Sunday, February 5, 2012

Israel, 'an outpost of civilization against barbarism'

"The description of Israel as 'the only democracy in the Middle East' has been received wisdom in the Wes for decades. The idea of Israel as 'one of us', a home for Western values in a region of religious extremism and political instability, is voiced and understood by politicians, journalists, analysts,and the general public... [T]he conception of Israel's status as regionally anomalous -- a liberal,  parliamentary democracy -- remains unshaken. When President Barack Obama can call Israel a 'small nation' in a 'tough neighbourhood', remarkably little has chained since Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, wrote in 1896 that a jewish state in Palestine would be 'an outpost of civilization against barbarism' (from the Introduction).
Yet, as Ben White so ably demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth. From the beginning, when European Zionists first began to enter it, Palestine was considered an "empty" land. In 1902, Max Nordau, co-founder of the World Zionist Organization, wrote that Zionists desired "to irrigate with their sweat and to till with their hands a country that is today a desert, until it again becomes the blooming garden it once was." Nothing could have been further from on the ground reality. Palestine was full of productive farms, busy cities and thriving trade. Seeing the land as "empty" "was not a  matter of ignorance of the Arab population but a question of European chauvinism." "Palestine at the time of first Zionist settlement was not empty of people, but of people deemed worthy by Europeans of controlling their own country." This was not traditional European (and by extension, American) chauvinistic conquest: when you desire something, go in and take it, the natives be damned. With that in mind, literally anything is permissible. 
This is not the narrative I grew up with, which depicted Israel as a brave nation surrounded by bitter enemies who wished to erase it from the earth, and the Israeli people and their leaders as heroic defenders of democracy and human rights. As Ben White ably shows, little could be further from the truth. 

Citing Israel's own laws and policies, White shows that, from the beginning, Israel has treated Palestinians -- including its own Palestinian citizens -- as if they are invisible and, as invisible, have no rights. Citing chapter and verse from Israeli laws and policies, he shows how Palestinians are discriminated against in every way imaginable, and I am not exaggerating in saying that. In the Occupied Territories and Gaza, it is worse and is much more publicized. Within Israel itself, it really isn't any better. In the Galilee and the Negev, Palestinians are pushed aside, their homes demolished in Israel's push to "Judaize" the areas -- culturally "drown" the Negev and Galilee with Jewish residents; in the Occupied Territories they are called "settlers" -- in order to support Israel's as a Jewish state.

The problem with this is that it negates Israel's claim of being a democracy, as it is not a state of all its citizens. (Legally, non-Jews are second-class citizens.) Far from the paradise it is presented as being, reality shows Israel an aggressive, openly racist, and increasingly paranoid nation that defends itself by creating more oppressive laws and violent behavior toward Palestinians in Israel itself and in the Occupied Territories. Israel is, and has been, a contradiction of Herzl's contention that a Jewish nation in Palestine would be "an outpost of civilization against barbarism". What Israel has come to resemble is barbarism itself. 
White's book has already garnered charges of "anti-Semitism" and White charged with being an "anti-Semite", a charge routinely made against all critics of Israel. Israeli journalist Yaniv Halili, for instance, claims the book "presents a blatant anti-Israel approach". It doesn't at all. What it does, and does thoroughly, is cite the sources, which are unimpeachable. Palestinians in Israel may not be a comfortable book to read, but it is an important one, a necessary antidote to all the propaganda and alarmist accusations of anti-Semitism. What Ben White has done, and done very well in this book is reveal the chauvinism and cruelty of the modern State of Israel in all its ugliness.  
A final note: It seems to me that Israel's behavior towards the Palestinian people, which it justifies in terms of "security needs", is itself anti-Semitic for the simple reason that it ignores and denies the brutal behavior that is common knowledge everywhere. In justifying behavior that decent people regard as reprehensible, Israel paints a negative picture of what Jewish people and their culture are like. And that is offensive and wrong.  

If Israel really wishes to rid the world of anti-Semitism and enjoy life as a respected member of the world community of nations, then it must change its behavior. Accusing people who point it  out of anti-Semitism only makes the problem worse.
A 5 star review.

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