A change needs to come
By Avigail Abarbanel, The Electronic Intifada, 26 May 2008
Near Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian man demonstrating against new settlement construction in the West Bank, May 2008. (Luay Sababa/MaanImages)
Earlier this month I had the privilege of hearing Ali Abunimah speak at a dinner organized by an Australian pro-Palestinian activist group. Abunimah, an author and a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, is a supporter of the one-state solution in Palestine/Israel, and so am I. One democratic and secular state for both peoples with a right of return for the Palestinian refugees is the only just solution to the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Abunimah is optimistic about what is possible. I would like to be as optimistic but am not so sure I can.
Growing up as an Israeli provided me with an intimate understanding of Israeli-Jewish psychology. Ever since I can remember, we in Israel were told that Jews have nowhere else to go because the world didn't like Jews. Seventeen years ago, when my former husband and I were about to migrate to Australia, most of the people we knew were dismayed by our decision. I was told by many that I was making a big mistake. My father's heart surgeon for example, was in complete shock when he heard our news. He took me aside and said that he did not understand how I could leave; that he would never be prepared to live anywhere where there might be even one anti-Semite alive. Like many others he believed that Jews can only safely live in Israel.
This idea that Israel is the only safe place for Jews is critical to understanding the roots of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and Israel's policies and perspective in the present. The majority of Jewish people do not trust non-Jews as life-long compatriots. Experience and cultural narrative have been telling them that since antiquity, rulers and governments as well as populations have become hostile to Jews without warning. This means that no matter how long Jews have lived anywhere, no matter how unobtrusive and well integrated they have been, or how much they contributed to their society, things could turn against them overnight.
With a history of European persecutions, pogroms, discriminatory laws, expulsions, medieval and modern ghettos and a systematic plan of total annihilation in what was considered an enlightened European country, it's hard to blame people for feeling insecure.
Israel was not born in 1948 or because of the Holocaust. Its origins are with Zionism, the Jewish national movement, which was born in the late 19th century. Zionism was to put an end to the precarious situation of European Jews by creating an exclusively Jewish state. The logic was simple: if Jews could not trust that they could ever be unconditionally welcome or safe in the countries in which they lived, they needed a state of their own. This means a state governed by Jews only, and that was largely free of non-Jewish people. The location of the "Jewish national home" was debated at first but eventually the entire Zionist movement agreed on Palestine because of the spiritual meaning it had for Jewish people. The fact that Palestine was populated was known, and openly recognized by the leaders of the Zionist movement. The mainstream view was that it was unfortunate, but that the plan to create a national home for the Jewish people could not be abandoned, because the Jews were in dire need.
Zionists have always believed that Jewish fear justifies ethnic cleansing. Ideas about transferring the existing non-Jewish population of Palestine -- the Palestinians -- elsewhere to make room for an exclusively Jewish state existed long before 1948. The word "transfer" entered modern Hebrew, as a euphemism for ethnic cleansing, an idea or a plan to move the Palestinian population en masse elsewhere, as far away as possible from the borders of Israel.
The ethnic cleansing of Palestine started in 1948 behind the smokescreen of war, but it was not completed. It is not only continuing today but Israeli scholars like Ilan Pappe believe that it is escalating. Zionist ideology is directly responsible for the charter of present day Israel. Attempting to understand the dynamic of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or to analyze Israel's behavior without understanding this charter is bound to be flawed, and to lead to more confusion and misunderstanding.
Since the foundational belief is that Jewish people can only be safe in an exclusively Jewish state, Israel's charter is simple. Israel is required to maintain itself as a safe haven for all Jewish people. Based on their past experience and national and religious narratives Jewish people deeply believe that it's only a matter of time before the tide once again turns against them. When (and not "if") this happens, the state of Israel will be there to take them all in and save them. I am using "they" instead of "we" because I have personally abandoned this narrative, and have chosen not to live my life in its shadow. This is seen by many Israelis as naive or even insane. But I decided to take my chances in the wider world because I do not believe that I can live a full life and make a contribution in the world if I live in a permanent state of fear.
The development of the state of Israel and Israel's behavior in the region have always been consistent with its charter. Israel sees that it would need as much land and natural resources as possible (such as water, which is scarce in the region), in order to accommodate the 13 millions Jews who are expected to flock to it from around the world, "when" a new era of Jewish persecution begins. Israel would have to have enough housing, infrastructure and a functional economy. It would have to be a modern state in which Western Jews accustomed to technology, capitalism and affluence can feel comfortable. There is nothing inconsistent or strange in what Israel is doing to the Palestinians if you understand this charter. It surprises me that this is never discussed openly in any political analysis that I see.
At the heart of this conflict is not economics, oil, "war on terror," religion or various regional loyalties. Rather it is an age-old psychology of persecution and survival to which all other considerations are subservient. Israel's loyalties are utilitarian. There is no great love there for any other peoples or countries. Israelis always think in terms of what is good for the Jews and what isn't, and they watch the world carefully from within this prism. Israeli children learn to see life from this point of view from a very young age. I was the same when I was growing up.
Only when we grasp this we can understand why negotiations with Israel mean so little; why Israel has never stopped building settlements on Palestinian land and has been consistently expanding its territory; why it's making life for Palestinians inside and outside of Israel so unbelievably hellish; why it's brutally restricting them to ever diminishing territories and why Israel is responding to Palestinian resistance with such disproportionate and overwhelming violence. Breaking down Palestinian resistance is critical from Israel's point of view not only because of the pain that Palestinian armed resistance causes in Israel, but also in order to destroy any aspirations Palestinians might have to return to their ancestral lands. Israel simply cannot afford this if it wants to stay an exclusively Jewish state.
Israel is a country based on racist considerations because of its very charter, and the circumstances through which it came into being. From the point of view of Israelis accepting the one-state idea, would change Israel into just another country where Jews live among non-Jews. The whole idea of a Jewish safe haven would have to be abandoned and there will be no guarantee that the new pluralist state would take in Jews if they were ever in need of rescue. Israeli Jews and many Zionists around the world believe that to ask them to live together with the Palestinian people is to ask them to go back to a state of insecurity and potential victimhood. They simply do not believe that this is reasonable, and therefore would never willingly agree to any solution that compromises their safe haven. This is one of the reasons Zionists counteract any criticism of Israel with persistent cries of anti-Semitism. They really believe that to end the exclusively Jewish state would leave all Jews anywhere in the world, vulnerable to another potential Holocaust.
It is clear to me that if justice is to be achieved for the Palestinians this fear-based, racist and immoral ideology has to be overcome because the fear of one people cannot and must not justify the destruction of another. But I do not believe that the Palestinians can afford to wait until Jewish psychology changed by itself, and Jews felt sufficiently safe in the world to let go of the idea of an exclusively Jewish safe haven.
I believe it will take serious international pressure on Israel, or a real change of heart on the part of Israelis for a one state solution to become a reality. I would like to be optimistic and think that this change of heart will happen eventually but am not sure I can. My doubts come from my own experience -- after all it used to be my psychology too. Thus, in order to save the Palestinian people the world must take decisive action in this conflict, as it did in South Africa, or continue sacrificing one people for the sake of another.
Avigail Abarbanel is a former citizen of Israel and a psychotherapist in private practice in Canberra Australia. She can be reached at avigail A T netspace D O T net D O T au.