State of Israel and the Myth of Insecurity

Immediately after Israel declarated independence it was plunged into war with several neighboring Arab states. Buber declared that a victory for Israel would mean the defeat of Zionism. He predicted that a nation founded by war would always be insecure, always focus on defending itself, and too often act aggressively while using defense as a justification. That would lead Zionism down the path of maximizing power and creating separation between Jews and Arabs. But his views were embraced only by a very small minority of Israeli Jews.

Historians still fiercely debate both the causes and the courses of the 1948-9 war. Some find strong evidence that the new Jewish state welcomed war, knowing that its smaller but much better trained and equipped army would probably be victorious and expand Israel’s territory—which is indeed what happened. Most historians now acknowledge that the Israeli forces intentionally drove many Palestinian Arabs from their homes, and many more fled voluntarily, never expecting what actually happened: Israeli refused to let them return home once the fighting stopped.

But there was very little debate about the war of independence among Jews at the time, nor in the following decades until quite recently. The vast majority of Jews saw it through the lens of the myth of insecurity. They assumed that Israel had been attacked for no legitimate reason; that nothing Israel did could affect the intentions of the Arabs, who would always aim to destroy Israel; that Israel was therefore totally innocent, even in the matter of the homeless Palestinian refugees; that the only lesson for Israel was to remain ever on its guard and strong enough to fight and win again.

The State of Israel was born in the trap created by the original Zionist myth. It did not free the Jews from insecurity and make them feel normal.  It only magnified the Jewish plight from the individual to the inter-state level.  Israel became the Jew among the gentiles, writ large.  Faced with full-scale conventional wars rather than mobs and pogroms, Israeli Jews naturally felt less secure, both physically and psychologically.

Israel became both the symbol and the vehicle of the Jews’ vow that never again would they be victims. Perhaps more importantly, never again would they let themselves feel like victims.  Every time the vow was repeated, though, and every time it was fulfilled by acts of violence, it kept alive the memory of the Jews’ weakest hour.  In Israel’s early years, its schoolchildren were taught to be ashamed of the Holocaust, because it was the height of Jewish powerlessness. They were urged to show the world that Israel’s power would put an end to this shameful era forever.  But the more their teachers insisted on this, the more the students learned that the end of Jewish abnormality was uncertain, at best.

The archetypal show of Jewish force was the war Israel fought with its Arab neighbors in 1967.  Though all historians agree that Israel fired the first shots, they fiercely debate everything else about the war, especially its causes. Some find strong evidence that Israel was itching for a fight.  As with the 1948 war, though, there was and generally still is no debate in the Jewish community. The 1967 war, too, is seen through the lens of the myth of insecurity. It is assumed that the Arab nations were intent on destroying Israel, making Israel’s victory (in only six days) purely a war of necessary self-defense. In the same vein, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza are cast as necessary to defend the perpetually insecure Jewish state.

The renowned Holocaust theologian, Emil Fackenheim, gave the myth of insecurity a religious meaning. He argued that victory in the Six-Day War was a kind of salvation because without that victory not only Israel but the Jewish people would have been doomed. Yet survival was not really the ultimate goal in his view. He once told an audience that Israel might be destroyed by its enemies in the future. Still, he said, Zionism would have fulfilled its goal because then the Jews would do what any normal nation would do:  They would go down fighting proudly, secure in their self-esteem (like men, Pinsker would have said).

Of course Fackenheim, like most other Jewish voices, insisted that all of Israel’s military efforts were morally justified, because whenever Israel fought it was fighting for its survival.  If the very existence of the state was at stake, then self-defense could seem like a morally impeccable justification for almost any deed.  But the premise of the argument was still Jewish innocence, which meant in effect Jewish passivity—the belief that no policy changes by Israel could ever end or even reduce the Jews’ insecurity.

