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18 February 2022

Israel’s Glorious And Gloomy Reality

By: Alon Ben-Meir
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No people have ever risen from the ashes of near-extinction to form a country and achieve the height of development in every walk of life like Israel. These magnificent accomplishments are now tragically marred with domestically charged struggles which ominously undermine its very existence.

Righting the Wrong
Israel’s achievements since its establishment are remarkable. In science, cybertechnology, medicine, agronomy, military innovation, aviation, and entrepreneurship, Israel has excelled while reaching the pinnacle of military prowess unmatched by any other regional power. In spite of these impressive achievements, Israel failed to become the country that millions of Jews envisioned it to be. Although Israel is threatened by extremist Palestinians, radical Islamic groups, and Iran, it is powerful enough militarily to tackle such threats and prevail. The real danger Israel faces is largely self-made, emanating from multiple fronts which successive governments failed to address.

These failures include the continuing occupation, unending discrimination, rampant poverty, growing social discord, and the frictional relations with American Jewry; together they point to a gloomy reality and pose a grave danger to Israel’s survival as we know it.

Human rights violations in the occupied territories Other than the thirst for annexing more Palestinian land and stern opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state, the continuing occupation is designed to keep the conflict simmering and to provide the rationale behind Israeli “concerns” over national security. It is sad to admit that the Jews who suffered from the horrors of persistent discrimination, segregation, and persecution culminating with the Holocaust, which led to the establishment of Israel, would violate the Palestinians’ human rights to such a degree.

How can any Israeli justify the terrible abuses of the Palestinians’ human rights to which they are subjected daily? Prolonged incarcerations, demolished homes, forced evictions, night raids, segregation, and denial of economic and social rights, not to speak of the relentless attacks on and harassment of innocent Palestinians by settlers forcing them to leave their land and property. As Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin stated in Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, “… we have to observe that in the Israeli public debate, the term ‘peace’ still does not mean primarily the fulfillment of Palestinian rights, including the rights of the refugees, but rather the principle of separation…”

In January 2021, B’Tselem stated that “A regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime.” The same sentiment was precisely echoed earlier this month by Amnesty International.

Try as it may to defend itself, the reality on the ground in the territories speaks volumes about the brutal mistreatment of Palestinians by Israel. According to B’Tselem, last year Israel killed more than 300 Palestinians, over one-fifth of whom were children—the deadliest year since 2014. It should shame every Israeli Jew who has become complacent regarding the ugly occupation, which savagely erodes Israel’s moral standing in the eyes of the international community. Although antisemitism has been in play from time immemorial, can anyone suggest that the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel is not contributing to the rise of antisemitism?

It is crucial that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved because as long as the occupation continues, it will not only further undermine the Palestinians’ right but will further intensify Israel’s domestic problems.

Economic disparity
Over the past two decades Israel’s economy has consistently grown, making it one of the most stable economies in and outside the region. The average per capita earning is on par with most EU countries and the US. For this reason, it is hard to grasp why successive Israeli governments would fail miserably to address the debilitating economic disparities among the Israeli population, Jews, and Arabs alike. As Thomas Jefferson eloquently stated, “Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor.”

According to a December 2021 survey, over 2.5 million Israelis—including over 1 million children—live in poverty, with 932,000 households living in a state of economic distress. The country that spends billions on building settlements and massive infrastructure in the West Bank, in addition to the billions more spent on security, allows over one million children to go hungry, especially at the early stages of their cognitive development. This is not only unconscionable but criminal. To think that this is happening to a people that have been yearning to live with dignity among their fellow Jews defies the very reason behind Israel’s creation.

Social disconnect
After more than seven decades of existence Israel dangerously lacks social cohesiveness, which is the hallmark of a viable and strong community. Although significant improvement has taken place between Jews of different cultural and racial backgrounds, there is still a huge social cleavage between Sephardic (Middle Eastern and North African) Jews and Ashkenazi Jews who are of European origin, and discrimination against and scorn for Israeli Arabs.

