was done by the settlers, or by other movements in the history of Zionism, it was intolerable when done by Shas. During the Oslo years it was Meretz that orchestrated this new dance of hate, while gambling on an irreparable rift between the Sephardic and the Ashkenazi Left. Meretz knew that its constituency hated 'them' and so everything that was bad in Israel was connected to 'them'. We pay too much in taxation? Blame it on the Orthodox Jews. Why? They have too many children, like the Arabs, and we don't want to finance their multiplication. Meretz wouldn't spell that out, but that was the spirit it was riding on. We have to spend too much time in the Army, as conscripts and reserve soldiers? Blame it on the Orthodox Jews. Why? Because they do not go to the Army, at least the Ashkenazis among them don't.
In this latest election campaign Meretz had to compete with another party, which in effect took its place: Shinui, a party of 'rednecks', a growing class in a state where organised labour has been almost entirely eliminated. Although Shinui has only one Sephardic member, it represents something new in Israeli politics: it is a party with no inhibitions, not even in the way it presents its case. What does it think of the Palestinians? There is no chance for peace anyway, so why bother? Its leader, Yossef (Tommy) Lapid, a former TV star, outdoes Haider and Le Pen. He isn't embarrassed by anything, because he has the Holocaust on his side. But forget the Holocaust: Tommy sees himself as the true representative of European culture. Born to a Hungarian family in Yugoslavia, he believes he knows all about Europe. His CV includes writing guidebooks, and some third-rate comedies, in one of which I acted as a high-school student, playing the role of an African president visiting Israel, who turns out to be a Polish Jew who has found his way to one of 'those new states'. As I suggested before, Israeli discourse is obsessed with fighting to 'preserve European values'.
Let me be clear: there is a real need to encourage secularism in Israel. This is a state where no one can marry outside the religious establishment. But will Shinui bring about a change in the legislation? Of course not. Most laws have a political, even racist, objective: to define Israel as a Jewish state, and to define Judaism in religious terms. Not one Jewish party supports a real democracy, where the state is the state of all its citizens.
What Shinui with its 15 seats has proved yet again is that hate speech is very successful in Israel. Parties that could not find an object to hate lost. But Shinui has also taught Meretz something the Labour Party had better be quick to learn: if you embark on a competition of 'who will screw "them" more?' there will always be a party to your right, which has fewer inhibitions. Just as Meretz has gone back to being a small dovish party because Shinui was more successful in its hate message against the Sephardic and ultra-Orthodox, so the Labour Party lost its place as a central force because of its support for the Occupation. Anything Labour had to say about the Palestinians would have found a more comfortable home in the discourse of the Right.
Does anybody think that Israel is capable of getting itself out of this mess without outside help?
Yitzhak Laor is a poet and novelist who lives in Tel Aviv.