The deep racism of the Israeli psyche is on the rise. The 1990s, at least in hindsight, marked some liberalization of the public discourse; the first decade of this century crushed it, and now the mildly critical, left-liberal discourse hardly exists in the mainstream.
Israel, a New Decade
By Ran HaCohen | April 10, 2010
I turn on the television just before dinner. Prime-time. An Israeli series: “The Pilots’ Wives” (“Meet the Women behind Our Heroes”, said the promo), interrupted occasionally by a commercial depicting a soldier missing his mother’s soup (“disclaimer: the actor is not a soldier”). After the series, a short public service broadcast showing a group of young men, each in turn boasting his military service, until they notice one of them – a violent zoom-in – keeps quiet; the message is clear. Then the news, with at least one public relations item pushed by the military: “teen-age girls eager to become fighters”, “a remote-control watch-and-shoot system on the Gaza fence”, “a unique glimpse into a top-secret air-force base” or the like. Not to mention the real news, be it about the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Iran, or even the billions of terrorists disguised as miserable African refugees allegedly waiting on the Egyptian border to inundate Israel: al l these issues, and many more, are predominantly managed and framed by the military.
The military service has been made a major issue in Israeli public discourse. Not that the army is short of soldiers: on the contrary, the number of recruits requesting “to serve their country” in combat units is at record level. Nevertheless, uniting the nation around the military as the ultimate good is a goal in itself, especially when it implicitly excludes the Israeli-Palestinians, who are not conscripted. Thus the stage and screen actor Itay Tiran was removed from Israel’s official propaganda website when someone noticed he had not served; And, following the Zeitgeist, “national left-wing” playwright Shmuel Hasfari sai d he would refuse to work with Tiran “just like with any murderer or rapist.”
Most Israeli artists are careful not to express themselves critically about Israel’s policies, definitely not to say a word against the country’s deep militarism and racism; Scander Kobti, co-director of Ajami, nominated for an Academy Award in Best Foreign Language Film, caused a scandal just for saying he didn’t “represent Israel” in Hollywood (“I cannot represent a state that doesn’t represent me”, the Israeli-Palestinian claimed) – even that is more than the selectively sensitive Israeli ear can bear. Every Israeli is expected to be an ambassador abroad – no wonder that in a highly popular Israeli reality show just a few years ago, candidates competed on who would best represent Israeli propaganda abroad (a former Israeli army spokesman was among the judges). Remember it next time you talk to an Israeli: especially outside Israel, you might hear not the truth, but the official state propaganda. Though many Israelis sincerely believe th e two are identical.
The deep racism of the Israeli psyche is on the rise. The 1990s, at least in hindsight, marked some liberalization of the public discourse; the first decade of this century crushed it, and now the mildly critical, left-liberal discourse hardly exists in the mainstream. No wonder the liberal left has just 3 seats out of 120 in the Knesset; all the other parties are various shades of right-wing, far right, or fascism (except the small outcast “Arab” parties). The racist mindset can be observed in the most trivial daily situations, like my elderly neighbor, when told I saw someone peeping at my window the other night, instinctively reacting with a single question: “Have you seen whether it was a Jew or an Arab?”
Ever more often, when I mention the Netherlands, I am told that all the Dutch were anti-Semitic and collaborated with the Nazis; my already ritualized reaction – that my grandparents and my mother owe their lives to Dutch Christians who risked their own lives to save them – is met with a shrug, expressing something like “don’t challenge my precious prejudice” or “don’t be so naïve, we all know everybody hates us.” And this is not just the case of Holland: from Sweden to Ethiopia, from Turkey to Argentina, no matter how Jewish-friendly (and Israel-friendly) a nation has been historically, Israelis are encouraged to view all non-Jews (“Goyim” is the pejorative term used uncritically by most Hebrew speakers) as inherently anti-Se mitic and therefore anti-Israeli. Every criticism of Israel’s policy is automatically dismissed as yet another incarnation of an endemic, incurable hatred of Jews. Just like anti-communism was the national religion of the USA during the Cold War, the fanatic belief in an eternal world-wide anti-Semitic conspiracy is the true national cult of Israel. The voices portraying even President Obama as anti-Semitic are just one undertone in an ear-deafening choir of incitement against every dissenting voice, within or without.
The younger generation knows little else. How could it? As the Jerusalem Prof. Nurit Peled-Elhananshows, Israeli schoolbooks – their text, maps, and pictures – are inherently racist, especially against Arabs; but whereas the racism was sophisticatedly disguised in the 1990s schoolbooks, in the last decade it’s overt and explicit. Arabs are consistently represented as primitive, threatening, and untrustworthy; the Palestinian narrative is either distorted and denied, or simply ignored. The Occupation, says Peled-Elhanan, is never mentioned, the Green Line does not exist; many Israelis no longer know what it means, let alone where it is.
Even the language retreats: if the term “occupied territories” sounded rather neutral just a few years ago, when even Ariel Sharon used the term “occupation”, now the sickening euphemism “liberated territories” has made a comeback. At the same time, hypocrisy and double-standards are cultivated: right-wing parties outside Israel are regularly termed “extremist”, “xenophobic” or “racist”, terms never applied to much more extreme Israeli parties. Official Israel is shocked and outraged by naming a street in Ramallah after a Palestinian terrorist Ayyash (assassinated by Israel in 1996); At the same time, the Israeli far-right leader Ze’evi (assassinated by Palestinians in 2001), whose main political platform was ethnic cleansing (“transfer”) of all Palestinians, has several streets, three promenades, two settlements, a highway, a bridge, and an army base named after him, and a law to commemorate him and even educate future generations with his “legacy.”
Is It Too Late?
This is the present atmosphere in Israel – one of a rising, violent nationalist self-righteousness, especially among the younger generation. A recent poll shows that while 35% of Israelis over the age of 30 said they would vote for right-wing parties, this number almost doubled for youths up to the age of 29, and stood at 61%.
Does this mean there is no chance for peace? A difficult question. Despite all of the above, polls also show 60% support among the general public for removing the majority of settlements. As always, this 60% majority of Israeli Jews overwhelmingly believes it is a minority – only a third of respondents said such an evacuation had the support of the Israeli majority. This last figure – the majority being persuaded it is actually a minority – is one of the greatest achievements of the official Israeli brain-wash, and has been consistent for many years.
One can therefore understand Zeev Sternhell’s call on Obama’s Washington to implement an imposed solution: “Were Israeli society prepared to pay the price for peace, its government would not be fanning the flames of conflict […] The conclusion is that […] the only solution is an imposed one”, writes the prominent Israeli political scientist. This is no rosy scenario either, needless to say. In clear imitation of Nazi calls to try the German politicians who signed the “humiliating” Treaty of Versailles (1919), the Israeli right-wing has already demanded to “put Oslo criminals on trial” for signing the Oslo Accords. One can recall European history and imagine how Israeli fascists would react to an “imposed peace.” Luckily, they are just a minority; but given the current atmosphere in Israel, as well as the demographic advantage of the right-wing (Ort hodox Jews have much more children), it might not remain a minority for long. Time, if there still is any, is running out.
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