Hey Monty, Let’s Make a Deal: The Gaza Disengagement a Year Later
In July 2005, I wrote a lengthy analysis of the Jewish Diaspora tradition and the way that it has influenced modern Zionism. The essay was occasioned by the imminent fulfillment of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza Disengagement plan; an attempt to unilaterally resolve the matter of Israel’s long occupation of the Gaza Strip, one of the most debilitated places on the planet.
A very conscientious reader of our newsletter pointed out that I had not properly addressed the issue of the Disengagement, which at that time was the talk of the Jewish community. Within the Religious Zionist part of the Jewish community—whose strictures have brutally taken over the Brooklyn Sephardic community, further eroding its noble cultural heritage—there was a blanket condemnation of the plan as it put to rest the idea of the so- called “Greater Israel.”
Greater Israel and “Poolside” Zionism
The concept of “Greater Israel” represents the messianic belief, espoused by Religious Zionists as well as their Christian fundamentalist counterparts, that resettlement of the entire land of Israel promised in the Bible (it should be remembered that even the land included in the British Mandate is only a portion of this promised land—the true “Greater Israel” would encompass portions of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) marks the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies.
As I have consistently pointed out, New York’s summertime “poolside” Zionists, have a discernable tendency to become extremely militant despite the fact that none of them serve in the Israeli military or vote in Israeli elections.
So, when I wrote my essay, I choose definitively not to discuss the matter that was of burning concern in the Modern Orthodox community—where did I stand on Sharon and his plan?
I muted my comments on it because in the larger perspective I did not see the plan as something that would resolve the perpetual conflict. But, like many progressives Jews, I was moderately impressed that the penultimate hawk Sharon, the father of the settlements, was willing to adopt a tiny fragment of reason. In relinquishing Gaza, Sharon tacitly acknowledged, as has now become commonplace in Israel, that there would have to be two states to accommodate the two peoples.
Disengagement as the New Jewish Ghetto
As impressed as I was, I knew that the plan of one people “disengaging” from another remained a dicey proposition. It meant that Israel was effectively giving up on any sense of political normalcy and was reinforcing the historical image of the Jewish ghetto by admitting that it could not come to any bilateral accommodation with the Palestinians.
It was for this reason that at in my essay, I strove to explain the religious and historical implications of the Sharon plan as they were seen from the perspective of the Three Weeks; that point in the traditional Jewish calendar that marks the period between the final siege of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans and its subsequent destruction. At the time of Sharon’s Gaza move, a bold stroke that served to marginalize the “theocolonial” ambitions of Religious Zionists, all sorts of apocalyptic messages were being heard in the Jewish world. Following their own nationalist logic, these messages were casuistically connected to the anti-Arab racist animus that serves to form the template of Jewish political thought since 1948, contending that the Gaza plan would lead to both intra-Jewish and Arab-Jewish violence, and would not bring peace.
So here we are a year later and—surprise, surprise—we have no peace and a resumption of violence on a scale that has not been seen for many years.
Extremism Holds the Day
In this sense, as expected, the Jewish and Arab extremists have held the day. The “Disengagement” was based on the complete lack of concern by Israelis for their Palestinian Arab neighbors. The central idea behind the plan was not to build a fence to separate two peoples in order to facilitate coexistence, but to build a barrier that would allow the Israelis to finally be left alone in their very own ghetto. The goal of the Sharon’s strategy was not to normalize the relations between Israel and Palestine, but to make sure that they would not have any contact with one another.
The problem is that Sharon’s plan did not permit the swift creation of a Palestinian state. It pretended as though there was no one on the other side to separate from. For all intents and purposes, it was a deal struck between Israelis.
From its inception, Israel has convinced itself that the Palestinians were not a political entity and could not represent themselves. Over the years, the Zionist de-legitimization of Palestinian political aspirations has been a constant, emphasizing military over diplomatic solutions to Israel’s ongoing struggles with the Palestinians. For example, for many years it was against the law for Israelis to speak to PLO members. When the Oslo breakthrough took place, the initial reaction of Israelis was one of confusion. In the Israeli mindset, Palestinians could not be legitimate dialogue partners. Yet, Israelis were now seeing that Yasser Arafat (frequently compared by Israeli politicians to Hitler) was shaking hands with Israeli leaders on the White House lawn.
