Among the Left and the Right—by Peter Eisenstadt

Part II.  Among the Left and the Right
Peter Eisenstadt

I didn’t have far to go to find a passionate Meretz supporter; my traveling companion, Michael. He is such a Meretz stalwart that he is intending to fly back to Israel for the 17 March vote. He can’t understand why anyone with halfwaydecent politics would even think about voting for anyone else. “Livni? Again? Hasn’t she demonstrated her utter ineptitude? And let’s not forget, while the March election is crucial, so is every election, and the next election certainly won’t be the last election. Let’s not sacrifice what we have built in Meretz in the (probably vain) hope that a center-left coalition can win. Sure, if it’s possible, Meretz should and no doubt will form a government with Labor-Livni. But let’s not sacrifice our individuality, our brand, to do so. And any center-left government is bound to be rickety, held together by bailing wire. I’d give it six months to a year. And let’s not forget the quality of the Meretz ticket, as opposed to the to the placeholders and non-entities on the Labor-Livni ticket. Who is likely to be a stronger voice for peace and equality, the 22nd or 23rd member of Labor, or the 5th or 6th member for Meretz. Don’t ask me what I will do if Meretz doesn’t take my advice, and runs a joint list with Labor.” It’s a strong argument, one that I heard Michael offer often as we discussed the upcoming elections on our trip.

Michael is a pretty unreconstructed leftist—he has never been known to pass up a demonstration—but there others even less unreconstructed than he, such as the Israeli tour guide we had for a very interesting tour of East Jerusalem. The tour was invaluable in helping me to understand the area’s noxious geography, including the tumor-like growth of Ma’ale Adumin and the E-1 controversy, the arbitrariness of the separation fence in Abu Dis, and the logic behind Israeli house demolitions. (In short, the strategy is to destroy about one house more or less at random peer week in widely separate communities in East Jerusalem over the lack of building permits, just enough to keep in the Palestinians perpetually on edge that their house might be next, but not enough to draw more than minor international criticism.) And everywhere we went in East Jerusalem were the shocking disparities between the modern Jewish communities with their new buildings, wide sidewalks and multi-lane thoroughfares, and the old, unimproved, crumbling, overcrowded Palestinian neighborhoods. It was a sobering trip. The tour guide was an intelligent advocate for BDS, and throughout the tour we kept up a running discussion.

