Explaining Israel

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April 1, 2010

For more than fifteen years, I’ve tried to explain Israel, not only to myself but to others, as well. The Israeli government has recently joined the effort. It created a ministry dedicated to the purpose, and a minister of explanation. Now, the government is recruiting everyday Israeli citizens to join them. It has spent a considerable amount of money to come up with cute commercials to help draft us into the explanation war effort.

For example, a radio advertisement produced by the ministry situates an innocent Israeli tourist is at his hotel, I imagine in Europe. The Isreael wants to order a taxi. The tourist bemoans the fact that the concierge, (who obviously does not understand Israel) brings him a camel instead. The irony of this advertisement ought to be clear. In the West, Israelis are considered white Europeans. Yet the Israeli government feels compelled to appropriate racist European stereotypes of Arabs in order to explain, however wrongly, how the West views Israelis.

This narrative strategy, aimed at convincing Israelis that they are discriminated against because they are viewed as Arab, speaks to the complexities of Israeli Jewish society. In Israel, racism does not just connote Jewish discrimination against Palestinians but, white, European Jewish discrimination against Jews of Arab, African, even Russian descent. The commercial is thus as much about the practice of discrimination within Israel as it is supposed to be a true story about the discrimination practiced against Israelis abroad. As usual, the narrative of Israel’s privileged class prevails. That is one of the reasons why this campaign, in particular, annoys me.

But what is it that the authorities are actually trying to explain? I recently wrote about the efforts of the Israeli right to appropriate liberal human rights rhetoric in order to disguise human rights violations by the Israeli government. The Israeli organization, Im Tirtzu is yet another example of wide-eyed Israel apologists, who indulge in such hypocrisy, having attacked the New Israel Fund and the human rights community in Israel. Unfortunately, their effort was picked up by the government and the Knesset, where efforts at “protecting” Israel’s rightfully sullied reputation by attacking basic democratic principles - freedom of speech, freedom of association, protection of civilians, human rights principles and the NGOs that protect human rights - continued.

Thus, on the one hand Israel undermines the foundations of its own democracy by repressing individuals under occupation, using torture, administrative detention, appropriating Palestinian land, expulsions of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem, building more settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank (all of which are illegal). It then asks the Israeli public to go out and explain why this is acceptable behavior. Of course these good Israelis are not expected to think that Israel’s critics are right. They are expected to absorb and regurgitate the hegemonic and banal Israeli discourse that the Israeli government is always right, and that its critics are always anti-Zionists who hate Jews.

Not only does this discourse border on the paranoid. It is also indicative of a very dangerous trend in Israel: de-democratization. Israel, always a challenged democracy has had difficulty accepting that democracy is about more than simply allowing for majority rule. Who can forget Netanyahu’s famous whisper during his first bout with the Premiership, when he made that famous, hushed, yet recorded comment to the very esteemed sage, Rav Yitzhak Kaduri’s ear that “the Left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish”. I am looking for a similarly situated sage of political thought and democracy, perhaps Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King Jr., or Nelson Mandela, into whose ear I would regretfully whisper, “Israel’s right has forgotten what it means to be democratic.”

Democracy is about rights, human rights, civil rights, social justice, protecting minorities, the marginalized and civilians, and the social and political spaces where they try to manage their lives. Democracy is about assuring these protections are for everyone, regardless of their proportion in the population or their parliamentary representation. In this regard, Israel, consistently asserting its “Jewish and democratic” status, has arguably failed in both respects. Protecting the majority, the privileged, the strong is far too common in “official” Israel. Democracy is not the left’s secret recipe, nor is it too esoteric for the right. Democracy is real, and it is accessible. The problem is that it is all too often overlooked and renounced by those with messianic and fanatic agendas.

The unfortunate reality is that for most of Israel’s citizenry, the country is far more Jewish than it is democratic. This is not only true for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, in which their rights are considered, by Israel, to be purely theoretical, at best privileges that Israel grants. For them, Israel is Jewish beyond its democracy, and so too for the Jewish women who insist on their right to pray as they choose at the Western Wall, or those Jewish women who oppose being forced to the back of the bus, or left subject to the mercy of their husbands when they want a divorce. For Ethiopian immigrants, purposefully placed in poverty-infested neighborhoods, forced to demand mercy from the state when their rights to social justice and equality are regularly trampled upon, the state is Jewish when their demands for immigration rights for their relatives still waiting in squalor in Ethiopia are answered the basis of their race rather than their case.

No, it is abundantly clear the extent to which Israeli democracy is lacking: violence against women, poverty, racial and gender discrimination, privilege for some and rejection for many. So too is it clear that when good Israelis are asked to explain Israel, they can start from the Occupation. But where do they go from there? What kind of tips will the Minister of Explanation give to good patriotic young Israelis in the world when they are asked about the most recent bout of settler violence or racial discrimination against an Arab family who wants to live in a Jews only community? Maybe they can say, ‘well at least they do not have ride in the back of the bus.” The case for Israel seems to be getting more and more difficult to advocate. Yet the ministers among them insist on whitewashing the truth.

Perhaps the Explanation Ministry can offer us a course on the finer points of enlightening the international community on how it is that Israel is actually okay – it’s just the rest of the world that is distorted. They can start with teaching Israelis how to rectify ‘temporary occupation’ with 42 years of repression and call that, with great difficulty, democracy.

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