[dehai-news] The Paradox of Israel: Regional Super Power and the Largest Jewish Ghetto Ever Created

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From: wolda002@umn.edu
Date: Fri Jan 02 2009 - 13:12:17 EST

The Paradox of Israel: Regional Super Power and the Largest Jewish Ghetto
Ever Created
By Ira Chernus, AlterNet
Posted on January 2, 2009, Printed on January 2, 2009

Trying to understand the psychology of a people at war is a lot like trying
to find the bodies buried under a bombed out building.

For more than forty years I’ve been watching my own Jewish people in
wartime, repeating the same self-defeating pattern over and over. Most Jews
say that they want Israel to be more secure, and they really mean it. Yet
they support and vote for leaders who perpetuate the conflicts that make
Israel less secure.

I’ve been digging for decades through the endless pieces of that paradox,
trying to get to the bottom of it. Here’s what I see now as the bottom
layer (though there may be layers further down that I haven’t reached

The root of the problem lies in the Jews’ relationship to the non-Jewish
world and, even more, in the way Jews understand that relationship.

Jews have a long checkered history of relations with their gentile
neighbors. Sometimes, in centuries past, they got along very well; Jews
felt fully a part of a larger multi-ethnic community. But most of the Jews
who came to Palestine to populate a Jewish state never had that connected
feeling. They experienced the human world the way minority groups so often
do: There’s us, and then there’s everybody else; there’s a wall
separating us from everybody else. So they could never see themselves as
part of a larger Middle Eastern community, a web of interactions where each
group influenced all the others.

All they could feel was a great disconnect. Before 1948, they saw
themselves as a community separated by all sorts of invisible walls from
the Arabs around them. After 1948 they had geographical borders that
functioned as visible separators, much like the ghetto walls of old.
Although Zionism began as an effort to make the Jews a “normal nation,”
it ended up creating the world’s largest Jewish ghetto.

For many Jews, the sense of disconnection was rooted in real history. Some
had ancestors who had been separated from gentiles physically by a ghetto
wall. Many had ancestors who felt separated by invisible walls of law and
social custom, which seemed just as thick and high.

Still others, though, came from relatively well-assimilated communities.
They learned to feel separated from the non-Jewish world, for reasons of
all sorts. And since the Six-Day War of 1967 many Jews in the U.S. and
around the world, who grew up in very well-assimilated settings, have
learned a similar attitude. For them, Israel is the symbol of a gulf that
they imagine has always existed, and must always exist, between Jews and

That’s why many Israeli Jews, and Jews everywhere who sympathize with
them, have a hard time recognizing what Martin Luther King taught us:
Whoever we are, whomever we live with, all the members of a community are
caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of
destiny. That’s not a moral platitude. It’s a poetic way of stating a
common-sense observation of fact: Whatever we do is bound to affect others
in our community, just as what they do affects us; we are all responding to
each other all the time.

No matter how isolated one group may feel, it is always interacting with
the groups around it. A minority group knows that it’s responding to the
majority. It has a harder time seeing how the majority is responding to it.
But in fact, the relationship is always mutual. And when anyone on either
sides commits violence, the violence is actually a product of the ongoing
pattern of relationship, though the majority typically holds the upper hand
when it comes to force.

Since so many Jews in Palestine could not recognize that network of
mutuality, they could not see how much the Arabs were responding to them.
They saw themselves simply living their ordinary lives, minding their own
business, on their side of the invisible wall. When the first Arab rocks
were thrown at Jews, they seemed like bolts out of the blue. Most Jews
could not imagine that their own behavior and their own choices were
triggering the attacks. They assumed that the Arabs’ had some other
motivation -- anti-semitism, many assumed -- to single them out as innocent

Today the Palestinian Arabs’ rocks still fly. Bullets and bombs and
rockets fly too. And the same great disconnect remains among far too many
Jews, both in Israel and around the world. They assume that there is no
network of mutuality, no web of give and take. There is simply the Jewish
state, trying its best to live peacefully and mind its own business,
constantly victimized by attacks for reasons known only to the attackers.
All the trouble, it seems, begins on the other side of the border.

This view is at the root of all Israel’s military and diplomatic policies
and the support they engender throughout the Jewish world. When you see the
world through the lens of the great disconnect, everything that the Israeli
government does makes sense, including the recent massive attack on Gaza.
It’s all based on the premise that no changes in Israel’s policies can
ever affect the basic antagonism of its neighbors.

