This State Cannot Survive
A growing number of Israeli intellectuals believe their state may soon implode by force of its contradictions and failures
By Saleh Al-Naami
22/05/08 "Al-Ahram" -- When Amnon Rubinstein speaks, many people in Israel listen. As an intellectual who has held the posts of minister of education and of justice, Rubinstein commands the respect of the Israeli elite regardless of their intellectual and political leanings. And yet Rubinstein surprised Israelis when in interview with Hebrew Radio in mid-April he anticipated that the Israeli state would not survive. Rubinstein is not the only person to have reached this conclusion. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of Israel's establishment, Israeli intellectuals teemed with pessimistic predictions about the future. An increasing number of politicians and Zionists have begun to openly express the belief that the entity of Israel is on a path to oblivion.
Since these predictions were made public, the Israeli press has dubbed them "visions of the end of time". They have gained weight because they undermine the appearance of confidence that Israel's leaders are keen to convey at any opportunity, but also because their proponents have played important decision-making roles or have long been connected to the establishment and are not merely members of elite intellectual circles on the margins of society. These intellectuals explain that their conclusion results from three basic factors: external threat; lack of confidence in the state's future; and severe polarisation among society's components. Rubinstein holds that Israel has failed counter Arab threats, in particular failing to extinguish the desire of Palestinians to obtain their rights in struggle against Israel.
Nahom Burnei, a leading commentator for Yediot Aharonot, Israel's most widely circulated newspaper, and who anticipated Israel's failure in the second Lebanon war from its first day, says that although Israel is strong today, militarily and economically, Israeli society has lost its confidence. In an article published 19 February, Burnei tells an amusing story involving Jewish American writer Daniel Gordis that reflects lost hope in Israel's future. Gordis went to a doctor a few hours to obtain a prescription before flying to Los Angeles. The doctor asked him, "What do you do?" Gordis replied, "I'm a writer," and the doctor asked, "What do you write?" He said, "On the future of Israel." The doctor laughed and said, "Oh, I understand now. You write short stories!"
Burnei goes on: "The doctor's spontaneous response reflects a general frame of mind in Israel, and that is of a sense of the end of time. Even though no one talks about it, everyone senses it. It's a kind of hopelessness that does not stem from the last war or the next to come, but rather from a deeper sense." Burnei holds that Israel's signs of military and economic strength are misleading. He points out that although Israel has a stable economy, sky-high real estate prices, a strong army, and high-quality universities, it is unable to provide security to the Jews living in it and doesn't allow them to live a natural life. Burnei stresses that Israel is the only state in the world whose mere existence is a source of doubt. And he reveals a stark contrast: "The Palestinian national movement is much younger than Zionism, and yet, despite this, no one in the world doubts the right of the Palestinians to a state. Meanwhile, the right of the Jews to a state is a source of doubt, and not only among Arabs and Muslims."
Yet Israeli intellectuals and writers don't stop at predictions of the end -- they list manifestations that support these predictions. Abraham Tayrosh, secretary of the second government formed by Menachem Begin, wrote in an article published by Maariv newspaper 28 February that among the signs of the collapse of the Zionist project is that the Jewish Agency has stopped trying to convince Jews around the world to migrate to Israel. This, he holds, is evidence of the Zionist movement's failure to maintain the drive behind its thought. He adds that Jews around the world have begun to view living in Israel as more threatening than anti-Semitism in the Diaspora.
Former head of the Knesset Rovi Rivlin, a top leader in the Likud Party, offers another example of how hopelessness has burrowed into the souls of Israelis. He holds that increasing numbers of Israelis are working to obtain European passports, to be used in fleeing Israel, if need be. Rivlin underlined in an article published 14 April that such efforts could only highlight that Israelis feel deeply that their state is nearing dissolution. He warns that this belief affects the readiness of Israelis to volunteer for military service as well as fighting and sacrificing for the state's security. It also has a negative affect on solidarity between Israelis, leading to social, political and sectarian rifts in Israeli society.