Six Israeli-Arab wars and two intifadas have proven that when Israel fights, it will not “go down.”  Militarily, its existence is secure against every plausible threat.  Yet the old myth of national insecurity still triumphs over present reality.  The early Zionists could not imagine a Jewish state with such predominant power that its existence would be absolutely assured, even if it remained in conflict with its neighbors.  Most Israeli Jews today, haunted by a fear of powerlessness, still can not believe in that assurance.

Surely not all Israeli Jews seek a sense of security and normality through the exercise of power.  But the majority, who do, block the path to peace.  They can maintain their self-respect only by an endless round of acts of power. They see any conciliatory step by their government as a surrender, a return to political powerlessness, and thus a fatal blow to their sense of self-worth. So they want their government to continue on the path of confrontation. Every exercise of Israeli power naturally evokes Palestinian opposition and further enmity.  As the Palestinians struggle to unite politically and offer a proposal for peace, the Israelis announce in advance that they will reject the unified Palestinian government and its proposals, because their myth of insecurity tells them that the Palestinians are and must always been their implacable enemy. The insecurity tragically spirals on.

Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, wrote in the New York Times, about Netanyahu’s message that “the whole world is against Israel and that Israelis are at risk of another Holocaust… is unfortunately still a more comforting message for too many Israelis.” Siegman observed that this fear (which he called “pathological”) “is invoked most frequently by Israelis themselves. The term for it in Israel is a ‘galut [diaspora] mentality,’ the tendency of diaspora Jewry to see itself as friendless, isolated, and always at the edge of a looming pogrom.”

An extensive research study confirmed that Israeli Jews are generally moved more by fear than anything else in viewing their conflict with the Palestinians. That leads Jews to “a selective and distorted processing of information aimed at preserving conflict-beliefs.” The myth of insecurity still reigns supreme.

So it is not surprising that Israel has acted out that myth by building a wall that is intended, some day, to physically separate the entire West Bank from Israel. The purported reason is to protect the Jews from physical attack by keeping out Palestinians. But, the effect (and perhaps the true purpose), is to wall in the Jews. As an Israeli columnist has written, Israel is “the world’s last remaining legally mandated Jewish ghetto.”

The columnist was writing about the political right in Israel. But his words sum up the dominant view among a majority of Zionists throughout the movement’s history. They are “afraid of the world,” so they want to “wall off Israel” and make it “a place where all the rules are different, exit and entry, citizenship and human rights, because the residents within are Jews. …  A place which, if suffocating and insufferable, still seems safer than the scary world outside.”

Now the inhabitants of the ghetto have infinitely more military force than those outside the walls, and they use that force to dominate their neighbors. But the myth of insecurity dictates that every act of violence will only reinforce their sense that the world outside is a scary place.

Moreover, the wall symbolizes the endless inability to see Israel’s real impact upon the Palestians, or even to see that Israel has any impact, any relationship at all with the Palestinians. So it helps to maintain the fiction that Palestinian anger comes solely from irrational anti-semitism that is beyond Israel’s ability to influence.

The same kind of blindness marks Israel’s relationship with the rest of the world. A growing chorus of criticism is directed at Israel from all over the world. But the myth of insecurity assumes that Israel must always be morally blameless. So most Israelis cannot see that the criticism may have any validity. The obvious way to explain it is to invoke the Zionist premise: the gentiles’ eternal anti-semitism. Thus Israel cannot enter into any reasoned debate with its critics. Every criticism becomes further evidence that Israel is endangered by enemies and must prove itself yet again strong enough to defeat those enemies.

Most Israelis now realize, though, that their massive military capability can not protect them from diplomatic and economic isolation. Only their one remaining ally of consequence—the United States— can do that. So the Israelis must pay some significant attention to the will of the U.S. government.

In 2000 President Bill Clinton brought the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Camp David and tried to work out a peace settlement. It’s often said that the Israeli leader, Ehud Barak, made the most generous offer imaginable, only to be turned down by Yassir Arafat. But what Barak offered was a Palestinian state on the West Bank that was a patchwork of separate little pieces of land. The New York Times recently called it quite rightly an archipelago, a huge bunch of islands of Palestinian land, all separated by Israeli settlements and security roads. There was no chance that it could be a viable country.