The famous historian Benny Morris, in a recent New York Times op-ed,
described just how things look from inside this great disconnect: “Many
Israelis feel that the walls -- and history -- are closing in on their
60-year-old state. … The Arab and wider Islamic worlds … have never
truly accepted the legitimacy of Israel’s creation and continue to oppose
its existence. … The West … is gradually reducing its support for
Israel.” In other words: Nobody likes us, and we can’t understand why.
We are, as always, passive victims of unprovoked antagonism, and there
ain’t a thing we can do about it.

Then comes the inevitable conclusion: Though we can’t change our
opponents’ feelings, we can change their behavior. Conciliation and
compromise may produce marginal improvements. But the only way to change
their behavior substantially is through the fear that comes from
overwhelming force. So the best thing we can do is fight back. When the
targets of our force try (quite naturally) to resist, we say: See, they
really do hate us! It’s a self-confirming illusion that is hard to

That’s the greatest danger of the great disconnect: If you don’t
acknowledge your own role in creating a conflict, you are working with an
unrealistic view of what’s happening. So you can’t craft realistic
policies that will actually make your nation more secure. When you start
out from an illusion, you are bound to end up in self-contradiction --
which is just what has happened to Israel. With its political culture
rooted in memories of oppression (and the eras of cooperation largely
forgotten), it continues to assume that the Jews are a beleaguered
minority. Its policies all stem from that premise.

 But it’s an illusion. Any realistic assessment of the Middle East must
begin with the obvious fact that Israel has a preponderance of power over
everyone else -- and a massive preponderance over the Palestinians. Imagine
the U.S. basing its policies toward Mexico on the belief that we are
seriously threatened by Mexico’s power. That’s pretty much how Israel
deals with the Palestinians.

It isn’t just absurd; it’s lethal. It creates policies that get people
killed -- mostly in the Occupied Territories, but far too many on
Israel’s side as well. Yet Israelis keep saying they only want security,
while they go on electing leaders whose policies make them less secure,
repeating the same excuse: “Those [fill in the blank] understand only one

It’s a common refrain, a reminder that the great disconnect is hardly
unique to Israel and the Jews. It shapes relations between many groups all
over the world, including relations between the U.S. and the many groups it
defines as enemies. Many Palestinians may view their conflict with Israel
through the eyes of the great disconnect too.

In fact, when I offer this analysis of the Jewish community, I’m often
met with the objection: Why just criticize Israel? What about the other
side, with its rockets and suicide bombers? That question, too, emerges
from the viewpoint of the great disconnect. It’s a way of saying, “Why
focus so much on our side? Isn’t the real trouble coming from the other
side?” -- as if the trouble could come from only one side or the other.

Of course the trouble comes from the relationship, to which both sides
contribute. But I don’t live among Palestinians. I’m not in any
position to understand them. So I speak to my own people. I point out that
we have no control over the choices others make. We can control only our
own choices. And it’s only by making new choices in our own community
that we can hope to affect the choices of others.

Fortunately there are plenty of Jews who understand this. Their numbers are
growing. And they hold the key to peace and security for Israel. People who
are trapped in the great disconnect are not likely to listen to anyone on
the other side of the wall. Only when voices within their own community
offer a new, more realistic view can they have a chance to hear it.

But the message has to speak directly to the heart of the problem at its
deepest level. It has to name the great disconnect, acknowledge the real
and imagined history behind it, but insist that now it is too dangerous --
for ourselves and for others -- to cling to a past memory as if it were
present reality.

To explain the great disconnect is not (as some fear) to absolve Jews of
their moral responsibility. In fact, it’s the only way to bring the
Jewish community back to its moral responsibility. The great Zionist
thinker Martin Buber said that responsibility is really
“response-ability”: the ability to tear down the imagined walls
separating people and communities from one another, so that all can respond
to the reality of the situation.

The first step toward responsibility is recognizing the reality that no one
ever lives shut up behind a wall. We are always in mutual relationship with
the people around us, whether we know it and like it or not. Once people
tear down the imaginary walls that they think surround them, they can
realize that their borders are not walls but bridges, connecting them to
the people on the other side. Only then can they begin to reach across
those borders and make peace.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado
at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on
Terror and Sin.
© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/116723/

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