Originally published by tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com
If it weren’t so despicable, it would be laughable: To the outside world, the government of Benyamin Netanyahu is doing a perfect imitation of North Korea in its murderous assault last night on flotilla of peace activists bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza. The activists aren’t all pure, as we’ll probably learn soon enough, but Israel’s government has just purified them. If the government was bone-headed in barring Noam Chomsky from the West Bank at the Allenby Bridge last week, now it might as well be taking tips from Pyongyang. Inside the country, meanwhile, debate is rising toward a boiling point that could start the civil war that almost began with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing orthodox Jew in 1995. Then again, to hear some people tell it, Israel is always heading into a civil war. And, for now, even though Netanyahu only squeaked into power, after the Gaza War, with little more mandate than George W. Bush had in 2000, some undercurrents have been on his side.
At the Tel Aviv University, scholars and students who embody the best of everything most of us once admired about Israel are wringing their hands about the high birth-rate of anti-Enlightenment orthodox Jews and the virtual takeover pf their once-social-democratic country by hundreds of thousands of smart, cynical Russian Jews. (Israel still has one of the worlds’ best and most universal health-care systems.) The manipulative contempt with which these two powerful groups are gaming the just, ecumenical society that stronger, more noble people I know risked their lives to advance is heart-breaking. Netanyahu & Co. are rushing ahead of even the birthrates, but at least that could dispel progressive wishful thinking before it’s too late. The government has let the flotilla “drive Israel into a sea of stupidity,” writes Gideon Levy, a senior columnist for Haaretz the country’s most prominent liberal daily.
“We were determined to avoid an honest look at the first Gaza war. Now, in international waters and having opened fire on an international group of humanitarian aid workers and activists, we are fighting and losing the second,” writes Bradley Burston, a senior editor at Haaretz. “We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege. The siege itself is becoming Israel’s Vietnam.” Burston would know: A Los Angeles native and Berkeley graduate, he moved to Israel in the 1970s with some young Americans I knew who settled in Kibbutz Gezer, a progressive outpost between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If you can recall that in those Vietnam War/Nixon years Israel seemed a lot more noble to many of us than the U.S. did, you’ll understand why Burston served in the Israel Defense Forces as a combat medic and studied medicine in Be’er Sheva for two years.
But Burston must also know that his scathing Vietnam analogy has limits: The U.S. could have walked away from Vietnam with no dangerous consequences. In Gaza, by contrast, the influence of Iran and other powers makes the Israeli situation a little more… existential. Israelis also don’t have Americans’ history of conquering a whole continent and not having to care about it. Their history, too, is more… existential. But precisely for those reasons, Haaretz reports, Israeli security forces are now on high alert, bracing for protests closer to home, maybe even for a third intifada if it turns out that one of the Palestinian activists on board the flotilla was killed. That only underscores the government’s stupidity. What kinds of resistance to all this should progressive Israelis contemplate? TPM’s Bernie Avishai has participated in and described here some non-violent tactics being honed by both Arabs and Jews in East Jerusalem and elsewhere.
But what will unfold among contending factions of Israeli Jews I’ve mentioned? Here, again, it is useful to remember Israel’s differences from the United States. Precisely because there’s universal conscription in Israel, the military isn’t as militarizing as you might think. It’s an army where no one salutes anyone and civilian norms commingle with military ones. That prompted Bernard Henri-Levi, speaking in support of J-Street and progressive Israeli counterparts at the French Embassy here in Tel Aviv yesterday, to observe, “I have never seen such a democratic army, which asks itself so many moral questions. There is something unusually vital about Israeli democracy.” What he’s noticing is that universal service gives Israelis a sense of entitlement to sound off, including in dissent, in ways that the American left lost when conservatives, in a master-stroke, converted to a volunteer army, thereby taking the edge off anti-war Americans’ solidarity and feelings of unimpeachable right as well as inclination to express outrage at government abuses.
What will come of that sense of entitlement in Israel now, though? On the one hand, the country does have increasingly powerful — and, yes, despicable — enemies, some of whom care not a whit for Palestinians, whom they have oppressed and are using as pawns in a dance of moral posturing. That’s a caution for Americans haunted by Vietnam. On the other hand, there are Israelis like the many who contribute to Haaretz who are stirring deep feelings of misgiving and outraged dignity among others who sense, as many of us Americans did during the Vietnam and Bush years, that something in their republic was being stolen. This can’t go on without a fight. The question is, what kind?