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By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

3 nations


A hundred meters from these fingers is a border between civilizations. To the east of that border is the “village,” “suburb,” or “neighborhood” of Isaweea. With more than 20,000 residents, the label “village” is misleading, but that’s the term many use. “Suburb” suggests something outside of Jerusalem, but it is formally within the city as defined by Israel in 1967. There is no wall between us and Isaweea, but it is “outside” insofar as few Jews risk themselves by entering it. “Neighborhood” is problematic, insofar as the frequent mobilization of the gendarmerie units of the police for an operation in Isaweea hardly justify the concept of “neighborly,” even though many of Isaweea’s residents circulate freely in the stores, bank, post office, bus stops, and playing fields of French Hill, usually with no problems from one side or the other. 

There is no marked border between French Hill and Isawee. For practical purposes, the border is an open field where the Bedouin of Isaweea pasture their sheep and goats, or the stretch of road just on the other side of the French Hill gas station (staffed almost exclusively by men from Isaweea and occasionally a target of fire bombers wanting a very big bang), where there is often a police presence. Likewise, there is no border to be crossed on my way to the Hebrew University as I pass by blocks populated by Arabs and the Arab-owned kiosks selling falafel where there are usually Jews and Arabs standing in line or sitting around and eating.

The same is true for the many other points of meeting between the populations, both in the Old City and elsewhere in much of Jerusalem where Jewish and Arab neighborhoods exist side by side. The populations are even more mingled, with families of one population living within areas usually thought of as associated with the other, and a few families with one spouse Arab, the other a Jew, and kids a bit of both.

Nevertheless, it is also appropriate to describe a divide between civilizations. Most of the populations differ by language, religion and culture, although there are many who identify with one population yet share the language and at least part of the culture of the other. 

The divides between Jews and Arabs of Jerusalem, and of all Israel bear some resemblance to what Benjamin Disraeli wrote about Britain in an era when Charles Dickens was describing something similar.

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” (Sybil, or the Two Nations)

While Disraeli and Dickens described nations that differed largely in their economic resources, the differences at issue in Israel are more cultural than economic. Israeli Arabs have a standard of living and access to medical care that allow them to live longer, on average, than white Americans.

If Disraeli or Dickens were able to spend time in modern Israel, they would probably write about three nations.

The third is the Haredi, also marked by a distinct culture, their own neighborhoods, economy, in some cases a mother tongue (Yiddish) different from that of the other two, and by adherence to laws concerned with food, clothing, relations between the sexes, and other matters that keep them apart. Some Haredi live among the non-Haredi, and individuals move in their lifetimes from one culture to the other.

The non-Haredi Jewish population (which includes a sizable element of Orthodox Jews) dominates Israeli society, economy, and politics, but spends considerable energy and resources coping with Arab and Haredi outliers. 

Both the Arab and Haredi populations have allies outside of Israel. Most prominent are the billion or so Muslims who view the Arabs of Israel and Palestine as their wards who must be protected via political pressure and whatever they contribute by way of money and munitions. A minor curiosity in comparison with all those Muslims are overseas Haredim and other Jews who send money to the Haredim of Israel, or give money to travelers collecting for yeshivot and themselves, and see the Israeli Haredi as persecuted symbols of what they imagine as the Judaism of their forefathers.

The current squabbles with the Haredi concern what may be a sea-change in Israeli politics following the recent election, and efforts of the new government to impose some mathematics, language and science into the curriculum of Haredi schools, and to do away with provisions that allow Haredi men to avoid the military, work and taxes imposed on the rest of us.

Just as it is necessary to distinguish between the Haredi and the Orthodox Jews, it is also necessary to distinguish between Israeli Arabs (or self-described Palestinians living in Israel) and the Palestinians on the other side of that three-meter high wall that we see from our balcony. The barrier wends its way alongside Isaweea but not between us and Isaweea.

Most Israeli Arabs share with us the Hebrew language as well as norms acquired over the course of three generations of living in the same country. We should neither exaggerate the closeness nor overlook the sources of tension, but whatever divide separates us does not compare with that between Israelis and the residents of areas under control of the Palestine Authority. 

It is also appropriate to differentiate Gaza and the West Bank. Especially since the “disengagement” of 2005, the onset of control by Hamas in Gaza, and several military operations since then, West Bankers have become much closer to our reference point (and that of the Americans and Europeans) as relevant Palestinians.

We can measure the distance between us and the Palestinians of the West Bank by the difference in perspectives expressed by Israelis of the center and right on the one hand, and by the Israeli and international left, along with the folks in the White House and  several European governments, on the other hand.

A recent op-ed piece in the centrist Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (latest news) expresses the differences . It contrasts the “obsession” of the Obama administration with finding the key to bringing Israelis and West Bank Palestinians together (it appears that not even Obama aspires to solve the problems of Gaza), with an Israeli perspective that there is a standard of living and a security for individuals in the West Bank that surpass anything available in most of the countries governed by Muslims, and that Abbas and his coterie would disappear if not coddled by Israel. While the overseas and Israeli friends of Palestinians see them confined and oppressed by Israel, the article describes the corruption of the Palestinian leadership, billions of aid that “evaporates within seconds,” and Palestinians’ dependence on Israeli patronage and Israeli security forces that “watch . . . over them.” 

Currently there is a squabble within Palestine focused on Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas, which Israelis and others struggle to understand. Fayyad has resigned for the nth time, and Abbas has said he accepts the resignation, but it may be too early to decide that their conflict is finished. 

Fayyad came back to the West Bank after earning a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas and a career with the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and has been identified with working to develop the infrastructure of a Palestinian economy. 

Commentators of different political affinities describe the problems of Fayyad as primarily those of a technocrat who has struggled with Abbas and other Palestinian politicians concerned primarily with lining their own pockets and putting relatives and friends in jobs, or as a man who cannot achieve his aspirations for Palestine due to Israeli interference. Among John Kerry’s efforts in his recent visit were requests or instructions that Fayyad and Abbas continue their cooperation. However, American interference is cited as one of the reasons for Fayyad’s latest resignation, due to the stain on his reputation from being too close to the Americans.

Just outside of Palestine are events even more distant than what separates us from them. According to the author of that op-ed piece, in order to accept the Obama-Kerry obsession that an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement will help the region and the world, we must “pretend that the rival camps in Syria are not using chemical weapons and committing unprecedented war crimes in the Middle East . . .  that North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq are not being dissolved in front of our eyes, and that Salafi kingdoms are being born instead.”

Britain of the 21st century is not the same as what Disraeli and Dickens described for the 19th century. The Haredim, non-Haredi Israelis and Palestinians of the 21st century should not let their pessimism—however it is justified—lead them to say never. But neither should we expect great or rapid changes as a result of efforts about the Haredim by the new Israeli government, nor from the obsessions of Barack Obama and John Kerry about Israel and Palestine.

Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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