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Reflections on Israel: From Idealism to Ethnic Cleansing

Posted on Jun 8, 2011
AP / Muhammed Muheisen

Backdropped by a section of Israel’s separation barrier, Israeli troops fire rubber bullets at Palestinian stone throwers, not seen, during clashes in the West Bank in 2007.

By Larry Gross

(Page 3)

While I am not sure how much of the national story I was questioning at the time I left Israel and returned to the United States, I do know I was clearly aware of the pervasive racism directed at both Arabs and Sephardic Jews. But then, I was returning to a country itself in the midst of a struggle over civil rights and still mostly unwilling to acknowledge its racist past and present. I also know that I was aware of the shallowness of the commitment to social democracy that the Israeli Labor-dominated establishment proclaimed. I had learned from my father’s experience that much of the familiar story was bogus. For example, that the kibbutz system, the crown jewel of Israel’s new society and the birthplace of much of its military-governmental elite, was artificially maintained by a system of public subsidies. And that the political deal that continued through every coalition government yielded authority over domestic life to the religious parties that joined the government, thus giving them total control over such “minor” matters as marriage, divorce and the rights of women and children. I recall accompanying my mother when she went to court to support another one of our housekeepers, who was entangled in a dispute with her abusive husband. He was refusing to give her a divorce. In the religious courts that control such matters, only a husband can grant a divorce.

What became even clearer in subsequent years was that single-party rule by the Labor coalition over decades had created the sort of complacent and often corrupt political system familiar from Eastern Europe, in which bureaucratic sludge infiltrates most corners of public institutions, and in which knowing the right person—what Israelis, in a term imported from Poland, call Protectzia—is the only key that will open the door you’ve been banging on. The systematic oppression of Sephardic communities led to an eruption in the 1970s, when young people organized their version of the Black Panthers, and then finally to the political upheaval in which the Labor government’s rule was finally ended. As it turned out, the new governing bloc, Menachem Begin’s right-wing coalition, was only slightly more accommodating to the “Eastern communities” that voted them in, but that’s another, also familiar story.

The dividing line in the history of Israel, and the region, of course, is the 1967 war in which Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria, capturing the Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. By this time, I was living in New York, attending graduate school, and I recall following the news of the war and, as it drew to a close, thinking that most subsequent challenges could be resolved, except for the future of Jerusalem. As it turns out, I was overly optimistic, as almost everything has been mishandled, either by the Israelis or, in many cases, the Arab neighbors and the various Palestinian factions that have emerged. In a famous line Israeli diplomat Abba Eban used to characterize the Palestinians, but that could more accurately be applied to all parties to the dispute, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

As has often been noted, it was Israel that largely created the sense of Palestinian national identity as a political force. In a famous Israeli short story I read in high school, a kibbutznik argues that there is no Jewish history, because Jews have always been reacting to what the Goyim have done to them—chased them from country to country, limited the occupations permitted to them, attacked their communities and confiscated their wealth. This account can be applied as well to the relationship between the Palestinians and Israel.


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We have also learned uncomfortable truths from “revisionist” histories of the War of Independence, as it is called by Israel, as well as more recent accounts of the 1967 war and its aftermath. It turns out that the Six Day War was not forced on Israel by an overreaching Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, although his posturing, like Saddam Hussein’s decades later, played into the hands of those happy for the excuse to attack. Israeli leaders saw an opportunity and took it, under the guise of defending their nation from annihilation (see this recent account of the events of this period), as well as Miko Peled’s riveting account of the involvement of his father, Israeli Gen. Matti Peled, in these events. 

In the aftermath of the stunning success, many Israeli leaders, including the old lion David Ben-Gurion, warned of the dangers of holding on to and occupying the conquered lands, especially the West Bank, and their warnings have proved prescient. 
What I don’t believe was foreseen among the secular but nationalistic governmental/military leaders—such farm-community-raised generals as Dayan, Alon and Rabin—was the explosion of religious fundamentalism that transformed their vision of a security-based string of semi-military settlements along the Jordan River into the rash of Gush Emunim settlements that spread across the West Bank and Gaza, as well as into the Old City of Jerusalem and the center of Hebron. So was the scene set for the most intractable of human conflicts, when mutually antagonistic faith communities claim sole ownership of the same territory. Whether it’s Hindus and Muslims in India, Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank, the plot is all too familiar, and the chances for a peaceful outcome equally remote.

This, however, is not enough, as it leaves us with a false equivalence of competing claims and culpability. Israel is the occupying power, in clear contravention of international law and United Nations resolutions, and the moral consequences are as clear as they were predictable in 1967. Israel has squandered its moral integrity and corrupted the lives of generations of young folk drafted into an army of occupation. 

I recall hearing stories from Holocaust survivors of the treatment of Jews in Germany and Austria in the 1930s. Not stories of concentration camps and gas chambers, although those, too, of course. But stories of legally enacted restrictions and humiliations, put in place by the government and carried out by its agents, police and soldiers, often young and often callous. Stories that are uncomfortably recalled when seeing the oppression and humiliation inflicted on Palestinians by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints; of soldiers mistreating civilians protesting the confiscation of their land and the destruction of their homes and orchards; of roads cutting through Palestinian lands that are open only to Israeli settlers; of Palestinians cut off from their own communities by a wall that cuts across the landscape like an ugly scar. 

