ISRAEL ON THE COUCH
If you were to read just one book on today's Middle East
Recent poll findings suggesting one in four British people think Jews chase money more than other people and one in five thinks their loyalty to Israel makes them less committed to Britain than others are disturbing. Even though the Institute for Jewish Policy Research has questioned some of the methodology of the poll, there is enough here to raise awkward questions about community relations.
It has been noted that attacks on, and abuse of, Jewish people increase in the aftermath of intermittent military campaigns by the Israeli Defence Force in Gaza or Lebanon. The tone of public debate about the Middle East shows a change in attitudes taking place. Former Israeli President Shimon Perez believes that Israel is becoming the new international pariah, replacing South Africa from the dark days of apartheid. European Jews are increasingly blamed for the policies of the Israeli government, as if by their ethnicity they are responsible for them. The blurring of lines in this way does no-one any favours; sloppy logic like this is infectious, contributing to hostility between communities at the very moment we need understanding.
More illuminating is an exploration of the Israeli mindset, undertaken by Ari Shavit, a distinguished journalist from the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in My Promised Land (Scribe 2014). Few people outside the Middle East have an intuitive grasp of the place or understand the tragedy of Jewish – Palestinian relations in anything other than a binary way: I am for the Israelis; I am for the Palestinians. Shavit’s book is a scrupulously honest account of the Zionist project which manages to be sympathetic to both sides and their need for land.
He is unashamedly in favour of the State of Israel – a view shared by every Peace Now dove on the Israeli left – and has defended it in fatigues, but knows there can be no peace without justice. The post 1967 occupation is only part of the story and retreat from those boundaries alone will neither bring full recompense to Palestinians nor protect Israel from attack, as Israelis have noted in the retreats from Gaza and Lebanon. This is the tragedy of the impasse.
Savit’s shrewdness is to tell the whole story through the prism of individual narratives, from the late nineteenth century emergence of Zionism to Israeli citizens’ ‘Occupy Rothschild’s’ protests against house prices, encompassing along the way the stern, early settlers, Holocaust survivors, the wars with Arab neighbours, the peace processes and the rise of the right and the ultra-Orthodox. There is an extraordinary variance of views in modern Israel. The old Labour movement, with its rigorous discipline and collective goals is being replaced by an individualism familiar to westerners and a new hedonism, where young Israelis party like there is no future, which, in their view, there may not be. Where once the newly formed State of Israel faced an existential threat from surrounding Arab states, it now sees the mutating challenge of radical Islam emerge from the rubble of today’s local civil wars.
To understand Israeli thinking is not necessarily to condone the military action it undertakes or to acquiesce in the occupation and the settlements which are the source of great injustice for Palestinians, but to get beyond the easy name-calling and political positioning of those who face no existential threat.
Historian Simon Schama described My Promised Land as ‘by some light years the best thing to have been written on the subject’. For those who do pilgrimage to the holy places of Jerusalem and Galilee to reflect on the Prince of Peace, this kind of work does much to inform our prayers for Israelis and Palestinians, that they may both find justice, peace, land and dignity.
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