The shock of Oslo never really dissipated for either side. The Israelis could never see the Palestinians as humans, while the Palestinians could never find a way to trust an Israel whose behavior on the ground often contradicted its stated diplomatic aims. Throughout the years of the peace process, Israel continued to build and expand existing settlements, perpetuating the Occupation it was allegedly negotiating to end.
A July 6th New York Sun article by the Arab journalist Youssef Ibrahim, which has been widely distributed in the Jewish community, tries to speak directly to the Palestinians and their supporters, telling them that the war is over and that they should give up because Israel has won. I forwarded the article to another one of our savvy readers, who told me that perhaps it was Israel who needed to accept victory. In this response we can see that it is not Palestine that is the problem, but Israel. In reality, Israel has never spelled out its own terms of surrender to the Palestinian people or told them what it expects of them. Before the Zionist chorus of boos begins to take shape, it should be noted that in most normal cases we rarely expect the victim to come up with solutions. The victorious party is usually the one who dictates the terms of resolution.
So I asked a New York Zionist friend of mine, ‘What is it that Israel really wants? His answer was a variant on the Sharon ethos as he told me “We just want to be left alone.”
I am not sure how nations in this day and age can find a way to be rid of each other. Aside from the facts of globalization that now permeate all aspects of our existence, the prosaic elements of daily life—the distribution of vital strategic resources like water, food, energy and the rest—demand that entities that are linked by territory must find a way to productively interact and engage with one another.
What my Zionist friend was actually saying, perhaps without realizing it, was that Israel is not a modern Jewish state, but a medieval Ashkenazi ghetto that cannot live as a part of its region. The Zionist dream has thus been reduced to a temper tantrum and is uncertain of how it is to exist in the world.
Solutions to the Conflict
There is little doubt that there remain only two ways of solving the conflict.
The first is the conventional plan to separate Israel and Palestine by creating two states. Palestinians have agreed to this but Israel has yet to decide where these two states should be. The internationally accepted line of demarcation—and this includes U.S. policy as well—is the pre-June 1967 “Green Line.” The entire world is in agreement that this is the boundary separating two states—the entire world, that is, except Israel. Israel has never defined what the border between itself and Palestine should be, and this has caused a great amount of confusion among Palestinians and Arabs in general.
The second plan is to annex all the land that was once part of Britain’s Palestine Mandate and create one state. Here again, the Palestinians have agreed while Israel has not. And while there may be a small percentage of those Jews and Israelis who continue to dream of a complete expulsion of Palestinians from Mandate-era Palestine, most reasonable people understand that this will never happen and that it is idiotic to even consider it. The one state solution is very troubling to Israel and the vast majority of its Jewish citizens because it would create a possibility that the Arabs could take over the state through democratic means.
American Democracy as a Potential Model for Israel
After having fought and won the Civil War and abolishing slavery, the U.S. government continued to face the emergence of a post-war South that set limitations on the civil rights of freed slaves, which did not allow them to live as equals. It was at the ballot box where this battle was fought. Blacks were not uniformly given the right to vote, and in this way whites continued to control government and the legal system. In D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece Birth of a Nation we see the white southern nightmare of a black-controlled legislature where the “Negroes” are slobbering down fried chicken and causing a big ruckus in the seat of government. The age of “Jim Crow” was one that took another century to rectify. With the final passage of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act in 1965, for the first time in American history, federal legislation sought to endow black Americans with the same fundamental rights as whites.