Him: Israel has practiced what can only be called institutional terrorism in East Jerusalem. No nation has every voluntarily relinquished power. If you don’t want violence, we must employ every peaceful means to end the occupation we can, and push them as far as we can, and this definitely includes BDS.
Me: The trick is to get the stronger power, like Israel, to involuntarily relinquish power to a weaker power, like Palestine, peacefully. I’m all for sticks, but let’s not forget to throw in the occasional carrot. Palestinians need their freedom, Israelis need their safety.
Him: What about the safety of the Palestinians? You sound like a slave owner worried about slave rebellions. Free the goddam slaves, and the slaves won’t try to kill you.
Me: All I’m saying is that through a complex and no doubt mutually unsatisfying process, the end result needs to be negotiated. And if Israelis don’t feel safe, there will never be an agreement.
Him: And if Palestinians don’t achieve a real equality with Israelis, there will never be an agreement either. Don’t you think that BDS is a tool to accomplish this?
Me: In some ways, such as perhaps a boycott of products made by settlers on the West Bank, absolutely. The occupation will end only when most Israelis conclude that the occupation cannot be sustained, and the Palestinians population can no longer be controlled, and I know that day will come. I pray the process is peaceful. But some forms of BDS, such as boycotts of Israeli scholars, strikes me as being wholly counterproductive.
Him: I’m tired of hearing complaints by comfortably tenured Israeli scholars and their supporters. Boycotts are powerful but blunt instruments. Do you know who will be hurt most by any boycott? Inevitably, the Palestinians. And do you know who are the biggest supporters of BDS? The Palestinians. They are willing to endure it. I care much more about the suffering of the Palestinians than the inability of a few Israeli academic superstars to enjoy their regular junkets to Europe or the US.
Me: Don’t you think continued dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is important?
Him: Real dialogue can only be conducted among equals. In the present circumstances it is impossible.
Me: So do you want to wait until all the outstanding issues have been resolved before the parties start talking?
Him: Talking about a problem and doing something about a problem are two entirely different things. Fine, you’re opposed to BDS. What alternative tactic would you suggest?
Me: We have to be patient, fight the occupation as best we can, and seize opportunities for moving towards a peaceful resolution when they arise.
Him: Or in other words, do nothing, or just continuing to do what we have been doing, which amounts to doing nothing, or at least nothing that Israel needs to worry about.
Me: But it seems the height of foolishness to adopt tactics, that, rather than calling attention to the occupation, suffering of the Palestinians, will embroil BDS supporters in a knotty debate over academic freedom, one which they will not win, and which is at best a largely irrelevant side issue.
Him: That’s the problem with you moderate leftists and liberal Zionists. You are hung up over tactics. The Israeli government doesn’t worry about the nicety of its tactics; they just call out their bulldozers and just do what they want to do. We need to do the same. BDS is our bulldozer. I don’t care if some shrubbery is trampled, as long as we knock down the house.
Me: Don’t you think that the left has gotten into enough trouble over the past century, by convincing themselves that the ends justify the means?
Him: If we had listened to people like you around 1988, I doubt there would now be majority rule in South Africa. Neither of us can predict the future. We need to take bold actions now if we want to make Israel a better place for my infant daughter.
Me: Bold action, certainly, but let’s not be rash and ill-considered. And the most important thing to remember about South Africa is that it was a relatively peaceful transition to majority rule. That will be much more difficult here. The South African analogy can be misleading, for a number of reasons.
Him: Okay. I’ll suggest another. This is not South Africa in the late 1980s. It is Yugoslavia at the same time. Bibi is more like Slobodan Milosevic than F. W de Klerk. Only the fiercest and most unremitting international opposition can stop his aggression.
Me: I don’t think the United States is going to bomb to Tel Aviv. But I’ll grant you I could see how East Jerusalem could become another Sarajevo. In the end though, no outside power will be able to force Israel and the Palestinians to do what they have to do. And I don’t think BDS supporters really understand this.

The conversation ended politely—since I am writing it up I’ll give myself the last word—but without a meeting of the minds.
But if you want to find happy people, optimists, I decided, you have to look elsewhere, for people who aren’t counting on peace with Palestine, or at least people for whom this is not terribly important. We had a very interesting conversation with Isaac, a good-natured American-Israeli, living in Yad Benjamin, which has become a favored destination for Israeli settlers removed from Gaza after 2006. He wants the Temple rebuilt . (An image of the Second Temple, which he hopes will soon have a full-sized replica in situ, dominates his living room wall.) If this is a long term goal, establishing Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount is his immediate concern. He told us about recent visits to the Temple Mount, where he was given lessons on how to avoid trampling on the location of the holy of holies, how to pray without moving one’s lips, and other ways to dodge the suspicious eyes of the waqf (the Muslim religious authorities.) “They can’t stop you from looking at the downloaded prayers on your cellphone.” (Nowhere in Israel did we find tighter security than in the access to the Temple Mount, which was both reassuring and frightening.) “This is a freedom of religion issue. It has nothing to do with politics.”

For an observant Jew like Isaac, I can understand the great satisfaction derived from living in a community of Jews, without the intrusion of the non-Jewish world. No need to compromise, no need to moderate one’s behavior to accommodate the non-Jewish majority. A Zionist dream. He showed us, with evident pride, the attractive new synagogues (one for Ashkenazim, one for Sephardim) in the community. But however gated the community, all Israelis still have to live with non-Jews.

The day before our visit, Isaac’s house, despite the tight security in Yad Benjamin, had been robbed, with some jewelry and other valuables taken. We are shocked, upset. I feel really bad for him. As one who grew up New York City in the dark ages of the 1970s, no one has to tell me about the violated feeling one has after being the victim of a crime, and that criminals are no respecters of ideological differences. We express our sympathies. But crime, as I learned many years ago, has an unsurpassed ability to reinforce negative stereotypes of others. Isaac is convinced, on what grounds we do not know, that the crime was committed by Palestinians from East Jerusalem. “Our brothers,” he says with just the right degree of condescension,” our Arab brothers.”

