An Israeli story
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creep in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Clearing my bookshelves from items which I’ll no longer need, I randomly came upon two clippings that arose my interest: an article I published in 1984 in an Israeli newspaper (Al Hamishmar) about the changes I found in Israel after a twenty years absence and a symposium by another paper (Maariv) with 5 ex army chiefs of staff about different aspects in Israel’s life. The symposium with the generals took place six years after the 1967 occupation of the Sinai desert and the Golan Heights and just a few months before the 1973 war which almost wiped out Israel from the face of the earth, if not, to a very large extent, for a hasty transport from the USA of airplanes and anti tank missiles. What was striking in this exchange of opinions was the degree that those military “pundits” were cut off from reality and how similar their opinions were analogous to current approaches.
The five ex chiefs of staff agreed almost completely on all topics. They all believed that all the Arabs want to destroy Israel. Indeed, Moshe Dayan, then the Minister of Defense said that peace is immediately possible if Israel will return to its pre 1967 borders, including Jerusalem, but, he said, it will last only a very short time, because the Arabs would not give up the aspiration to eliminate Israel. They all agreed that peace talks could resume only if and when the Arabs would recognize that they shall never be able to overcome Israel militarily. The estimations were between 6-7 to 30 years. They all were convinced that Israel will always be military stronger than the Arab countries and therefore it would be improbable that the Arabs will ever attack Israel. A strong Israel meant for them strong in military terms, modern equipment and the skill in activating it. They all forgot, or were not aware of it, that Lycurgus, the father of the Spartan constitution, said that what he dreaded most was fighting again and again the same enemy, as the enemy would become adept in ways to fight Sparta. And indeed, from 1967 to 1973 Egypt and Syria adapted their armies to fight Israel while the Israeli army rested on its laurels. They were sure that the new borders of Israel after the 1967 war would totally secure the country against any attack. I’m far from being a military person but I like to read and I remembered that in his Memoirs, Field Marshal Montgomery wrote that when he was in charge of protecting a section of the British coast against a possible German invasion he acted against the policy of the Ministry of Defense. They wanted him to build fortifications along the shore but he preferred to place his division in the rear so that if the Germans would come they will meet everywhere a mobile unit of British soldiers. The Israeli chief of staff at the time (Haim Bar Lev) chose to secure the Suez shore by a line of fortifications that enriched many civilian contractors but failed to block the Egyptian army just a few months after this symposium. One of the generals (Israel Tall) who fought for applying tactics similar to that of Montgomery was put on the ice for three years, until the nomination of a new chief of staff. Another (Ariel Sharon) who recommended a similar approach later retired from the army and became a politician. After Bar Lev’s retirement Tall and Sharon were in position to change his strategy. They did nothing. When the Egyptian army took over Bar Lev’s fortification there were behind them no mobile units ready to face the invaders.
Israel won the 1967 war because she broke the static state between two armies facing each other by a surprise attack that completely destroyed the Egyptian air force while it was on the ground. Without the protection of an air umbrella the Egyptian army could not be equal to the galloping Israeli tanks that with relative ease invaded the Sinai desert. While the decade before the war was distinguished by a bad economic crisis and low morale, after 1967 the mood completely changed. There were good reasons to rejoice and the country celebrated. Books, albums galore and songs extolled the heroic generals who just extended the borders of the state, put the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, to shame, and apparently turned Israel into a world power. In print they were depicted almost like demigods and were treated as such by the masses. The whole country fell into an unbounded eruption of frenzied celebration that lasted year after year, until 1973.
When Israel came into being many expected it to be a remarkable creation. Israel had little in common with the other countries which came into being when the big empires disintegrated, countries that were formed out of huddling together (mainly by the British and the French) of different and hostile tribes and communities in artificially drawn borders. Unlike those countries Israel represented a different kind of political entity; it was created by and for people who had never been there before. It was natural to expect it to become something special. It started this way; the pre state Zionists strove to create a new form of equal and just society, according to the best in socialist teaching. Others wanted Israel to justify its existence by becoming a beacon of universal ethics and humanism in the spirit of the biblical prophets.[i] Ben Gurion, the acknowledged father of the state, even spoke of becoming “a light unto the nations.” The ideal according to him should have been based upon the Hebrew Bible’s teaching that all humanity had a common father and the Hebrew sage’s instruction to love and respect all human beings. The ethical precept was presented by him as the common denominator that distinguished the Jewish people during the ages and secured their existence. He was not alone, at the turn of the last century, the Zionist leader Ahad Haam “severely criticized the political Zionism of Thodor herzl, the foremost Jewish nationalist leader of the time. Ahad Haam remained outside the Zionist organization, believing that a Jewish state would be the end result of a Jewish spiritual renaissance rather than the beginning. He called for a renaissance of Hebrew-language culture, and to that end he did urge the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine as the centre and model for Jewish life in the Diaspora.”[ii] Ahad Haam’s ideas led to the establishment in 1925 of Brit Shalom, an organization of leading intellectuals like Martin Buber, Hugo Bergman and Gershom Scholem, people who also entertained the idea of establishing a bi-national state in which Jews and Arabs would have equal rights. The group disintegrated in the mid thirties. In 1939 a group of Israelis established a movement that got the name Canaanites that aspired to separate from the legacy of the Ghettoized Judaism and link with the inhabitants of Canaan in the second millennium BC. The Lehi (Stern group) leader, Nathan Yellin Mor, published already in 1946 a brochure suggesting a mid eastern federation with the future Hebrew state. In 1957 he also joined a group that drafted a program for a Hebrew state that shall integrate in the Semitic region. However, as soon as the state came into being it dropped all pretensions to be extraordinary different and, believing that the Arabs would never put up with its existence concentrated on enhancing its military strength. The state of mind of the five ex chiefs of staff, after twenty five years of Israel’s existence, was typical to that which is still held by most generals and by a wide segment of Israel’s society.
