An island in the sun


By Ira Sharkansky

It isn’t the Caribbean image of paradise made popular by Harry Belafonte, but the Israeli reality of being out of step with its surroundings.

And the surroundings extend much further than its Muslim neighbors.

They also include pretty much the whole world as represented by the United Nations, as well as large segments of American Jews.

Israel just ain’t what a lot of people think it is, or think it should be.

To a considerable extend, it represents the latest expression of Jewish history, i.e., being an outsider, having to struggle in order to survive, but doing it well and living better than hostile neighbors.

Israel is more completely Jewish than the large communities of Jews in the U.S. or Western Europe. The vast majority of Israeli Jews came directly from communities in Europe or the Middle East, and did not pass through several generations of assimilation and acculturation in western democracies where pluralism is the norm.

During its entire history, Israel has been a caricature of the historic Jew, i.e., living apart but alongside others, dealing with them, but having to defend itself against the chronic possibility of hostility.

We’re an island, but not isolated.

In recent days there have come into my mailbox several indications of our peculiarity.

From American Jews I received expressions of an idealized image of Israel, along with a view that it must be even more forceful in assuring its complete victory over others.

One correspondent objected to my use of “Palestine,” instead of the more appropriate “Palestine Authority” to represent the area of the West Bank and Gaza. Calling it Palestine, in his view, would justify its existence as a place deserving a state, and  add to the weight of all the nasties who want to do away with Israel. His assertion came along with a report that Knesset Member Haneen Zoabi was speaking on American campuses, and that no Israeli should express anything to endorse—even indirectly—her message.

Ah, what to do about symbols and realities?

Perhaps stop paying $50,000 and more annually for what is thought to be prestige education in an institution that feels appropriate to expose its students to Haneen Zoabi. The same university is most likely home to students and faculty pressing to boycott the only universities in the Middle East that score on various measures of academic quality.

The name “Palestine” has been around for a long time. It was a creation of the Romans and adopted by the British, who put it on the birth certificate of Varda and all others born during their Mandate. Calling an area Palestine does not provide it with power or authority, or an end to its people’s problems. Moreover, acknowledging the right of Israeli Arabs to call themselves “Palestinians” does not provide them with anything more than a fillip of describing themselves in a way they prefer, equivalent to me occasionally describing myself as an American, or even accepting the Israeli designation that I am—don’t laugh—an “Anglo-Saxon.”

Something different came from the editor of an online newspaper that publishes my notes. He objected to a sentence that referred to the bloodshed among Muslims with the phrase “the best news is that they are killing one another, weakening and postponing their capacity to become our primary worries.”

He wanted to replace it with “the best news is that they are pitted against each other.”

One can quarrel about the wording. The American was squeamish, concerned that his readers would object.

Perhaps he and his readers are too far from the realities of the Middle East. The people who stream here to fight for the “Islamic State” appear to us as the craziest of the mad, seeking to establish a regime that will turn upon this upstart intrusion into the region they call their own. Their current enemies are other Muslims in a morass of hatred and killing that defies definition: Sunnis vs Shiites, different versions of each battling one another, with tribal loyalties also involved. Whatever the explanations, the reality is that they are killing one another and not only pitted against one another in what might be imagined as a sanitized dispute where no one gets hurt.

Our one-time antagonists, i.e., Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with a number of other Muslim entities are mixed in the conflict. There is direct confrontation in Yemen and Libya. Part of the story is the Saudi military fighting against those supported financially by Saudis.

All the signs are that it’s good for us. For the moment, at least, we can sit back, guard the borders, arrest individual Palestinians and Israeli Arabs inclined to join the fray or those returning who are likely to cause problems for us, and let our enemies reduce one another’s capacity to attack us in the near future. If that means using the unpleasant word “killing,” it seems the most accurate expression for what is happening.

Yet another correspondent is aligned with the man who objects to the use of “Palestine.” This one expresses dissatisfaction that Israel has not yet moved against the tunnels that Hamas may be rebuilding from its side of the Gaza border.

Involved here is the appeal of pre-empting, associated with an idealized image of the Six Day War.

Conquering Gaza and solving its threat once and for all would be very expensive in lives and treasure, if indeed it would be possible. It staggers one’s credibility to imagine that the Gazan survivors would be willing to live in peace alongside Israelis. Acting against new tunnel activity prior to it being necessary would in all likelihood provoke another rain of missiles, which would lead the IDF to produce more destruction and death, and the inevitable condemnations from the international community, including from Jews here and abroad who cannot tolerate realities.

Sooner or later Israel may have to do all of that. But better for all of us if it comes later, allowing people on both sides of the border to enjoy the relative quiet, with hopes that it continues longer than last time.

Like the traditional Jew, Israel has to cope with hostile surroundings, as well as a sense of its own power and limitations. It can’t do everything in its own defense. No country can, but the Israeli reality is more apparent than in the US, whose residents imagine themselves living safely while they kill enemies elsewhere. Barack Obama wants to do it safely, with US airpower and Arab troops, and no American boots on the ground.

Israel is also stuck with some other features of Jewish realities. Jews within its population and overseas believe that the Lord promised it all to us. Some--like my correspondent from overseas--simply want to pre-empt against hostility and finish with the conflict once and for all.

So far, Israel’s politics have pushed to the top individuals who recognize the complexities, and are satisfied to pursue what is feasible.

Current frictions and problems in putting together a government demonstrate once again that it isn’t easy.

Some on this island don’t understand the subtleties, and many more off the island are even further from comprehension. They demand a solution for a problem that has been insoluble for a century. Some demand an end of settlements, which they see as solving the problems of Israel--or in the case of the more delusional--those of the entire Middle East, by having 600,000 of us to go somewhere else.

Dream on.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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