Is Israel a place of refuge for the Jewish people?

In yesterday’s Haaretz, Mira Sucharov uses my book Jews and the Military as a means of opening a conversation about how Jews in the diaspora perceive their country’s armies versus the IDF, and how service in the former is symbolically far less meaningful than service in the latter:

(The article is probably behind Haaretz’s firewall but I have posted it in its entirety via Twitter and Facebook.)

Professor Sucharov’s discussion touches on a related point that is worth dealing with directly:  does the sovereign state of Israel, and in particular its powerful military, render Jews in Israel safer than those who dwell beyond its borders?

Jews visiting Israel from abroad almost invariably feel safe when in Israel.  They are in a state dominated by a substantial Jewish majority, a state where Jews need never deny or hide their Jewishness or fear being persecuted because of their religion or nationality. The ubiquity of armed Israeli soldiers is an eloquent sign and source of this feeling of being powerful, in charge, and at home.  A psychological sense of security translates into a sense of personal safety.

Since the state of Israel was founded it has taken in millions of Jews who faced persecution in the Middle East, North Africa, eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union.  In recent years there has been increased Jewish immigration from France, where many Jews have been shaken by horrific, albeit isolated, incidents like the murder of a rabbi and three Jewish children in Tolouse in March of 2012. And in the past months there has been a spurt of Jewish immigration to Israel from Ukraine, whose Jews are not fleeing persecution so much as pervasive uncertainty about the country’s future.

Yet at the same time Jews in Israel and the diaspora alike fear for the country’s security and long-term survival.   Since the state was established, over 20,000 Israeli soldiers (the vast majority of them Jewish) have died, and another 4000 civilians (again, mostly Jewish) have died during wars or at the hands of terrorists.  As many as 100,000 Israeli veterans are considered disabled.  These numbers dwarf the number of Jews in the diaspora who have been killed or wounded in terrorist incidents since 1948.

Today Israel is vulnerable to rocket bombardment from southern Lebanon, and there is widespread fear that despite ongoing negotiations with the international community, Iran may develop a nuclear weapon, which, the government claims, would place Israel in existential danger.

So where are Jews safer – in the diaspora or in Israel?  What does it mean to be “safe”?  Is safety a matter of physical security or is it more a state of mind?


Israel’s Demand for Recognition as a “Jewish State”

Benjamin Netanyahu demands that the Palestine Authority recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.  For Netanyahu, this demand is a win-win.  If the Palestinians don’t accept it, he can blame them for causing the negotiations between Israel and the PA to fail.  If they do, he has a weapon against the Palestinian claim of a right of return for the refugees of 1948 and their descendants, who number in the millions.

But Netanyahu is not merely being opportunistic – he, like many Israelis, truly believes that there can’t be peace until the Palestinians recognise the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the midst of the Arab world.  Why is this demand being made of the Palestinians, when it was not made of Egypt or Jordan when Israel signed peace treaties with those two countries?   Because pre-1948 Palestine and post-1967 Israel are two sides of the same coin – they take up the same territory.  The wars of 1948 and 1967, which created the state of Israel and enlarged its borders, turned the Palestinians into refugees and erased Palestine from the map.

In Israel one hears a lot about the Palestinians as a military or demographic threat.  But for most Israelis the Palestinians present, no less, a psychological threat – a challenge to the country’s very right to exist. That is why a powerful Israel insists that the feeble Palestine Authority accept it as a Jewish state.

The American government appears to support Netanyahu’s position.  Netanyahu’s ability to set the agenda on this, like other major issues in the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the PA, reflect the power disparity between them.  The disparity exists on all levels – military, geo-political, and economic. Although many Israelis and supporters of Israel see things differently, the Obama administration has been and remains firmly supportive of Israel.  Ironically, Netanyahu is much weaker in dealing with his own party and those to its right than with either the Americans or the Palestinians.

