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Israel’s Existential Concerns Continue to be Unsettling Part-2


Jeffrey Goldberg reflects on Israel’s formative visions and current dilemmas in this excellent and thoughtful essay published in Atlantic monthly on Israel’s 60th anniversary.

Part 1 | Part 2

Goldberg then discusses some interesting ideas from the founders of Zionism. They believed that Zionism would cure European hatred of Jews. The Russian Jew would leave the anti-Semitism of his homeland to become a “normal” person in Palestine, thereby earning the respect of Christians. More interesting still, the Muslims were never part of that equation. Jews assumed [perhaps based on the history of Muslim tolerance of its Jewish minorities] that Muslims/Arabs would welcome the enrichment that Jews brought with them; in the words of a novel character: “The Jews have enriched us. Why should we be angry with them? They dwell among us like brothers. Why should we not love them?”

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But David Ben-Gurion, first prime-minister of Israel, could not have been unaware. Ben-Gurion said that Zionism would “bring a blessing to the Arabs of Palestine, and they have no good cause to oppose us.” To which Arab leader, Musa Alami responded, “I would prefer that the country remain impoverished and barren for another hundred years, until we are able to develop it on our own.” But Ben-Gurion believed that numbers would bring the cure. He said in 1933, “In the course of four to five years, we must bring in a quarter of a million Jews and the Arab question will be solved.”

While Goldberg mentions Ben-Gurion’s optimism, he fails to mention Ben-Gurion’s famous statement:

I don’t understand your optimism. Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations’ time, but for the moment there is no chance. So, it’s simple: we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army. Our whole policy is there. Otherwise the Arabs will wipe us out. [As quoted in The Jewish Paradox : A personal memoir (1978) by Nahum Goldmann (translated by Steve Cox), p. 99.]

The rest, of course, is history. Arab/Muslim opposition did not abate. Rather, it remained as Ben –Gurion stated. Goldberg then repeats Grossman’s fear for Israel’s survival:

“I think that this fear, this idea that Israel will not exist anymore—I cannot even utter specific, clear words because it’s really frightening—this idea or fear hovers above us all the time,” Grossman told me. “It is so present, even though we suppress it almost violently. Whenever it infiltrates the consciousness, it’s almost paralyzing. You can see if you look at the numbers—how few we are, how many they are, how hostile this region is, how we have never been accepted into this region.”

Grossman then emphasizes the notion that Israel has “not accomplished statehood, the realization that this is a legitimate state”, rattling off some fears: fanaticism, non-acceptance from other religions, parts of the West that have not accepted the idea of Israel, lack of inner confidence, and doubts about survival: “We’re a story that other nations read and borrow. But if you are a story, you can end.”

Goldberg then brings emigration to America into the picture, that “their story will come to an end not because of the actions of Iran, or of the Palestinians, but because they choose to end it, by assimilating completely.” But Grossman insists that, “Israel still gives a Jew the best chance of feeling at home in the world”

Goldberg then connects the lives of Grossman and Olmert by mentioning a memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated by an extremist supporter of the settlements. Grossman doesn’t shake hands with Olmert and takes the prime-minister to task in this gathering of over 100,000 people. He tells Olmert to speak directly to the Palestinian people about their future, “Go to the Palestinian people. Speak to their deep grief and wounds, recognize their continued suffering.”

Grossman then addresses Olmert’s powerlessness in doing the “right thing”, withdrawing from the West-Bank, mentioning Olmert’s inability to even touch “illegal outposts” [though all settlements in the occupied lands are illegal by international standards, these outputs are illegal even by Israeli standards!]. Olmert has thus far removed only ONE outpost of 200 people. Grossman ties speaking to the Palestinian people with the existence of Israel itself: “When will he speak to the hopes and fears of the Palestinians? When will he do something to save us?”