But in Israel there is no similar official policy of ethnic and religious pluralism. Israel is a Jewish state, which means that non-Jews cannot have the same status in the country. Discriminatory legislation must be inbuilt into the system in order to ensure the prerogatives of a Jewish majority, despite the fact that the Basic Laws (Israel’s “interim” substitute for a constitution) pay lip service to the social equality of all Israelis. Functionally speaking, Israel has been able to accommodate an Arab minority and provide it with rights, but those rights can still never be substantively equal to those of Israel’s Jewish population.
So we see that the current violence is an outgrowth of the vacillation of Israel in its inability to define the parameters of the conflict. Israel has no solution that it can unilaterally impose because it has none.
A History of Palestinian Violence and the Failure of Arab Liberalism
In this context it must be acknowledged that the Palestinian people have not remained inert. Electing the Hamas movement as their governing body in the winter of 2006, the Palestinians have, as has been their wont since 1948, defaulted to the violent option in the wake of Israeli intransigence and occupation.
Having lost its intellectual leadership in the wake of British interference in the 1930s, Palestinian nationalism has insisted on violence as a means of resistance. Just like their Zionist enemy, the Palestinians have placed their faith not in ideas and knowledge, but in the power of the gun. Having lost any conventional military capability many years ago with Israel’s military might being impossibly stronger, Palestinian resistance has taken on ever more lethal and horrifying forms of engagement that frequently targets Israeli civilians. The mark of the Palestinian resistance has gone through a number of stages: First, there were the Fedayeen guerillas of the 1950s; then there was the hijacker and hostage taker of the 1960s and 1970s, followed by the rock-throwing, slingshot youths of the first Intifada in the 1980s. Since the mid-1990s, Palestinian resistance has been characterized by the distinctly psychotic archetype of the Shahid, or suicide bomber, willing to give their life for the cause of independence.
The merger of the suicide bomber with the political wing of Palestinian radicalism has brought some sense of symmetry between the two sides in the following sense: The origin of Zionist military activity was also that of terror, and its ethos was defiantly Jewish in an ethnocentric sense. Israelis and Palestinians now mirror one another, with a process of “Zionification” having taken place in the Palestinian community. The irrational zealotry of the Palestinian suicide bomber is founded on the same type of deeply paranoid sense of hopelessness that feeds the Zionist sense of Jewish fatalism and persecution.
[As proof positive of this linkage of extremes, just a couple of days after writing the initial draft of this essay I heard a Shabbat afternoon talk given at the Young Israel of Flatbush by the right-wing Israeli professor Israel Aumann, recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on Game Theory. When asked to comment on the current state of affairs in Israel, Aumann lavished praise on the Palestinians for their commitment to their cause. He insisted that the Palestinian extremists were acting, in his words, as “rational human beings” because their interests were served by the suicide bombers. Israel, as he related it, lacked the commitment to its own interests because it was intent on giving back land to the Palestinians, whom he refused to call by this name because this was in his eyes a capitulation to the legitimacy of their claim to statehood. It is also worthwhile to note that the theme of Aumann’s lecture on the week’s Torah portion was delivered as a frontal assault on Maimonidean rationalism, which Aumann explicitly termed “not a Jewish way of thinking.”]
Taking into account the election of Hamas, an energized Lebanese Hizbullah Shi’ite radicalism in the hands of Iran (with the help of the Iraq debacle), and a general suppression of liberal activists in the overall Arab world, we can see the lines of the conflict more clearly. Israel’s many years of occupation have led to the impossibility of a military solution, as there are no clearly defined national entities on the ground. Palestine is now being run by radical militias that have relations with other such entities in Iran, Syria and Lebanon—perhaps even Iraq. Israel’s gambit to set up the fundamentalist Hamas as a counterweight to the secular- nationalist PLO has led to disaster—just as Ronald Reagan’s empowerment of the Mujahadeen in Afhganistan has led to disastrous consequences for the U.S.—a disaster we are now witnessing with Bin Laden’s Al Qa’ida.
Having spent many years worrying about Palestinian leadership, the Israelis and their constant meddling and demonization of the Palestinian national movement have turned out the bottom of the garbage heap. Each time the Israelis defeated its Palestinian political rival, the beast morphed and created new tentacles.