A look at Israel after 20 years absence
I started my article on what I found in Israel after absence of about twenty years paraphrasing what Eugene Rosenstock-Hussey said on the Jews: they are like all other people only a bit more so. Israel, I wrote, is like all other countries, only a bit more so. It’s a Mid Eastern country but with all the sore evils of the West and without cultural tradition that could curb them. In the land in which I grew up (Palestine or Land-of-Israel), I continued, there were three folks: Jews, Arabs and the British, army and administration. After the establishment of the state in 1948 the British returned to their homelands and the few Arabs who stayed in the country formed a small minority. When I returned, about twenty years later, I found a somewhat different formation: Jews, Arabs and Orthodox. Ideology played a very important part in our life in the old days that were filled by discussions, questioning and arguments. After 20 years absence it was clear that answers replaced the questions. Responses to the fact that Meir Kahane, the radical nationalist and racist got then the votes of many soldiers in the election to the Knesset claimed that it was due to a failure of education for humane values and democracy. To me those claims sounded ridiculous as nobody protested the fact that the cabinet member in charge of the ministry of education was a person who believed that the forthcoming ruler of Israel will be the Messiah and therefore his duty was to prepare the students to follow the religious law and not that of the secular state. In 1979 the ministry of education even published a booklet (76 pages) by Jean George Kahn (Yohanan Cohen Yachar) in which he also claimed that very soon the Messiah will be crowned as the king of Israel. He also wrote that as the Messiah is a king, not a scholar, he should follow the dictate of the rabbis, Orthodox rabbis, of course.
When I was a teenager, an important mission of the Jewish population was to fight for what we called “Hebrew labor,” and “redemption of the land“, believing that ownership over the prospective state could be acquired only through our manual labor. When I returned I found that all the manual work in Israel had been done by Arabs and the land was, (and still is), “redeemed” by confiscating big chunks of what remained in the hands of the Arab population. Each summer we used to volunteer for work in a kibbutz, usually through youth movements. Those were pre combine harvester days and we loaded hay on the wagons with pitchforks, ploughed the soil with horses, and of course reaped the crops with scythes, long and short ones. Volunteering was the norm, part of life, not only of ours, the young ones. When I returned I found that only retired people, sometimes, volunteered. I was told that because of the high taxes people, especially those who were tenured, worked in two or three jobs, saving their strength of course to the second and the third jobs as there they could be fired. My impression then was that it was possible to live from one salary, as long as one was Knesset or an ex Knesset member, CEO of a big corporation, retired army officer or work in places like the electrical Company where the employees’ committees were extremely strong. This is still the case and current discussions in Israel contemplate on the fact that many young people prefer to immigrate and live in Berlin rather than work in three jobs and get nowhere. I finish the article mentioning a group of Canadian Jews who tried a few times to find their place in Israel and always failed. My doctor had been one of them. After trying for three months to find work he returned to Canada, summing up his experience in one sentence: “in Israel a word has no value, promise is no promise and both people and institutions lie all the time.”