BDS, Israel, and the EU

The Israeli government is increasingly exercised about BDS, a global movement that began in 2005 and has picked up steam over the past four years. The Israeli government has convened a crisis ministerial team to deal with the situation.  The Israeli Prime Minister and some members of his cabinet have equated all types of boycotts against Israel, including those aimed only at the West Bank settlements, as an expression of anti-Semitism. The Israeli foreign ministry has taken a more nuanced line, distinguishing between BDS’ call for a blanket boycott of all Israeli business and recent moves within the European Union to divest from Israeli enterprises located in or dealing with the Occupied Territories.

The EU has long maintained that the West Bank and East Jerusalem are not part of Israel, and in 2010 the European Court of Justice ruled that Israeli products from the Occupied Territories should not receive preferential customs treatment under the European Community – Israel trade agreement of 2000.  Last year the EU re-affirmed existing guidelines to member states not to engage in activities with or that bring benefit to Israeli enterprises or institutions in East Jerusalem or the West Bank. Yet the EU itself has not imposed sanctions upon Israel; in fact, it was eager to sign Israel on to the Horizon 2020 agreement for cooperative scientific research. As the European Parliament president Martin Schulz said at Hebrew University on Feb 12, “There is no boycott in the European Parliament; there is for sure not a majority for a potential boycott.”

The British Department of Trade and Investment has issued an advisory, warning British businesses against deals with Jewish settlements for fear of “image damage.”  Yet by and large the EU’s member states have taken a cautious line. As Schulz recently told Israel’s Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, “Israel’s [real] problem is with the [European] business sector.”  In northern Europe private companies and quasi-governmental pension funds have purposefully pursued divestment. The largest Dutch pension fund, APB, has thus far refrained from divestment, but another pension fund, PGGM, divested from Israeli banks earlier this year. Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank, has divested from Bank Ha-poalim, and the Norwegian government pension fund’s has divested from all five major Israeli banks. Norwegian and Danish divestment from certain companies, e.g., Israel-Africa Investments, which has construction projects in the settlements, goes back to 2010.

The pension funds’ actions thus far will not have much impact, as their holdings in Israeli financial institutions and companies were only a few tens of millions of Euros.  European investors continue to snap up Israeli government bonds – most recently, 1.5 billion Euros worth on the London stock exchange at beginning of February.

Israel’s real dependence on the EU is not pension fund purchases of Israeli equities but rather exports of goods and services, as the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner.  (A third of Israel’s exports go to Europe, and a third of the country’s imports come from Europe.)  Some of Israel’s leading exports (e.g., industrial diamonds) are unlikely to be affected by increased sanctions, but Israel’s finance minister Yair Lapid cautions that in the unlikely case where existing EU-Israel trade agreements are abrogated the country could lose four billion Euro per year.  Yet so far, trade has suffered very little.  True, Jordan Valley farmers are finding it harder to sell their expensive greenhouse vegetables, which in many European countries are marked as products of the West Bank and thus shunned.  So the peppers are being bought instead by Russia at a lower price.  The price of shares in Sodastream,  which manufactures carbonated water  dispensers and one of whose production facilities is in the West Bank, is down by about 25 per cent.  The company is not likely to go out of business, however – its product is wildly popular, and Scarlett Johansen is its official spokesperson.

The goods produced in the West Bank settlements amount to only about one per cent of Israel’s total industrial product.  A boycott against these goods will do the state of Israel little serious harm.  They will, however, hurt the people who produce them.  Israel has sixteen industrial zones in the West Bank, employing some 21000 workers, two thirds of whom are Palestinian.  They earn about three times the Palestine Authority’s minimum wage and so are not necessarily eager to endorse a boycott of settlement products.

Ultimately, though, the boycott issue is not about economics, but rather about politics.  Supporters of BDS justify the short-term loss of a livelihood for a Palestinian labourer in exchange for the opportunity for the Palestinian people to realize their collective national rights.  In order to appear to be politically progressive, European businesses may be willing to expand the process of divestment from West Bank enterprises and Israeli companies or banks that deal with them.   But it is doubtful that they would boycott Israel altogether. Doing so would have a heavy political cost of its own, and they would lose a lot of money.

A true debate, not “hasbarah”

A thoughtful article on the sadly forgotten 1961 debate in Montreal between the celebrated British historian Arnold Toynbee and Israel’s Canadian ambassador, Yaacov Herzog, about the legitimacy of the state of Israel and the cultural value of Jewish civilisation:

The debates are available in full on youtube.  They are well worth the time.  Herzog’s patient and penetrating analysis was far more sophisticated than the hasbarah that all too often passes for education in Jewish communities throughout the world.