Such has been the bitter fruit of military might and its tragic pitfalls.
The Israeli Macho, Jewish Diaspora and Ashkenazi Pilpul
In light of the tremendous loss of life it has inflicted upon both sides, and the way that it has colored Israeli society as an arrogantly macho world of military idolatry—something that has most definitely captured the imagination of many Diaspora Jews who have been deeply affected by the Charles Atlas imagery that has served to counter the model of the “weak” enfeebled Jew of anti-Semitic lore—such violence sadly continues and remains central to the conflict. Machismo has been the model for the Israeli Jew even as it has masked many layers of cultural dysfunction and psychological torment within the national spirit.
And here we can return to one of my favorite analogies: The Israeli ethos has been formed by the mechanisms of Ashkenazi casuistry—that famous Pilpul that often turns a fact into its opposite. The blood and sinew that is identified with Israeli victory is often a mark of its cultural weakness. When an Israeli soldier is captured by the enemy, the complete arsenal of Jewish self-pity and paranoia is deployed and the country is ground to a standstill. The military option is all that is available because of the ghetto mentality that permeates the culture.
This Ashkenazi fatalism and self-defeatist paranoia has permeated the Sephardim as well. Amir Peretz, who ran on a platform of openly engaging the Palestinians, is now Israel’s Defense Minister and is showing how “tough” he is—a true Israeli Zionist macho. That he has reversed his historical political position 180 degrees is something that is not really remarked on in the current context. Peretz’s Ashkenazification is one that is seen as natural for any Sephardi in Israel because sooner or later assimilation into the dominant culture must take place in order for there to be a “normalization” process to take place in the Sephardi identity. Rather than understanding that the escalation of the conflict plays into the hands of the extremists, the defense establishment, now led by Peretz, believes it has no choice but to follow the logic of today’s violence to its bloody, apocalyptic conclusion.
Setting all this into a historical Jewish context, we can see the stark contrast between the current Israeli situation and the period of the Three Weeks, a time of circumspection and repentance for observant Jews. The Three Weeks is an affirmation of the model of Jewish politics that was fashioned by the Jewish sages, Hakhamim, in the wake of the political defeat at the hands of the Roman imperium. Rather than respond to the defeat by fighting and being destroyed, the Hakhamim elected to accept defeat and grow Judaism as a non- territorial entity. The Hakhamim never completely eliminated the national-territorial aspect of Jewish life—they simply reprioritized and reoriented Jewish values to elevate the cognitive over the territorial. Jewish national identity would be defined not exclusively by the land, but by fidelity to Scripture and to the pronouncements of the Sages. It permitted Jews to live peacefully under the Roman imperium and practice their faith and traditions in a way that did not preclude loyalty to their host government.
Zionism, as we know, sought to repair this “unnatural” state of affairs. The national Jewish identity as defined by its Diasporic condition was seen as a form of socio-political sickness and could only be corrected by the use of force to take back the land that was lost centuries earlier. This dynamic was informed by the ways in which Talmudic Diasporism was understood and lived by the Ashkenazim in their shtetls. A fierce opposition between inertia and aggression became manifest in Ashkenazi culture as Modernity emerged. Among the Sephardim who lived in the region that encompassed the Holy Land, such an opposition never took root. While there was a continuing awareness of Jewish powerlessness in Sephardic thinking, it never took on the magnified aspect as it did in Ashkenazi culture. Indeed, Arab Jewry had never lived in ghettoes and had not suffered the cruel persecutions that Ashkenazi Jewry did. The two cultures saw things in a different way, leading to a cognitive and socio-cultural dissonance that has remained in Israel to this day.
