May 21, 2013
Reflections on Israel: From Idealism to Ethnic Cleansing
Posted on Jun 8, 2011
By Larry Gross
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.
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.
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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