Mideast Conflict with Something New This Time

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Like many American Jews, I am conflicted about Israel. On the one hand, I am delighted that the modern state of Israel came into existence in 1948 as, in part, a refuge for the remnant of European Jewry that survived the Holocaust. I am also comforted by knowing that Israel remains a refuge for Jews everywhere should life become unbearable for them in their current homelands.

But, I am also distressed by the actions and policies of recent Israeli governments, particularly those headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And, as an American Jew, I reserve the right to challenge Israel just as I challenge my own government when I believe it fails to live up to its ideals.

Yes, I understand that for its slightly more than seven decades of existence Israel has faced existential threats from its neighbors. As an American, I have little emotional understanding of what it is like to live in a small country where the threat of rockets raining down is constant. After all, America is an enormously large country geographically, and no one seriously worries about artillery fire from Canada or Mexico.

The emotional trauma of the threat to Israel is compounded by the history of the Jewish people. As the Jewish homeland, Israel is connected directly and indirectly to centuries of repression and anti-Semitism and, most recently, to memories of the Holocaust. The trauma of the past is evident among Jews in a mordant sense of humor and a certain fatalism in the Diaspora. In Israel, it is manifested in a will to never succumb to enemies again.

All that is real. But, Israel’s geo-political situation is vastly different in 2021 than it was in 1948 or 1956 or 1967 or 1973. The direct threat of invasion has been removed, either by peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan or mutually beneficial cooperation with Saudi Arabia against Iran. In the last few years, smaller countries in the Gulf have opened up diplomatic relations with Israel. Only Iran, which is not Arab and does not share a border with Israel, remains a foreign threat to Israel. 

The threat to Israel today is internal, not external. The threat stems from its occupation of territory seized in the 1967 war and from an unwillingness of Arabs who live in Israel proper to accept second-class citizenship. Everyone is familiar with the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but the status of Israeli Arabs is sometimes overlooked. 

Close to two-million Arabs live in Israel. They comprise roughly 20 percent of the nation’s population. Most are Palestinians who remained in Israel after partition of the British Mandate in 1948 and, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, they became Israeli citizens. The exception is residents of East Jerusalem who came under Israeli rule in 1967. They are considered permanent residents of Israel, not citizens.

On paper, Israeli Arabs have the same rights as Israeli Jews. They vote and serve in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, though they are exempt from compulsory military service. But, in reality, they suffer pervasive discrimination and de facto segregation. Arabs live in the poorest areas of Israel. Their schools receive less funding than majority Jewish schools. The forced evictions of residents in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which sparked the current violence, typify the imperious treatment the Israeli government metes out to Arabs. Similarly, the actions of Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City at the end of the holy month of Ramadan demonstrate the inability of Palestinians to control even their religious life. Because of Israeli high-handedness, the current strife is not limited just to the territories, but includes mob violence between Arabs and Jews in Israel proper. 

None of this is to suggest that either side is fully to blame or blameless in the ongoing conflict. Palestinians deserve condemnation for an unwillingness or inability to reach agreement with past Israeli governments (the current Netanyahu government shows no interest in negotiating with Palestinians). The terrorism of Hamas and its failure to govern in the interests of the residents of Gaza is well known. I do not mean to suggest that the Palestinian case is unblemished. Both Hamas (and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank) and Netanyahu have an interest in furthering the violence.

When confronting an outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence, it is tempting to say, “We’ve seen this movie before.” But, there is something new in the latest round. Israel’s incessant cycle of elections and the failure of Netanyahu to fashion a government has given an opportunity for an unprecedented national unity coalition to form — under the leadership Yair Lapid, a secular centrist, and Naftali Bennett, a religious rightist. Lapid and Bennett were on the verge of forming a cabinet to include Israeli Jews and — for the first time in Israel’s history — an Arab Islamist party. 

Any new government of Israel that did not include the current prime minister was a threat to Netanyahu, whose myriad legal problems mean a possible jail term once out of office. In addition, both Netanyahu and Hamas have a mutual interest in opposing an Israeli government with an Arab presence. An Israeli cabinet that includes Arabs might begin to address the unemployment and humiliation pervasive in Palestinians areas. Such a coalition might lead to better relations between Jews and Arabs, which is not in the interest of either Netanyahu or Hamas.

The outbreak of violence in Sheikh Jarrah and at the Al-Aqsa Mosque made it impossible for Lapid and Bennett and their Arab partners to continue negotiations. Netanyahu and Hamas both got what they wanted. But, that does not mean that I have to stop challenging Israel to live up to its ideals, based in part on Jewish concepts of social justice. I fight for it here in America. I hope for it in the Mideast.

Posted May 18, 2021


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