Talking to the Wall

Let’s hope it’s a sign that the American Jewish community is coming together on the issue of Israel: Jeffrey Goldberg actively agrees with Peter Beinart on the only logical outcomes of the current trajectory of Israeli occupation and settlement-building in the West Bank (I suspect they’ve shared that same assumption for awhile now).

The biggest problem that the left and non-Zionists in both the United States and Israel face on the issue of Israel’s control of the West Bank is that they project their own perceptions and concerns onto the secular nationalists, religious Zionists, and increasingly the haredi who remain firmly in control of the settlement/occupation agenda.

While they might regret it, the nationalists and religious are not susceptible to arguments that Israel will become isolated in the world, losing even its closest allies. They remain tied to the biblical notion that Israel is a nation that “dwells alone.”

Much of Israeli history since 1948 also bears this out for them, including (but by no means limited to): The breaking of the American promise to ensure freedom in the Straits of Tiran in 1967, the harsh world condemnation Israel received when it destroyed the Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981, the absolute and relative number of resolutions at the United Nations focused on its behavior, lack of support in the face of regular terrorism against civilians, and so on. To these groups, Israel already is alone and forced to defend itself without much help.

Neither do the hardliners among these three groups worry much about the one-state solution. They don’t see any correlation between holding on to the West Bank and a decline in the quality of Israeli democracy. Israel is meant, after all, to be a Jewish state. No matter how many non-Jews live in it, they simply aren’t concerned about their political rights, since they aren’t Jews. At best, as one prominent settler leader noted to me, their politics can be realized in Jordan.

Finally, it’s not even clear that they care all that much that Israel remains a Western-style liberal democracy. The Israel Democracy Institute’s 2011 Israeli Democracy Index captures what can only be called, in a hopeful manner, the ambivalence many Israelis across the spectrum demonstrate toward liberal democratic values. (Which also helps explain society’s passivity in the face of the slew of bills discussed in government and the Knesset regarding the advocacy of ideas and organizations considered falling on the left end of the spectrum.)

At first glimpse, this liberalism seems evident: only 22.9% of those who self-identify as secular believe “Israel as a Jewish state” connotes a religious marker, compared to 63.8% who say the term connotes a national marker (p.51). But among the secular, those who identify with the political right lean 42.9% toward the religious marker, compared to 24.1% on the left. Combined with the haredi’s 87.4% and the Orthodox’s 57.1%, that’s a lot of Israelis who believe in the religious element and, among the haredi especially, are likely to invoke trust in God’s plan to resolve the issue to (Jews’) satisfaction.

At the same time, the preference for Israel as a Jewish state ranks very high among all Israelis (p.53): 46.1% want Israel to be both Jewish and democratic, while 29.5% prefer a Jewish state and 22.9% prefer the democratic emphasis.

On the question of which should take precedence when there is a conflict between democratic principles and Jewish law (halacha): almost 100% of the haredi prefer halacha, and about half the Orthodox prefer halacha. This is, of course, to be expected. But perhaps more surprisingly, and certainly of greater political importance, among those who identify themselves on the political spectrum, 15.1% of the left said priority should go to halacha, while 42.4% of those on the right said halacha (and 14.2% of those who identify as the center) (pp.57-58).

In short, the hand-wringing that everybody else engages in while they wonder why the arguments for ending the occupation and working more actively toward a Palestinian state don’t sink in for the secular nationalists, religious Zionists, and haredi is a waste of time. These communities will not reconcile themselves to such concerns.

They need, instead, to be convinced of the value of Israel itself, and what living within the Green Line can do for both their identity and for Israeli identity as a whole. Instead of focusing on the dangers they pose to Israel by their actions, the positive benefits they can bring to Israel in its pre-1967 borders (with lands swaps, if that’s how negotiations go) should be emphasized.

Some among these populations will never be convinced, and the hard truth is that they will have to either be forced out of the West Bank or left in a Palestinian state as Palestinian citizens. But for the rest, it’s clearly time for new ideas.

Talk has always focused on creative solutions between Israelis and Palestinians; we also need creative solutions between Israelis themselves (and, for that matter, between Palestinians as well). Here’s a start.

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2 thoughts on “Talking to the Wall

  1. They are important actors, but they can’t and won’t determine the specific nature of Israeli identity and behavior. They facilitate and enhance the nationalists’ and religious’ priorities as projected outside of Israel, but if Israel reversed those priorities the Christian Zionists’ impact would lessen.

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