From democracy to theocracy
I can still remember the smell of the oranges from the orchards that in Palestine were all around Tel Aviv and beyond. I also remember the harsh and brutal light of the sun as it had been reflected from one white wall to another. So much so that there was no room left for a hue of colors, opinions and emotions. The grey space between black and white forms the breeding ground of all the shades and ultra shades of culture, setting boundaries around modes of expression and behavior, each breeding its own uniqueness. It is the combined effect of such variegated expressions that shapes the disposition of any particular folk. When Israel came into being it absorbed a profusion of people from disparate cultures, each drawing from the wealth and profundity of many generations, folk wisdom and inherent customs. Interweaving them together could have produced a bouquet of cultural flowers, each propagating all the others and together forming something unique with multiple and dazzling colors. That was what characterized cities like ancient Rome as well as Paris and Berlin in the previous century and turned them into centers of global stimulation. Israel chose to go the other way round. Overwhelmed by the multitudes of customs, languages and conducts that characterized the new waves of emigrants, it opted for the concept of a melting pot in which the army was supposed to play a major role. One main reason for this choice was the belief that the “eastern” Jews, such as emigrants from Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia were deprived of culture. (In one of the first government meetings in 1949, at a time when 1000 emigrants arrived daily to the new state, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion suggested that in the houses build for the new comers the bathroom should be outside, as they are primitive and don’t know how to use it properly). The central role assigned to the army as a melting pot set it from the beginning in a position to play a major role in Israel’s social life.
After 1977 when the election of the right wing party Likud, headed by Menachem Begin ended three decades of the Labor Party political dominance, the economy veered towards a unique form of capitalism in which a few families were given preference by the government while others were blocked. During the years this created a situation in which about 20 families are in a position to control most of the economy and employ cronies, many of whom high position ex finance ministry workers, generals and ex chiefs of staff, with astronomical salaries, increasing enormously the economic and social gulf between them and the rest of the population.
When I grew up in Palestine religion played a minor role in the life of the population. Now days the diverse religious sector with all its shades is playing a major role, socially and politically, in the life of the state, increasing thus, antagonism and alienation from the rest of the population. Especially so because of the disparity between the state’s educational system and the religious systems that get finance preference for schools that keep their students ignorant and finance yeshivas students who do nothing else besides studying the Talmud and having very large families. That’s beside the support that the messianic and other settlers in the occupied territories have been getting from the government in spite of the fact that because of their belief in the imminence of the Kingdom of God, they tend to repeal the laws of the secular state.
Even a cursory glance on the current fabric of Israel’s society will reveal a conglomeration of rifts, between the extremely rich and the impoverishing rest of the population, left and right, secular and religious, ultra religious and other religious sectors, as well as between the Jewish population, the Arab minority and the West Bank Palestinians Without a cultural padding to mediate between the extremes of black and white the emotions in the social sphere are harsh, cruel and unrestrained. All issues find a breeding ground in the extreme poles, hardly with anything in between. Violence, vocal and physical, is a permanent component in the relations between people as well as between different social and political sections, including a murder of a prime minister without any action against the right wing sector that nurtured the murderer and the Hebron yeshiva head who furnished the assassin with a religious license to kill Rabin.
Religion wise, Israel tends to be more a theocracy than democracy. Its claim to democracy is based on the general right to vote that is applied even to people on their first day in Israel, in contrast to most other countries in the Middle East. Yet, the state has no binding constitution, no borders, and clearly no equality, not de facto and not de jure between Jews and non Jews. Not to speak on the clear apartheid regime and persecution of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Now days Israel also enacts more and more discriminating laws also against the Jewish “leftists” and peace seeking population. In many respects Israel resembles an army sustained by a nationalistic and theocratic state, a state that discriminates also against those who do not fit into the Orthodox definition of a Jew.
Who is a Jew?
The Israeli Law of Return (1950) grants to any Jew the right to “return” and instant citizenship, declaring thus that Israel represents all worlds’ Jewry. In an amendment to the law (1970) this grant had been extended to all people of Jewish extraction and their spouses. In its original form the law was restricted to Jews while its amendment referred to people who because of a kin relationship, including grandparents, might have been declared Jews by racists and anti-Semites. The Nazi regime is a good example of defining ethnicity by blood lines. However, the state’s definition of a Jew follows a peculiar classification according to Jewish Orthodox laws.
The biggest change in Jewish modern history, equal to the major changes in Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, has been the establishment of a Jewish state by secular people. Yet, the state chose to define Judaism according to the narrowest definition of the Orthodox sector that refuses to recognize and integrate the actuality of the state’s existence into its theology. Rabbinical (Orthodox) Judaism is based on the Talmud but there is nothing in the Talmud about a secular Jewish state. The authority of the rabbis is based on the assumption that their often opinionated teaching is equal to that of the scriptures (daat torah). This leads to personality cults in their most bizarre forms. If in Christianity a person joins the religion through baptism, in the rabbinical version and therefore in the state’s law, one becomes a Jew by passing in birth through Jewish genitalia. This version was valid in the Middle Ages because of the Jewish women who were raped by gentiles, especially so at the time of the crusades, and recognize their children as Jews. Today it serves as an excuse for an extreme form of racism. The attempt to integrate the ultra Orthodox customs into the law of the land leads often not only to ridiculous situations but also to inhuman behavior. The Washington Post (Aug 29, (2008), for instance, published the story of Yael who converted to Judaism in 1992. When after 15 years of marriage her husband sought a divorce, the ultra Orthodox rabbis who represent the only legal authority permitted to form such procedures, decided that because, like most Israelis, during this 15 years, she didn’t follow daily the strict Orthodox customs, her conversion should be nullified. Therefore, not being Jewish she presumably had never been married. No divorce was needed and her children were declared non Jewish. Some among the Russian emigrants who were married to gentiles used the same excuse in order to abort their marriages and marry younger women. The Orthodox courts of law also don’t recognize Reform, civil or Conservative divorces. Children born to women who remarried after such divorces are considered bastards and are forbidden to marry other Jews.[iii] The pretence that the directives by rabbis equals divine commandants gives extra impetus to the teaching of some militant, especially among military rabbis, that at the time of a war the religious commandment permits and even call for the eradication and elimination of the Palestinians (presumably Amalek), including women and children.
