Wednesday, July 25, 2007

No one is a prophet in his country

David Remnick has an interesting "Letter from Jerusalem" in the New Yorker, The Apostate: A Zionist politician loses faith in the future about Avraham Burg, the former Speaker of Israeli Knesset and the son of a renowned Zionist and religious-Orthodox figure who seems to be kind of disillusioned about the idea of of a Jewish State:
Burg writes that one of the most dispiriting aspects of Israeli political conversation is the constant reference point of the slaughter of six million Jews in the nineteen-forties. “The most optimistic years in the state of Israel were 1945 to 1948,” he said to me. “The farther we got from the camps and the gas chambers, the more pessimistic we became and the more untrusting we became toward the world. It was a shock to me. Didn’t we, the politicians, feed the public? Didn’t we cheapen the sanctity of the Holocaust by using it about everything? Some people say, ‘Occupation? You call this occupation? This is nothing compared to the absolute evil of the Holocaust!’ And if it is nothing compared to the Holocaust then you can continue. And since nothing, thank God, is comparable to the ultimate trauma it legitimatizes many things.” Burg said that contemporary Israelis “are not at the stage to be sensitive enough to what happens to others and in many ways are too indifferent to the suffering of others. We confiscated, we monopolized, world suffering. We did not allow anybody else to call whatever suffering they have ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide,’ be it Armenians, be it Kosovo, be it Darfur.

“In the last years, Israeliness has confined itself for itself only and lost interest almost for what happens in the world,” he went on. “For me, Israel is shrinking into its own shell rather than struggling for a better world. Who is responsible for identity? The ultraOrthodox. They sit in the yeshivot”—the religious schools. “Who is responsible for our fundamental relation to the soil? The settlers. The two tribes responsible for the spiritual dimension and the territorial dimension are anti-modern Israel.”

Burg is ambivalent about the kind of support that the Israeli government has traditionally received from the United States government and the American Jewish community. His views, in fact, are not far from those expressed in a controversial article published last year in the London Review of Books, by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, denouncing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for subordinating American policy to Israeli interests and, by doing so, radicalizing public opinion in the Arab world.

“Can you imagine the European Union with a lobby or a PAC for the Knesset?” Burg said. “Maybe this was O.K. in the early fifties, but today I don’t need it.” He would prefer that Israel take no financial aid from the United States: “I don’t like it. A state like mine should live on its own means.” What Israel does need from its superpower ally is the impetus to move forward on negotiations with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, no matter how paralyzed, fractured, and desperate the situation now appears. A purposeful American President, he said, can always push forward even the most conservative Israeli Prime Minister. “Even Yitzhak Shamir shlepped to Madrid” for a peace conference in 1991, he said. “Israel needs dramatic decisions, like de Gaulle giving up Algeria.”

The longer Israel waits to resolve the Palestinian question, Burg said, the more intractable the problem becomes and the more deeply it scars the psyches of both sides. In towns near Gaza, like Sderot, the political outcry is not for peace talks but for military action. Among some right-wing Israeli politicians, there is open talk of schemes to “transfer” Palestinians to Jordan or other neighboring Arab countries, and this alarms Burg: “You hear the conversation in the Knesset, you hear it in the public, you see the graffiti ‘Arabs out’—like Juden raus. I don’t care all that much about the right-wing hoodlum who writes the graffiti so much as I do the municipalities that don’t erase it. The seeds of national chauvinism are here and flourishing. Of course, I can understand all the fears—can you imagine an American kid hit by a foreign rocket in Chevy Chase? Can you imagine the hysteria? I’ve watched Jack Bauer very closely. ‘24’ iconizes the fears of America. So if this seems right in Los Angeles it must be right in Sderot.”

Remnick describes the response to Burg's stream-of-consciousness-style critique. Notice how it is kind difficult to de-legitimize someones who, after all, could have been elected as Israel's PM. I personally don't like the guy who is too preachy and sanctimonious to my taste (and who continued to enjoy, free of charge -- get this! --the services of a car and a chauffer provided to him by the leading Zionist group (the Jewish agency) he once headed. But I liked the arguments made by one of my favorite analysts of Israel,Bernard Avishai:
Most Israelis believe that the occupation of Arab lands is untenable, and they also wonder how, when both Palestinian and Israeli politics have degenerated, the economy has soared. The Tel Aviv stock-exchange index has gone up two hundred and ten per cent in the past four years.

In the coming months, it may turn out that the most important constituency applying pressure to the Israeli government to engage the Palestinians in diplomatic negotiations will be not the activists or the left wing of the Labor Party but, rather, the entrepreneurs and managers who run such successful companies as Teva, Check Point, and Iscar. According to Bernard Avishai, a consulting editor with Harvard Business Review and the author of “The Tragedy of Zionism,” the business √©lites know that political unrest and, of course, potential war on any front threatens their interests. Those same businessmen are also wary of the most right-wing sector of society: the thirty-eight per cent of the Jewish population that wants the state to be run by religious law, and the thirty per cent that wants Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, to be pardoned.

“The continued success of the economy depends on global companies being willing to let Israeli companies into their networks,” Avishai told me over lunch in Jerusalem. “If Israel collapses into chaos—if the Lebanon war had been six months instead of one—that could all end.”

Olmert and the two leading contenders to succeed him, Netanyahu and Barak, differ politically, but they are all closely connected to the business √©lites, and they can easily see that, decades after the country left behind its old semi-socialist pioneer economy for a modern one, it cannot afford to let its most educated and entrepreneurial young people leave for Europe and the United States. Avishai said that about a third of forty-five business and law students he taught a few years ago at the Interdisciplinary Center, in Herzliya, now live abroad, and many of them may never return. According to a study by the Institute for Economic and Social Policy at the Shalem Center, in Jerusalem, Israel is the world’s largest exporter of intellectual capital to the United States.

“Will the young people take the job offer in London from Goldman Sachs or will they stay here and wait for the missiles to fall?” Avishai said. “The question is, is this a good enough place to come back to when they are married and have children? Finally, the Israeli government has to confront its own crazies and create a national consensus on democratic ideals, enact a secular constitution, and really confront the settlers. So far, the government is only willing to say that it is making ‘painful’ moves. We are told that we have to grieve with the settlers, think about making deals, but quietly let on that we actually think these are the real Israeli pioneers. Bullshit. Avrum Burg might not express the need to change in the most effective way, but at least he has the courage to insist on it.”

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