Israel must unpick its ethnic myth

Israel must unpick its ethnic myth

What exactly is “Zionism”? Its core claim was always that Jews represent a common and single people; that their millennia-long dispersion and suffering has done nothing to diminish their distinctive, collective attributes; and that the only way they can live freely as Jews – in the same way that, say, Swedes live freely as Swedes – is to dwell in a Jewish state.

Thus religion ceased in Zionist eyes to be the primary measure of Jewish identity. In the course of the late-19th century, as more and more young Jews were legally or culturally emancipated from the world of the ghetto or the shtetl, Zionism began to look to an influential minority like the only alternative to persecution, assimilation or cultural dilution. Paradoxically then, as religious separatism and practice began to retreat, a secular version of it was actively promoted.

I can certainly confirm, from personal experience, that anti-religious sentiment – often of an intensity that I found discomforting – was widespread in left-leaning Israeli circles of the 1960s. Religion, I was informed, was for the haredim and the “crazies” of Jerusalem’s Mea Sharim quarter. “We” are modern and rational and “western”, it was explained to me by my Zionist teachers. But what they did not say was that the Israel they wished me to join was therefore grounded, and could only be grounded, in an ethnically rigid view of Jews and Jewishness.

The story went like this. Jews, until the destruction of the Second Temple (in the First century), had been farmers in what is now Israel/Palestine. They had then been forced yet again into exile by the Romans and wandered the earth: homeless, rootless and outcast. Now at last “they” were “returning” and would once again farm the soil of their ancestors. [continued…]

Is Israel a democracy?

After the war, the 156,000 Arabs remaining in Israel were about 15 percent of the population. They became Israeli citizens, with the right to vote and be elected. But most Arab towns and villages remained under restrictive military government. “The Israeli authorities viewed the Arab population as hostile and potentially seditious,” as Hillel Cohen writes in Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967, an Israeli best seller that has just come out in English. Cohen’s title is ironic. It refers to the web of collaborators and informers that security agencies built among the Arab minority. The network’s purpose, Cohen writes, was not only to uncover hostile groups and agents of enemy countries. It was also to control political life down to the village level and to “reshape Arab consciousness and identity,” divorcing Arab citizens from Palestinian nationalism.

Using previously classified documents, Cohen charts in fascinating and disturbing detail how collaboration shaped life among Israeli Arabs. Pro-regime Arabs tried to keep wedding singers from performing communist and Arab nationalist songs. Teachers in Arab-language schools were hired or fired based on political loyalties. “Naturally, this affected the quality of teaching,” especially since educated Arabs were more likely to have Arab nationalist leanings, Cohen writes. The military government over Israeli Arabs was dissolved in 1966. The Arab parties set up as satellites of Jewish ones have vanished. Arab citizens now vote mainly for parties that outspokenly demand their rights. “State supervision of political speech has lessened” but not disappeared, Cohen writes. Yet alongside (frustratingly slow) progress within Israel, a far more blatantly ethnocratic regime has developed in the territories that Israel conquered in 1967. Israel’s democratically elected governments rise and crumble based on their position on the occupation. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — As a liberal Zionist, Gorenberg is unwilling to judge Israel as a democratic failure, but if instead of asking whether Israel can realize a democratic possibility he was merely to coldly judge whether Israel can be seen moving along a democratic trajectory, he could spare himself any further hand-wringing.

Still, don’t just read the snippet above — read the whole article.

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