I recall visiting Germany for the first time in the late 1950s and thinking, as I looked at folks in their 30s and older, “What were you doing during that period?” I can’t help thinking that civilized folks will be asking the same question of Israelis, now and in the future.

Larry Gross is the director of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, one of the founders of queer studies and a scholar of art, media, and the portrayal of minorities.

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DavidByron's avatar

By DavidByron, June 9, 2011 at 8:54 am Link to this comment

It just seems like even the best people who were raised by the genocidal regime come out racist still.  There are a number of places in this article where the author display racist prejudices against the Palestinians even while apparently the whole purpose of the article is to oppose that sort of sentiment.

At the end of the article he finally cops to the parallel between the Nazis and the Israelis.  Just after a series of comments saying both sides were equally to blame.  So he goes back and forth quite a bit.  he is condemned by his own words,

“it leaves us with a false equivalence of competing claims and culpability”

In addition the author seems to largely ignore the initial invasion of territory in 1948 by talking more about 1967 as if that was anything but a small continuation of the genocide that has always been at the very heart of Israel, far more so than any other state.  At least Germany had other things going on.  With Israel its all genocide all the time.  With Israel genocide is the sine qua non, the birth and the sustenance of that racist state.  In that sense their guilt is far worse than the Germans who could well say they didn’t know what was going on.  In Israel everyone’s business is genocide, even (as he reports here) children.

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By Tobysgirl, June 9, 2011 at 8:04 am Link to this comment

I had personal contact with two Israelis, one whose book I proofread, the other through meeting her and her husband when they were vacationing in the U.S. Both contacts were extremely depressing. The first man, quite sensitive and thoughtful, sent me a clipping about his wife, a judge, who lashed out at “bleeding heart liberals.” I was, needless to say, revolted. I asked the second person what she and her husband thought of the Christian fundamentalists who support Israel, and I never heard from her again.

If Israel ever has to answer for its crimes—how about the U.S. answering for its much worse ones?—I’m sure Israelies and Americans will offer up the same excuses as Germans did.

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By colindale, June 9, 2011 at 5:16 am Link to this comment

It is abundantly clear to anyone willing to spend
just 30 minutes on research, that there is only one
indigenous people of the land between the Sea and the
River, the area known as Palestine - those are the
Arab families who have lived continuously there for
over one thousand years.

In all that time, there has only ever been a small
Jewish minority.  Until the UN resolution of 1947 and
the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

That the only indigenous people should have been
forcibly displaced by Americans and Europeans who
claim lineage from an obscure Hebrew sect that once
lived in Jerusalem 3000 years ago, is patently

But that is what happened and that is what the
Christian Zionists support - notwithstanding the
injustice and suffering caused.  A extraordinary way to follow a faith and secure peace in the world.

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By madisolation, June 9, 2011 at 4:41 am Link to this comment

Thank you, Mr. Gross, for this eye-opening column.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, June 9, 2011 at 3:18 am Link to this comment

I always wondered why a social justice site like BDS movement dot org could be blacklisted but a manevolent site such as is not.

Truthdig is one of the truely open sites allowing different perspectives on issues, however the morality filter for their ‘blacklisting’ needs some adjusting.

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By MeHere, June 8, 2011 at 10:48 pm Link to this comment

Thanks for a very thoughtful article.  L. Gross says it all, with compassion, integrity, and without any animosity.

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By Son of Palestine, June 8, 2011 at 9:12 pm Link to this comment

I have already commented positively on Larry Gross’ informative piece. However, I don’t like the part of the title that says, “From Idealism…;” for indeed there was never anything “ideal” about the colonialist, racist and terrorist Zionist project, except in the crooked and perverted minds of those who conceived it.

A project that had in it any grain of idealism would not have ended being a project of colonialist militarism, savege occupation, terrorism and ethnic cleansing. My point is that “idealism” is a mutally contradictory term with what Zionist Israel ended up to be in reality.

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By Son of Palestine, June 8, 2011 at 7:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Another truthdigging by another good and noble Jew within a period of less than a week!

Thank you Larry Gross for telling it as it should be toled! And thank you Truthdig for being a forum for truthdigging, for only the truth will eventually liberate the Palestinians from their oppression and their “minor” Holocaust, and it will, likewise, liberate the Jews from their racist entity’s falshoods, deception and terrorism.

If there is a chance for reconciliation and peace it will come through the courage of people such as Larry Gross, Miko Peled and other vetrans of Jewish truth and peace movements, as well as through forums of truthdigging and education, such as Truthdig.

Forget about hypocrite Obama, fanatic Netanyaho or meek, stupid Mahmoud Abbas for those three are symbols and symptoms of the problem and not the solution!

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By john from ojai, June 8, 2011 at 7:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks Truthdig for the fine article.

One of the ways that people can address the injustice is to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel and any corporation that profits from the illegal occupation.

One of the ways that Truthdig could address the injustice is to stop blacklisting the major sight that supports BDS. They could also answer emails complaining about said blacklisting.

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