The article then shifts to the author’s interview of Olmert himself, in his highly secure, windowless compound. He describes Olmert as someone who can project kindness, but can be a “haranguing, preemptively defensive man”. In the next paragraph, Goldberg mentions something interesting: how a group of American Jews are “investing a lot of money trying to overthrow the government in Israel” because Olmert is too dovish for them, and is making too many compromises! This is further evidence of that claim that it is harder to speak against Israeli policies in America than it is in Israel.

In the interview, Olmert effectively dismisses Grossman’s criticism as being driven by “grieving fatherhood”. Goldberg mentions Olmert’s severe unpopularity in Israel (less than Bush’s in America), his shady business dealings, his reputation as calculating, and the official enquiry concerning the Lebanon war that found him “arrogant and hasty”. Goldberg then hearkens back to the lack of Jewish confidence in running their own affairs. In the words of former PM Ehud Barak:

“The last two experiments of Jews running a political state were not great successes,” he said, referring to the Israel of King Solomon’s time, which ultimately ended in the exile to Babylon, and to the Jewish commonwealth of the Second Temple period, which was conquered by the Romans, who scattered the Jews.

When Goldberg asks Olmert about these existential fears, Olmert again invokes Iran. He then details a list of Zionist achievement, and when asked about flaws in this plan, he retorts, “who cares!”. When confronted with the question, “Why is Israel less physically safe for Jews than America?”, his response is even more ballistic—that no one is safe anywhere, but at least in Israel, Jews can fight for their lives as Jews, not as Americans or Australians! When further pressed if the success of the American Jewish community lessens the need for an Israeli state, Olmert quips tellingly: “Never, never, no way. By the way, Jews in Germany—and I don’t draw any comparison at all—Jews in other parts of the world were very successful all their lives, and that didn’t provide them with safety.”

Goldberg calls this a “careless and cynical” statement due to the implication that the Holocaust might be repeated in America. Goldberg then addresses the reasons for Olmert’s shift to center-left, contending that it finds justification in the earliest history of Zionism. Max Nordau, the essayist and critic, wrote in 1897:

Zionism is meant to create for the Jewish people a homeland in the land of Israel, assured by international legitimacy. One sentence, the whole story. It’s about Jewish people, about defining the community of Jews as a nation, one in the family of nations. Second, it’s not a state for all citizens, but for the Jewish people. Third, it’s in the land of Israel, but not necessarily all the land of Israel. And it has to be secured by international legitimacy.

[“Not for all citizens, but for Jewish people” is a statement that is of course reminiscent of apartheid]. But leftists take comfort from the clause that excludes the necessity for all of Israel’s land, i.e. the belief that “greater Israel” is indeed Israel’s land, but it is not necessary to regain all of it to fully comply with Zionist goals.

Goldberg mentions that international legitimacy is a major concern for Olmert, and that Jewish organizations in USA would not support unequal voting rights for Palestinians in a “one-state” solution. This contrasts to the other Jewish influences in America, as mentioned earlier that strongly oppose a “two-state” solution.

Goldberg then reminds us of the “old” Olmert, one who was against the Camp David Accords with Egypt, negotiated by his party’s leader Menachem Begin While Begin was cutting peace deals with Egypt, he was also busy supporting Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful), the “near-messianic group that seeded the West Bank with Jewish settlements”. Goldberg addresses the presence of 200,000 settlers who exert a lopsided political influence. He mentions their argument that when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza (expelling 8000 settlers), it led to Hamas’s rocket-attacks…not peace

Goldberg mentions that there are over 100 “illegal” outposts—those not approved by Israel [note: all settlements in occupied are illegal by international laws, but some are illegal even by Israeli laws!] and that none of them are in danger of being shut down. When Olmert removed one in Amona in February 2006, more than 200 people, including two Knesset members, rioted. Olmert, like Begin, was apparently a friend of the settlers but only recently awoke to the “threat the settlements pose”. Olmert alluded again to the initial euphoria after the 1967 war when Israelis did not believe that they could be stopped. Goldberg reminded Olmert that David Ben-Gurion himself had begun advocating Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories in late ’67.