After the Camp David talks broke down, Clinton went back to the drawing board and came up with what he called his parameters:  The Palestinian state would include virtually all of the West Bank. Israel would retain only a few large settlements near its 1967 border, and in return Palestine would get an equal amount of Israeli land, a one-for-one land swap. An international peace-keeping force would protect peace and security in the region. The two parties and the United Nations would declare the conflict resolved.

What about the two most difficult issues, the Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem? Clinton suggested that Israel would accept only as many refugees as it was willing to take. About a year later, Arafat wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that clear implied agreement on that point. He said the Palestinians would take mainly financial compensation for all that they lost in their 1948 catastrophe. In recent years Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath repeated that offer. Since then, many who support the Clinton parameters have talked about small numbers of Palestinians, perhaps a few thousand, actually moving to Israel. A Palestinian state will need significant international aid to get started in any event, so this could easily be given as the compensation Arafat wrote about.

On Jerusalem, Clinton suggested that both nations should share it and establish their capitals there, as they wish. Jews would control their most sacred site, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, while Palestinians would control the sacred Muslims mosques on the Mount itself. This is totally feasible. In fact a colleague of mine who lived and did research in Jerusalem over 20 years ago told me way back then that Jerusalem city officials showed him the detailed plans they had written up for dividing the city.  Much more recently, Israel’s last prime minister, Ehud Olmert, declared publicly that his nation would have to share Jerusalem with a new Palestinian state.

In January of 2001 Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met again, at Taaba in the Sinai, and came close to an agreement based on the Clinton parameters. Though there’s dispute about exactly why the talks collapsed, the fact that they almost succeeded showed the world that something much like the Clinton parameters would inevitably be the outline of a reasonable resolution.

Some high-level Israeli and Palestinian political figures and technical specialists were not willing to give up. They started meeting in Geneva to hammer out a more detailed draft agreement based on the Clinton parameters. Seven years ago they announced it to the world. This Geneva Accord has been widely circulated to show that thoughtful leaders from both sides can wrestle with the devil in the details and come out successful.

We also have evidence that even the very top leaders on both sides, who must face the voters, might be able to agree to such a deal. The previous Israeli leader, Olmert, recently said in a speech that while he was in office he negotiated secretly with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. The two had come “this close” to an agreement, he said, holding up two fingers.

The failure of these negotiations is always charged to a lack of political will. On the Israeli side, though, political life is driven by the myth of insecurity. No political leader can survive without affirming that Israel has some mortal enemy dedicated to destroying it. That is the foundation of the nation’s political discourse and, some would say, of its very national identity. Since the goal is not to defeat any particular enemy but to keep the myth alive, the name of the enemy can easily change. When peace becomes possible with one enemy, the Israelis move on to another.

At first the enemy was a generic faceless mass called “the Arabs.”  Once Israel made peace with Egypt and clearly had peaceable relations with Jordan, the enemy was reduced to specific Arab states. During the 1980s, the sense of enmity focused more on “the Palestinians.”  After the 1993 Oslo agreements, the enemy became Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Islamist groups.  In 2001, Yasser Arafat and his ruling circle were put back in the category of enemy, along with Saddam Hussein. After Arafat died, the scope of the enemy was refocused on Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Islamist groups, and Iran joined them at the top of the list.  As Hamas leaders push for a ceasefire and declare their willingness to accept a two-state solution, it is easy to imagine—in fact perhaps likely—that Israel will some day no longer label Hamas an enemy. It is even possible to imagine Israel and Iran coming to some détente.

What seems impossible to imagine, at least now, is Israeli political and cultural life without a myth of insecurity. What would it mean to be an Israeli Jew without an enemy to fear? How would Israeli Jews build a new sense of identity not based on perpetual insecurity? That is the great challenge that Israel must eventually face.

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