Birthright in Palestine

From today’s Haaretz, a piece by Gideon Levy on the efforts of a handful of North American Jews to extend their Birthright tours to give them a few days in the West Bank.  The youths visit Jewish settlements as well as Palestinian villages and cities.  They come back from their trip feeling both connected with Israel and unsettled by what they have seen and heard on the West Bank.   They are on the beginning of a journey that might involve a lot of reading, and arguing, and, if they stick with it, more trips to the region and an ever-deepening involvement with it.  Birthright is about feelings, connections, and identity.  The “Extend” journeys into the West Bank are about education, stretching the mind and confronting challenges to comfortable ways of thinking.   Jews are, after all, not the only people who claim a birthright to this land.  


A group picture on the steps of PLO headquarters in Ramallah. Around 20 young Jewish-Americans are posing for a photographic memento. In the background is a PLO sign, and two armed Palestinian soldiers in battle fatigues look on from the side. A few hours later, they are wondering aloud: “What will people in the States say?” “Maybe you don’t have to publish the picture?” Some members of the group panic: They’re afraid of what their parents will say and of what people in the synagogue will say.

Still, they’re here, in Ramallah, these members of a Birthright Israel group. After 10 days of indoctrination, including the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, Rabin Square, Masada, the IDF and the kibbutz in a pita, a veritable shakshuka of propaganda, they decided to stay on for five days of touring the occupied West Bank. It was a courageous, estimable decision – but still, they were leery of the photograph at the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the course of these five days of penitence, they visited Hebron and Ramallah, and the villages in the forefront of the Palestinian struggle, Bil’in and Nebe Salah; met representatives of left-wing organizations – B’Tselem, Peace Now, Breaking the Silence; and stayed in a guesthouse in the village of Jifna, near Ramallah. They also met with representatives of the Yesha settlers’ council and with the committee of Jewish settlers in Hebron, as well as visiting the settlement of Psagot. All in all, a very intensive study tour, balanced and horizon-broadening. Few young Israelis ever get to see what this group from America saw.

The person behind this new and refreshing initiative is Jon Emont, a young Jew of 23 from New York. Determined, energetic and brimming with good intentions, Emont has set himself the goal of presenting the other side of the coin, the dark side of the Birthright Israel moon. As a teenager, he thought he would enlist in the Israel Defense Forces – his parents are active Zionists. It was always clear to him that Israel’s enemies are also America’s enemies. Still, Emont did not make his first trip here until 2012, when he visited as part of a delegation, organized by Israel, of editors of student newspapers. A friend suggested that he also visit the West Bank, to get a better perspective on the situation. He then spent a few months in Shanghai, where he conceived the idea of the tours.

He and a friend, Sam Sussman, founded a new organization they called Extend. The idea is to extend Birthright, extend one’s knowledge. At the moment it’s a small initiative with a meager budget. This week they concluded their third tour, in which almost 20 young people took part, almost all of them refugees from Birthright. Zach, Rob, Emily and Daphna from New York, Lily from Maryland, Russell from Canada, Eliza from Boston, Ethan from Vermont, Kayla from Oregon, Julia, and even Aviva, from Alaska – a very likable group of eager-to-learn young people who had read about Israel before coming here, and listened closely to the speakers and taken notes while touring.

Contrary to expectations, perhaps, their bold choice to visit the territories did not make them pro-Palestinian. They’re not likely to join the International Solidarity Movement anytime soon. Most of them say they remain faithful Zionists. Only one of them said that after she read about the massacre in Lod in 1948, described by Ari Shavit in his new book, “My Promised Land,” she pondered the question of whether a Jewish state should have been established if that was the price. (She asked to remain anonymous.) They joined the Extend tour because they wanted to know more and see more. Some of them said that the five days in the West Bank actually made them more involved and more caring Jews. Almost all of them disagree with the prevailing view that you can’t be considered a friend of Israel and be concerned about the country’s future and wellbeing, and at the same time be critical of its policies.