Some see Jewish disinclination towards immigrating to Israel as proof that the "legends" upon which Israel was founded no longer carry their original allure. In an article published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Yuli Goldstein, a Jewish leader in Canada, wrote that no one is now fooled by the idea that Israel is a "final defence against all those harbouring animosity towards the Jews". He points out that 85 per cent of Jews in Montreal, which has the largest Jewish population in Canada, migrated from Israel. He adds also that Israel exerted great efforts towards the immigration of those Jews from the Soviet Union, but that once they lived in Israel they decided to leave for Canada. "Is there any reason to believe that they would think now about returning to it?" he asks.
For many in Israel, sharp polarisation between the ethnic and cultural components of Israeli society poses an existential threat to the future of the state. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, realised from the beginning that the success of the Zionist project depended on the melting of ethnicities and cultures that Jewish migrants brought and the production of a single cultural and national identity. Ben-Gurion called his project the "melting pot". Israeli intellectual Muli Beilig sees the "melting pot" strategy as having failed miserably, as Israeli society has fallen victim to ethnic polarisation and cultural struggles and rifts fed by differences regarding the relation between religion and the state. He suggests that Israeli society no longer reflects a single national identity but rather a collection of conflicting ethnic and cultural identities that are not only discordant but which also refuse to follow paths towards harmony.
It is ironic that after all this time, the two main ethnic components of Israeli society -- the Easterners and the Westerners -- still refuse to integrate. Yehuda Shenhav, a researcher in the Van Lear Institute for Social Studies, holds that polarisation between the Easterners and Westerners was cemented by feelings of bitterness borne by Easterners because their residential areas are neglected by the government. Their unemployment rates rise and a large percentage of Easterners fall under the poverty line. This has contributed to the spread of organised crime. Shenhaf stresses that discrimination against Easterners stems from the Zionist movement only seeing them, since the beginning, as tools for the implementation of its expansionist goals.
Nazih Breik, professor of social science at Haifa University, holds that the polarisation between Eastern and Western Jews grows sharper with the passage of time as a sense of persecution, insult, frustration and alienation grows among Easterners. Their frustrations are mostly due to the fact that their inclusion within Israeli society is accompanied by a rejection of their cultural and social values. Breik notes that the low place of Eastern Jews on the social ladder reflects perpetual discrimination. He adds that the failure of the "melting pot" strategy is the result of carefully setting aside power for Western Jews. This resulted in the dissolution of manufactured concepts of Israeli identity.
Among the most apparent signs of polarisation is the refusal of Russian immigrants -- who form approximately 20 per cent of Israel's population -- to integrate with the other ethnic components. Russians tend to live in independent neighbourhoods that are cut off from other ethnicities. Their cultural specificity is marked by the fact that they have their own cultural system with a network of schools, theatres, cinemas, and independent Russian language media, including newspapers. Researcher Dan Orian sees the refusal of Russian immigrants to integrate as a signal of competing visions and conflicting interests in Israeli society. They struggle openly or covertly in accordance with their social and class relations.
Furthermore, religion, rather than playing a cohesive role in bringing together various ethnic groupings, is a factor contributing to the failure of the "melting pot" strategy. Uzi Benziman points out that 60 years after the declaration of the state, the gap between the religious and the secular is growing wider. Benziman makes comparison between the signs of melding the religious and the secular in Israel's early years and now. According to Benziman, the religious and secular lived mixed in the 1950s and 1960s in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, and yet now are unable to live together in the same neighbourhood. He adds that proximity between the two sides generally produces violent clashes. The result is that each lives in its own ghetto alienated from the other.
In sum, it is clear that contrary to the impression painted by Israel's preparations for its 60th anniversary, much of its elite have doubts about its future. It is also clear that the only factor that unites the components of Israeli society is the fear that Israeli leaders have succeeded in embedding in the social body -- fear of a permanent existential threat mixed with continual reminders of wretched episodes in Jewish history, ancient and modern.