And there was Lisa, an Iraqi Jew who immigrated to Israel in the mid- 1970s. She took us to a wonderful little museum in suburban Tel Aviv, where she is a docent, the Museum of Mesopotamian Jewry. Although the museum goes back to the waters of Babylon, the glory days of the Babylonian Talmud, and the Gaonic academies of Sura and Pumbedita, its real focus is recent history, especially the Farhud, pogrom by the pro-German government in Bagdad in 1941 that decimated the local Jewish community, and perhaps even more centrally, the persecution of Jews in Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s at the hand of Saddam Hussein. Lisa shows us a photo of her elementary school class, and points out the individuals who were murdered by Saddam’s thugs.

She is equally angry at Palestinians who think they were the only Arabs to suffer a Nakba and at Ashkenazi Jews who think they were the only Jews to suffer a Holocaust. She hates Askenazi Jews, and the museum emphasizes the harsh treatment Iraqi Jews faced on their arrival in Israel; sprayed with DDT, forced to live for years in leaky tents, in general treated as dumb, backwards hicks, not fit for proper society. However, she loves Lieberman, who has been a been supporter of the Iraqi Jewish community—for her, Ashkenazi really means being part of the old Zionist establishment, and she doesn’t hold Lieberman’s Eastern European descent against him. She will vote for him in the upcoming election, which as Michael points out, is a leftward turn for her—she previously was a strong supporter of Kahane. But Arabic is her first language, and she tells us of her many Palestinian friends. We don’t doubt it. She’s a cheerful and forceful person. As we leave, Kathy says that Lisa is one of the few Israelis she has met who could actually live with Palestinians as equals, and not, like most liberals, just think that living with Palestinians was a political obligation. As much as any Palestinian, she has the right to her fiercely guarded memories of a childhood and homeland that was violently taken from her.

The happiest person I met in Israel was probably Judith, an old friend of Michael’s, an Iranian Jew and a ba’al teshuva, who has become a Bratslaver Hasid (and is now fluent in Yiddish. ) She lives in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood in West Jerusalem, and when we visited her, on one of the nights of Hanukah, we saw hundreds of Hasidim dancing in the streets, amid a procession of lit menorahs. She will never leave Israel again, and if she can help it, not even leave Jerusalem. I asked her about the annual pilgrimage of Bratzlavers to Uman, in Ukraine, to the tomb of Nachman of Bratslav, where as many as 20,000 Bratslavers travel annually. “Not interested,” Judith said. “My rabbi gave me a dispensation, and anyway it’s only voluntary for women. I will never leave Israel again.” Judith must have said “Baruch Ha-Shem” over a dozen times in the course of an hour’s conversation, thanking G-d for turning around what seems to have been a somewhat troubled life. For Judith, in the classic prophetic way of seeing things, all the current troubles and travails of Israel are a result of the failings of the Jews to heed the divine word. Idolatry, she said, in all sorts of insidious forms, is everywhere. In classic Hasidic fashion, she is indifferent and unconcerned with the actions of other nations—if only Israel harkened to the truth, all else will be resolved. The other nations are bit players in Israel’s cosmic drama with Ha-Shem. It’s hard not to be struck by the remarkable diversity of Jews in Israel, in their politics, in their backgrounds, in their life choices, and how this impacts any efforts of Israeli Jews to come to terms with the equally striking diversities present among Palestinians.

But for those without Ha-Shem, the future looks bleak. One night, early in our stay, Michael and I, along with Aviva, an old friend from Kibbutz Har-el, attended a concert in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, of the rap group HaDag Nahash. We were definitely the three oldest people in attendance. I am no connoisseur of rap concerts, but it was very entertaining. (To these untutored ears it sounded a good deal like George Clinton and the Funkadelics and other 70s groups.) Their music is highly political. The last song they sang had the persistent refrain, “The House is Disintegrating—Do Something.” The song had a good beat, and as they used to say on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, you could dance to it.