The Three Weeks, Tish’a be-Ab and Zionism
The Three Weeks culminating with the fast of Tish’a be-Ab affirm the ascendance and ultimate centrality of the Hakhamim and their worldview in Jewish life. In so many ways, Zionism has served to scale back and, in places, completely eviscerate this rabbinic centrality. The unholy hybrid merger of rabbinism and Zionism has led to the messianism that has created a holy militarism akin to forms of Islamic radicalism, even though the Jewish messianists have rarely been empowered in a political or military sense. In contrast, secular Zionism shorn of its rabbinical component has proven to be a nationalism that has struggled to define itself in ethno-cultural terms and remains without a coherent solution to the matter of liberal democracy for the inhabitants of its state territory.
While all this inner-Jewish drama plays itself out, the ongoing confusion of Zionism has placed the Palestinian Arabs in a situation in which their own national and political identity remains unclear. Are they a separate state or are they part of the Israeli state? Should they seek integration or separation—the latter often becoming violent in the wake of Israeli oppression and the emergence of a fundamentalist Islamic identity—with the Jewish majority of Israel?
What we see today unfolding in Lebanon and Gaza is the outcome of a violent ethos that is part of the confusion of national affiliation in the region. Arab liberalism has been defeated by a canny combination of Western imperialism and the internal authoritarian mechanisms of Arab regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have proven to be useful to the Western nations that see the region exclusively in terms of its own strategic interests—oil and Zionism—rather than as a place where political life should be democratically free and open.
Thus, out of this volatile engine the forces of obscurantism and violence emerge. All the parties articulate their aggrieved frustrations and violently lash out at one another. Moderates on all sides are stymied by the maniacally-inspired apocalyptic religiosity of those extremists who have been buoyed by military violence.
Islam and Judaism as Quietist Faiths in the Midst of Violence
The quietism of Islam and Judaism, the streams of religious thinking in both faiths that counsel patience, tolerance and mutual respect, is thus suppressed in this maelstrom of war and hate. The values of God are reduced to the level of tribal vendetta and bloody revenge. Sacred texts are parsed for their hateful passages and Modernity is interpreted to mean victory against one’s national enemy at any cost. All of this, of course, is clothed in the militant pieties of religion.
This ensures that more people will die and more people will become converted to the faith of war and destruction. Positions will harden and solutions will be harder to come by. Such is the way that has become commonplace in the Middle East. It is a path that has been constructed out of the detritus of history in its most reactionary forms. People believe that only their understanding of history is correct and that there is no room for other interpretations. Rigidly defined and monitored orthodoxies are thus created, and enforcement mechanisms are put into place preventing the emergence of alternative ways of seeing.
Hey Monty, Let’s Make a Deal
The title of this essay reminds us of Monty Hall and his game show Let’s Make a Deal, a television show in which contestants would be given merchandise or money to trade for the unknown entities that would be behind curtains up on the stage. The whole thing was a gamble as one did not know which would bring in more value—the object in the hand or behind the curtain.
In a similar way, the peoples of the region are all dealt out. Each one thinks that they can make a better deal for what is behind the curtain. The guiding belief that permeates each of the sides is that they will get the big prize if only they keep trading. Each tries to “rig” the game by adopting a violent posture that would seek to force the hand of its opponent. None of them realize that the game itself promises nothing but a bloody crapshoot whose only certain result will be an endless road of death and hatred—not much of a way to lead a rational existence. We can take chances, but when those chances lead to the inexorable loss of life and the extinguishing of hope, the game has proven itself to be a sham.
There are no “deals” left for anyone. Monty has become an angel of death.
As we begin the observance of the Three Weeks as prescribed by Talmudic tradition, we should remember the cunning innocence of the Sages and their deeply sophisticated political ideology. This ideology, rejected by Zionism and its radical Islamic cognates, is one that was once functional in the Middle East, where pluralism and tolerance once existed. The collapse of the traditional values of the region—values based on a religious humanism inculcated over many centuries of multiethnic and multireligious coexistence—has led it on a downward spiral that is not the work of one entity only. It is as if an outbreak of wild fever has now gripped the majority of people in the region, both Jewish and Arab, who cannot seem to find a way out.
David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York. The Center publishes the weekly e-mail newsletter Sephardic Heritage Update as well as promoting lectures and cultural events relevant to Sephardic culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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