Olmert then adds another dimension to his “change of heart”, by mentioning the change of Palestinian leadership and a desire for peace from the Palestinian side, and recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Olmert thus wants to strengthen Fatah’s hand over Hamas.

Goldberg concludes the lengthy article by mentioning the farcical nature of the Annapolis peace process, Bush’s lack of understanding of the process, Rice’s lack of respect, and Abbas’s lack of influence. Goldberg mentions the cliché that time is running out but insists that indeed, it is, as extremists on both sides are emboldened each day to maintain the status quo. In fact, Goldberg argues that the settlements are the greatest boon to Palestinian radicals, because it reinforces the image of Israel as an apartheid state.

“The settlements mean that the egg is hopelessly scrambled. Basically, it is already one state.”

Goldberg quotes extremist positions from both sides,

“It does not matter what the Jews do. We will not let them have peace,” Ibrahim Mudeiris, the imam of the Ijlin Mosque in Gaza.

“We have to hold on for a few more years, at most,” Ron Nachman, the mayor, said. “Then the world will realize that the solution lies with Jordan.”

The “Jordanian solution” of course is for all Palestinians to be displaced to Jordan, leaving Israel behind for Israelites. Goldberg mentions how democracy is irrelevant for many of the settlers and their leaders. He mentions his visit to Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which educated many of the settlement movement’s leaders. This visit occurred before the school was attacked by a Palestinian gunman who killed eight students. The school’s Rabbi, David Samson, clarified the Yeshiva’s position for Goldberg:

Democracy is not a value for us. Justice is a value, and fairness, but not democracy. In the Book of Exodus, it says that the Jews shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It does not talk about democracy.” The Arabs who live in biblical Israel, he said, can either choose “to get along with us, to live peacefully, or to leave.” He said the Arabs would have the status of “protected foreigners” in Israel; they would have local autonomy, but have no say in the governance of Israel.

What if the world rejects this? Goldberg asks, to which the Rabbi answers: “The world has always rejected the Jews. But God always provides. God will punish the Jews if they divide the Holy Land. A Palestinian state would be an abomination.”

Tragically, while many media outlets take great pains to highlight the extremism propagated by Islamic madrassas, not even an iota of similar effort has been conducted to expose the extremism propagated by many of the yeshivas in Israel.

Goldberg mentions the statements of a veteran Palestinian peace negotiator, who forecasts that a two-state solution may only be realistic for another 2-3 years. After which, all discussions will turn to a one-state solution, which Goldberg argues is neither practicable nor desirable from the Israeli perspective. “I’ll make a prediction that Israel will not commit suicide,” Yehezkel Dror, the head of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and a political scientist at Hebrew University

David Grossman, like most of Israel’s leftists, sees binationalism as simultaneously utopian and dismissive of Jewish feelings. “You know, binationalism doesn’t work in so many places in the world,” he said. “You see it in Belgium now. And they expect, with this really hateful combination of Jews and Arabs, that it will succeed here? It’s so wrong. Part of the cure for the historical distortions of both peoples is that they need a place of their own with defined borders. We have to heal separately. I’m a little suspicious of these people who would experiment on us with binationalism.”

Goldberg then states that many of Grossman’s allies have abandoned their hope for peace after the collapse of the Oslo accords. But Grossman hasn’t forfeited the cause. He also believes that Israel must negotiate with Hamas, which Goldberg doesn’t find appealing because of Hamas’s extremist charter.

Goldberg traces the failure of the Oslo accords, noting that the number of settlers in the West Bank doubled in the seven years prior to the collapse of negotiations at Camp David in 2000.

It is difficult to blame Palestinians for their cynicism about Israeli intentions regarding the West Bank. Only by closing outposts and dismantling settlements can Israeli leaders help the Palestinian moderates, and themselves.