In addition, there is a clear social schism between secular and Orthodox Jews, between Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, as well as between reform and conservative Jews. Just think, 40 percent of secular Israeli Jews said they hate Haredim, and nearly 20 percent of traditionalists stated that they dislike Haredi Jews.

That the Jews who finally established an independent state would show this much intolerance and contempt for their fellow Jews is nothing less than disgraceful. The ingathering of the Jews from all corners of the world—regardless of skin color, religious affiliation, cultural or political background—was first and foremost the very foundation for Israel’s creation. Many of Israel’s political leaders are sadly preoccupied with their petty politics. They lack the moral courage and the fortitude to speak out against this socially ugly phenomenon and foster the continuing estrangement between different segments of Israeli Jews. This has an even greater effect on the Israeli Arabs, which only deepens their alienation from the Jewish population.

Political fragmentation
Even after more than seven decades of existence Israel remains deeply divided politically, with scores of political parties each claiming they have the answer to the country’s multiple challenges. In every election over 20 political parties compete; new parties with colorful names are created and the leader of every party wants to be the prime minister. Not once has a single party been able to form a government on its own, settling instead to form coalition governments which by their very nature require compromises and often settle on the lowest denominator. The current Bennett-Lapid coalition government exemplifies that to perfection. By way of example, since all the parties could not reach a consensus on a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they agreed NOT to deal with it, albeit it is the most critical issue facing the nation.

It is understandable that Jews who immigrated to Israel from various countries will have different political views. But one would think that after 73 years, new generations of Israelis would settle on fewer political parties representing the mainstream of the political spectrum—left, right, center, and religious. This would allow for the formation of a coalition government that enjoys a significant majority and can get things done. Instead, political bickering and party and personal interests are consistently placed above the nation’s interests. As James Madison explained, the problem is that when political factions obtain power, they put their interests above the common good, “both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” Netanyahu and his party epitomized this horrible reality.

Relation with US Jewry
The American Jewish community is unlike others in Europe; it is the second pillar that sustains and enriches Jewish life in and outside Israel. Although American Jews largely oppose the occupation, they have always stood fast in support of Israel both financially and politically. Not once have they shirked that allegiance, which they consider central to the well-being of world Jewry.

For these and many other reasons, for Israel not to fully embrace the American Jews with all its might is outrageous. One glaring example says it all. Why on earth would both the Netanyahu and now Bennett governments revoke a plan for an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall—promised to Reform and American Jewish leaders—to allow Jews to pray however they choose?

The CEO of the Israel Reform Movement Anna Kislanski put it succinctly when she said: “It is both infuriating and upsetting when the Prime Minister of a ‘change government’… yields to extremist factions that object to the Agreement and its implementation…[and] capitulate[s] shamefully to bullying and violence…” Such an “extremist faction” was on full display on IDF’s radio station, where Army Radio Talk show host Irit Linur despicably uttered about Reform Jews, “…. you weren’t accepted here. Go away – go, go, go. Put up a wall somewhere else…. Your place isn’t here…. You don’t belong, you only ruin things.”

I for one, cannot fathom how a country that was born to provide a welcoming and safe haven for all Jews, could so callously betray that central premise. It seems to me that for Israel, the American Jewish community is there to be milked financially and used as nothing more than a tool to influence American policy in support of Israel.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently said that Israel is “the greatest political achievement of the 20th century,” with which I concur. But as I survey the Israeli scene, I feel despair. No, this is not the country that I and millions of other Jews envisioned. Israel was meant to be a model democracy—free, fair, judicious, and just, where equality and social equity is a right, where everyone is treated decently and with dignity.

This is where Israel’s ultimate strength and security lies. Ignoring that will devour it from within and pose a greater danger to the country than its worst enemy.

* Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. - alon@alonben-meir.com



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