Israel has been incubating a new and peculiar brand of Judaism and the more time elapses the wider grows the gulf, enmity and alienation between non religious Jews and Orthodox, as well as between Israel and world Judaism in general. Since 2000 58% of American Jews get married to non Jewish spouses. As far as they are concerned it is their choice whether to be Jewish or not. 22% of those who declare themselves Jews describe themselves as Atheists or Agnostics without any religious connotation or sentiment.[iv] Besides the Orthodoxy that forms 10% of American Jewry, the others are either born to a Jewish family, or chose to be Jews; either because of a spouse or any other reason. They are Jews by choice and clearly not because of a blood line to a privileged mother, a concept which is too close to that of the German Nazi definition that played such a major role in the Holocaust. According to the official Israeli (Orthodox) version, such Jews are assimilating and causing Judaism to fade away. The Orthodox, and especially the nationalistic rabbis, consider themselves to be a holy nation[v] and therefore deserving special privileges and the right to discriminate against non Jews, according to the Biblical promise that “nations will bow down to thee.”[vi] Accordingly some militant Jews planted bombs that killed and crippled a few Arabs, and in 1984 planned to blow up 5 Palestinian buses. They were caught in time, 29 were arrested, 15 convicted, 3 to life sentences, but all were pardoned by the president and released in less than 7 years. Others, who planned to bomb a Palestinian school girl’s bus, were convicted and pardoned after a short time. All those actions got the approval of their rabbis who were never inducted. In the same spirit, since 2008 members of “Tag Mehir” have been attacking Palestinians, burning Mosques and uprooting hundreds of olive trees. The Israeli police failed to identify any of them.
It would be befitting to end this section with a citation from the words of a wise Jewish sage:[vii] “Whoever steals from a gentile would end up stealing from Jews [Israel in the original text], and whoever robs a gentile would end up robbing Jews, and whoever sheds the blood of a gentile eventually would shed the blood of Jews.”
Does Israel have a future?
This is a question I dealt with extensively in some articles (all of them are on this webpage in the Israel and Judaism section) and there is no point in repeating myself. I’ll dwell only on some points from those that in my opinion jeopardize Israel’s existence. Firstly, the fact that Israel relies for its existence mainly on the sword. It’s hard not to think of the fact that the German army conquered almost all of Europe, but eventually this led to its demise. The Nazi regime murdered many millions, including six million Jews and ostracized the “degenerate” modern and Jewish art. But the Mendelssohns, the philosopher and the musician as well as the excluded “degenerate” artists, are now much more prominent than Hitler’s teaching and the ideas that led the Germans and other people astray. The question is what shall remain of Israel when the sword will return to its sheath? Avraham Burg, most likely the current leading Israeli thinker and ideologist, summed it up in one sentence: “until the day of peace [with the Palestinians] and beyond, the political right wing has nothing to proffer besides a sword and a messiah, nor has the classical left anything to offer for the day after the peace.”[viii] Israel seems to lock itself up in a form resembling an East European Jewish ghettoize community, with concentration on jingoistic slogans rather than on questions concerning means and direction, the way that typified the pre state Zionist movements which led to the birth of Israel. Slogans presume to take the place of answers and reside therefore at the end of the road. The question is whether Israel will be able to again open itself to questions, reach the beginning of a road leading towards humanism and secure its future simply because humanism can never be fully reached and achieved.
[i] Please see my ”Writing the second Volume of the Bible,” on this website.
[ii] Encyclopaedia Britannica
[iii] See also “Divorce in the Orthodoxy Jewish Community can be Brutal, Degrading and Endless.” Newsweek, November 12, 2013
[iv] PEW 2013 survey.
[v] Leviticus 19:1
[vi] Genesis 27:29 It is interesting that the promise was given to Jacob (later Israel, after fighting the angel) when he masqueraded as his brother Esau and stole thus the blessing from him. It is interesting also because, with very few exceptions, almost all the settlements built in the West Bank used false pretenses.
[vii] Midrash Eliahu Raba 26
[viii] Haaretz, June 23, 2007