Not one outpost, let alone “legal” settlements, has been dismantled since Amona was closed, which is the core of Grossman’s criticism of Olmert.

Goldberg concludes the article by touching on Olmert’s family members, many of whom have joined peace movements. He describes how Olmert has been almost begging Grossman for reconciliation, reminding Grossman how he (Olmert) has completely lost right-wing support.

The Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva announced shortly after the fatal attack that Olmert would not be welcome to pay a condolence call. “We cannot receive a prime minister who advocates against the spirit of the Torah and accept that Israel withdraws from a part of the Land of Israel,” a yeshiva official, Rabbi Haim Steiner, said.

And with this, Goldberg wraps up a stunning gaze into Israel’s soul:

“The prime minister suffers the casualties of war,” Burg [former speaker of Knesset, one of Olmert’s emissaries to Grossman] said. “He doesn’t sleep at night. He knows what Uri Grossman represents.”

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Abu Reem is one of the founders of MuslimMatters, Inc. His identity is shaped by his religion (Islam), place of birth (Pakistan), and nationality (American). By education, he is a ChemE, topped off with an MBA from Wharton. He has been involved with Texas Dawah, Clear Lake Islamic Center and MSA. His interests include politics, cricket, and media interactions. Career-wise, Abu Reem is in management in the oil & gas industry (but one who still appreciates the "green revolution").



  1. Pingback: Israel’s Existential Concerns Continue to be Unsettling Part-1 |

  2. Dawud Israel

    April 22, 2008 at 12:38 PM

    I had a few thoughts right off the bat…

    1) I think the reason they lack so much confidence in their government is because of their history of being showered with Allah’s favors as Bani Israel. They had so many Prophets amongst them, were shown miracle after miracle and given food from Paradise. They’re so used to being under the Divine favor that if it isn’t there (which it never will be) they will not be happy. Their Kings were chosen by Allah and their State was guided by Heaven–how could a person settle for any less after being given that?

    2) Their fears of being wiped out are pretty legitimate. They’ve been screwed over time and time again. Just look at us Muslims for example. We have been without the Islamic state for about 50 years and how many massacres and conflicts we’ve faced in that short time? It outnumbers much of what history has to say.

    3) There is another Jewish territory aside from Israel:
    But because of Israel is in the Holy Land this one gets pushed to the side but is still an option that could be considered.

    4) I’m wondering if Israel has pursued a policy of “coverting” Palestinians to Judaism and thus fulfilling their goal? They wouldn’t be ethnically Jewish but still they would be Jewish. Obviously, something like that would be awful, but I’m surprised there is no mention of something like this.

  3. abu ameerah

    April 22, 2008 at 1:28 PM

    i think i’ll rate this post as follows …

    2 Matzah balls out of a possible 5 …

    anyone else kind hungry?

  4. amad

    April 22, 2008 at 3:16 PM

    Talk about back-stabbing your biggest benefactor:

    American arrested as nuclear spy for Israel

    This is another indication of the insecurity such that Israel needs to even spy on America!

  5. ibnabeeomar

    April 22, 2008 at 3:33 PM

    the spy article is very interesting.. i wonder if there will be any repercussions for israel

  6. Amad

    April 22, 2008 at 5:37 PM

    Abu Ameerah, you disappoint me.. only 2 balls? Man, I need to come and have dinner with you again and build up some brownie points ;)

  7. nazimul

    April 23, 2008 at 10:03 PM

    I started reading that article published in the atlantic monthly, (by the way the AM is now free to all) but I just couldn’t continue with it, it was too much to get through. Also the photograph that was used to introduce the article felt very strange, even though the image is a very simple black and white photograph of that wall we have come to know. If you havent already, you should definitely have a look at Occupation 101: Voice of the Silenced Majority, it is a well done documentary on some of the issues talked about on this blog.

  8. Pingback: Irshad Manji’s Shrill Responses Obilerated by a calm Dalia Mogahed |

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