As part of the changes that the large and influential Jewish community in America is undergoing, amid the search for a new identity, their voices should be taken into account, too. But let’s keep things in proportion. So far, this is only a handful: Some 350,000 young Jews have taken part in Birthright since its inception, whereas only a few dozen have availed themselves of project Extend.

After the group photo on the stairs, they enter the PLO building, which is situated at the edge of the Muqata – Palestinian Authority headquarters – in Ramallah. At the entrance to the impressive and deserted mausoleum holding the tomb of Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian soldier suggests that they visit the burial place of “Abu Amar” (Arafat’s nom de guerre), but the group hears it as “Obama” and promises to convey their impressions to him.

The street leading to the compound was lined with Canadian and Romanian flags: The leaders of the two countries were visiting and scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the adjacent building. Two spokeswomen, Rasha Uthman and Samar Awadallah, from the PLO’s information and culture unit, spoke to the group in a luxurious conference room. The young women were plied with tough questions: Why does a map of the whole of Palestine appear on the PLO’s logo? Has the PLO decided to abandon the path of violent resistance, and if so, when was the decision made? Does the PLO support a one-state solution? We hear a lot about apartheid, but why the use of the term “ethnic cleansing”? Why is Mahmoud Abbas said to be so weak as a leader?

“Go home and write about your impressions, write in your student papers and on Facebook, and tell your friends,” was the message of the two spokeswomen, one of them a Palestinian-American, to the group. “Tell people that you met Palestinians and that they are not as horrible as they are made out to be in the United States. Humanize us in the face of all the dehumanization. Ask your congressmen why they support Israel so massively despite the American values of democracy and human rights. You are Jews, so what you say carries great weight in the United States, in contrast to what we say. You can do so much. Talk about us.”

But afterward, on the way out of Ramallah in the minibus, some in the group said they felt they had not received genuine answers to their questions. Daphna Spivack, from New York, thought the two spokeswomen were somewhat out of touch: “So many people are talking about the one-state solution, and they only talked about two states.”

When they crossed the Hizma checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, they started to clap, as people do when their plane touches down at Ben-Gurion Airport. Emont told them that this was their last checkpoint. But here, too, they didn’t waste a minute. On the way to their next stop – a bar in Tel Aviv’s gentrifying Florentin neighborhood, for another political discussion – they engaged in a very lively conversation, not even pausing to look out the window. Almost all of them say they are secular Jews, even if their families belong to synagogues. They are preoccupied with their Jewish identity, the meaning of Zionism and their connection to Israel – all the more so after this visit.

They were astonished to discover that the two communities – the Israeli and the Palestinian – are so remote from one another and how deeply each is immersed in its own narrative. “It’s time to stop talking about history and start talking about the present,” Rob Roth, from New York, urged. Lily Sieradzki, from Maryland, said that the Jewish establishment in her country lacks a critical approach. Julia Peck recalled that in Bili’in, the day before, she had met a girl who was afraid of soldiers, and afterward they had visited the settlement of Ofra and seen two bullet holes in the kindergarten there. “Both communities are afraid in such a human way.” But she was also shocked to discover that there are two separate legal systems, one for Jews and one for Palestinians, in the territories. “Basic human rights, in which we were raised as Jews, are being violated here,” she said.

“I don’t know what you feel at the end of this visit,” Eliza Kaplan, from Boston, said, “but I feel more connected to my Jewish side and more involved in what’s happening here.” Zach Braunstein, from New York, observed that everything is presented in black and white here, “and I, as an outsider, was able to paint the gray for myself.” Ethan Tischler, from Vermont, noted that precisely because he is a Jew, it was important for him to visit the West Bank and see what the Jewish state is doing.

Someone said that if Zionism is occupation and settlements, then he is not a Zionist. Someone else added that Jews may have the right to live here, but not necessarily in a Jewish state. Julia said she will post the photos on her Facebook page. Aviva Hirsch, from Alaska, said she was more confused now than she had been. The organizer, Jon Emont, invited everyone to come to his shul in New Jersey this coming Valentine’s Day. He’ll be talking about his impressions of the trip.